MOLLUS ME V1: The Battle of “The Crater” by Captain Horace H. Burbank

   

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THE BATTLE OF “THE CRATER.”1

By Captain Horace H. Burbank.

ON June 16, 1864, having crossed the James River via pontoon bridge the night before, the “Army of the Potomac,” then comprising the Second, Fifth and Ninth Army Corps, respectively commanded by Major-Generals Hancock, Warren and Burnside, all under command of General Meade, sat down in front of, and about two miles distant from, Petersburg on its west. Here began a series of operations which resulted in a nearly ten months’ siege of that historic city.

The Ninth Corps, in whose Second Division (General Robert B. Potter’s) were the 31st and 32d Maine Regiments, held an advanced position along a cut of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, which was intersected by Poo Creek, a tributary of the Appomattox River.

In front of Potter’s Division, about one hundred and seventy yards from the extreme point, was a fort, situated in an angle of the rebel lines of works, known as Elliott’s salient, named for the officer in command of that portion of their line, and also called Pegram’s salient. This fort — in which were two hundred and fifty-six officers and men of the 18th and 22d South Carolina, and two officers and twenty men of Pegram’s Petersburg Battery—became the “Crater” of war history; in rear of which was Cemetery Hill, whose crest was our objective point, overlooking Petersburg and much adjacent country.

Between our line and this fort, as also from the fort to the crest beyond, the ground was open and ascending. A heavy line of rifle-pits was speedily constructed in our front, and a little to the rear of this advanced line came the suddenly sloping ground formed by the railroad cut and the creek already named, and still behind were low ground and woods, affording

admirable opportunity for massing large bodies of troops. Nature and commerce had seemingly combined to favor subsequent operations at this point.

The First Brigade of the Second Division of the Ninth Corps was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants, an accomplished mining engineer, whose regiment (48th Pennsylvania) was recruited in the mining regions of that state. To this officer belongs the credit of originating the project of mining the Elliott salient in his front by running a subterranean gallery from the cut or hollow to a point directly beneath the fort. This project met the warm approval of his division and corps commanders, and the nominal endorsement of General Meade; but it was an open secret with us, if indeed it were any secret, that he had little faith in such a scheme, regarding it as an idle fancy of a disordered brain, the device of a crank, and military engineers at his headquarters did not conceal their derision of the plot. Major Duane, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, pronounced it nonsense and an impossibility. With Colonel Pleasants in charge of, and experienced miners detailed for, the work, the outcome (and the ingoing) was a notable success.

The main gallery was five hundred and ten feet long, four feet high, slightly less in width at the bottom, narrowing somewhat to the top. At the inner end of the main gallery were dug two lateral galleries, one extending to the right thirty-eight feet, the other leftward thirty-seven feet, forming a segment of a circle concave to the Confederate lines. In these lateral galleries were made eight magazines or chambers, and in each chamber was placed a ton of powder, these chambers being connected by wooden tubes with the main gallery, and these tubes attached to three fuses, reaching to the mouth of the mine. Colonel Pleasants reports that “the material excavated was carried out in handbarrows made of cracker-boxes. … I got pieces of hickory and nailed them on the boxes in which we received our crackers, and then iron-claded them with hoops of iron taken from old pork- and beef-barrels.” Surely this was a

slow and inadequate process for besieging a city, and reminds prisoners of the methods of tunneling their way out of Libby Prison and other like pens.

This work was begun June 24, and completed July 23, which, considering the lack of proper mining tools, the size of the excavation, and the necessity of doing much of the labor by night, in order to carry away and conceal the earth removed, eighteen thousand cubic feet, entitled its projector to universal commendation.

Prior to July 30, the day fixed for the explosion, various maneuvers, evolutions and changes of position, on the part of the besieging army, many of which were of a menacing nature, were resorted to, under direction of Generals Grant and Meade, productive of good results, and which left this portion of the rebel line certainly as weak as, and perhaps weaker than, any other part in our front. After dark on July 29, the men of the Ninth Corps, not then in the rifle-pits and trenches, were massed in the ravine, cut and woods, in readiness for the contemplated assault at early dawn.

In the order of battle issued by Meade, July 29, the Ninth Corps was to be the assaulting column, supported on its right by the 18th (Ord’s) Corps which had been within supporting distance, in whose rear was to be Hancock’s Corps, while on Burnside’s left was Warren with the Fifth Corps. The mine was to be sprung at 3.30 A. M., and instantly thereupon the artillery of all kinds in battery was ordered to “open upon those points of the enemy’s works whose fire covered the ground over which our columns must move.”

When, on the twenty-ninth, darkness had shut down over this scene, expectancy changed to lively anticipation and busy activity. The troops were transposed as directed, orders were whispered along our lines, and the men lay on their arms, many of them with most of the officers sleeplessly awaiting the dawn. It was a forbidding season for sleep. Many occupied the weary, wakeful, watchful hours in writing brief messages homeward. Enough had been said and done hitherto, to spread the contagious

sentiment that earnest, serious work was to be our lot the next day, and faithful men banished Nature’s kind restorer. The longest night will have its dawning day, and so did that. The appointed hour arrived, and yet no sound of warning arose on the morning air. Expectancy gave place to anxiety, and anxiety was supplanted by intensity of wonder and fear; wonder at the unexplained delay, fear that failure would follow this attempt to capture Petersburg. An hour and more of such delay and unknown its cause. Later on we learned that the lighted fuses had gone out. At this supreme moment, a brave boy, Sergeant Henry Rees, of the 48th Pennsylvania, a name worthy of honorable mention among men of courage, volunteered to enter the mine, and crawling on hands and knees in utter darkness, safely relighted the fuses.

At 4.45 a heavy, huge roar, as if from the bowels of the earth, belched forth, and the occupants of that fated fort, all unconscious of the cause of their sudden awakening, many never knowing what deadly enginery closed their military record, started heavenward. Earth, stones, timbers, arms, legs, guns unlimbered and bodies unlimbed, amid clouds of dust and smoke, ascended in fearful confusion and havoc. It was a spectacle never to be forgotten. The deadly plot is realized. Theory ends in dire demonstration ; “nonsense” materializes into achievement, and the derision of the skeptic vanishes in the smoke and debris of that improvised volcano. Well may he whose brain conceived and evolved that work triumph over unbelief and jeers. But, alas, not so thoroughly “the charge is prepared.” Into the deadly breach we go, but all in vain.

Attached to the Ninth Corps was the Fourth Division under General Ferrero, colored troops, and it had been Burnside’s desire that this division should lead the charge. They were not veterans, had seen little service at the front, and Meade objected. The matter being referred to General Grant, he sustained the objection, and directed that one of the veteran divisions of the corps should lead the assault. It is a source of keen regret that Burnside’s better judgment failed him at this

critical moment, or, rather, in providing for a critical moment. Instead of selecting his best division commander, General Potter, of the Second Division, of whose ability there was no question, and whose heart knew no fear, or General O. B. Willcox, of his Third Division (of whom General Grant writes: “In fact, Potter and Willcox were the only division commanders Burnside had who were equal to the occasion), he suffered this choice to be made by lot. “Pulling straws” was his resort for the purpose of deciding an important military movement; yes, a movement which, more than any other, would determine the issue of the day’s fight. Such a resort was well enough, all conditions, all men being equal, but here it was a fatal error.

The lot fell upon the one least fitted in head or heart for such an important attack, weighted with such responsibilities and possibilities, to wit, General Ledlie of the First Division, of whom Grant, in his “Personal Memoirs,” writes : “Ledlie, besides being otherwise inefficient, proved also to possess disqualifications less common among soldiers;” and, of the division, he says it was “a worse selection than the first [the colored] could have been.” Swinton in his “Campaigns,” pronounces it “a division fitted neither in its composition nor its commander for the glorious but exacting duty assigned it.”

Unfortunately this division led the assaulting column, and entered “the Crater,” a chasm “one hundred and thirty-five feet in length, ninety-seven feet in breadth, and thirty feet deep,” so reported General Bushrod R. Johnson of the Confederate Army, August 20, 1864; “a crater of loose earth two hundred feet long, full fifty feet in width, and twenty-five to thirty feet in depth,” writes Lossing in his “Field Book of the Civil War”; “an enormous hole in the ground about thirty feet deep, sixty feet wide, and one hundred and seventy feet long,” according to Major W. H. Powell of General Ledlie’s staff. Whatever its name or dimensions, it proved alike beneficial and baneful; it was the open door to magnificent possibilities and to stupendous failure. And herein the First Division remained for eight or nine hours, exposed after the first hour

to a deadly fire of solid shot and shell from the enemy’s artillery from three directions, its leader “instead of being with his division in the crater, was most of the time in a bomb-proof ten rods in rear of the main line of the Ninth Corps works, where it was impossible for him to see the movement” of his troops. Huddled together here, en masse, without formation, or room for formation, this division thus became powerless and useless occupants of a slaughter pen, from which no one present had ability to extricate it, and, besides, formed a serious obstacle to the forward movement of other troops.

The Third Division under Willcox followed, and although originally ordered to pass to the left of the crater, also entered these “shambles,” and chiefly halted there, a small portion passing through to the left, the confusion which had enveloped Ledlie’s Division having become contagious. This division took possession of about one hundred and fifty yards at the left of the crater. Potter’s Division was ordered to follow Willcox and enter the enemy’s works on the right of the crater. This order was partially executed, the Second Brigade under General S. G. Griffin, passed through and to the right of this chasm, in more or less confusion, and in hardly tactical formation, taking possession of the deserted rifle-pits, for about two hundred yards. The absence of all efforts, if not of orders, to remove the abatis, chevaux-de-frise, and other obstructions between the hostile lines, especially in front of the fort and works immediately adjacent on either side, was the principal cause of the broken lines or columns, and thus, as also by the condition of the troops in the crater, brigades were detached from divisions, and regiments from brigades, and regimental companies became well-nigh inextricably mixed.

The 31st and 32d Maine of Griffin’s Brigade mainly reached the works at the right of the crater, awaited orders, and at intervals kept up their fire until ordered to cease. Twice this brigade essayed to charge the crest. The enemy, however, had recovered from the first shock of the explosion, and improving, the moments of delay caused by attempts to reform our lines, had

concentrated in this vicinity in such numbers, aided by well-aimed guns and mortars, that twice we were repulsed with heavy loss. A single brigade, unsupported, could not possibly carry the crest. Brave officers and brave men did their best, and evinced valor worthy of a better issue. But the golden opportunity for success, that first half-hour succeeding the explosion, had passed never to return.

And now, to make “confusion worse confounded,” General Ferrero’s colored division appeared upon the scene. Their presence inspired the rebels with a courage induced by their hatred of color, which added to the desperation of their situation. To them the loss of Petersburg meant the fall of Richmond, and they exerted their entire energies to avert such a calamity. One hour and another of valiant but futile endeavor to reach Cemetery Hill wore away amid shot and shell, but it required no special gift of prophecy to foretell the unwelcome issue of this assault on Petersburg. Our final repulse was inevitable. The enemy had withdrawn his troops from other parts of his line and concentrated all available strength on this, his weakest point. Determined, desperate, bitter, he made his final charge. With brigades of Virginia, Alabama and Georgia troops, and some North Carolina and South Carolina regiments, making their way through a covered way and thence into the trenches, unexposed, a line of battle was formed less than one hundred and sixty yards from our right, which advanced at an angle of about forty-five degrees to our line. This line, with terrific yell, aided also by an enfilading fire into our line from a battery in commanding position on the right, charged upon that portion of the Second Division which had taken possession of the abandoned works on the right of the crater. It was a desperate encounter, but of brief duration. Our men jumped from the trenches and made the best resistance possible. White and black men fought bravely, but, with no division commander within eighty yards of the captured works, and no brigade commander there outside the crater, and without formation of any kind to resist such a charge, it was in vain.

What had been thrown away in the early moments succeeding the explosion could not then and thus be recovered. Those of our division and the colored men who were not lying dead and wounded on the fated field, or who had not withdrawn to our original lines pursuant to General Meade’s orders, were taken prisoners, and many, who had but a few hours before anticipated a triumphal march into Petersburg, entered the city captives of war. Those of us who were at the right of the crater were captured shortly after nine o’clock, having held that position about four hours. Those on the left met a like fate soon after, while those within the chasm remained until one o’clock P. M., or a little later, when those who had survived shot and shell, or had not escaped to the rear over the dangerous ground between the original lines, were added to the list of “missing.”

General Meade sent orders to Burnside at 9.45 A. M., to withdraw his troops to his own entrenchments.

Colonel Wentworth took about one hundred and fifty men and officers of the 32d Maine Regiment into the fight; it lost in killed, one officer, Lieutenant John G. Whitten of Alfred, and nine men ; wounded, five officers, Colonel Mark F. Wentworth, Captain James L. Hunt, and Lieutenants Whitehouse, James W. Goodrich, of my company, and J. J. Chase, and twenty-three men; captured, Captains H. R. Sargent, Isaac P. Fall and myself, and Lieutenants William B. Pierce, Henry M. Bearce, Henry G. Mitchell, formerly of Portland, and George L. Hall of Nobleboro; total captured, seven officers and fifty-five men; a total loss of one hundred; two-thirds of the command engaged.

The casualties of the Ninth Corps on that sanguinary day were: killed, fifty officers and four hundred and twenty-three men ; wounded, one hundred and twenty-four officers and one thousand five hundred and twenty-two men; missing (prisoners) seventy-nine officers and one thousand two hundred and seventy-seven men; total, three thousand four hundred and seventy-five. Surely no trifling fatality.

Among our captured were Colonel Daniel White and two captains and four lieutenants of the 31st Maine Regiment, and I presume about the same relative loss of men in killed, wounded and missing, was the fate of this regiment.

The rebel loss was also great in view of the number engaged in that conflict. General Bushrod R. Johnson of the Confederate Army, commanding one division, reported August 20, 1864, that his total loss was, in killed, nineteen officers and one hundred and forty-nine men; wounded, thirty-three officers and three hundred and sixty-two men; missing, sixty-six officers and eight hundred and fifty-six men. These figures included those in the fort at the time of the explosion. Total loss of this division was one thousand four hundred and eighty-five. In addition to this, General Mahone had two brigades of his division and Gracie’s Brigade also engaged in this battle, all of which suffered severely, the numerical result of which losses are not at my reach. Assuming it to be nearly as great as was Johnson’s loss, the rebel casualties approximated two thousand in the whole.

The regiments of the enemy were smaller than ours; one lost one hundred and sixty-three men; another one hundred and one; the 6th Virginia “carried in ninety-eight men and lost eighty-eight; one company — old Company F of Norfolk — losing every man, killed or wounded.”

The two right guns of Pegram’s Battery, in the fort, were not disturbed by the explosion. The two left guns were thrown out in front of the enemy’s works, and only eight men out of twenty-eight men and two officers escaped alive and unhurt. The 18th South Carolina Regiment, on the left of the battery “had four companies blown up or destroyed by the falling earth. The sharpshooters carried in eighty men and lost sixty-four, among them their commander, . . . who, leaping first over the works, fell pierced by eleven bayonet wounds,” (so wrote a Confederate staff officer). “Scarcely less was the loss in other regiments,” he adds. Serious results those; a victory dearly bought; but a victory, nevertheless, well-earned and highly important in what it saved for Lee and his army.

That such an ignoble failure should follow such well-conceived plans and such valiant work, occasioned profound chagrin, criticism, and even censure. Thinking men lost their temper in discussing the situation and its causes. Some one, or more, had wofully blundered. The blame was tossed about, football like, from one to another, and for a long time, even in some minds beyond the close of the war, the question remained unsolved, and it is, perhaps, not yet removed from the field of doubt and conflicting opinion. There is, however, a consensus of thought upon certain causes of this inglorious failure.

1. That the project did not receive the cordial cooperation of General Meade is found in the fact that the Ninth Corps received no support or aid from other corps in supporting distance during the entire engagement, except one brigade of Ord’s Corps, and such aid as came from the artillery, and the latter was efficient.

2. I cannot accept the belief, once current in the army, that the disapproval of Burnside’s proposition that his colored troops should lead the assault cooled his ardor in the undertaking, yet his subsequent choice of a leader was very unfortunate, unmilitary and reprehensible.

3. The notable absence from the captured works of any general officer competent to command, able to meet contingencies and changing conditions (Generals Griffin, W. F. Bartlett and Hartranft, each in command of a brigade in different divisions, being the only officers above regimental commanders in the captured works during the day), and give orders made necessary by obstacles not anticipated, was a principal contributing cause. Had there been such officer chaos and partial panic might have been dispelled, and our outnumbering men made available to resist all attacks of an enemy far inferior in numbers.

4. Minor causes are seen in the final preparations and details of the assault, which were not commensurate with the original project and the purpose designed to be accomplished, which causes had more or less weight in the result.

Enough has been said touching the responsibility. The disaster was the subject-matter of inquiry by a Court of Inquiry which by order of the President convened in front of Petersburg, August 5, 1864, and pursued its investigations for several days: and by the Committee on the Conduct of the War. The former held “answerable for the want of success” Generals Burnside, Ledlie, Willcox, Ferrero and Colonel Bliss commanding the First Brigade of the Second Division of the Ninth Corps, measuring out to each more or less censure.

The Committee on Conduct of the War find Meade mainly responsible for “the disastrous results,” adding that Burnside’s plans and suggestions were “entirely disregarded by a general who had evinced no faith in the successful prosecution of the work, had aided it by no countenance or open approval, and had assumed the entire direction and control only when it was completed and the time had come for reaping any advantages that might be derived from it.”

While we may not concur in all of the conclusions of this Committee we cannot ignore the fact that General Meade, by virtue of his presence and rank, did assume “the entire direction and control,” as the commanding officer of that army, and, therefore must be held largely responsible. This sentiment was “in the air” at the time, has been endorsed by historians, and was entertained by ex-Confederates whom I met two years ago in Petersburg. Moreover, it is a potent fact that no notice of the findings of the Court of Inquiry at Petersburg was ever taken by the War Department beyond their publication. One historian attributes to Meade the desire to humiliate Burnside for this failure. Nothing is to be gained by urging such argument now, when the curtain of death has been drawn between survivors and many who had part in that battle. Burnside did indeed bid farewell to his command soon after; but, notwithstanding his resignation, his loyalty remained undoubted, and the record of his valor and achievements remained undimmed before his corps, his commander-in-chief, and his country.

Recurring to this fiasco I will only add, that when we were marched off the field to the rebel rear, and learned that our

available force of three army corps outnumbered the enemy engaged in a ratio of at least six to one, our chagrin and humiliation was complete. We keenly realized that had there been entire harmony in the plans and preparations, competent, fearless officers in direct charge of the assault, and earnest, full support from other corps on our right and left, supposed to be there for that purpose, the result so enthusiastically anticipated in that early dawn would have been achieved. The Army of the Potomac should have captured Petersburg, July 30, 1864; this done Richmond would have been ours in a short time and the war abbreviated at least six months.

Source:

  1. WAR PAPERS READ BEFORE THE STATE OF MAINE COMMANDERY OF THE MILITARY ORDER OF THE LOYAL LEGION OF THE UNITED STATES, Volume 1, pages 283-294

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