Countdown to the Battle of the Crater: July 30, 1864
In an effort to draw attention to the 150th anniversary of the “Gettysburg of the Petersburg Campaign”, the Battle of the Crater, I’ve decided to post over a dozen transcribed first person accounts, mainly from the Confederate side, one to several a day, until July 30, 2014. The Crater is by far the most written about battle of the entire siege in terms of first person accounts, magazine and journal articles, and of course books. Click here for a list of books on the Battle of the Crater, and stay tuned for an upcoming post discussing those books in detail and comparing/contrasting their focuses, strong points, and weak points.
What many people don’t know is that the generally accepted version of the Crater, i.e. Mahone’s Virginians save the day, came about in the postwar years. The Virginia faction of the Lost Cause was strong, and the other five Confederate brigades in and around the Crater that day have been almost forgotten. The first person accounts you’ll be reading over the next week plus often tell a decidedly different tale than the one you may be used to. And keep in mind that many of these men are writing letters to their local papers to complain about the “Mahone saves the day” narrative and “set the record straight.” As you might imagine, many of these accounts are self-serving in some ways and tend to credit the writer’s own unit and downplay the efforts of the others. Some writers are more magnanimous than others when it comes to dishing out credit for saving the day for the Confederates on July 30, 1864.
But let’s get to the meat of this post, those first person accounts I promised. In an effort to give you a sneak peak at what’s to come, I’ve provided an area just below where the posts will appear over the next ten days, listed out the first person accounts along with the author, his unit affiliation, and the main arguments he makes in his remembrance of the fighting.
Links to the Published Articles as They Appear:
So keep your eyes peeled and stop back any time to read over these fascinating accounts of the Battle of the Crater, many of which have not been readily available to the public in over 100 years. Links to posts will appear below as they are published.
- CENTURY V34 N05: A Dash into the Crater by George L. Kilmer
- CENTURY V35 N02: An Anecdote of the Petersburg Crater
- CENTURY V35 N03: Gen. Robert B. Potter and the Assault at the Petersburg Crater by Henry C. Potter
- CV: V3N1: The Crater Battle, 30th July, 1864
- CV: V3N2: Alabamians in the Crater Battle
- Capt. D. N. Walker’s Notes on the “Crater Fight,” July 30, 1864
- LT: August 1, 1864 Warren H. Freeman (13th/39th Massachusetts)
- NP: December 16, 1895 The State (Columbia, SC): ELLIOTT’S BRIGADE. How It Held The Crater and Saved Petersburg.
- NP: August 2, 1896 The State (Columbia, SC): A Hero of the Crater
- NP: January 31, 1898 The State (Columbia, SC): Elliott’s Brigade at the Crater
- NP: March 5, 1899 The State (Columbia, SC): Elliott’s Brigade in the Crater Fight
- NP: September 2, 1906 Charleston (SC) News and Courier: 64th Georgia at the Crater
- NP: April 15, 1907 Charleston (SC) News and Courier: The Truth About the Battle of the Crater (64th GA)
- NP: August 7, 1910 Richmond Times-Dispatch: Wise’s Virginia Brigade at the Crater
Map of the Crater’s Vicinity and the Unit’s Featured in These Reminiscences
The map below shows the relative positions of the brigades from which these first person accounts are taken.
The Confederate brigades were positioned as follows:
- Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia: This brigade was located at Pegram’s Salient, the location which was ultimately blown up by Henry Pleasants’ mine
- Wise’s Virginia Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia: Led by Colonel John T. Goode of the 34th Virginia at the Crater, Wise’s Virginians were located just to the right of what became the Crater blast hole.
- Ransom’s North Carolina Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia: Led by Colonel Leroy M. McAfee of the 49th North Carolina at the Crater, Ransom’s North Carolinians were located just to the left of what became the Crater blast hole.
- Mahone’s Virginia Brigade, Mahone’s Division, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia: Led by David A. Weisiger of the 12th Virginia, Mahone’s Virginians were the first to counterattack the Federal forces in the Crater, after a long march in the heat from the far right of the Confederate line. This unit used the covered way to get to the ravine near the Crater to launch its assault.
- Wright’s Georgia Brigade, Mahone’s Division, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia: Led by Colonel Matthew R. Hall of the 48th Georgia, Wright’s Georgians helped Mahone’s Virginians counterattack the Federal forces in the Crater, after a long march in the heat from the far right of the Confederate line. This unit used the covered way to get to the ravine near the Crater to launch its assault.
- Sanders’ Alabama Brigade, Mahone’s Division, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia: Led by BG John C. C. Sanders, the Alabamians launched the final counterattack against the Federal forces in the Crater, ending the battle, after a long march in the heat from the far right of the Confederate line. This unit used the covered way to get to the ravine near the Crater to launch its assault.
The Union brigade to which George L. Kilmer belonged, 2nd Brig., 1st (Ledlie’s) Div., Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac, was the first Union unit into the Crater, and Kilmer’s 14th New York Heavy Artillery, functioning as infantry, was the first Yankee regiment to step foot in that famous hole. Many would follow.
These positions are important to note while reading the first person accounts. You’ll get a sense of where the six Confederate brigades were in relation to one another and how the Battle of the Crater played out. Most of these accounts as well as others published here, and many yet to be published here, generally agree on these particulars:
- The Federal mine was sprung early on the morning of July 30, 1864. The actual time was around 4:45 A.M., though these accounts do differ.
- Parts of two South Carolina regiments in Elliott’s Brigade and Pegram’s Virginia Battery were blown up in the resulting explosion.
- Portions of Bushrod Johnson’s Division, some or all of Elliott, McAfee, and Goode, tried to hold the Federals from advancing further than the Crater until help could arrive.
- Mahone’s division counterattacked and ultimately captured the Federals remaining in the Crater, with Sanders’ Alabama Brigade delivering the coup de grace and ending the fighting.
Ah, but the devil is in the details. You’ll read accounts from the six Confederate brigades above, each slightly or completely giving more credit to the author’s unit at the expense of the others. Questions arise. Did Elliott’s South Carolinians gamely hang on to either side of the Crater and help hold the Federals from advancing, or did they flee wildly in horror at their comrades getting blown skyward? What role did Goode’s Virginians and McAfee’s North Carolinians play in defending the flanks of the gaping hole in the Confederate lines? When exactly did Mahone’s three brigades begin arriving? Why should Mahone’s Virginia Brigade get all of the credit for winning the victory when their charge wasn’t the final one of the day? What exactly were Hall’s Georgians doing that day, and how many charges did they make? Was the final charge of Sanders’ Alabamians a “walk over”, or was serious fighting involved? All of these questions and more are answered in the first person accounts you’ll read in the coming days. I hope you enjoy reading and interpreting these as much as I did. And please note that I have many, many more frst person accounts of the battle already posted. Click here for the entire list.
Schedule of Crater First Person Accounts:
VMI Archives Photographs Collection Photo Number 0002436 Title Col. John Goode, Confederate Army office, ca. 1861.
Title: NP: August 7, 1910 Richmond Times-Dispatch: Wise’s Virginia Brigade at the Crater
Author: Col. John Thomas Goode
Unit Affiliation: 34th Virginia, Brigade commander of Wise’s Virginia Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division just to the right (south) of the Crater
- Goode doesn’t mention Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade after the Crater explosion. It’s as if they weren’t there at all.
- Goode does mention the three brigades of Mahone’s Division (Weisiger’s VA Brigade, Sanders’ AL Brigade, Wright’s GA Brigade) and gives credit to them as well as his own brigade.
Knowing that the enemy’s object was to rush into Petersburg, I as speedily as possible after the explosion withdrew the Fifty-ninth [Virginia] Regiment, Captain [Henry] Wood commanding, and placed it in a covered way facing the Crater, and about 100 yards distant, with orders to concentrate his fire on any troops attempting to form in the rear of the Crater. I then wrote our division commander, General Bushrod Johnson, in Blandford, of the situation and the disposition made of the troops, suggesting that he come out and direct the fighting in person. He sent Lieutenant Saunders, his aide-de-camp, to say the arrangements were very good and to hold the works to the last extremity, which we did, but with heavy loss. The battle was then raging all along our front. The Thirty-fourth and Forty-sixth [Virginia] Regiments were much weakened by having to extend their lines over the space vacated by the withdrawal of the Fifty-ninth Regiment and the two companies of the Thirty-fourth. Still they held the line and did most valiant service.
The enemy, being anxious to widen the breach, concentrated the fire of 160 pieces of artillery on our lines to the right and left of the breach. The Twenty-sixth Regiment held the extreme left of our line to the ravine on which Elliott’s right had rested, about 100 yards from the Crater, and were the first troops left in line. The enemy fired down our lines from the Crater, and the shelling was furious and incessant. We had to put the dead out of the works to give room for the living to fight, and I saw a stream of blood run down the incline, which I believe was from fifteen to twenty feet long. The left of the regiment was almost annihilated, but we held the key to Petersburg, and indirectly to Richmond, and we held it to the last. Burnside succeeded in occupying the Crater, but to no purpose. He failed to go further. Five times they attempted to form a line in the rear of the Crater, their flag bearers and guards running out as a nucleus for the troops to form on, and each time they were swept away by the fire of the Fifty-ninth. Afterwards their officers failed to force them from the cover of the Crater….
I saw Weisiger’s [Virginia] Brigade when it left the Jerusalem Plank Road on that grand and glorious charge on the Crater. In almost perfect order they came like an avalanche, and went right in on them, knowing nothing of what they had to encounter. Wright’s Georgia Brigade (I then heard it was Sands’s, or Saunders’s) [sic, John C. C. Sanders’] came in the same splendid and glorious style as the Virginians, and did the same kind of work. I there saw hand to hand fighting with bayonets and clubbed muskets. When the charge commenced I think I saw as many of Burnside’s troops running from the Crater to their lines as we had Confederates coming to it. Still there were very many left who chose to fight there rather than take the chance of crossing the space between the lines, where they had lost so fearfully coming in. Those who ran out lost as heavily as when they came in. About midday General Johnson came out and said to me that General Lee wished to know the exact condition of things at the Crater, and he wished me to go there and report to him. I went, and the scene was sickening. Dead and dying everywhere, and the Crater half-filled with dead and wounded—Confederates, Federals and negroes—many wounded of both armies, lying under several corpses imploring relief. After fighting a while longer those in our lines surrendered, and the battle ended with the re-establishment of our lines.
Title: NP: September 2, 1906 Charleston (SC) News and Courier: 64th Georgia at the Crater
Author: Captain Creswell A. C. Waller
Unit Affiliation: 64th Georgia, Wright’s GA Brigade (led by Col. Hall of the 48th GA), Mahone’s Division, Third Corps, ANV, sent to counterattack with two other brigades of Mahone’s Division
- According to the author, Wright’s Georgia Brigade never charged as a whole. Waller claims they made three separate charges, each with only a portion of the brigade.
- Waller also claims he told Mahone about the conditions in the Crater and that one more charge would win the day. He states that the charge of Sanders’ Alabama Brigade was due to his information, delivered personally to Mahone. I have reason to doubt the specifics of this story, and it places the rest of Waller’s account into question as well.
- Waller claims Mahone’s Virginia Brigade was “confused” for a time before attacking the Crater.
- Waller insinuates Mahone was only briefly near the front lines and disappeared after order the Alabama Brigade to attack.
- This definitely seems to be one of the most controversial of the items you’ll see in the next dozen or so days.
But now for the charge of the 64thGeorgia. Hall is by the side of this writer. “The 64th must charge, the works are not all ours.” “May we go at trail arms? It will be better for firing or uses of bayonet.” The 64th Georgia was the only body that went in at trail arms. We had Hardee’s tactics. Word was passed along the line. No doubt all guiding corporals received directions. Corporal Yoh was the writer’s guiding corporal. “Corporal, do you see that man yonder in that traverse with a white bosom?” “Keep your eye on him; if you fire, fire at him only; let me be where I may. We must clear that ditch.” The brave color bearer,Sparkman Godwin , was told to plant his flag in the centre of the crest. He said that he would or die. He did both gallantly….
We are in between the swell of the Crater and the traverse on its north and out of sight of the hornets’ nest on the south. “Get out, you —-,” and they did. This writer had jumped into the trench and turned around to beckon the boys forward through it and into the hole, but they had jumped into places dug out for bunks or other purposes. On facing again the east end of ditch, lo, there was standing against the swell of the hole a chevroned negro with bright rifle pointing right at this writer’s head. It sent a ball right through the right of his hat….
Two more, severely wounded and this writer, with bloody shirt and red sock, is doing all that he can to hold down the enemy in the hole until arrival of friendly reinforcements. But the firing is decreasing on both sides and no friends are in sight. Are we forgotten? Or are the generals not attending properly to their duties? Both absolutely. If Mahone was not in the group of officers from which the courier came, this writer has not seen him to-day….
At no time did Wright’s brigade go in as a whole. It was sent in by piecemeal three times, and at no time altogether. Hall said total casualties were two hundred and thirty-one. That night the brigade returned to its own trenches, leaving the Virginia and Alabama brigades to fill the vacancy. Hence wild reports began to circulate. That sad night three men had been detailed from each company and when Company H was to fall in line, the gallant Sergt Cheeves approached and in saluting said, “All present, or accounted for, dead, wounded or on detail.” Then he broke down with the remark, “Me alone left.”
Title: NP: April 15, 1907 Charleston (SC) News and Courier: The Truth About the Battle of the Crater (64th GA)
Author: Captain Creswell A. C. Waller
Unit Affiliation: 64th Georgia, Wright’s GA Brigade (led by Col. Hall of the 48th GA), Mahone’s Division, Third Corps, ANV, sent to counterattack with two other brigades of Mahone’s Division
- Waller writes in an extremely disjointed style, and often refers to himself in he third person, making for a difficult read.
- He writes this follow-up to the article discussed just above this one, to provide sources for his assertions.
- Waller believed there were many misconceptions about the Crater floating around in 1907 due to “hazy” memories, and he wanted to clean up the record.
- Waller covers the charges of Mahone’s division, whether there were two or three, and attempts to place the times of each.
- His commentary on a possible Black soldier shows his utter contempt for the USCTs, referring to the man as “it” rather than “he”.
- Waller insists a portion, and only a portion, of Wright’s Georgia brigade attacked with Mahone’s Virginians, on their right.
- He chastises Mahone and indicates he was writing 28 years after the fact and had political reasons for stating hings in a certain way.
- Waller also criticizes the statements of Bushrod Johnson and Colonel McMaster of the 17th South Carolina, stating that their statements contradict each other and that McMaster makes different statements at different times and contradicts himself!
- He notes that the Georgia brigade left the battlefield to go back to their original line of works, while the Virginians, Alabamians, and South Carolinians of Mahone, Sanders, and Elliott remained on the field.
- Near the end, Waller shows how McMaster may have been mistaken about the time of Mahone’s charge.
In behalf of truth of history I wish to verify and to support by documentary evidence the sketch of the 64th Georgia and semi-official report of Wright’s Brigade at the Crater, July 30, 1864, found in the News and Courier of September 2, 1906.
I do this the more readily in view of the many discordant statements uttered or written by parties laboring under illusions in regard to that battle. The careful historian of the future will find it very difficult to wend his way along the true path amid the mazes and intricacies of all the halucinations and vagaries extant in regard to that event. He will be struck by the amazing positiveness as well of non-participants as of the participants themselves as to controverted facts of which they have, to say the least, the most misty recollection.
Now this writer, instead of seeking protection, was making his way straight for the white man or white negro with his blouse off in the traverse, expecting to follow him or it into crater and thus open a way for his friends on the left to join him in the fray. His article runs thus: “But as he draws his sword, shots from a hornet’s nest of Yankees behind a short work and traverse, just south of the crater, slightly bleeds his left leg, indents his Fribley scabbard and pierces with six balls Second Lieut. G. W. Mitchell, the only file closer. We are in between the swell of the crater and the traverse on the north and out of sight of the hornet’s nest on the south.”
Now as to part of Wright’s brigade going on right of Mahone’s we have, first, the letter of Col Hall, commander of the brigade, written August 2d and published in the [Petersburg] Express on August 3d, saying a regiment and a half went in on Mahone’s right, and J. E. Laughton, 1st Lieut Virginia Sharpshooters [SOPO Editor’s Note: i.e. the sharpshooter battalion of Mahone’s Brigade], says: “I distinctly remember that a small number of Wright’s brigade made the charge along with our brigade and was immediately on the right of the battalion of sharpshooters. This writer affirms it, and the fact of Corpl Herndon, of the 3d Georgia, getting the 58th Massachusetts regimental flag and A. J. Sadler, a Virginia sharpshooter, getting the 58th Massachusetts State flag verifies it. That, ‘Negari non potest.’ and no hazy recollection can upset the fact.”
That the 22d Georgia went in along with the 3d Georgia is claimed by Wm Mountcastle, of Cartersville, Ga, and corroborated by many Georgians. He says it was a hand [hard?] fight that was hand to hand to the death and cites the deaths of Adjt Levy and Capts Logue and Rush, with Capts Thomas and Forsythe wounded among many others. I believe it did, and think the balance rushed soon to the aid of their comrades, but of this I am not certain. The right of the Virginia brigade was, according to a[ctu]al measurement, as said, 441 yards from the northern edge of the crater, and extending to its left: it covered only its front according to Gen [David A.] Weisiger, its commander. Thus Wright’s had more to cover north of the crater than the Virginians, leaving out the crater itself, Hartranft’s, a triangular fort, and the flankers north and south.
Also, to note that Mahone filed no official report at the time, but wrote from a very hazy recollection 28 years after; he, in the meantime, having been under fire from the Richmond papers and Gen Weisiger on account of a remissness in duties and an insufficient display of courage on that occasion.
It is well to note also the variant statements of Mahone and his adherents and Gen Weisiger and Judge Hinton, his aid, as to positions of those officers at the commencement of the charge, that is, as to where Mahone and Girard[e]y were and who gave the order to charge as well as the time intervening between the battle formation of the Virginia brigade and the charge.
Now bear in mind that the Georgia brigade had to go back to its trenches that night and left the Virginians, the Alabamians and the Carolinians in the works and on the field—hence the reporters got in all the balderdash and ex-parte braggadocio of vauntful heroes who, perhaps, were not in gunshot of the battle.
The next time piece noted is that of Capt A. L. Evans, which, according to McMaster and Crowder, says it was 8.30 when Mahone’s men were marching up the ravine. Now this writer, in a talk with Capt Evans at the Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, in 1895, found out that Capt Evans was describing the 64th instead of Mahone’s brigade in his letter of April 24, 1892, to McMaster, which he readily admitted when his attention was called to the fact that the charge was made on the crater, and Mahone’s Virgininians never charged the crater proper, as was confirmed by a Mr. Hadley, who saw the same charge. (See “War Talks,” page 200.)
Title: NP: January 31, 1898 The State (Columbia, SC): Elliott’s Brigade at the Crater
Author: John Floyd
Unit Affiliation: 18th South Carolina, Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, stationed near the Crater explosion
- Mahone’s Virginia Brigade was not entitled to all of the credit for winning the Battle of the Crater.
- Floyd has a tendency to over inflate the importance of the battle, stating it was “one of the most important battles of the war, and its result had more effect upon the minds of the northern people than any other battle of the war.”
- Floyd claimed Elliott’s Brigade held the lines with only artillery assistance, and claims Mahone’s brigade showed up well after the generally accepted time. He states that the mine was sprung at 6 a.m. and Mahone’s division showed up five hours later, putting their assault at 11 a.m.
- His final statement was to insinuate that the charges of Mahone’s division were unnecessary.
- Taken together, this account is at best a stretching of the truth, and at worst a partial fabrication. Compare this account to George Lake’s of the 22nd South Carolina below. Both were in the same brigade, but Lake seems to give a much more balanced account.
I have often noticed that whenever there is a reunion of the Virginia survivors of the war between the States, that the orators invariably claim the victory at the crater in front of Petersburg, Va. on the 30th day of July, 1864 for Gen. Mahone and the Virginians.
We are not surprised at that. In fact, there has always been a contention between Elliott’s men and Mahone’s soldiers as to which of the two commands did the most fighting on that day. But when a prominent South Carolinian, before a South Carolina audience not only follows in the same line but says that Elliott’s men were so demoralized that they were replaced in the lines by fresh troops brought up from the flanks by Gen. Lee, I think that it is time that the survivors of the Old Brigade come forward and tell what they know about that battle.
It may be asked why the federals had not retired from the crater before Gen. Mahone made his charge? They could not leave the crater without being exposed to almost certain death. When the mine was sprung the enemy had been brought up very near our lines…
They rushed into our lines at once, expecting that the Confederates would be demoralized, that they would desert their works and that they, the federals, would have a “walk-over,” but they were attacked at once by the 22nd S[outh]. C[arolina]. V[olunteers]., on the right and the 18th S[outh]. C[arolina]. V[olunteers]. on the left so vigorously that they were astonished and jumped into the crater to protect themselves against the bullets from those regiments…
Seeing us fall back the negroes charged us, yelling, ‘No quarter! remember Fort Pillow!” We gave them one broadside, and they, too, dashed into the crater for protection. Several attempts were now made by the enemy to cross the hill toward Petersburg, but the fierce firing of Elliott’s men from the right and left and from the rear—for Col. McMaster, who was now in command of the brigade, had placed his regiment, the 17th S[outh]. C[arolina]. V[olunteers]., and the 26th S[outh]. C[arolina]. V[olunteers]., in a rear line between Petersburg and the crater, about 100 yards in rear of the crater, prepared for just such an emergency—drove them back into the crater dripping with blood.
No other attempt was made by the Federals to leave the crater. Gen. Mahone appeared in the ravine between Petersburg and the crater at 11 o’clock.
Title: NP: August 2, 1896 The State (Columbia, SC): A Hero of the Crater
Author: George B. Lake
Unit Affiliation: Co. B, 22nd South Carolina, Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, stationed near the Crater explosion
- Lake was in the 22nd South Carolina, one of the regiments blown up in the initial explosion.
- He was dug out by New Yorkers, captured and taken prisoner after the initial springing of the mine, and hence had an interesting vantage point as a Confederate in the Crater.
- He saw the Federals charge out of the Crater and get repulsed. The wording implies but does not state that this repulse would have been at the hands of Bushrod Johnson’s division, prior to the arrival of Mahone’s division.
- Lake seems to get to the heart of the matter when he credits all of the Confederate units in and around the Crater that day with helping win the victory.
Here was the greatest loss suffered by any command on either side in the war. Myself, my only lieutenant, W. J. Lake, and 24 enlisted men were all buried, and of that little band 31 were killed. Lieut. Lake, myself and three enlisted men were taken out of the ground two hours after the explosion by some brave New Yorkers. These men worked like beavers—a great portion of the time under a fearful fire.
I had just seen several of our officers and men killed with bayonets after they had surrendered, when the enemy, who had gone through the Crater towards Petersburg, had been repulsed, and fell back into the Crater for protection. There was not room in the Crater for another man. It was death to go forward or death to retreat to their own lines. It is said there were 3,000 Yankees in and around the Crater, besides those in portions of works adjacent thereto.
Virginians, Georgians, North Carolinians and others who may have fought at the Crater, none of you have the right to claim deeds of more conspicuous daring over your Confederate brethren engaged that day. Every man acted well his part.
Title: NP: December 16, 1895 The State (Columbia, SC): ELLIOTT’S BRIGADE. How It Held The Crater and Saved Petersburg
Author: Colonel F. William McMaster
Unit Affiliation: 17th South Carolina, Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, stationed near the Crater explosion
- McMaster’s is a similarly partisan account to Floyd’s above, but his version of events seems less exaggerated.
- He points out a reserve trench dug behind the Crater very close to July 30 from which his brigade helped drive back the Federals, or so he claims.
- The author states that the entire Federal force was directed at the remnants of his brigade alone until Mahone’s division came up.
- McMaster assumed command of Elliott’s brigade after its commander, Brigadier General Stephen Elliott, was wounded early in the day. There appears to have been some friction between the two, with Elliott having written his wife about McMaster. McMaster had also run into trouble with the previous brigade commander, “Tramp” Evans. See page 161 of John F. Schmutz’s book on the Crater for some color here.
- He claims his orders prevented the Federals from reaching the ravine and covered way that Mahone’s division eventually used to reach the battlefield.
- McMaster finishes by stating that the Federals were beaten before Mahone ever charged, echoing Floyd above,
[The Battle of the Crater] was peculiar from the fact that there was no point from which the spectator could witness the engagement, and the soldier, while fighting for his life, could not see what was transpiring around him….This resulted from the peculiar structure of the Confederate lines.
The explosion did not blow up all the ground occupied by Pegram and the infantry in his rear; but left a few feet of his line and the gorge line—please mark this point, as the space left made a fine rallying point for troops and the Federal writers confound it with the crater proper.
Outside of the artillery firing the whole force of Federal infantry was directed against Elliott’s front, except during the few minutes the charge was made on the right of Ransom’s right, just before Mahone came up. The South Carolina regiments were in the following order from left to right: Twenty-Sixth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Twenty-second, andTwenty-third. The Eighteenth and Twenty-second were blown up; only one man in Company E., of the Eighteenth survived, and at our last meeting Capt. Lake informed us that he and two others survived out of the 31 of Company G of the Twenty-second.
Believing that the only way that the enemy could reach Petersburg was by dashing to the ravine, thence taking the covered way to the crater at Cemetery hill, which they could do without the loss of a man, I immediately countermanded General Elliott’s order and ordered Col. Smith to take his regiment, the Twenty-sixth, and Captain Crawford, with the three largest companies of the Seventeenth, to hurry down to the ravine and cover the gap caused by the crater; to lie down and wait for the attack of the enemy in that direction which order they faithfully executed. I sent couriers to General Johnson for reinforcements and sent Phillips, a faithful soldier of Co. I, to the right of the crater to inform the officer there that General Elliott was shot and I was in command, and to report their condition as soon as possible.
It took Mahone a long time to arrange his men. There was a considerable abatement in the noise of battle, and I anxiously awaited the charge. The Virginians looked eager for the combat….In the charge Mahone’s men on the right bent to the left, the consequence was they failed to take the trench for fully 50 yards. About an hour after Mahone made the charge Wright’s brigade of Georgians charged, and after charging a few yards they suddenly bent too much to the left and covered a portion of Mahone’s right and took very little of the trench remaining in possession of the enemy, if any.
At the sound of three signal guns the Alabamians, under General Sanders, took the crater and the traverses which the previous brigade failed to accomplish. At this time the Federals turned their guns on the crater and cruelly murdered many of their own men who were escaping to their own lines. In a few minutes the tumult of war ceased and we had the quietness of peace. When our men entered the crater there was a great butchery of the enemy.
Had Petersburg been taken, Richmond would have soon followed and soon thereafter the war would have ended. Elliott’s brigade claims that after the springing of the mine, when its numbers were reduced and the enemy had an attacking force of more than sixteen to one, it kept back the enemy for more than four hours before Mahone’s men came up; that during this period the enemy made three charges beyond the crater and was driven back by Elliott’s men; that not a man crossed its breastworks who were not slain. That the only part of the line occupied by the enemy was one hundred yards which was gained by entering from the crater and the plateau adjoining, and was resisted by small squads of the Seventeenth South Carolina Volunteers, inch by inch, and that the enemy did not gain this small distance of one hundred yards until 9 o’clock a. m. That every time the enemy attempted to advance towards Petersburg beyond this line, he was driven back to the shelter of the trenches by Smith’s detachment of about 200 men. That fully an hour before Mahone’s charge General Meade had given up the battle as lost and contemplated the withdrawal of his troops. That the whole fight was directed against Elliott’s line except at the last of it General Turner’s charge included a small portion of the extreme right of Ransom’s brigade. If the saving of Petersburg that day is to be attributed to a single factor, it is not to Mahone’s men, but to Smith’s men in the ravine, for this detachment from Elliott’s brigade kept the enemy from getting in our rear and occupying Cemetery hill.
Title: NP: March 5, 1899 The State (Columbia, SC): Elliott’s Brigade in the Crater Fight
Author: Colonel F. William McMaster
Unit Affiliation: 17th South Carolina, Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, stationed near the Crater explosion
- It’s interesting to compare this account with McMaster’s previous account above.
- McMaster notes early on that his views of the battle have changed in some respects after reading the proceedings of the Union Court of Inquiry called after the Mine attack failed so miserably. The record of these proceedings is located in the Official Records, Volume 40, Part 1.
- McMaster spends more time discussing the fight between his regiments of Elliott’s Brigade and the Federals in the Crater prior to Mahone’s attack than he does in the previous article.
- McMaster again claims he had an audience with Mahone, and told him where to charge.
- The colonel claims many of the men in his brigade joined Mahone’s charge, something I don’t necessarily recall him stating so explicitly in the earlier article.
- He also mentions the role of the 61st North Carolina from Clingman’s Brigade, a unit he didn’t mention in the previous article.
- McMaster’s discussion of the aftermath of the battle seems to imply a slaughter of Black Union soldiers, even if he doesn’t describe any killing explicitly.
- The author takes some time to argue specifically with George Bernard about the exact time Mahone’s Brigade charged. Bernard believed his brigade charged around 8:30, and Major Venable, another Virginian, placed the charge at 9 am. McMaster argues it was around 10 in the morning before Mahone charged. The reasoning is obvious. The later Mahone charged, the longer McMaster and his brigade would have had to singlehandedly hold off the Union forces in the Crater.
- McMaster utilized the testimony of several Ninth Corps officers in answers from the Court of Inquiry to make the claim that the Confederate charge had to havde happened after the 9:15 a. m. Union order to retreat back to their own lines.
- McMaster’s last line of the article explicitly mentions that Mahone’s Brigade massacred both Black and White Union soldiers, “with decided preference for the Ethiopeans.”
About 3[?] o’clock p. m. absolute quietness prevailed over the battlefield where the carnage of war [lasted?] a few hours before. My orderly M C Heath, a boy of 16, who now is a distinguished physician of Lexington, Ky., came to me at Elliott’s headquarters and told me that the lieutenant colonel and adjutant sent their compliments, and requested me to come to dinner at my den in the trench. I went and had to step over the dead bodies—all negroes. A narrow ditch led to a plaza six feet square where a half dozen men in fine weather could sit on campstools. On the breastworks hung a dead negro. In the ditch I had to step over another dead negro. As I got to my plaza I saw two more negroes badly wounded in a [cell?] two feet deeper than the plaza where I slept. One of the negroes was resting his bloody head on a fine copy of Paley’s philosophy which I came across in my wanderings. Heath’s big basket was well stored with good viands, and we ate with the tenacity of starving men, regaling ourselves with the incidents of battle without any expressions of sorrow for our friends. Col David Fleming and Adj Quattlebaum who a few yards above were (illegible) in our old sleeping place in the crater which we occupied as our quarters until they succeeded us 10 days before, of any lamentations for the hundreds of dead and dying on the hillside around.
This proves beyond doubt that Mahone’s charge was after 9:15. It probably took Burnside some minutes to receive this order and some minutes for him and Griffin to send it down the line and to send orders to the artillery to open on their flanks to protect them. This would bring Mahone’s charge to 9:30 or 9:45.
At about 9:30 a. m. old Virginia—that never tires in good works—with 800 heroes rushed into the trench of the Seventeenth and slaughtered hundreds of whites and blacks with decided preference for the Ethiopeans.
Title: Capt. D. N. Walker’s Notes on the “Crater Fight,” July 30, 1864
Author: Capt. David N. Walker
Unit Affiliation: Otey Richmond Virginia Artillery, Gibbes’ Arty Bn., First Corps Artillery, ANV; later commanded the battalion on this day after Major Gibbes was wounded, with his battery and providing support to the Confederate infantry brigades that day to contain the breach.
- Walker focuses on the Confederate artillery near the Crater, the only one of these sources to do so.
- His battery, the Otey Battery, was not connected in any way with the Lt. Otey who that day commanded Davidson’s Lynchburg VA Artillery. They did, however, serve those guns after Lt. Otey was found in a bombproof after his men had abandoned their guns.
- Walker, like so many other of these authors, emphasizes the role his unit and the other artillery played in forcing the Federals back into the Crater.
- The captain thought Mahone’s Brigade’s charge was well done, and he also gave credit to the engineer who designed the Confederate works in the vicinity.
The men of the Otey Battery manned the guns of Davidson’s Battery after they were abandoned. Lieut. Otey who was court-martialed for cowardice and ordered to be shot, but pardoned by President Davis or his sentence commuted to reduction to the ranks, had no connection whatever with the Battery of that name.
When the enemy after the explosion entered our works, they should have pushed on; but they faltered, why I know not, allowing our men who had retreated on either side of the Crater to rally to the adjacent salient, and to recover from the confusion. Then when they attempted to push on to Blanford, the sharp shooting of a few determined men, and the fire of artillery on both flanks, and a battery it our rear, commanded I think by Capt. Flanders of Haskell’s Battalion, (to whom due credit has never been given) caused them to take refuge in the Crater.
Who the engineer was who constructed these works, I do not know, (but I have since learned that it was Gen. Harris of Beauregard’s staff,) but I considered him the winner of the battle, and his name should be known I do not wish to detract from the courage and dash of what is known as Mahone’s first charge, seldom equalled, never surpassed. But it gained no foothold on the line between the Crater and our position, and that is all I could see or know anything about.
The credit of this victory, I have thought and still think was due in the first place, to the engineer who arranged our lines, leaving us who were on the lines, to be blown up somewhere; and if not blown up, to terribly avenge the death of our comrades on the very spot of their destruction, and to thus save Petersburg and Richmond. In the second place, it was due to the artillery. The guns of Davidson’s Battery on the right and those of Col. Jones on the left, swept the front of the Crater, rendering an advance from the enemy’s line of retreat from them, practically impossible to any large body of troops while the guns commanding the rear of our line kept back any advance form the Crater towards Petersburg. The mortars did the balance, though I do not know the effect produced by the Otey Battery and Dickinson’s guns which were fired down the hollow in front of the Crater by order from Gen. Lee direct. I presumed to demoralise the troops massed there. It was an artillery fight, and they nobly performed their duty.
Title: CENTURY V34 N05: A Dash into the Crater by George L. Kilmer
Author: George L. Kilmer
Unit Affiliation: 14th New York Heavy Artillery, 2nd Brigade, 1st (Ledlie’s) Division, Ninth Corps, the first regiment to enter the Crate after the mine was sprung.
- This article is notable for mentioning Northern whites killed Northern blacks in the Crater. Interestingly, it was not chosen to be a part of the famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War series in the late 19th Century.
- Petersburg NBP Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney jogged my memory via a recent post that I needed to start posting a large collection of Century magazine articles I had collected. Kilmer’s account of the Crater and the two others appearing on this day are here due to that post.
The experiences of these men at capture must be told from recollections of survivors after a long captivity ending with the war. It has been positively asserted that white men bayoneted blacks who fell back into the crater. This was in order to preserve the whites from Confederate vengeance. Men boasted in my presence that blacks had thus been disposed of, particularly when the Confederates came up. Many of the prisoners died in Andersonville, and it is impossible to get good accounts of the closing moments, the time of hand-to-hand work between whites and blacks in the crater and the Confederates who came in. A man who kept tally when the bodies in the hole were buried by the enemy recorded one hundred and forty-seven white and black Union soldiers found in the pit itself. Some of them may have been mortally wounded outside, and some were killed by shots falling into the crater. Sergeant Hill, our comrade who captured the Confederate flag, met death that morning, and a medal of honor was awarded for his action. This flag is now in the War Department collection fully identified on the record.
There were many scenes here to move the strongest hearts. When the debris of the explosion was in the air men’s bodies could be distinguished, and of course it flashed upon every mind that a horrible fate had overtaken fellow-men. On one of the elevations in the crater, a Confederate was seen struggling with his head and shoulders buried and held fast. Our men attempted to relieve him, but were driven away by Confederate bullets. On each side of the hole were counter- shafts about fifty feet deep standing open. Down one of these a Confederate had fallen and lay there alive and moaning, but there was no means for his relief at hand. These counter- shafts had been run perpendicularly and abandoned. The Confederate prisoners stated that the fort was full of men that night, for our movements in front had been noticed, and an assault was expected and preparations had been made to receive it. The explosion, however, was wholly unexpected.
Title: CENTURY V35 N02: An Anecdote of the Petersburg Crater
Author: Henry R. Howland
Unit Affiliation: ? (If you know, please point me in the right direction. I’m not sure if Howland fought in the Civil War. If this is the same Henry R. Howland, he graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1863.)
Key Points: None. This was meant to be a humorous anecdote.
Among the prisoners captured was one whose face was greatly begrimed, and as he marched by he was saluted by a blue-coat with the remark, “Say, Johnny! Guess you got blown up.” “Well,” replied Johnny with an oath, “I should just say so ; but somehow I got the start of the other fellows, for when I was coming down I met the regiment going up, and they all called me a blasted straggler!”
Author: Henry C. Potter
Unit Affiliation: General Potter’s Brother, Henry Codman Potter, the Bishop of New York
Key Points: General Potter’s brother discredits the assertion that the commanders of the White divisions of the Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac, were afraid to take the lead at the Crater, instead insisting they all wanted that honor. He says this is why straws were drawn by Burnside.
[A]mong them is a letter written by General Robert B. Potter to one who especially enjoyed his confidence, in which he says: “My division expected and was anxious to have the advance, because they knew the ground, had an interest in the work, were in the best condition, and known to be the best division in the corps.” That he did not have this task committed to him was well known by his friends to have been the one great disappointment of General Potter’s army life, and there are those who have often heard him say that, so far from there having been reluctance on the part of any of the division commanders of the Ninth Corps to take the leading place in the charge, they were all desirous of that honor. The question was decided by General Burnside in order that in the choice there should not seem to be any favoritism, and, especially, to avoid that appearance of partiality for a very dear personal friend which would not improbably have been said to have influenced him had he chosen General Potter.
Title: CV: V3N1: The Crater Battle, 30th July, 1864
Author: Colonel George T. Rogers
Unit Affiliation: 6th Virginia, Weisiger’s Brigade, Mahone’s Division, Third Corps, ANV, which participated in the first counterattack against the Crater
- Rogers gives credit to Mahone’s Virginians and Hall’s Georgians for holding the Crater Federals heads’ down, and the ultimate glory to the Alabamians for taking the Crater and ending the battle.
- Rogers describes the charge of Mahone’s Virginians, saying they were unsupported by anyone, and claiming they retook all of the Confederate trenches except the Crater itself.
- The Colonel gives all of the credit to Mahone’s division for winning the battle. He doesn’t even mention the three brigades of Bushrod Johnson’s division who were in the vicinity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Author: Captain George W. Clark
Unit Affiliation: Co. B, 11th Alabama, Sanders’ Alabama Brigade, Mahone’s Division, Third Corps, ANV, and temporarily on the staff of Brig.Gen. Sanders, as assistant adjutant general, Sanders’ Alabama Brigade launched the last Confederate assault of the day, ending the battle.
- Clark knew and respected Colonel George Rogers, whose account above he was writing into the Confederate Veteran about.
- Despite that, he wanted to correct what he thought were a few errors.
- Clark’s main point was that there was still fierce Federal resistance when Sanders’ Alabama brigade charged the Crater to finish off the battle.
- Clark does give credit to the Georgians and Virginians of Mahone’s division for giving supporting fire.
- Like other members of Mahone’s division, he doesn’t even mention any units from Bushrod Johnson’s division.
I am sure the gallant Col. Rogers, himself a brave Virginian, would not intentionally do them the slightest injustice if he knew it. And yet his article, without so intending perhaps, minimizes its services in these particulars:
1. Mahone’s Brigade did not take charge of the line between the Appomattox and the James a little after the battle of the crater, but the whole of Mahone’s division, including Forney’s Alabama .Brigade (Wilcox’s old Brigade), Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Finnigan’s Florida Brigade, Sorrell’s (Wright’s) Georgia Brigade, and Mahone’s Virginia Brigade, took charge of that line in February, 1865, the Alabama Brigade occupying the extreme left of the line, its left resting at the Hewlett [sic, Howlett] Batteries on James river. We withdrew from this position on the night Richmond was evacuated.
2. The Alabama Brigade came up at the “Mine” and did the work of capturing the crater, which was the purpose of the movement, but it was not a “walkover,” as the Colonel terms it. It was one of the hardest fought fields of the war, and brilliant success was wrenched by valor from serious danger.
Doubtless our friends, the Virginians and the Georgians peppered away at the enemy during the charge, but their fire did not “keep down all heads,” as our lists of killed and wounded attest, nor did they go down into the crater like the Alabamians did. With a handful of men more than treble its numbers were captured, the lines reestablished, and what promised at early dawn the closing victory of the war for the enemy, was turned into disastrous defeat by a few ragged Alabamians. I once asked a prominent officer on Gen. Grant’s staff, what the General thought ought to have been done with Burnside for this failure at the Mine. He replied without hesitating, “He ought to have been shot.”
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