Thursday, February 19, 2015

He Impaled an Enemy Officer

On July 30, 1864, the soldiers of the 45th Pennsylvania found themselves in a tight spot. They constituted part of the Army of the Potomac’s assaulting column at the Battle of the Crater, and by noon, everything had gone to Hell. The Union attack had stalled, and with a Confederate counterthrust bearing down on them, it looked increasingly doubtful that the Pennsylvanians could hold onto the enemy earthworks captured by their corps that morning.

The Pennsylvanians braced for the counterattack, and a swarm of Confederates stormed over the parapet, descending onto them and their comrades from the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps. During the melee, a pistol-bearing Confederate officer attacked the commander of the 45th Pennsylvania, Captain Theodore Gregg, demanding his surrender. The meeting did not go well for the Confederate. In a move that surprised everyone who witnessed it, Captain Gregg grabbed the Confederate officer’s pistol, drew out his sword, and ran the Confederate officer through the body with it. The officer fell, mortally wounded. (Incidentally, the sword broke. When the Confederate officer fell, Gregg came away with just a hilt.)

The image of Gregg impaling this unfortunate Confederate officer on his sword imprinted itself onto the memory tablets of every witness who survived the fighting. Indeed, how often did a Civil War soldier get to see an old-fashioned skewering? It did not take long for those who witnessed the remarkable incident to circulate stories about it. On August 5, Private Eugene Beauge, a member of Company G, 45th Pennsylvania, wrote home to his hometown newspaper, the Wellsboro Agitator. He related, “Capt. Gregg, commanding our regiment, was fiercely attacked by a rebel officer, when, seizing a pistol from the hand of his assailant, the Captain knocked his adversary down and ran him through with a sword.”

Another witness, Lieutenant Samuel Haynes, also of Company G, 45th Pennsylvania, wrote home: “Captain Gregg  . . . did some big fighting in the Rebel pits on Saturday. He killed a Rebel officer who led the charge. The Rebel caught Gregg by the throat and placing a pistol at his head demanded him to surrender. Gregg said: ‘You impudent scoundrel, how dare you ask me to surrender!’ and wrenched the pistol out of his hand, knocked him down with it, drew his sword and ran him through the body and left his sword in him. Then Gregg said, ‘You —, I guess you are my prisoner now’.”

Captain Josiah N. Jones, a member of the 6th New Hampshire, in the same division, told comrades about the same incident, although he probably did not see the scene first-hand:

I cannot refrain from narrating one incident told to me. Captain Greggs [sic], of the Forth-Fifth Pennsylvania, an old Mexican soldier, was present near the edge of the crater. A rebel officer on the other side near Greggs, pointed a rifle at his head, and called upon him to surrender. With a quick movement of his arm, Greggs knocked away the hand of the rebel officer, at the same time drawing his sword with the other, and running him through. The officer, impaled with the sword, fell back on the other side of the breastwork. General [William F.] Bartlett, seeing the daring act, unbuckled his sword-belt and presented it to Greggs, saying, ‘Captain, you are more worthy to wear it than I am.’ It was truly a recognition of gallantry by a brave officer.

Of all the reports that described the incident, the least impressive was the one written by Gregg himself. When he submitted his after action report, he could not help but mention the incredible stabbing, but he did not describe it with the same vivid detail used by his fellow soldiers. He wrote, “A large rebel officer, who appeared to be in command of the force, rushed upon me, and catching me by the throat, ordered me to surrender, at the same time bringing his revolver to my head. I succeeded in taking the revolver from him, and after a sharp struggle left him dead on the spot.”

Who was Captain Theodore Gregg? It would be best to describe him as a career military man. He was born in 1820 in the town of Milesburg, Pennsylvania, (then called “Central City”), which made him forty-four-years-old when he fought in the Battle of the Crater. In his late-teenage years, he left Pennsylvania to fight in the Second Seminole War. Once that conflict ended, he served four years in the U.S. Navy, before joining the Regular Army in time to fight in the Mexican-American War. Gregg served as quartermaster for the 4th U.S. Infantry during the Sieges of Monterrey and Veracruz. In fact, Gregg was a friend of Lieutenant Ulysses. S. Grant.

In some ways, I find Gregg’s friendship with Grant more interesting than his behavior at Petersburg’s crater. Gregg’s relationship with Grant became known to his men a few days after the debacle. One day, Gregg insisted on visiting the Army of the Potomac’s headquarters at City Point. Lieutenant Samuel Haynes accompanied him. At first, the sentries would not permit their entry, but Gregg’s feisty demeanor and his insistence that he knew Lieutenant General Grant personally convinced the sentries to let them pass. Haynes recalled:

Yesterday afternoon Captain Gregg and I called on General Grant at his headquarters at City Point. Gregg was bound to see him and insisted on having me go with him. The sentinels didn’t want to let us go in, I suppose on account of our rough appearance. We neither had shoulder straps, vests nor shirt collars on; our pants were stuck in our boots, we hadn’t been shaved for several days and altogether presented a very unmilitary appearance and not exactly the thing in which to appear before the lieutenant general commanding the Armies of the United States. Gregg swore some awful oaths that he had most urgent business with the General and the sentinel let us pass.

Haynes expected a polite conversation, but Gregg insisted on being rude to Grant and his staff officers. He flew into Grant’s cabin and unleashed a furious tirade, letting the general-in-chief and the staff officers learn his opinion of the recent Petersburg operation. Haynes continued, “We rushed in, took off our hats and Gregg opened his battery. I expected that we would get kicked out or be ordered in arrest but Gregg was equal to the occasion. He introduced himself as one of Grant’s old soldiers in Mexico in the same regiment (the Fourth United States Infantry) and then introduced me.”

Although Gregg spoke disrespectfully to Grant, it did not get him arrested. Good-naturedly, Grant listened to his old Mexican-American War colleague. As Haynes explained, “General Grant politely asked us to be seated; then he and Gregg rehearsed their old campaigns and ‘fought their battles over again.’ We stayed an hour. Gregg talked to General Grant very much as he would to me. The General expressed himself very much pleased to meet Gregg and when we were leaving asked us to call again. I don’t think I will call again unless I have some business. General Grant asked Gregg many questions about the members of their old regiment and about the fight of July 30th before Petersburg.”

This tale has led me to conclude a few things. First, Captain Theodore Gregg must have been one of the bravest men in the Union army! What other Union officer could stab a Confederate officer in the gut and then insult the lieutenant general commanding all Union forces just a few days later? My stars, what a bold man! Second, it strikes me that Grant must have been used to hearing Gregg complain, and he knew the best way to deal with a strong-willed man like him was to hear him out. In fact, I’m reminded of an incident that occurred on May 5, 1864, when a frustrated Union general, Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin, threw any equally absurd temper tantrum at army headquarters. According to a witness, Major Theodore Lyman, when Grant heard Griffin’s outburst, he called over to General Meade, asking, “Who is this General Gregg?” Meade replied, “His name is Griffin, not Gregg, and that’s only his way of talking.”

Wait? When Grant heard a random Union general’s outburst, the first name he thought was, “Gregg”? Was he thinking about Captain Gregg, his colleague from the Mexican-American War? Perhaps it is a stretch, but maybe Grant was so used to hearing Gregg’s flare-ups that any outburst triggered his memory of him.

In any event, it is amazing to consider the physical power it must have taken to stab a person through the body with a Model 1850 Foot Officer’s sword. At the Battle of the Crater, this positively medieval form of warfare could be seen in once instance, at least. I’ll bet Gregg remembered that emotionally-charged moment for the rest of his life, and face of his victim—whoever he was—screaming wildly and bleeding out, with Gregg’s shattered sword lodged in his gut.

Gregg died in 1878. He is buried in Eagle Cemetery in his hometown, Milesburg.

Capt. Theodore Gregg, commander of the 45th Pennsylvania, impaled a Confederate officer on his sword.

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