CV: V3N1: The Crater Battle, 30th July, 1864

   

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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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THE CRATER BATTLE, 30th JULY, 1864.1

—–

 Col. Geo. T. Rogers [of the 6th Virginia], now of Washington, D. C.:

Much has been said and written about that battle. Some bold truths of history, in a general way, have been recorded, but full, accurate details have never been given to print, because the participants who only know much of the matter from observation and experience have not been writing.

I was attached, to “Mahone’s Old Brigade.” He commanded, really, a division at the time, and for many months before. The brigade was under the command of Col. [David A.] W[eisiger]., afterward made a brigadier, being the oldest colonel of the army, and we had for several months before the Crater explosion been doing duty on the outside of the trenches with his command as “flankers.” We were engaged in protecting the main line of supply to Gen. Lee’s Army, the Weldon Railroad, and rarely a week passed that we were not moved out to push off the attacking enemy or to retake and reestablish the broken line of the railroad of such vital importance. Many men had been lost, killed, and wounded in those often repeated conflicts, and, in truth, the command had been very nearly “frazzled out”—to use a vulgarism—and no recruits, having their choice, would enlist in it. command.

The brigade of five regiments could not always report for duty more than one thousand men, the casualties were so great and frequent. The worn out command that had taken part in every skirmish, as we called them, on the railroad, was brought to notice a little after the Crater Battle because of its thin ranks, and was sent to take charge of the line between the two rivers, James and Appomattox, that had been held by pickets—a recruiting division of perhaps five thousand men. Yet it is a fact that that line was held by this thin brigade for months before the march to surrender. But when the mine explosion sounded deep, low, and rumbling, as we read of earthquakes, on the 30th of July, 1864, the brigade was on the extreme right and three or four miles from the disaster, outside the trenches, except about one half of our regiment, the Sixth Virginia, that was on the picket line.

Just as the day began to dawn came that low, deep, quivering, ominous sound. I had stretched myself on a board, raised a little, under an old cart shed that had been bored and splintered again and again by the enemy’s batteries in the front, on the right, and on the left, hoping that in the quiet, all along the line just then reigning, I might catch a short nap.

The thunderous explosion shook me from the board, and I leaped to my feet to find its cause.

The rumbling was yet to be heard, and knowing that mining and countermining had been going on, the cause was soon determined. In the course of an hour or more, a courier rode to brigade headquarters, and in a very few moments the order ran around to “fall in, fall in quietly, men, ” and under a guide we started for the scene of action and disaster by a circuitous and somewhat hidden approach, to avoid as much as possible the outlooks of the enemy.

By a zigzag, covered way, pretty safe from shot, we drew up in front of the broken Confederate line. We entered the ravine to avoid observation and for shelter almost directly opposite the Crater proper. As we entered that natural ravine from the artificial zigzag way, we met the division commander, Gen. Mahone, who gave orders to each commanding officer of a regiment, as we passed, to move up the ravine about the front of his brigade. I was on the right, and, therefore, front of the brigade.

And then, sir, was the General’s order, “halt your right front, and move up and down the line, and give the order softly that no shot is to be fired until after the men are in the broken trenches. Fix your bayonets, and await the order to forward. Let your men understand that it is only ‘forward,’ and with cold steel.”

Let me say that such orders were not often given. They were not often necessary. We looked around and saw that there must be no failure. There was no second line, as the enemy thought, between them and the city of Petersburg, only some scattered artillery had been brought into position in the rear.

If we broke— failed to retake and reestablish the broken line— the enemy could march without strong check to the capture of the city. I was informed by the General, as I moved up the ravine, that a Georgia brigade 2 would follow directly and form on my right, then an Alabama brigade 3 would move to the right of Georgia, and in that way the whole broken line would be covered, recaptured, and reestablished at one rush.

But alas! plans, and purposes rarely go as designed. The enemy, who had held the line since 5:30 A.M., were very restless. The explosion was a success and they were in possession of the line by a frontage of at least three or four brigades. Those then in the trenches, unfortunately for any final or lasting success, were negroes, and many of them were under fire for the first time. Several of those captured had been owned by white men of the adjoining county, and had been gathered from the fields in a recent Federal cavalry raid.

By whose order such an arrangement was made I do not venture to say. There was disagreement among the Federal authorities, and it was soon found that those colored troops were only ready for slaughter. They were led by white officers; one a colonel, held position on the right of the Crater, and in our front. He was a very gallant man, and used all the means at his command to induce his regiment to charge from the broken line he held to the heights in his front , but his gallant men, whom history tells us “fit nobly,” were not ready or willing to follow him from those sheltering trenches. Yet how safe they were. There was a double line of ditch at least four feet deep, and as wide, with a heavy line of earthwork between them six to eight feet in height, and impenetrable to shot or shell. The front line, now their rear, was capped by heavy, thick sandbags, through the little ports of which our men had fired while in possession, and did again as soon as regained. We boys who bad never fought “behind any dirt” thought it was “just splendid,” yet rashness lost for us several men after the recapture.

But the efforts of the colonel referred to were of so energetic a character, and so great his encouragement by command and example, it was thought by our general, Mahone, that he might induce his men to charge. He seized his colors, sprang over the protecting ditch, and by every gesticulation showed the way to the front—and perhaps to victory. So the command came whispered along our line from the left to “Charge! Now, men, charge!”

CVv03n01P013GenMahoneInWarTimes

GEN. MAHONE IN WAR TIMES.

As yet, the Georgia brigade and Alabama brigade had not gotten into position, but the moment was critical. Gen. Mahone had no idea to stand and receive volleys of lead on open field from perhaps two or three lines of battle, so he ordered his Virginia brigade (Col. W[eisiger]. in command) to the fearful charge, unprotected or unsupported by the flanks, and the boys answered to the low toned command. With fixed bayonets and a strong double quick, they sprang from the ravine and rushed upon the foe, the packed trenches. Nor was a shot fired until we hit the line, but many fell under the single volley from the rifles of the regiments in the trenches. From the right regiment in that short, bloody charge of not one hundred yards, eighty-two men fell from the front and flank fire, and so the loss was felt all along the line, lessening as the fire reached the left regiments. The trenches were won at that dash all the way on the right—our left— of the Crater, but it still sheltered its packed, disordered hundreds of black and white men.

Now came the deadly thrust of the bayonet. During the few pending years of that bloody war, it was the first time I had ever seen or ordered the bayonet to be used. To think of it makes me recoil even now. Soon the trenches were filled with the dead—in many places they lay heaped, and there was literally no place on the ground for the feet.

Many tried to escape by the front and were shot from the start. The space between the two battle lines (they were within musket range) was covered with dead and wounded. The artillery played heavily on those seeking safety in flight, from the heights in our rear and from the flank, where the line remained unbroken. The deadly work was fearful to look upon, fearful now to recall from the dim past.

No troops passed beyond the broken line in battle order. Fear seemed to hold those who were behind. That dreaded double reserved line, which the Federals always kept within reach, was with the Confederates a myth. There was no second line—only a little hastily placed artillery. The attack and recapture was made by troops brought from the extreme right of Gen. Lee’s lines.

The success was wonderful; and I may add just here that Gen. Mahone’s commission as a major-general bears the date of that day in commemoration of that deed, at the request of Gen. Lee and the order of President Davis. Since those sad days, some years ago now, I had the pleasure of looking at, upon the walls of his hospitable mansion in Petersburg, a large and finely executed oil painting representing that special battle scene. It is well worth the examination of a critical artist.

The battle ground, the Crater, etc., was kept, I have heard, for exhibition to the peaceful curious, and revenue so made! I make no remark upon that subject.

I will give you one or two incidents illustrating the peculiarities of men even in the midst of such horrors. As the date and the locality would indicate, the temperature was high. The sun gave out his fiercest rays, and flesh could not be allowed to remain long uncovered when dead and festering.

Therefore, about noon of the next day, Gen. Grant raised a white flag and asked time for the removal of his wounded and burial of the dead. The latter act became absolutely necessary, and the first, of course, humanity called for. As I have stated, the space between the two lines of battle was strewn with the dead and some few wounded.

In visiting each body to determine whether dead or wounded, one poor fellow about midway between the lines, as soon as approached, bounded to his feet, and no wound was found upon him, but he had laid upon that field rigid and stiff through the long day and night, afraid to raise his head, so close and steady was the fire from the Confederate battle line, and from the Federal, too. He had waited motionless, as far as could be discovered, and after being a little refreshed by the ever ready restorative, whisky, marched off jauntily to his line for protection.

The dead in the Crater proper were buried where they lay, deep below the surface of the ground, simply by hastily shoveling the broken and loose dirt in upon the bodies. How many were buried in that pit I do not recall, but many had sought shelter there and met death.

One fellow I noticed closely. He lay upon his stomach, face to one side, on the incline of the pit side, and did not move at all while the earth rose around him. His tongue hung from his mouth, and the flies buzzed about it and his head, and still he made no movement until the earth was reaching his head rapidly, when the fear of being buried alive overtopped his dread of his enemies, and he then rose up and shook away the earth from his body, and it was, found that he had no wound save that a bullet had passed through his jaws, cutting the roots of his tongue. He was sent quietly to the rear as a prisoner, and to a hospital. The dread of death with those men surmounted every other sentiment; per contra, one wounded and helpless man, a colored barber from New York, made so terrible an outcry during the night—before there had been opportunity to care for any of the wounded—that I went to him and asked why he did it. He replied that he was badly wounded by a piece of shell, that his thigh was shattered, and that he was in great pain and could not control his cries. In reply to my inquiry, he said that he was in the army against his will, that he was a drafted man and was obliged to take up his musket, and that, having enlisted, he had done his duty as far as possible. All others to whom I spoke protested: “I ain’t fired a shot today, Massa. I prays don’t kill me.”

When told that nothing could be done for him, but that as soon as the firing slacked a little he should be removed with the wounded to our rear for help, he remained patiently and quietly until the aid came.

The history called “The War of the Rebellion,” made up of official reports—Federal, chiefly, of course—gives the loss on that memorable day as about 4,500, nearly 1,000 prisoners, and 20 stands of colors.

But little is said of it in the history I cite; but, in truth it was one of the most desperate charges made by an unsupported single line of battle any history makes record of. It is to be remembered that this loss of life was enacted within one half hour, and along a frontage of less than two hundred yards.

After the broken line was repossessed by the Virginia brigade of a few thin regiments, the Georgia brigade came up and rendered gallant aid in holding the lines. But they failed to cover the Crater proper or to oust the mixed crowd of whites and blacks now huddled there. Our front was yet too narrow.

The Alabama brigade came up yet later, and while the Virginia and Georgia brigades turned their fire directly upon the excavation and kept down all heads and hands with guns, they (the Alabama troops) made a handsome charge directly on the mine and captured it without loss, comparatively. It was a handsome walkover for them, while the Virginia and Georgia boys kept well under cover all offenders.

History gives this report from Gen. Lee: “That the recapture of the line broken by the mine explosion was due mainly to the troops of Mahone’s Division, and his prompt and timely action.”

President Davis replied as below:

“Have ordered the promotion of Gen. Mahone to date from the day of his memorable service, 30th of July, as recommended.                      JEFFERSON DAVIS.

Richmond, August 2,1864.”

Rarely, indeed, was there as much history made in half an hour during the four years’ conflict.

Source:

  1. Rogers, George T. “The Crater Battle, 30th July, 1864.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 3, Number 1, p. 12-14
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: Wright’s Brigade, led this day by Colonel Matthew R. Hall of the 48th Georgia
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: John C. C. Sanders’ Alabama Brigade

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