“A Reservoir of Misinformation”: Early Signs of the Lost Cause at Fort Gregg

Capture of Fort GreggI always enjoy reading stories about battlefield visits in the decades after the war, before there were driving tours, interpretive waysides, and detailed troop movement maps overlaid onto modern roads. In the course of compiling research on the fighting at Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865, I found a compelling article in the National Tribune written by a Boston resident. Signing his name only as “B,” the traveler visited Fort Gregg on the day after Thanksgiving in 1891. While there, he experienced a startling “Lost Cause” rendition of the combat there and speculated on the negative impact that sort of teaching could produce.

He found the Confederate earthworks in good shape as he drove west out of Petersburg. “The old intrenchment, which is still conspicuous in the landscape, runs along south of the Boydton road for nearly a mile, when it crosses to the north. At this point the works are still very strong, Fort Lee on the left remarkably so. It is from here that Lee ran his new line of works southwesterly to Hatcher’s Run, parallel with the Boydton road, to cut off the frequently recurring attempts of the Union army to reach the Southside road. It had, as a whole, scarcely been disturbed since the war.”

Soon his carriage arrived at Fort Gregg which “B” insisted be called Battery Gregg due to the fact that it was not entirely enclosed by earthen walls. A stockade wall ran across the backside of the enlarged lunette during the war. “The parapet in front is still well preserved, and from the exterior seems quite formidable,” the traveler found. He later learned that after the dedication of the monument to Robert E. Lee up in Richmond in 1890, more than two thousand visitors came down to Petersburg “and dug over old Fort Gregg for some memento of the fight.”

At that moment, however, “B” did not seem too concerned about his own footprint on the battlefield and decided to refight the engagement. “I found it defended by a barbed-wire fence, which ran along the road,” the northerner recalled. “Scaling this with the assistance of the young man who drove my buggy, I charged boldly into the moat without firing a shot, clambered up the parapet and took triumphant possession unopposed.”

Inside Battery Gregg, “B” reflected back on the battle. A determined force of just over three hundred Mississippians with a few North Carolinians plus two guns of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans held off the Federal XXIV Corps for several hours during the early afternoon of April 2, 1865. This bought time for Gen. Robert E. Lee to rush reinforcements from Richmond to the inner defenses on Petersburg’s western outskirts.

The traveler’s recollection was not perfect, it should be stated. He claimed that 250 Confederates killed and wounded 600 Federals–“a number under all circumstances comparatively small, but still creditable as a brave defense by the Johnnies.” The numbers are closer to 330 and 714, and I only point this out as a balance to his own mocking accusations of inaccuracy later on.

“But this disparity, large as it may seem, does not satisfy the florid imagination of the average southerner,” the Boston native believed. “It does not sufficiently mark the supposed superiority of the Southern soldier over his Northern brother; hence, I was not wholly unprepared for a statement made to me later by Mr. Newman, who lives just west of Battery Gregg.”

From Nathaniel Michler's map, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
From Nathaniel Michler’s map, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“B” had suggested to Mr. Newman “that it seemed an act of folly for the garrison to have sold their own lives so dearly for a merely temporary advantage which also involved a killing and maiming of nearly 600 more.”

Newman stood amazed. “Six hundred! Why they killed 18,000 of your men. They fought till only two Confederates were left alive in the fort.”

“B” recalled that Newman “looked at me with an expression of pity that I should have been so misinformed.” The northern traveler meekly suggested that this figure of 18,000 casualties was greater than the amount that Maj. Gen. John Gibbon could have thrown at the fort, but the evidence did not convince Newman. Instead it “apparently gave him the feeling that he had encountered one of those hard-headed or prejudiced Yankees whom it was useless to argue with.” Realizing that the argument was useless, the traveler continued on to Hatcher’s Run.

Upon return to his hotel, he remembered hearing that a class of students visited the Crater earlier in the week. The teacher brought along a special guest–Gen. William Mahone–to “explain the battle to the boys and girls.” The traveler shuddered to think about what kind of the interpretation the class would receive at Battery Gregg from a supposed subject matter expert such as Mr. Newman. After all, who better to teach them than someone who lived on the battlefield!

“Very likely this same class, under the lead of its eminently-practical teacher, will visit Battery Gregg, it if has not already done so,” he wrote. “Should it depend upon such a reservoir of misinformation as that which inspires the florid rodomontade of my friend Newman, we may expect at least one more crop of Southern brothers to be raised with the notion that one of them can thrash five Yankees. I apprehend nothing serious from this contingency, but regret that the two sections cannot unite upon a school history of the war acceptable to both–and correct.”

The cynic in me recognizes that we can not take the writer’s version as absolute fact. Certainly he could have spruced it up a little to make for a better story. It was written, it should be remembered, for the National Tribune–a weekly newspaper intended for Union veterans.

But before we completely dismiss “B’s” experience in Dinwiddie County, I’d like to point to another example of ridiculously conjured up numbers that plague the memory of a battle that occurred one day before the storming of Fort Gregg. This one is an extreme factual error that is set in stone.

2015-01-15 - Five Forks IntersectionAt the intersection of White Oak Road, Courthouse Road, and Wheeler’s Pond Road stands a granite monument dedicated on April 1, 1965 by the Dinwiddie Confederate Memorial Association with assistance from the Dinwiddie Civil War Centennial Commission. In its short narrative of Five Forks, the monument claims George Pickett’s 10,000 Confederate were overwhelmed by Phil Sheridan’s 50,000 Federals.

You would have to diminish the Union number by 30,000 to gain an accurate reflection of their strength engaged. Maybe Mr. Newman really did believe sixty years earlier that 18,000 Yankees were killed in front of Fort Gregg…

5 Responses to “A Reservoir of Misinformation”: Early Signs of the Lost Cause at Fort Gregg

    1. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to luck the word up when I came across it in the original article!

  1. Just a few years ago, the local telephone directory in New Kent County claimed, in a brief review of nearby historic sites, that after the Battle of Eltham’s Landing on May 7, 1862, the bodies of “5000 Yankees” clogged what now is known as Davis’s Pond on Mill Creek. That would amount to a hundredfold accounting of the actual Union deaths in the conflict.

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