Encouraged by his victory at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered an assault all along the lines protecting Petersburg, and at 4:00 the next morning, 63,000 Union soldiers charged the 18,500 Rebel defenders in the muddy trenches. The attackers crashed through the entrenchments on the right of the Rebel lines and turned toward Petersburg. After 10 months of fighting, the siege of Petersburg was finally over. Gen.Robert E. Lee advised Confederate President Jefferson Davis to evacuate Richmond and issued orders for the Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw. He was in desperate need of time to pull his army together and get them started on the road west – toward Appomattox Court House.
“Men, the salvation of the army is in your keep. Don’t surrender this fort,” Confederate Gen. Nathaniel H. Harris shouted above the roar of the cannon to the 214 soldiers he was leaving in Fort Gregg, an unfinished earthwork defending the southwestern approach to Petersburg, Va. It was 1:00 P.M. and two union divisions — 10 times more numerous than the defenders — were just beginning the attack when the leading ranks were staggered by the hail of gunfire from the fort. Pvt. Frank Foote from Mississippi related, “Each defender had two or more rifles at hand, and while the rear rank loaded them, the front rank handled them with most deadly execution.”
Three successive attacks were repulsed before the federal troops, on the strength of sheer numbers, breached the parapets and swarmed into the fort. The fighting continued hand to hand inside the fort until there were only 30 defenders left standing to be captured. The battle lasted less than two hours, but the gallant defense bought the time Lee needed. Fifty-five of the defenders were killed and 129 wounded. The federal losses of 122 killed and 592 wounded were in total more than triple the number of Rebels in the fort.
Fascinating Fact: “Don’t fire that gun! Drop the lanyard or we’ll shoot!” yelled the attackers at the single cannoneer at the fort’s last gun. “Shoot and be damned!” he shouted back as he pulled the lanyard and sprayed canister into the blue ranks — and then fell on the gun, his body riddled with bullets.