Meanwhile… The 54th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers

While their “cousins” in the 190th and 191st Regiments were involved in more noted events in the concluding chapter of the Petersburg siege, the remnants of the 3rd and 4th Reserves, now formally “adopted” and part of the 54th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, were involved in areas of fighting just as heavy and important towards ending the siege.

Their chain of command was as follows::

Army of the James
Gen. E. O. C. Ord (relieved Benjamin Butler)

XXIV Army Corps
Maj. Gen. John Gibbon

Independent Division
Maj. Gen. John W. Turner

Second Brigade
Col. William B. Curtis

54th Pennsylvania Regiment
23rd Illinois Regiment
12th West Virginia Regiment

March 27, 1865 – Two divisions of the 24th Corps, including Turner’s Independent Division, and one division from the 25th Corps moved to the siege line south of Petersburg near Hatcher’s Run. These units helped to fill gaps in the Union line when the II Corps moved further west.

March 31 & April 1 – The unit was involved in heavy skirmishing as preparations were being made along the Union line for the operations against the railroad supply line for General Lee.

April 2 – Due to the success of the V Corps and Sheridan’s Cavalry in the fighting at Five Forks the previous day, General Grant ordered a general advance of the Army of the Potomac all along the siege lines.

Meanwhile, General Lee, realizing his defenses of Petersburg (and Richmond) were no longer tenable, needed time to withdraw. To buy some of this time, he ordered approximately 214 men of several commands to hold Fort Gregg for about two hours against any further Union advance.

The Union VI Corps cut a hole in the Confederate line with their advance. Gibbon’s XXIV Corps moved into this gap, turned right and advanced up the Confederate line towards Petersburg. “we moved up to Fort Gregg and formed a line of battle.” The front line was composed of the 100th Pa., 80th NY, and 100th NY; the second line was the 54th Pa., 12th WV, 23rd Ill.”

he battle of Petersburg Va. April 2nd 1865, Lithograph by Currier and Ives
The battle of Petersburg Va. April 2nd 1865, Lithograph by Currier and Ives

Fort Gregg was “a plump semicircle of packed earth lying on the muddy plain, protected by a trench fourteen feet wide and six feet deep, its earthen walls eight feet thick, topped with a palisade of logs. There were embrasures for six guns, and inside, a firing step so that riflemen could man loopholes. There was one weak spot. On the right flank, leading out toward smaller Fort Whitworth (about 200 yards away), was an unfinished trench with a parapet. Attackers reaching that parapet might climb into Fort Gregg.”

The fort was also described by one of the Confederate occupants in Rice’s Battery. “It was constructed of earthwork, forming a half circle, with inside breastworks of logs, one parapet sufficiently high for infantry to fire from, and one for cannon. It had a well fitted stockade of logs, with portholes 12 feet high for muskets, extending from wing to wing, with a stationary gate in the center, thus forming, as stated above, an impregnable defense against infantry.”

The Union attack met heavy resistance and was repulsed twice. Curtis’ 2nd Brigade swung around behind the fort to the north side and attacked. “…the men continued to press forward, jumping into the ditch which surrounded the fort.”

It was slow going amid the heavy fighting. “Climbing the steep embankment, they were knocked back to the bottom with the breech of the enemy’s guns; but nothing daunted, they climbed to the parapets, again, and after a hand to hand encounter, the rebels, being driven to a corner of the fort. hoisted a white flag in token of unconditional surrender.” From Pvt. A. I. Ellis (54th Pa, Co. H), “Our color bearer was killed about 20 feet from the ditch, falling on the staff of the flag. Sgt. Michael Lohr (54th Pa, Co. H) jerked the flag from under the fallen comrade, and sprang into the ditch, planted the old flag in the parapet, and kept it there until the final rush, when he was the first color bearer inside the fort.”

From Sgt. David R. Bryan (54th Pa., Co. A), “Charles Barckley (Pvt., 54th Pa., Co. A) was the first Yankee soldier to enter Fort Gregg. Barkley secured the flag that had waived of the fort and also the commander’s watch. Maj. Nathan Davis (4th Reserves, Co. F, 54th Pa., Field & Staff) was killed on the parapet and the regimental color bearer was also killed. Michael Lohr jumped into the entrenchment and raised the flag aloft.”

Captain Nathan Davis, Co. F, 4th PA Reserves. Later Major, 54th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Source: USAMHI
Captain Nathan Davis, Co. F, 4th PA Reserves. Later Major, 54th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. He was killed at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Source: USAMHI

Pvt. William Bennett (54th Pa., Co. F) also described some of Barckley’s effort. “I do not think there was a more daring thing done in the Civil War than he did at Fort Gregg. He was the first man to climb up the side of the fort. and he threw sand and dirt into the eyes of the enemy and blinded them, and he pulled his comrades up to him.”

From five Confederate defenders, “Before the last assault was made the battle flags of the enemy made almost a solid line of bunting around the fort.”

From the second defender, “The enemy charged us three times, and after having expended all our ammunition, rocks were used successfully for over half an hour in resisting their repeated attempts to rush over us.”

From the third, “We repulsed the enemy three times in front and once from the rear. After our ammunition was exhausted, the men used their bayonets and clubbed their guns until the whole wall was covered with bluecoats, who continued a heavy fire upon us for several moments after they had entered.”

From the fourth, “There were so many Federals coming over the parapet in the last charge we could not shoot them all; they swarmed in and showed us no quarter.”

And last, “The fort was captured only after the ammunition for the muskets was exhausted, when it would have been folly to continue fighting…” He continued, “…we considered the best thing to do was to surrender, and we did surrender, although several of our men were shot after the surrender. One of my own company fell at my side after getting out and from the fort 15 or 20 feet; two others were shot before getting out of the fort.”

Before the shooting stopped, the 54th Pa. lost 20 killed and wounded.

(author’s note: Fort Gregg is controversial in that several units claim to have been the first inside the fort, first to raise their colors over the fort, etc. For each of these regiments, including the 54th Pa., it might come under, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Since I have several sources for the 54th Regiment, I wrote it from their perspective.)

April 3 – The men were up before dawn and formed in line of battle. The 54th Regiment watched comrades in other units move towards Ft. Hell (Sedgewick). No shots were fired from outside or inside the fort. “Still mutely gazing, with our hearts in our eyes, the lines were seen to mount the parapet and unfurl the ‘star spangled banner’ – the glorious ‘stars and stripes;’ and yet there came no indications of the presence of a hostile foe. Soon, oh, soon, cheer after cheer burst from the thousands of manly throats upon the crisp morning, bringing the “glad tidings of great joy of the evacuation of Petersburg.”

It had taken over nine months to force the Confederates from Petersburg and Richmond but there was still marching and fighting to be done; the remnants of General Lee’s army had to be captured.

The Independent Division marched along the Lynchburg Road.

April 4 & 5 – The chase continued for the next two days. “After a hard day’s march our force arrived at Burkesville at 11 o’clock on the night of April 5, 1865.”

April 6 – The 54th Pennsylvania, 123rd Ohio and two companies of the 4 Massachusetts Cavalry were ordered to secure and destroy High Bridge which was approximately 2500 feet long, 126 feet high, and built on 21 brick piers. It was located between Rice’s Station and Farmville and carried the Southside Railroad over the Potomac River.” Both sides actually wanted the bridge destroyed; the difference was the timing. The Confederates wanted to keep the bridge intact until all of their units crossed, then destroy it to prevent Union pursuit. The Union side wanted the bridge destroyed immediately to prevent Confederates from escaping across the river.

“About 3 o’clock that morning we were formed in line of battle, which proved to be our last association with the Twenty-fourth Corps. We took the road leading from Burkeville to High Bridge, and after passing four miles from the junction we were halted for breakfast, it being then about sunrise…”

The small Union detachment continued their advance, when close, the Union cavalry charged the bridge, secured it from a small enemy detail and then set it afire. Meanwhile the infantry units formed approximately ½ mile to the south near the Watson Farm.

The Confederates, although on the run, were not yet prepared to surrender the bridge. A large number of Confederate cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee, attacked the two Union infantry regiments. In heavy back and forth fighting, lasting about four hours, the two infantry regiments, along with the cavalry who returned to help them, were soon surrounded and forced to surrender. The 54th suffered 21 killed and wounded besides a large number captured with their regimental flag.”

“Their heroic act had delayed Lee’s advance long enough to be of material service in aiding his pursuers to capture a large part of his wagon trains.”

The captives were returned to Rice’s Station which was now in the hands of the remnants of Longstreet’s corps whose lead units arrived just as the Union troops left to attack the bridge. Unfortunately, these prisoners were “robbed by our captors of all of our rations, blankets, tents, watches, money, and some clothing our Johnny friends thought they needed. l8 Fortunately, they only had to endure the last four days of the chase, not a southern prison.

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Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.