“Shoot and Be Damned”: Lawrence Berry at Fort Gregg

For a few early afternoon hours on April 2, 1865, three hundred Mississippi infantrymen and a pair of gun crews from the Washington Artillery of New Orleans clung to Fort Gregg as they held back two full XXIV Corps divisions. The Federals strove to complete Petersburg’s investment and trap the Confederates within the city they had protected for the last nine months. In the ditch in front of the fortification, Union wounded and dead mixed with live northerners still clawing their way up the muddy slopes. Shortly after 3 p.m., Federals outside the northwest corner of the embattled earthwork used an incomplete extension of the parapet as a ramp to enter the fort. At the same time a number of Federal officers and color bearers stuck within the ditch readied themselves for another frantic climb to the top.

As the Union soldiers poured in most Confederates quickly threw down their weapons to surrender. One northern detachment froze in fear as they reached an artillery embrasure below the wall’s summit. A southern gunner waited in front of them with a rope clutched in his palm. “Don’t fire that gun, drop that lanyard or we’ll shoot!” demanded an officer. “Shoot and be damned!” replied the Confederate as he discharged the double load of canister into the bluecoats. Within moments the northerners in the immediate area who survived riddled the defiant southerner’s body with bullets.

This story is one of the more prominent moments of the final day at Petersburg but only a small amount of information has been written about the artillerist himself. Many accounts only refer to him as an anonymous gunner. The first to identify him do so as Private Lawrence Berry, 3rd Company, Washington Artillery. Another name, less plausible, also pops up in a 1901 newspaper article. I do find the length to which Berry’s actions are seemingly universally praised a little unsettling. Nevertheless I do find it important to determine a little more background information on the soldier.

Phillipe and Magdelena (Mont) Biri migrated from France to the United States sometime in the middle of the 19th century and settled down in New Orleans. Their firstborn son Laurent was born there on August 21, 1845. Phillipe named his child after an uncle who served in the French army under Napoleon and perished at the age of eighteen during the grueling retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812.[1]

Laurent grew up in the heart of New Orleans on Chartres and St. Phillips streets. The young lad worked as a barber when the Civil War broke out. On March 13, 1863, he enlisted at the age of seventeen into the 3rd Company of his hometown’s famous Washington Artillery. Due to Union occupation of the city, he formerly mustered into service at Mobile, Alabama. Muster rolls spell Laurent’s first name as Lawrence and his last name is variously listed as Berry, Bery, Berri, and Biry.

The first year of Private Berry’s service passed without serious incident. He was initially detailed as a driver and was sick in Winchester and Richmond hospitals from July 10th to October 3rd. He joined the artillery crew as a private in early 1864. I have not found any accounts of his service during either the Overland or initial stages of the Petersburg campaigns. In the fall of 1864 the Washington Artillery was briefly assigned as infantry to garrison the earthworks that extended southwest along the Boydton Plank Road from the inner Dimmock Line. The battalion reverted back to artillery service for the spring campaign and would be relied upon the stem the Union onslaught on April 2, 1865.[2]

After their initial breakthrough that morning, Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps swung south to Hatcher’s Run to clear the Confederate lines along the Boydton Plank Road. Three of  Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s Army of the James divisions meanwhile began the morning south of the VI Corps. Ord reported the terrain impracticable for attack in his front and received amended orders to move north and cross through the shattered Confederate lines where the Wright initially attacked. Major General John Gibbon spearheaded this movement with two XXIV Corps divisions. Brigadier General William Birney’s division (XXV Corps), composed of nine USCT regiments, followed in reserve. The rest of Ord’s command had been left opposite Richmond prior to the final offensive against Petersburg.

Gibbon turned to the right after marching through the vacated Confederate earthworks. Robert E. Lee had meanwhile rushed Brig. Gen. Nathaniel H. Harris’s Mississippians to block any Union expansion of their breakthrough toward Petersburg. Gibbon’s lead brigade, under Col. Thomas O. Osborn, slowly drove Harris back along the Boydton Plank Road. Outgunned, Harris led the 19th and 48th into Fort Whitworth while the 12th and 16th filed into Fort Gregg. Lieutenant Colonel James H. Duncan assumed command of the latter’s garrison. Handfuls of additional Confederates from Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division also sought refuge within Gregg’s walls.

Confederate Inner Defenses, Petersburg, April 2, 1865

Lieutenant General James Longstreet rushed additional Confederate reinforcements from Richmond to guard Petersburg’s inner lines. Lee needed time for them to arrive so that he could organize an orderly withdrawal of the Army of Northern Virginia from both cities at nightfall. He therefore directed Gregg’s commander, Duncan, by written message, “Hold the fort at all hazards.”[3]

Wilcox delivered this message and then directed Gregg’s garrison, “Men, the salvation of Lee’s army is in your keeping; you must realize this responsibility, and your duty; don’t surrender this fort; if you can hold the enemy in check for two hours Longstreet, who is making a forced march, will be here, and the danger to the army in the trenches will be averted.” As Union artillery fire cut the speech short someone from the garrison shouted, “Tell General Lee that Fort Gregg will never be surrendered.”[4]

The mandate apparently only applied to the infantry. Brigadier General Reuben Lindsay Walker, Third Corps artillery chief, ordered the cannons to withdraw from both forts. To the chagrin of the Mississippians, the four unidentified pieces in Fort Whitworth were pulled back to the Dimmock Line, approximately one thousand yards to the east. Union skirmishers approached within rifle range of Fort Gregg before the two 3-inch ordnance rifles manned by Lieut. Francis McElroy’s section of the Washington Artillery could withdraw.

Gibbon had thrown Osborn’s skirmishers forward toward Fort Gregg and directed the rest of Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster’s division to storm the walls. First Lieutenant Robert Davison, 62nd Ohio Infantry, however later recalled, “I never came across any rebels who would not fight, and on this occasion they fought more like demons than men. I have not the least doubt there were men in this fight who did things in the heat of battle and in height of passion that in their cooler moments would shudder at what they did.”[5]

Fort Gregg “raged like the crater of a volcano” for two hours as the bluecoats plunged into the ditch in front and attempted to scale the walls, only to be shot down upon reaching the top of the parapet. Infantry crossfire from Fort Whitworth and artillery fire from the Dimmock Line prevented the Federals from encircling Fort Gregg and effecting a surrender. The Confederates who had been abandoned to their own fate nevertheless fought with determination, inflicting two northern casualties per southerner inside the fort for a total of 714 by the time the battle ended.[6]

Attack on Fort Gregg, 3 p.m.

Eventually the Federals identified the ramp leading to the northwest corner of Gregg and summoned the bravery to rush up its open face into the fort. Nearly simultaneous with that frantic dash, additional Union infantry attempted one more time to scale the parapet from the ditch. Within minutes they would successfully seize the fort and its exhausted garrison. Berry’s lanyard pull supposedly occurred during the last stages of this attack.

Primary source evidence is somewhat shaky for the specific details. The earliest account I have found of “shoot and be damned” is a secondhand article written over twenty-five years after the the battle. The first testimony by a member of Fort Gregg’s garrison that mentions Berry appears ten years after that. All variations of the story are written by Confederates. I have yet to find a rendition written by a Union soldier, though my April 2nd research has admittedly been more limited for the XXIV Corps to date. That is not to say this is a revisionist history piece trying to refute the existing story. I am not trying to suggest that it did not occur but I certainly would appreciate finding a little more corroboration as proof.

Here is the evidence I have found so far:—

Lieutenant Colonel William Miller Owen had previously served with the Washington Artillery. He commanded a different Third Corps battalion on April 2nd and was stationed in Battery 45 (Fort Lee) where the Boydton Plank Road entered the Dimmock Line on its way into the city of Petersburg. Owen wrote in 1891:

We saw distinctly the rushes of the enemy, the discharges of McElroy’s guns when the enemy was almost up to their muzzles. An incident is related by an artilleryman (John S. Mioton) who was in the fort, that just as a young man (a member of the third company, Washington Artillery—one Berry) was about to pull the lanyard of one of the guns, the Federals appeared above him on the parapet and shouted loudly to him: “Don’t fire that gun; drop the lanyard, or we’ll shoot!” “Shoot and be damned!” retorted Berry, and discharged the gun, loaded with double canister, into the masses of the enemy. As he did so, he fell, pierced with numerous balls, a corpse.[7]

Private John S. Mioton belonged to the Donaldsonville Louisiana Artillery. On April 2nd he served as an auxiliary infantryman inside Fort Gregg. He wrote his own recollections for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1900:

For some time we could hear the federal officers ordering their men on the top of the fort; the officers several times got on the parapet, with their colors in their left hands and their revolvers in their right, and demanded of us to surrender; but many of those brave officers were slain before we turned our muskets butts up. It was then that the brave and gallant No. 4 on the gun nearest the stockade, which was double-shotted with canister, was ordered by the federals, who had by then swarmed on the parapet, not to pull the lanyard which he held, but quick as a flash the brave Berry, of the Third Company, Washington Artillery, shouted back, ‘Pull and be damned.’ Useless to say that all in front of that guns were swept off, and our gallant artilleryman was shot down at once, and thus the heroic Berry sold his life dearly.[8]

Two days later the Times-Picayune provided a biographical sketch of Berry’s life, lauding the “dauntless youth” who “pulled the lanyard of the gun he was serving and scattered death and destruction among his foes as he died. These details form the fourth and fifth paragraphs of this article. Berry, the article claimed, “yielded up his life in such tragic and brave fashion.”[9]

A Georgian’s account, however, disagreed that Berry fired the final artillery blast. One year later Private Adolphus E. Strother wrote an extended article for the Atlanta Journal. It contains several major errors, including incorrectly placing Lieut. Gen. A.P. Hill inside the fort before the Third Corps commander was killed. Nevertheless it is worth mentioning. Strother claimed:

And again, the Federals crowded over the top of our fort until they seemed to be literally packed like sardines; they crowded over the entire width of the wall—20 feet—right up to the muzzle of our three-inch guns (just loaded with a treble charge of canister and ready to fire) and before they saw their danger. They called loudly, ‘Don’t fire that gun!’ but in obedience to an order from the corporal to fire, a young stripling of a boy not over 16 years old, from Sumter County, named Giles, pulled the lanyard, and great was the havoc of that last shot. It opened a gap the whole width of the wall of the fort, and must have killed at least two dozen Federals at one fire. This was one of the last shots fired in defense of Fort Gregg. The corporal was shot through and through a dozen times, and Giles was bayoneted through the fleshy part of the arm and slightly in the side.[10]

Most accounts have Strother’s unit, Company C of Cutts’s Sumter (Georgia) Artillery, serving in Fort Gregg as infantry, like Mioton. Private John T. Giles is the only soldier who matches Strother’s description. Giles enlisted May 15, 1862, into the 11th Battalion Georgia Artillery. His service records show that he was captured at Fort Gregg and confined at Point Lookout until taking the Oath of Allegiance on June 28, 1865. I have not been able to identify which corporal Strother believed ordered the shot. John Fox’s fantastic study of Fort Gregg—Confederate Alamo—lists one killed and one mortally wounded in the Sumter Artillery, both privates. Regardless, Strother’s article can probably be written off, due to its numerous errors.[11]

That’s all, though. Only three accounts about the cannon’s last fire written by soldiers who were inside or near Fort Gregg when the fort fell on April 2nd. There are more paintings of Berry than primary sources that actually name him.

Sidney E. King – The Defense and Capture of Fort Gregg

Sidney King was the first. The National Park Service commissioned a mural during the Civil War Centennial to mark the battle. King depicts a lone, young Confederate artillerist with hand on the lanyard ready to fire while a dozen Federals pour over the rampart. Other staples of Fort Gregg’s interpretation—hand-to-hand combat, Confederates throwing bricks, and the ring of Union flags around the parapet, marked most prominently by that of the 39th Illinois Infantry—can be distinguished. The mural is drawn from the perspective of looking west from the southeast corner of the fort.

Keith Rocco – Shoot and Be Damned

Keith Rocco later depicted the event from a view behind the ordnance rifle. Confederates aim in all directions as they brace for the final Union rush. Berry is joined by several other artillerists, including one who is preparing to defend himself by swinging his spongerammer as a weapon. The cannon is just now firing at the moment, cutting a swath of destruction into the Federals.

Peter Dennis – Fort Gregg

The most recent portrayal, by Peter Dennis, is a rather sorry attempt. It appears to have been commissioned as part of a short, illustrated Osprey Publishing book on the Petersburg campaign. The author incorrectly assumed that the VI Corps’ dawn attack had been directed at Fort Gregg. Thus the artist drew the flag of the 5th Vermont Infantry being planted on the parapet just as Berry is firing. These two events took place ten hours and a mile and a half apart from one another. Berry is also shown as the lone survivor at this point, joined on the canvas by only one other dead Confederate. The wrong Union corps is the most egregious mistake.

Washington Artillery Monument at Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia, Berry is presumably buried in this plot

Berry continues to be canonized in the 21st century. After the battle he was buried in Blandford Cemetery with other comrades from his unit. His grave is not marked but a monument stands to all the members of the Washington Artillery who died at Petersburg. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sponsored a Confederate Medal of Honor Memorial Service at Blandford Church for Berry on May 11, 2013. The Petersburg Progress-Index labeled his final decision as a “selfless act of valor and sacrifice.”[12]

A National Park Service wayside exhibit at Fort Gregg appropriately features Sidney King’s mural. A quote from Maj. Gen. Wilcox, who probably delivered Lee’s note to hold the fort is included, “Men, the salvation of Lee’s army is in your keeping.” Berry is identified with a brief description of his actions.

The Lawrence Berry story is also a highlight of most programs and tours at or about the site. Each of the dozen or so times I have led or attended a program of Fort Gregg I hear a a rebel yell or “you show them damn Yankees” from the audience in approval of Berry.

His story still remains compelling, even if controversial or inadequately sourced. How then should we view his actions? Was he selflessly sacrificing himself or willingly participating in senseless slaughter?

 

[1] New Orleans, Louisiana Birth Records Index, 1790-1899, Volume 7, 876. “Laurent Biri, The Hero: Who Won a Soldier’s Most Glorious Death at Fort Gregg,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 3, 1900.

[2] Lawrence Berry, Service Records, Record Group 109, NARA M320, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Louisiana, National Archives.

[3] Buxton R. Conerly, “How Fort Gregg Was Defended,” Confederate Veteran, Volume 15 (Nashville: S.A. Cunningham, 1907), 506.

[4] Archelaus K. Jones, “The Battle of Fort Gregg,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, December 13, 1903.

[5] Robert Davison, “How Fort Gregg Was Taken,” National Tribune, March 10, 1904.

[6] Nathaniel H. Harris to William Mahone, August 2, 1866, William Mahone Papers, Library of Virginia.

[7] William Miller Owen, “The Artillery Defenders of Fort Gregg,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 19 (Richmond: Published by the Society, 1891), 70.

[8] “The Battle at Fort Gregg: Louisiana Survivors Tell the Story of the Fight,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 28 (Richmond: Published by the Society, 1900), 266.

[9] “Laurent Biri, The Hero: Who Won a Soldier’s Most Glorious Death at Fort Gregg,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 3, 1900.

[10] Adolphus E. Strother, “Heroic Defense of Ft. Gregg,” Atlanta Journal, October 26, 1901.

[11] John J. Fox, III, The Confederate Alamo: Bloodbath at Petersburg’s Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865 (Winchester, VA: Angle Valley Press, 2010), 234.

[12] “Confederate Medal of Honor Ceremony for Pvt. Lawrence Berry,” Petersburg Progress-Index, May 1, 2013.

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Common Soldier, Memory, Monuments and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Shoot and Be Damned”: Lawrence Berry at Fort Gregg

  1. David Corbett says:

    Superb article; at this point in the war it was all murder.

  2. Pingback: ECW Week in Review Nov. 13-19 | Emerging Civil War

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