On April 2, 1865, William B. Poore, his fellow Mississippians and other rebels fell back to two forts after the Union breakthrough at Five Forks the day before. The forts had been built to break just such a blue wave as now threatened to wash over the defenders of Petersburg.
Two of the regiments, the 19th and 48th Mississippi, entered Fort Whitworth. William with the men of the 16th and the 12th Mississippi went into Fort Gregg. Inside Gregg they found what was left of Brigadier General James Lane’s North Carolina brigade and Brigadier General Edward Thomas’ Georgia brigade.
Also gunners from the Washington Artillery manned one cannon and the 4th Maryland Battalion manned a second. C.S. General Nathaniel H. Harris directed the defense of Whitworth while Lieutenant Colonel James H. Duncan of the 19th Mississippi organized the defense of Gregg.
William and his comrades found themselves in a strongly built fort. The rebels constructed Gregg in a somewhat half-circle shape with five earthen walls 15-feet high and 8-feet thick. Across the open northern back of the half-circle they had built a stockade wall of 9-foot-long timbers. A heavy wooden gate allowed wagons and artillery to pass through.
Before enemy troops could reach the fort’s steep walls they had to cross a trench 14-feet wide and 6-feet deep surrounding it. Recent rains had filled the trench with water shoulder deep in places. The flooded trench slowed down attackers right under the rifles within the fort.
Confederate engineers had topped the fort’s walls with a palisade of logs and cut openings for six artillery pieces, but only two were present now. A firing step allowed riflemen to shoot from the relative safety of loopholes. The smaller Fort Whitworth, to the north of Gregg, was of similar design but unfinished. The two forts had been built so as to support each other with sweeping musket and artillery fire.
Historians have been left to only guess at the number of men with William inside of Fort Gregg. But the soldiers may have totaled around 350. This number included 150 to 214 men from the 12th and 16th Mississippi, 85 men from Lane’s North Carolina brigade, and 40 from Thomas’ Georgia brigade. The artillerymen made up the rest.
John Oliver Andrews of Company I, 14th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, recalled of the men inside the fort that “I … found that we were with Western men from Mississippi and Louisiana, the bravest men I ever saw in battle.”
Fierce Yankee artillery fire caused Lane to order his North Carolinians out of the fort. Most of his men stayed but a few left under the angry glare of William and the other Mississippians, who made them drop their weapons for use in the fort. The Mississippi men took up places along the fort’s north palisade walls.
As they had learned to do at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania in 1864, William and the other men loaded as many muskets as they could, placing two to four guns next to each man. This nearly gave them the firing power of repeating rifles.
William and his comrades needed all the firepower they could get. The advancing Yanks of John Gibbon’s XXIV Corps outnumbered them more than 15 to 1. The Yankees prepared to send two assault forces totaling 5,000 men against William and the 350 or so men in Fort Gregg. William and the other graycoats waited and watched as the blue lines came closer and closer.
The Union artillery fell silent after 30 minutes. William and the other rebels could see Colonel Thomas O. Osborn’s Brigade come over a low, partially wooded ridge about 800 yards in front of Gregg. The graycoats watched as the Yanks moved toward the fort and then charged. Inside Fort Gregg, William and those of his comrades on the parapet waited.
Colonel Duncan had ordered them to hold their fire until he gave the order. Other rebel officers repeated the order, “Keep down, men; keep down.” When the Yanks got within less than 100 yards from the fort’s walls the Southerners sent a blast of lead and iron through the blue line. Double-shot canister rounds from the forts’ tore cannon tore ragged gaps in Osborn’s Brigade. The murderous fire stunned the Union line and caused the Yanks to fall back down the slope behind the shelter of a ridge to reform.
William and his comrades let out a great cheer and used the brief lull to get ready for the next assault. The graycoats didn’t have long to wait. Joined by fresh troops from the 10th Connecticut and the 100th New York regiments, the Yankees swept back up the slope through another hail storm of lead toward Gregg.
The withering fire from William and his comrades drove some of the bluecoats back yet again. But more than 300 Yanks plunged into the water in the fort’s ditch. They surged around Gregg’s walls like a rising blue flood.
They were too few to take the fort, but too many for William and his comrades to drive off. Nor could the Yanks retreat. They faced almost certain death if they tried crossing through the lead storm falling on the moat and field in front of Gregg. So the Yankees jammed their regimental colors into the fort’s earthen walls and waited for help from the next assault.
Shouts of “huzza” announced the arrival of the 67th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Alvin C. Voris. Inside the fort, William and the other graycoats spread out along all the walls as this fresh group of Yankees made its way around to the rear palisade.
Twenty-five Southerners ran to defend the gate. Rebel muskets belched flame and lead through the loopholes and forced the Ohioans to quit their assault there. Meanwhile, cannon fire from Whitworth mowed down attackers along Gregg’s northern wall.
Turner’s brigades came up after Foster’s attack and more bluecoats struggled to climb Gregg’s steep and slippery walls. The federals clawed their way up by digging footholds with swords or stuck their bayonets into the walls to use as steps. In other cases the bluecoats stood on their comrades shoulders trying to reach the parapet.
“Now the solid-shot and bombshells found in the fort came into use,” recalled Buxton Reives Conerly, a private in 16th Mississippi’s Company E. “Our men hurled them on the heads of the enemy in the ditch.” Homer Atkinson, who at 17 was the same age as William, lit the fuses of the shells as two older men rolled them over the wall. “The powder burned sh-s-s-s . . . The sulphur burned blue & the powder s-s-s-s & away she went,” he recalled.
More and more federals reached the edge of the parapet and planted their flags until one defender said it looked like a “solid line of bunting around the fort.” The Unionists fired rapidly into the fort as William and his comrades fired back with their own savage riflery.
Bluecoats in the ditch handed up reloaded muskets to their comrades in a steady cycle of firing and reloading mirroring a similar chain of firing and reloading inside the fort by William and his fellow Confederates. The 16th Mississippi’s commander, Captain A. K. Jones, recalled that “The curses and groaning of frenzied men could be heard over and above the din of our musketry. Savage men, ravenous beasts!”
In time, William and his comrades ran low on ammunition and hurled bricks and stones onto the Yankees. So many of the graycoats had fallen that the federals poured across the parapet and other Union infantrymen worked their way in from the rear and fired as they came.
The Confederate garrison medical officer George Richards recalled that “There were so many federals coming over the parapet . . . we could not shoot them all.” The fighting turned into vicious hand-to-hand combat. For 30 minutes after the Yankees entered the fort, William and his fellow Southerners jabbed bayonets and swung rifle butts and threw fists in a hopeless effort to turn back the blue flood.
An officer of the 39th Illinois recalled “When we rushed over the top the sight was truly terrific—dead men and the dying lay strewn all about, and it was [only] with the greatest difficulty that we could prevent our infuriated soldiers from shooting down and braining all who survived of the stubborn foe.”
Lieutenant Colonel Duncan, shot through the hip, realized the fight was over and surrendered the garrison. Of the 350 or so Confederates in Fort Gregg, only about 30 survived without a wound. Around 56 had been killed and more than 200 wounded.
A few of the defenders managed to escape including one of William’s comrades in Company F, Ransom Jones Lightsey. William is believed to have been among those captured and taken to Point Lookout military prison in Maryland.
For the second time in 11 months, William had fought in one of the Civil War’s fiercest and bloodiest battles—and survived. In May 1864, William and his fellow Confederates fought had for 20 hours ankle deep in blood and human gore in the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania Court House.
His war time ordeals were nearly over.