Monday, April 17, 2017

Searching for Corporal Dick


If you've read Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg by Richard J. Sommers (or pretty much any work on Gen. Grant's Fifth Offensive during the Petersburg Campaign), it is likely that you've come across an account of one Corporal Dick.

The attacks on Fort Gilmer (named for Confederate engineer Jeremy Gilmer) on September 29, 1864, resulted in part due to successful actions earlier in the day at the Battle of New Market Heights by regiments of the United States Colored Troops, as well as a flanking movement by Gen. Alfred Terry's division. Once the Confederate defenses at New Market Heights were breached, the Union troops moved on north up the Rebel line of fortifications. Success followed success when Fort Harrison was captured by Brig. Gen. George Stannard's brigade. Stiffer resistance and uncoordinated attacks stalled the Union army when they encountered Fort Gilmer.

Gen. William Birney, son of abolitionist and Kentucky native James G. Birney, led the brigade that sent African American soldiers to attack Fort Gilmer after two previous waves were repulsed. One of the regiments that was sent in by company in piecemeal fashion was the 7th USCI, a unit that was raised in Maryland. For whatever reason only four companies of the 7th were sent forward on what appeared to be a suicide mission. Making their way through the Confederate obstructions, and the detritus of the previous attacks, all while under heavy fire from both small arms and artillery, a number of the men reached the relative safety of the seven foot deep ditch in front of the fort's rampart wall.

Confederates inside the fort, not wishing to expose themselves, lit artillery shells and rolled them down on the attackers in the ditch, some of which were returned with favors. Desperate to take action, several of the black soldiers formed a human ladder of sorts in the attempt to go over the wall. Each brave man who attempted to go up and into the works was shot in the head and tumbled back down on to his fellow attackers in the ditch.

One gallant African American soldier stood out to the Texas and Georgia Confederate defenders. As remembered by Texas soldier Joseph Benjamin Polley, the dire situation at Fort Gilmer unfolded as follows. When told to surrender, the brave black soldiers shouted back, "surrender yourself," and "Just wait until we get in there." They were also heard to say "Let's lift up Corporal Dick, he'll get in there sure." The brave soldier was heaved up and promptly shot through the head. His comrades, shocked at their friend's tragic and sudden death exclaimed, "Corporal Dick's done dead!" Various versions of the story, all of which contain the same basic elements, appear from several other soldiers that were present. Another Confederate claimed the black men in the ditch stated that "Corporal Dick is the best man in the regiment." It was also mentioned that afterward, when African American troops were encountered by these Georgians and Texans they were referred to as "Corporal Dicks."

Fort Gilmer's stout defense held. Those black troops still living and that remained in the ditch finally decided to surrender. However, their brave and desperate fighting impressed some of the Confederate defenders. I find it intriguing that it took such violent actions on the part of these African American soldiers for them to earn the respect of whites, both North and South.

So, who was this Corporal Dick? Having a little time on my hands I decided if I could find him in the service records of the 7th USCI. Searching through the regiment's roster alphabetically, I looked for soldiers with the first name "Dick." Not finding any, I re-searched for "Richard." I found several of these. However, no Richards were corporals. One Richard was indicated as killed at Fort Gilmer, but he was listed as a private. That soldier's name is Richard Gibbs. Gibbs was mustered the year before on September 26, 1863. He was a 40 year old from Queen Ann, Maryland, who stood 5 feet 10 inches tall. Gibbs was of an age that he would garner respect from younger soldiers, and at 5'10" he could have been of such a stature as described in a couple of the Confederate accounts. But, in Gibbs's service records it interestingly lists his hair as "curly" in place of the usual listed hair color, and one Confederate account claims that Corporal Dick was bald headed.

Was Private Richard Gibbs respected so much by his comrades as to receive an honorary rank of corporal? Was Richard Gibbs the Corporal Dick of legend? I have to admit, I do not know, but I do not think so. This one has me totally stumped. I would certainly be interested to learn more about the true Corporal Dick if anyone happens to know.

Present-day photograph of Fort Gilmer taken by author in April 2016.

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