NP: November 30, 1885 Atlanta Constitution: The Battle of the Crater

   

in Postwar Newspapers

Editor’s Note: This article appears here due to the help of Lamar Williams.  He read an article published at the Siege of Petersburg Online from the February 4, 1886 Anderson (SC) Intelligencer which criticized an article published in the “Constitution” on December 1, 1885.  I noted that I thought the writer was referring to the Atlanta Constitution, but that I had no way to access the article.  After reading my comment in the post, Lamar Williams searched for, found, and passed along the article you will read below.  The article was actually published in the November 30, 1885 Atlanta Constitution.  It’s interesting to read this original article and then compare it to the response contained in the Anderson Intelligencer.  This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte. 

BATTLE OF THE CRATER.

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The Famous Mine in Front of Petersburg.

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Fort Steadman, Fort “Hell” and Fort “Damnation”—The Old Slaughter Pen of the “Crater.”—The Story From the Confederate Side—Scenes, Incidents, etc., of the Bloody Days,

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Upon most of the battlefields of northern and western Virginia there is little to aid the imagination of the visitor.  Where the land is worth the trouble the earthworks, if there were any, have been leveled and there is nothing left to mark the spots where great events transpired.  At Manassas, the plain, fenced and cultivated, has nothing to show where the tremendous battles were fought or particular deeds were done.  A visit to the battlefields about Manassas is not particularly interesting, except to those who participated in those struggles.  In the southwest this is different, from the fact that upon nearly all the great battlefields about Fredericksburg, Richmond and Petersburg, the earthworks remain untouched except by the hand of time.  Just as they were fought over—just as they were stained with blood and heaped with dead and dying, and plowed with shot and shell—just as they stood when the war ended, there they stand to-day.  The rain has beaten them down somewhat, the grass in many places has grown over them and the leaves accumulated in the ditches and hollows.  Pine trees as thick as a man’s thigh have grown upon them and the scrub pines and black jack and chinquepin make a thick underbrush.  But in many places they stand uncovered, the bare, silent grim old red earthworks of the war.

These give a guide to the imagination and assist the recollactions [sic] and vivify the memories of those terrible events.

At Spottsylvania [sic] you may stand upon the deadly angle where for thirty-six hours in blood and smoke and agony, in a tumult as if among fighting fiends of hell, the contending armies were clinched like wild beasts in a death struggle that knew no mercy, gave no quarter and asked for none.  At Cold Harbor you may go into the federal butcher-pen of 1864.  You may stand in the works where the federal troops lay clutching their rifles at break of day upon that dreadful morning.  You may spring over those low parapets as they did in the dark and murky dawning, and before you see the slope, down and then up, over which they swept in that fatal charge.  Before you stand the old works they charged, frowning, impregnable, and between you and them is the space wherein fell thirteen thousand of the flower of the northern army in a charge as hopeless as was that at Balaklava1.

All around Richmond the old fortifications and lines of work may be traced.  Sometimes they disappear in plowed and cultivated fields to reappear beyond.  Some of the forts, indeed many of them, are nearly perfect, and a day or two would put them in as good trim as ever.

Down below at Drury’s Bluff and Fort Darling, the works in many places need nothing but the ax to put them in shape for occupation.

But the most interesting of all are the works about Petersburg, the historic city and the center of interest is the old Crater, as it is called, the scene of the explosion of a federal mine, July 30, 1864, and the dreadful scenes following.

I spent a day riding along the old lines at Petersburg from Fort McGilvery past Fort Stedman, Fort Haskel, Fort Morton, Fort Meikle, Fort Rice, down to Jerusalem plank road and Fort Davis and Fort Sedgwick, better known as Fort “Hell.”  Further on toward Hatcher’s Run the forts are in a better state of preservation, some of them, (illegible) Fort Fisher and Fort Davis, being almost unchanged in appearance since being abandoned, except for growth of brush and small timber.  The confederate works, including Fort Mahone (Fort Damnation), have largely disappeared in peanut and sweet potato fields.  Fort Mahone, which faced Fort Sedgwick on the Jerusalem plank road, has disappeared and left no trace, but its grim opponent still stands in majestic ruin, impressively suggestive of the vast and massive character of the earthwork.

Fort “Hell” was an immense work, and remains now in huge tumuli, deep moats, great ridges that look as though turned by a gigantic plowshare, weed and brush covering bastions and salients, high mounds where the magazines stood, and deep ruts marking the old covered ways.  The country is perfectly flat, and 1,500 feet across the plain, bunches of peanut stacks mark the site of Fort Mahone.  Every inch of this country has been fought over back and forth scores of times, and for ten months the cannon boomed and the musketry roared and death rode on the winds in this place of dreadful recollections.

Fort Morton, which faced the salient blown up by the mine, has been leveled, and some of the breastworks connecting it with the forts north and south of it.  Fort Stedman is a pretty well preserved ruin, both it and the site of Fort Morton being but a few rods from dwelling houses.

The way up which the confederates came when they stormed and captured Fort Sedgwick is plain to view, and the natural difficulties presented give one a better idea of the gallantry of that dash that caught the federals napping and took them in.

The Crater itself has never been touched by the profaning plowshare or spade.  The works on either side have melted away under the hand of the husbandman, but the bloody old crater has been shunned and spared.  Of course, the “Crater” itself has been filled in to some extent by rain washes and vegetable deposit, and the highest mounds beaten down a trifle, but in the main the place remains unchanged since the close of the war.

You stand upon the edge of the crater over which the opposing lines fought in fierce hand-to-hand struggles with swords, pistols, knives, clubbed muskets and bayonets, and look down into that terrible hole of dark and dreadful memories.  From that contracted space four hundred corpses have been dug, and no one knows how many more remain to this day.  Facing you, only three hundred feet away, are the federal outworks, for here the two lines were separated for long, bloody months by only that space.  From the rear of the mound marking the federal picket line straight up the slope to the edge of the Crater before you runs what appears to be a ditch.  It is distinctly marked, being covered and filled with grass and weeds, while on either side the land is plowed.  That marks the course of the old mine where it ran from down in the hollow within the the [sic] union lines up to and thirty feet under where you stand, its length being 310 feet.  In and about the Crater peach trees are standing that grew from pits scattered about by the soldiers; indeed, these peach trees are thick all along the lines.

Back of you is Petersburg, in the distance Cemetery Hill, nearer and close by, the ravine, up which the confederates came to battle that morning, and the plain over which the fighting took place and across which the confederates of Mahone’s brigade swept down in the final triumphant assault to retake the captured works.

You are gazing on the scene of events than which there is nothing more grim and ghastly in all the history of war.  Here scenes more wild and dreadful than anything the imagination is able to conceive of were enacted.

Here, upon that fateful morning, before even the eastern sky hinted of dawn, the confederate soldiers lay sleeping around their guns, and all was quiet.  Down in the bowels of the earth beneath them the enemy crawled through stifling passages, placing in position the last kegs of eight thousand pounds of gunpowder, and laying the train and making all ready.  Beyond those federal lines and all along that valley stood the men who were to make the assault, in long, still, expectant lines.  Battalion after battalion crept noiselessly up in the misty gloom, and silently passed into its appointed places and stood waiting the dread moment.  They were men of Burnside’s Ninth Corps, and among them were the colored troops of Ferrero’s division.  At this moment, back of the main lines, a hundred thousand men lay ready to advance on the second, and every one [of the?] hundreds of guns along the federal lines for miles were surrounded by gun crews, and loaded and ready to fire.

This was the situation when, at half past 3, the fuse was lighted.

Upon the federal side men grasped their muskets nervously, they held their breath in awful suspense, and could hear their hearts beat in the black stillness.

The confederates slumbered on peacefully in the doomed fort, the men in their picket line, in the perfect quiet, almost forgetting to peep occasionally through the eyeholes in the breastworks looking toward the yankee works, three hundred feet away.

And all this time the little hissing, sputtering flame of the fuse was running along through the dark gallery, nearer and nearer to the 320 kegs of powder stored thirty feet beneath them.

Can we not think that to those sleeping soldiers there was some message told in some way from the Fate that directed the course of the yellow flame of the fuse.  Did not some shadow of presentiment steal into their dreams as nearer and nearer the fuse-flame crept through the dark passages to the stored up thunders beneath them?  Can we not well imagine a Divine Pity that shed into the dreams of these gallant men some glorious vision of light and beauty as their fate came upon them?  Or did some one stir uneasily and mutter in his sleep just before the space between flame and powder vanished?  Or did another raise upon his elbow as an awful unknown fear came upon him in the thick darkness that seemed stifling and gasp: “My God, what is it!” as the end came like the crack of doom!

Among them were the men of Pegram’s battery2, brave soldiers as ever lived and gallant young gentlemen of Petersburg.  They were fighting in defense of their native city, in sight of their homes, and where they slept their feet had often strayed in boyish excursions about the old city.

There was the first faint streak of gray upon the eastern sky as the mine exploded.

Those waiting felt a strange thrill run through the earth, and then, said one, “It seemed as though the earth had exploded.”  The ground rocked under the tremendous recoil, as a solid mass of earth rose slowly two hundred feet in the air, the exploding gunpowder blazing through it like “lightning playing through a bank of clouds,” seemed to hang poised an instant, and then with a vast roaring sound in showers of stones, broken timbers, cannon, blackened human limbs or bodies, it fell, and a heavy cloud of black smoke floated off.

The dreadful work had been thoroughly done.  Where the Elliott salient had stood there was now a horrible chasm one hundred and fifty feet long, sixty feet wide and from twenty-five to thirty feet deep, and its brave garrison lay buried beneath the jagged blocks of blackened clay—in all, 256 officers and men of the Eighteenth and Twenty-Second South Carolina, and twenty-two men of Pegram’s battery.

Instantly the union batteries opened with every gun from Appomattox creek to Jerusalem plank road, from Fort McGilvery to Fort Davis, in horrid uproar.  The air was alive with howling shot and screaming shells, and the valley shrowded [sic] in billowy smoke.  The troops pressed forward into the crater and over the lines of the enemy, stunned and demoralized, and the day of carnage began.

This was the scene God’s creatures prepared to greet God’s sunlight as it broke in beauty upon that summer morning.

Hundreds of people have tried to tell the story of the Battle of the Crater, which began with the explosion at 4 in the morning and ended with the recapture by the confederates about 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon.  The story can not be told.  No language can adequately describe it.  It can not be painted, for no colors are deep enough.  Out of all conflicting reports, out of the mingled stories of cowardice, of bravery, of blundering, of incapacity, of savage vengeance and brutal butchery, we gather the picture that presents itself to the imagination, such as presented itself to Elder when he painted the noted picture that hangs in [Brigadier General William] Mahone’s house3.  The story from the federal side is not a proud one.  Grant called it a “miserable affair,” and summed  up it was a disgraceful affair to the union army, and cost the lives of nearly five thousand men.

The troops were the poorest in the northern army, mixed white and black, and led by men who, if they possessed any knowledge, bravery or sense, failed to show it upon that occasion.  There was individual gallantry and many exhibitions of high courage, and there was the most desperate and deadly fighting of the war, but in general there was no glory in the day for the yankees.

Our men huddled up in the Crater instead of pushing on to Cemetery Hill, as ordered, and soon an enfilading fire made it as dangerous to go back as to go forward.

It was not until 8 o’clock that the colored troops were sent in.  They charged over the heads of the whites crowded in the Crater, swept over the crests cheering, and spread to the right, capturing two hundred prisoners and a flag.

A heavy fire of artillery and musketry sent them back to add to the confusion in the Crater and the numbers in that horrible mixture of men, alive, wounded and dead, and a ghastly debris of the explosion.

The confederates trained their heavy guns upon this red slaughter pen and dropped shells into the frenzied masses.  The confederates charged repeatedly and poured volleys into the crater.

Back and forth over the edge the men fought in desperate dashes.  They threw hand grenades over.  The confederates lighted bombshells and rolled them over the parapet into the crater.

Says Swinton:4 “After the repulse of the colored division all semblance of offensive efforts ceased; blacks and whites tumbled pell-mell into the hollow of the exploded earthworks a slaughter pen, in which shells and bombs rained from the enemy’s lines did fearful havoc.”

The reoccupation should be told from the other side, for the glory of the day was with them.

Captain W. Gordon McCabe, a confederate historian, who was present, says of the retaking of the lost works spreading north from the Crater:

“Scarcely had the order been given when the head of the Virginia brigade began to debouch from the covered way.  Mahone stood at the angle, speaking quietly and cheerily to his men.  Silently and quickly they moved out and formed with that precision dear to every soldiers eye—the sharpshooters leading, followed by the Sixth, Sixteenth, Sixty-first, Forty-first and Twelfth Virginia—the men of second Manassas and Crumpton [sic, Crampton’s] Gap.  The men were ordered not to fire until they reached the edge of the ditch.

“Now the leading regiments of the [Wright’s] Georgia brigade began to move out, when suddenly a brave federal officer, seizing the colors, called on his men to charge.  [Colonel David] Weisiger shouted, ‘Forward!’  The sharpshooters and men of the Sixth [Virginia] on the right, running swiftly forward, for theirs was the greatest distance to travel, the whole line sprang upon the crest, and then burst from more than eight hundred warlike voices that fierce yell that no man ever yet heard unmoved in the field of battle.  Storms of cannon shot from the right mingled with the tempest of bullets that smote them from the front, yet was there no answering volley.  Still pressing forward with steady fury, while the enemy appalled by the inexorable advance gave ground, they reached the ditch of the inner works; then one volley crashed from the whole line, and clutching their empty guns and redoubling their fierce cries, they leaped over the aetrenched-cavalier, and all down the line the dreadful work of the bayonet began.  How long it lasted none may say with certainty, for in those fierce moments no man heeded time, no man asked, no man gave quarter.”

Several charges by the confederates were beaten back in bloody repulses by the federal troops, and from the vast rim of the Crater a steady stream of bullets poured upon Mahone’s men, and every gun on the southern side was pointed at that place.

Says McCabe:

“And now the scene within the horrid pit was such as might be fitly portrayed only by the pencil of Dante after he had trod “nine-circled Hell.” From the great mortars to the night and left, huge missiles, describing graceful curves, fell at regular intervals with dreadful accuracy and burst among the helpless masses huddled together, and every explosion was followed by piteous cries, and often- times the very air seemed darkened by flying human limbs. Haskell, too, had moved up his Eprouvette mortars5 among the men of the Sixteenth Virginia-so close, indeed, that his powder-charge was but one ounce and a half and, without intermission, the storm of fire beat upon the hapless men imprisoned within.  Mahone’s men watched with great interest this easy method or reaching troops behind cover, and then, with the imitative ingenuity of soldiers, gleefully gathered up the countless muskets with bayonets fixed, which had been abandoned by the enemy, and propelled them with such fine skill that they came down upon [Brigadier General James H.] Ledlie’s men [First Division, Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac] “like the rain of the Norman arrows at Hastings.

When all had been retaken but the Crater, the confederate batteries ceased firing upon it, and preparations were made for assault.  Happily, before the assaulting party could be formed, a white handkerchief, made fast to a ramrod, appeared over the edge of the Crater, and after a brief pause a motly [sic] crowd of prisoners poured over the sides and ran for their lives to the rear.”

In this battle the federals lost about 5,000 in killed and wounded, and 1,100 prisoners.  Two brigade commanders were captured and twenty-one flags according to the authority quoted.

The confederate loss was very heavy, too, the desctructfulness of the fighting being shown by the fact that the Sixth Virginia, with 98 men, lost 88, one company from Norfolk having every man killed.  The sharpshooters had 80 men and lost 64, among them their commander, William Broadbent, a man, says McCabe, “of prodigious strength and activity, who, leaping first over the works, fell pierced by eleven bayonet wounds—a simple captain, of whom we may say, as was said of Ridge ‘No man died that day with more glory, yet, many died and there was much glory.’”

The man who owns the farm charges visitors a quarter a head and conducts them about.  Bullets and other relics are still plenty.  I picked up several bullets in the plowed fields, and also a piece of shell inside the Crater itself.  There is a building full of relics picked up by Mr. Griffin, the owner of the place.  Three of them are particularly interesting.  One is made by two bullets meeting in the air, striking point to point in exact range.  The result is a disk of lead as large as a silver dollar, and about as thick, with the base of the yankee bullet showing in the center on one side, and the rebel bullet on the other.  Had these bullets passed each other the fate of the men firing them would not be hard to reckon.

Another queer relic is a confederate musket, in the barrel of which two bullets met, splitting the barrel open like a banana peel.  There the two bullets can be seen.

The rebel bullet had got about one-third of the way out when it met the prying yankee bullet on its way in, and then there was trouble at once.  Of course the yankee bullet had no business in there, or at least it should have waited until the other got out, but it undoubtedly was better for the holder of the gun that it went in the barrel than in his eye.

Another relic which tells a ghastly story is a union cross belt plate.  These plates, as many will remember, were circular, and worn on the cartridge box strap, and so came about over the heart, while the belt plate was eliptical [sic, elliptical] and came about over the stomach.  Both bore the letters “U. S.”  Through the plate picked up has passed a bullet, making a huge hole, and of course the ball must have passed into or through the body of the wearer.

One musket shown has the marks of eight bullets upon it.  Two of them are flattened into the iron of the barrel and remain there.  It was evidently pretty lively times in the vicinity of the soldier that carried that gun.

There are thousands of other relics—cups, canteens, sabers, bayonets, pistols, shells, shoes, pictures, letters, etc., making a most interesting collection.  There have been tons and tons of lead and iron carried away from the fields by relic hunters and the supply seems inexhaustible.  Every fresh plowing and rain discloses them and you can hardly dig vain in in [sic] the leaves and dirt in any direction.  Indian arrow-heads, axe-heads, and other Indian relics are found also and a little deeper any quantity of [illegible] of marine life.  Sharks teeth, shells and huge bones of old ocean monsters are plenty.  It is a locality with a history that did not begin with the Crater fight.

One day while Mr. Griffin was showing a party of northern men around, one of them said: “I am reminded of an incident that occurred here.  I had charge of a gun over there in the works near Fort Morton.  On Sunday while there was no firing going on, and we were loafing about,  I saw a man come over that hill by the cemetery and come down across this slope toward the rear of the confederate lines.  His comfortable and serene manner irritated me, and I made up my mind to see how close I could come to him, and we all chuckled at the idea of scaring the life out of him.  I took good aim and landed a shot about six feet from him.  You ought to have seen him git up and git.  He was the scardest and most demoralized Johnny Reb you ever saw.  He went on at a rate that would run a dog to death, and we roared with cheers and laughter to see him dust.”

“So you are the man that fired that shot, are you?” asked Griffin.

“Yes; do you know anything about it?”

“Well, I think I do,” was the reply.  “I was the fellow you shot at. I was a lad coming with something for my father, who was in the works.  I did not suppose there was a yankee fool enough or mean enough to shoot a cannon at one little boy carrying grub to his father.  But you don’t exaggerate the scare.  I didn’t grow another inch in a year.”

The incident caused hearty laughter, and another and more successful attempt to shoot Mr. Griffin was made with a different sort of a gun, which one of the gentlemen pulled from his inside breast pocket.

Such of the confederate dead as were ever removed from the graves in which they were first placed have been buried in the confederate cemetery on Cemetery Hill.  There is a pathos in the poverty of the place when one compares it with the beautiful and carefully tended national cemeteries where the federal dead sleep, their graves kept green, their story told in marble and the flag kept floating above their last resting place.

Here there is nothing of that, no such posthumous honors for the brave men who died for the lost cause.

Only a mile or two away is a national cemetery, with green mounds, its hedges and foliage and flowers and handsome buildings and monument and flags and three thousand white marble headstones.

Here the boys who wore the gray sleep in graves unmarked.  There has been designed an extensive cemetery, but it has not been kept up.

Here and there are poor little wooden crosses bearing such mottoes as “Our Brave Boys,” “Rest, Gallant Souls,” “They will Rise Again,” “After the Battle, Peace” and many others.

It was enough to bring tears to one’s eyes to read these loving and simple mottoes painted upon the cheap wooden crosses and see the evidences of the people’s desire to tenderly preserve the memories of their loved and lost who died bravely in a mistaken cause, while their poverty has held them back.  A larch arch is being erected of galvanized iron over the entrance to the soldier part of the cemetery.  Upon it are the words, “Our Confederate Dead.”

The most notable thing in the grounds is the granite mausoleum erected for Mahone.  It is a very solid, handsome structure, and bears the letter “M” carved over the heavy doors.

Of Petersburg very much of interest can be written, for it is a historic city, but the Crater was my object in this letter, as it was the object of the federal charge on that bloody morning twenty-one years ago.

F. D. M.6

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Source:

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: The hyperbole is a bit excessive here.  Recent scholarship by Gordon Rhea puts the number which fell in the most famous charge at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864 at around 3,500 men.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the Petersburg Branch Virginia Artillery, commanded by Captain Richard G. Pegram.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: John Elder, a painter, created a painting of the Battle of the Crater for William Mahone in 1869.  Kevin Levin has a good summary of the circumstances surrounding this painting at Civil War Memory.  An image of a postcard based on Elder’s painting can be found here.
  4. Swinton, William. Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac: A Critical History of Operations in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, from the Commencement to the Close of the War, 1861-1865. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882, p. 524
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: “Haskell’s mortars” refers to the Amherst-Nelson Virginia Battery under Captain James N. Lamkin.  The battery had been converted to a mortar battery during the Siege of Petersburg.
  6. ” Battle of the Crater.” Atlanta Constitution. November 30, 1885, p. 6 col. 1-3

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