Why Fort Gilmer?
Well, I live along what is arguably the longest active military siege line in the United States. It literally runs through my back yard.
From 1862 until Richmond was finally abandoned by the Confederate government on April 3, 1865, Federal troops fought – mostly from the East / Northeast – to take the city.
Federal troops finally marched into a Richmond on April 4, 1865, along the same road I drive into the city on every day.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from my house lie the remnants of Fort Gilmer, one of the Confederate fortifications along the Eastern defense line.
On September 29, 1864, the federals orchestrated an assault on the forts along the defense line. The entire day’s activities are sometimes referred to as the Battle of New Market Heights, and the entire federal fiasco was the brainchild of Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler.
That morning, along with several other units, the men of the 9th Division, United States Colored Troops, stormed across my front yard toward Fort Gilmer, facing the valiant defense of Virginians and Georgians within the Fort. The National Park Service site reports the men of the 9th USCT were “annihilated.”
The idea of African Americans being able to assist in the federal fighting forces was still a very hot topic in those days, and the men who volunteered to serve in these new federal “colored units” knew they had something to prove. The 9th USCT was organized in November, 1863, in Benedict, Maryland (just east of La Plata). The counties of southern Maryland were certainly sympathetic to the Southern cause, so the men of the 9th and their instructing officers would likely not have been very popular in the community.
Coincidentally, the 9th USCT’s first assignment was in Port Royal and Beaufort, South Carolina, where in early 1864 they may well have walked in the front yard of my wife’s family.
On August 4, 1864, the 9th was shipped from Port Royal back to Bermuda Hundreds (Chester), Virginia. They immediately joined the heavy fighting of that time, and on August 16 were involved in the Battle of Fussell’s Mill, where they were, according to one source, “…the last regiment to give up its position and fall back under a galling cross-fire of the enemy.”
The men of the 9th spent the next month in the trenches for the siege of Petersburg, “where for a month the severe duties of besiegers took a heavy tolll upon the officers and men.”
I haven’t found any personal recollections from those with the 9th, but I did find a diary except from Lt. Joseph Scruggs of Ohio, who was a white officer for the 5th Regiment USCT
out of Norfolk. Scruggs began his day on the 29th by leading his men on the assault on Fort Harrison. Harrison was the easternmost fort on the Confederate line; it was very lightly guarded, and was the only Confederate fort to fall along the line that day.
After resting half an hour we marched ‘on to Richmond.’
Three miles from the first line of rebel works we came to another line which
were unfinished and had the appearance of not having been occupied for some
time previous. Another mile and we halted a few minutes and were here made
aware of our proximity to the hostile forces by them opening on us with
artillery. A spherical Case ricocheted a few feet from where I was at the time
standing and struck a soldier a few rods in rear of me severing his right leg
from his body.
From my desk, I have the directional vantage point of a Confederate soldier, who would have watched those Federal troops storming toward them into the face of almost certain death. In the evenings, especially in late summer, I can sometimes almost sense them out there — men in blue charging into unceasing gunfire, while men in the forts — ill-fed, and wearing whatever they could find to wear at that point — where just fighting to hold their ground for at least one more day.
It is especially humbling to think about the men who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Colored Troops units in the Civil War. When you think about it, they are the ONLY Americans who fought for their country knowing that losing meant not figurative, but literal enslavement. They came back to the South from the free North, and put everything on the line. When we talk of the importance of fighting for liberty, those men should be our inspiration.
Reflecting upon the actions that took place right here in my yard 154 years ago leaves me with four principle thoughts:
1) Years ago, I asked my mother – a very active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution – why she had never joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “It’s all just too sad,” was the only answer she ever offered. As I get older, I understand her view on the subject more and more.
2) As we begin the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, I pray that, first and foremost, we remember the bravery, the honor, the valor and the sacrifice of all the men who fought and died for their homes, or their country or — in the case of the men who marched across my yard – their personal right to liberty in those four years. Then I hope the story of the Civil War and its causes are told truthfully and fully with both the simple clarity AND nuance it deserves.
3) The Confederate Senate chose as the new nation’s motto, “Deo Vindice.” Many over the years have believed the translation of this motto is, “God justifies.” Given the outcome of the war, that would have been ironic enough. However, read these words from Louisiana
Confederate Senator Semmes, who on the floor of the Senate explained the choosing
of the word, “vindice.”
“…the committee endeavored to select in lieu of it a word more in consonance with the attributes of the Deity, and therefore more imposing and significant. They think success has crowned their efforts in the selection of the word ‘vindex,’ which signifies an assenter, a defender, protector, deliverer, liberator, a mediator and a ruler or guardian. ‘Vindex’
also means an avenger or punisher.
“No word appeared more grand, more expressive or significant than this. Under God
as the asserter of our rights, the defender of our liberties, our protector against danger, our mediator, our ruler and guardian, and, as the avenger of our wrongs and the punisher of our crimes, we endeavor to equal or even excel our ancestors. What word can be suggested of more power, and so replete with sentiments and thoughts consonant with our idea of the omnipotence and justice of God?
The CSA adopted the national motto of “With God as Our Defender.” However, as Senator Semmes pointed out even then, the motto can also be translated as, “With God as Our Punisher.” How ironic is that?
4) Benjamin Butler was a truly lousy general, and he remains less popular in New Orleans
than President Bush was two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.. I’m told they still use Butler’s Bible to swear in the Governors of Massachusetts, which explains a lot about what’s wrong with the Bay State.