CV: V1N2: Carnage at “The Crater,” Near Petersburg

   

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in Siege of Petersburg

Editor’s Note: Base transcription is from the CD-ROM version of The Confederate Veteran at Eastern Digital.  Minor corrections were made by Brett Schulte.

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CARNAGE AT “THE CRATER,” NEAR PETERSBURG.1

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Lieut. Col. William H. Stewart, of the Sixty-first Virginia, Mahone’s old brigade, gives a thrilling account of the battle of “The Crater,” from which the following extracts are made. He was asleep under his little fly tent, when “a deep, rumbling sound, that seemed to rend the very earth in twain,” startled him from his slumbers:

The whole camp had been aroused, and all were wondering from. whence came this mysterious explosion. It was the morning of Saturday, the 30th day of July, 1864. The long talked of mine had been sprung, a battery blown up, and the enemy were already in possession of eight hundred yards of our entrenchments.

Two hundred cannon roared in one accord, as if every lanyard had been pulled by the same hand. The gray fog was floating over the fields, and darkness covered the face of the earth, but the first bright streak of dawn was gently lifting the curtain of night.

The sun rose brilliantly, and the great artillery duel still raged in all its grandeur and fury.

Soon after, Capt. Tom Bernard, Gen. Mahone’s courier, came sweeping up the lines on his white charger to the headquarters of Brig. Gen. D. A. Weisiger. Then the drums commenced rolling off the signals, which were followed by ‘fall in’ and hurried roll calls. We were required to drive back the Federals, who had gotten almost within the very gates of the city of Petersburg. It was startling news, but our soldiers faltered not, and moved off at quick step.

Wright’s Georgia Brigade and our Virginia Brigade, the latter numbering scarcely eight hundred muskets, constituted the force detailed to dislodge the enemy, who held the broken lines with more than fifteen thousand men, and these were closely supported by as many more. I remember that our regiment, the Sixty-first, did not exceed two hundred men, including officers and privates, which I am quite sure was the strongest in the two brigades. I suppose we had marched the half of a mile when ordered to halt and strip off all baggage, except ammunition and muskets. We then filed to the left a short distance to gain the banks of a small stream, in order to be protected from the shells of the Federal batteries by placing a range of hills between. The enemy were making dispositions to attempt their capture, for they were the very keys to the invested city. When nearly opposite the portion of our works held by the Federal troops, we met several soldiers who were in the works at the time of the explosion. Our men began ridiculing them for going to the rear, when one of them remarked: “Ay, boys, you have hot work ahead they are negroes, and show no quarter.” This was the first intimation that we had to fight negro troops, and it seemed to infuse the little band with impetuous daring, as they pressed onward to the fray. Our comrades had been slaughtered in a most inhuman and brutal manner, and slaves were trampling over their mangled and bleeding corpses. Revenge must have fired every heart and strung every arm with nerves of steel for the herculean task of blood. We filed up a ditch, which had been dug for safe ingress and egress to and from the earthworks.

The ‘Crater,’ or excavation, caused by the explosion, was about twenty-five feet deep, one hundred and fifty feet long, and fifty feet wide. Almost seventy-five feet in rear of the supporting earthworks there was a wide ditch, with the bank thrown up on the side next to the fortifications. This was constructed to protect parties carrying ammunition and rations to the troops. Between this irregular and ungraded embankment and the main line the troops had constructed numerous caves, in which they slept at night to be protected from the mortar shells. The embankment from the bottom of the ditch was about ten feet high, and commanded the outer or main line. The space from the outside of the fortifications to the inner edge of the ditch was more than one hundred feet wide.

The ‘Crater,’ and the space on both sides for some distance, were literally crammed with the enemy’s troops. They were five lines deep, and must have numbered between fifteen and twenty-five thousand men. Their historians admit that their charge was made by the whole of the Ninth Corps, commanded by Gen. A. E. Burnside, and that the Fifth and a part of the Second Corps were massed in supporting distance.

Mahone’s old brigade, after being deployed, covered their front from the center of the ‘Crater’ to the right. Our little band were desperate, and reckoned not the hosts that confronted them. I recollect counting seven standards in front of our regiment alone. Our column was deployed in the valley before mentioned, in full view of these hostile thousands. As the soldiers filed into line, Gen. Mahone walked from right to left, commanding the men to reserve their fire until they reached the brink of the ditch, and after delivering one volley to use the bayonet. Our line was hardly adjusted, and the Georgians had not commenced to deploy, when the division of negroes, the advance line of the enemy, made an attempt to rise from the ditch and charge. Just at that instant Gen. Mahone ordered a counter charge. The men rushed forward, officers in front, with uncovered heads and waving hats, and grandly and beautifully swept onward over the intervening space with muskets at trail. The enemy sent in the ranks a storm of bullets, and here and there a gallant fellow would fall, but the files would close, still pressing onward, unwavering, into the jaws of death!

The orders of Maj. Gen. Mahone were obeyed to the very letter, the brink of the ditch was gained before a musket was discharged, the cry of ‘ No quarter! ‘ greeted us, the one volley responded, and the bayonet plied with such irresistible vigor as insured success in the shortest space of time. Men fell dead in heaps, and human gore ran in streams that made the very earth mire beneath the tread of the victorious soldiers. The rear ditch being ours, the men mounted the rugged embankment and hurled their foes from the front line up to the very mouth of the ‘Crater.’ In the meantime the Georgia Brigade had charged, but were repulsed; and soon after it was re-formed in column of regiments and again charged, but was met by such a withering fire that it again recoiled with a heavy slaughter.

Our bloody work was all done so quickly that I have scarcely an idea of the time it required to accomplish it; some say it was twenty minutes. It was over, I am sure, about noon; and then, for the first time, we realized the oppression of the scorching rays of that July sun, and many almost sank from exhaustion. The brigade captured fifteen battle-flags, and our own

regiment owned five of the seven that I had counted in its front.

The wonderful triumph had been won at the price of the blood of the bravest, and best, and truest. Old Company ‘F,’ of Norfolk, had carried in twelve men, all of whom were killed or wounded. The Sixth Regiment, to which it was attached, carried in ninety-eight men, and mustered ten for duty at this time. The Sharpshooters carried in eighty men, and sixteen remained for duty. Nearly half of our own regiment had fallen, and the Twelfth, Forty-first, and Sixteenth Regiments had suffered in like proportion. Up to this time only an inconsiderable number of prisoners had been captured.

During the charge, Capt. John W. Wallace, of Company ‘C,’ Sixty-first Virginia Regiment, was stricken down with a broken thigh. He lay upon his back, refusing to allow his men to take him from the field till the battle was over, waving his hat and urging his men to ‘Go on, go forward.’

When Maj. W. H. Etheredge, of the Forty-first Regiment, jumped in the ditch, a brave Federal in the front line fired through the traverse and killed a soldier at his side. He immediately dropped his empty musket and snatched another from a cowering comrade to kill Maj. Etheredge. At this juncture the Major, with remarkable self-possession, caught up two Federals, who were crouching in the ditch, and held their heads together between himself and his determined opponent, swinging them to and fro to cover the sight of the musket, the Federal doing his best to uncover it so as to unharm his friends by his bullet. Peter Gibbs, of the Forty-first Virginia Regiment, rushed to the assistance of the Major, and killed his foe. Gibbs was a gallant soldier, and fought with great desperation. It was said at the time that he slew fourteen men that day.

The Alabamians made a grand charge under a terrible fire, reaching the crest of the ‘Crater’ without faltering, and here a short struggle ensued. They tumbled muskets, clubs, clods of earth, and cannon balls into the excavation on the heads of the enemy with telling effect. This novel warfare lasted only a few minutes, when Bartlett ordered up the white flag, and about five hundred prisoners marched to our rear. The negroes among them were very much alarmed, and vociferously implored for their lives. One old cornfield chap exclaimed: ‘My God, massa, I never pinted a gun at a white man in all my life; dem nasty, stinking Yankees fetch us here, and we didn’t want to come fus! ‘

The appearance of this rough, irregular hole beggars description. It was estimated that it contained six hundred bodies. The importance of reconstructing this broken line of earthworks at once prevented the removal of these bodies; therefore, they were buried as they had fallen, in one indiscriminate heap. Spades were brought in, and the earth thrown from the sides of the ‘Crater’ until they were covered a sufficient depth. By three o’clock in the afternoon all was over, and we were enjoying a welcome truce.

Here follows an account of the odor on that hot afternoon, that is omitted from this account.

There were thousands of captured arms around us, and during the night some of our men would shoot ramrods at the enemy just for the fun of hearing them whiz. One that was sent over drew from a Federal the exclamation: ‘Great God! Johnnie, you are throwing turkey spits and stringing us together over here. Stop it! ‘

A correspondent of one of the New York dailies, writing a description of this battle from accounts obtained from wounded officers who had arrived at Washington, uses the following language: ‘Often have the Confederates won encomiums for valor, but never before did they fight with such uncontrollable desperation. It appeared as if our troops were at their mercy, standing helpless or running in terror, and shot down like dogs. No such scene has been witnessed in any battle of the war. The charge of the enemy against the negro troops was terrific. With fearful yells they rushed down against them. The negroes at once ran back, breaking through the line of white troops in the rear. Again and again their officers tried to rally them. Words and blows were useless. They were victims of an uncontrollable terror, and human agency could not stop them.’

Next morning was a bright and beautiful Sabbath, and nothing of moment occurred. At least three thousand of the Federal dead were still on the field, putrifying under the scorching rays of the sun. I remember a negro between the lines, who had both legs blown off, crawled to the outside of our works, stuck three muskets in the ground, and threw a small piece of tent cloth over them to shelter his head from the hot sunshine. Some of our men managed to shove a cup of water to him, which he drank, and immediately commenced frothing at the mouth, and died in a very short time afterwards. He had lived in this condition for nearly twenty four hours.

On Monday morning a truce was granted, and the Federals sent out details to bury their dead between the lines. They dug a long ditch, and placed the bodies crosswise, several layers up, and refilled the ditch, and thus ended the tragic scenes of three days in and around the ‘Crater.’

Source:

  1. Stewart, W. H. “Carnage at “the Crater,” Near Petersburg.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 41-42

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