Editor’s Note: David Welch, who runs an excellent regimental history site on the 100th Pennsylvania, was kind enough to grant me permission to duplicate his transcription of Silas Stevenson’s 50th Anniversary account of the Battle of the Crater. Stevenson was a veteran of the 100th Pennsylvania. David was kind enough to pass along an image of his copy of this pamphlet, and it is reproduced below.
I’ll let David’s lead in to this primary source tell the rest:
This Short History on the ‘Battle of the Mine Explosion’ (Union name) or ‘Battle of the Crater’ (Confederate name) was Written in 1914 by Silas Stevenson, M.D., Formerly Private Silas Stevenson of Company K, 100th PVI, as Part of the 50th Anniversary Commemorating this Battle. The Pamphlet History was Part of Col. Norman J. Maxwell’s Collection. The History was transcribed and converted to HTML by the web author, David L. Welch
BATTLE OF THE MINE EXPLOSION
BATTLE OF THE CRATER
IN FRONT OF PETERSBURG, VA.
JULY 30TH 18641
“THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY THEREOF”
SILAS STEVENSON, M.D.
OF ELLWOOD CITY, PA
JOHN A. LEATHERS, PRINTER
NEW CASTLE, PA
BATTLE OF THE MINE EXPLOSION
BATTLE OF THE CRATER
That memorable event designated in the history of the Civil War by the Federals, “The Battle of the Mine Explosion,” and denominated by the Confederates, “The Battle of the Crater,” was fought July 30, 1864. The location of this engagement was in the lines of the contending forces near Petersburg, Virginia. The site of it, and to the Federal army a most disasterous battle, is about three-fourths of a mile east of Petersburg, one-half mile southeast of Blanford Cemetery, and about one-forth of a mile east of the Jerusalem Plank Road. It is in Prince George county, and on a farm known as the “T.R. Griffith” farm. Regarding this, and properly considered one of the greatest battles of modern times, and which has been studied by all the military critics of the world, it would seem advisable to disclose as nearly all the data at hand will permit, the situation as refers to both the determined antagonists, and also to reveal the preliminary preparations of both Federals and Confederates to meet a crisis imminent and important, and as likely to determine the failure or success of the rebellion. It may be here affirmed that a brief account of the location of the opposing armies, and their numerical strength, would be in keeping with a proper understanding of the situation, in case a farly accurate description of this clash of arms could be assured to the reader, therefore a little retrospection will not be amiss as determining the purpose and strategy of the commanders of both sides with a view to unfold their matured plans for the conceded exigency which confronted them.
On July 26th, or four day before the explosion occurred, General Grant sent General Hancock, commander of the Second Corps, with 20,000 infantry, and General Sheridan with 6,000 cavalry, to Deep Bottom, where General Butler maintained two pontoon bridges across the James river, under cover of gunboats and ironclads. Deep Bottom is between Petersburg and Richmond. The forces mentioned, on the night of the 26th crossed the Appomattox and James and passed around Petersburg, a distance of twelve miles, to sur-
prise the Confederate forces under Gen. Conner, at Bailey’s Creek. In case this raid was successful, it was the intention for General Sheridan to make a dash toward Richmond, and if possible, cut the railroads north of that place, and he was so directed. But General Lee was on the alert and sent Wilcox’s and Kershaw’s divisions to reinforce Conner. Hancock, finding a strong force before him on the morning of the 27th, did not deem it advisable to assault the line. Kershaw, on the left of the Federal line, advanced against Sheridan’s cavalry and forced it to retreat a short distance, when it took position behind a ridge, dismounted, and with their Spencer magazine carbines brought into active play, repulsed a charge of Kershaw taking 250 prisoners.
The Confederate force was further augmented on this day by the arrival of W.H. Lee’s division of cavalry and Heath’s division of Hill’s corps. Fields’ division of infantry and Fitz-Lee’s division of cavalry received orders to go to the scene and be readiness to cooperate on the 28th, making any further operation on the part of the Federals inadvisable, and on the night of the 29th Hancock’s corps, including Sheridan’s cavalry, was quietly withdrawn from the north side of the James and returned to the lines in front of Petersburg, so as to be available for the event in front of the 9th Corps on the 30th.
At this time the 18th corps, under Gen. Ord, was on the right and 5th corps, under General Warren, was on the left of the 9th corps and the 2nd corps, under General Hancock, was in position to follow up the assaulting and supporting columns, while General Sheridan and his cavalry was in readiness to move against the Confederates right below Petersburg. A division of the 10th corps was also availably stationed to participate in the attack, making sixteen divisions in all, or about 45,000 men.
It devolved on the 9th corps, commanded by Gen. A.E. Burnside, to lead the assault. This corps was divided into four divisions. The first under General Ledlie, the second under command of General Potter, the third commanded by General Wilcox and the fourth, consisting entirely of colored troops, commander, General Ferren. The 100th Pa. Was in the third brigaded of the first, or Ledlie’s division. The brigade was composed of the following regiments, viz: 57th, 59th and 29th Massachusetts; 14thNew York heavy artillery, the 3d Maryland and 100th Pennsylvania. The Round-
heads were commanded by Major Thomas J. Hamilton, a most efficient and gallant officer.
We now turn to the Confederate position just before this battle, for the reason that the Deep Bottom expedition had accomplished its main purpose of drawing a large part of General Lee’s forces away, and but three divisions (Hokes’, Johnson’s and Mahone’s) were left to hold the ten miles of Confederate lines about Petersburg, the rest of his army being twenty miles away (Army of Northern Virginia) at or near Deep Bottom, and unaware that Hancock and Sheridan had withdrawn from their immediate front and rejoined the Federal lines. The Federal forces had a great opportunity, if well managed, to make the assault a decided success. The three divisions mentoned were located as follows: Hoke and Johnson held from the Appomattox on the left to a little beyond the mine or “Crater,” as it was afterward called, Mahone held all beyond, one brigade being four miles to the right, in all about 18,000 men.
The scene of this assault was the angle in the Confederate works around Petersburg, and known as “Elliott’s Salient.” It was exploded on Saturday, July 30th, 1864, blowing up or burying under it the debris of earth and timber, about three hundred officers and men belonging to the 18th and 22d South Carolina regiments, and Pegram’s battery. This “Salient,” or earthwork was a six gun battery situate about four hundred yards below the crest of Cemetery Hill. The edge of the deep valley of Poor or Taylor’s Creek in front of, and running nearly parallel with the Confederate lines, approached to within 133 yards of this “Salient” and was held by Pegram’s battery. Along the edge of this creek nearest to the Federal lines, strong rifle pits were constructed with elaborate head logs and loop holes, from which a pesistent fire was kept up upon the Confederate works. In the valley behind there was sufficient room to mass a large force without the knowledge of the Confederates. The enemy placed obstructions in front of the parapet at this point to guard against a surprise.
And now regarding the gallery or mine which was constructed by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, of the 48thPennsylvania, against, or despite the opposition of all military engineers at the Federal headquarters, at this point some space will be devoted. Col. Pleasants was a skillful mining engineer, and the 48thPennsylvania,
which was recruited in the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, had in it many coal miners of experience. This gallery was completed July 23, 1864, in spite of obsticales and many discouragements. With proper tools not more than two weeks would have been necessary for this arduous and most trying work. The mine was extended five hundred eleven feet, with two branch galleries at the end to the right and left, each thirty-seven feet long. These branches were charged with gunpowder in eight parcels of one thousand pounds each, connected by open troughs of powder to be fired by safety fuses coming through the tamping or under the gallery. We here quote the description of Col. Pleasants, with his observation as to the result of the explosion: “The charge consisted of three hundred and twenty kegs of powder, each containing about twenty-five pounds. It was placed in eight magazines connected with each other by troughs half filled with powder. These troughs from the lateral galleries met at the inner end of the main one, and from this point I had three lines of fuses for a distance of ninety-eight feet. Not having fuses as long as required, two pieces had to be spliced together to make the requisite length of each of the lines.” It took six days after the completion of the gallery to stock the same with the necessary explosive material, so that on July 29th everything was ready to light the fuses, but it was obligatory to delay for a short time until the forces had arrived from Deep Bottom. This mine terminated directly underneath the Confederate fort or “Salient”. It required the removal of eighteen hundred cubic feet of earth, which was carried out in cracker boxes, and spread around in the rear of our lines and covered with bushes to conceal it from the sight of the enemy. In order to ventilate the tunnel a closed trough was built along its floor, conveying the outside air to the end of the tunnel when the men were at work. To create a draught through this air box, a fire place was excavated at the side of the tunnel and a chimney was pierced through the hill above.
General Lee was informed on July 1st of the construction of this mine and at once ordered his engineers to start counter mines, at the “Salient”. Two shafts were sunk about ten feet, and listening galleries run out of each. But these shafts were located on the right and left flanks of the battery, whereas General Pleasants’ galleries passed at a depth of twenty feet under the apex. Work was pushed in these galleries and two others were shortly
after started further to the left. Their total length on July 30th being three hundred and seventy-five feet. When the explosion occurred on of these mines was unoccupied, and the miners in the other escaped without injury.
General Grant not only endeavored to draw a large part of the Confederate infantry and artillery to the north side of the James, but determined to use a little strategy and had signal towers built overlooking the enemies position, and at the proper time the artillery officers were directed to concentrate fire upon every gun in the Confederate lines which could be used for the defense of “Elliott’s Salient”. General Humphrey reports that “heavy guns and mortars, eighty-one in all, and about the same number of field guns were prepared and supplied with abundant ammunition.” All the guns were prepared and supplied with abundant ammunition.” All the guns on the line of the fifth corps promptly opened after the explosion, completely silencing the enemy’s fire.
As before stated, the explosion might have occured on the 29th, but delay was necessary to complete all preliminary arrangements, such as the placing of more heavy guns and mortars for the bombardment, the massing of troops, removal of parapets and abattis for the assaulting columns, the posting of pioneers to remove the enemy’s abattis and open passages for artillery through their lines. Depots of entrenching tools, with sand bags, gabions, fascines, etc., were established that the lodgments might more quickly be made. Engineers were designated to accompany all columns and even pontoon trains were at hand to bridges the Appomattox in pursuit of the enemy. The importance of celerity of movement was impressed on every core commander by General Meade, who had command of the army of the Potomac.
General Meade gave the battle order to Colonel Pleasants to explode the mine at 3:30 A.M., on the morning of the 30th, and at 3:15 the fuses were lighted, and what was about to transpire seemed to be known to every soldier who was soon to be an active participant in one of the greatest battles of the Civil War. And awed into silence simulating death itself, every eye in the leading division made the doomed fort a cynosure that was just discernible in the grey of the morning, and every heart beat with intense concern for the anticipated signal to advance to the assault. Waiting in terrible suspense, minutes passed and rounded into an hour, but still no explosion, as the fuses had gone out. The intense anxiety
lingered while every heart beat in feverish emotion, and most profound concern was depicted on every countenance, until 4:44 A.M. when the explosion occurred. The delay was caused by the dampened fuses, but they were relit by Jacob Douty and Sergeant Henry Rees of the 48th Pennsylvania, at a quarter past four o’clock. At its occurrence there was a dull heavy roar as an earthquake shock, when earth, cannon and garrison were blown two hundred feet in the air, and a yawning chasm marked the spot where the “Salient” once existed.
Before referring to the assault proper we will hear from several eye witnesses, and first from Lt. Col. Pleasants, who had this matter in charge. “I stood on top of our breastworks and witnessed the effect of the explosion on the enemy. It seemed to paralyze them, and the breach was four or five yards in breadth. The rebels in the forts, both on the right and left side of the explosion, left their works, and for over an hour not a shot was fired by their artillery. There was no fire from the infantry from the front for at least half an hour, non from the left for twenty minutes, and but few shots from the right.” We quote from the history of the 36th Massachusetts, one of the regiments that took part in this engagement, page 234, as follows: “At forty-two minutes past four we witnessed a volcano and experienced an earthquake. With a tremendous burst which shook the hills around, a column of earth shot upward to an enormous height, bearing the ‘Elliott Salient,’ its guns and garrison, and making a crater or chasm one hundred and fifty feet long, ninety-seven feet wide and thirty feet deep. Pleasant’s work had been terribly successful.” E.P. Alexander, referring to this explosion in his “Military Memoirs of a Confederate,” on page 569, has this to say concerning the results of this explosion: “The bulk of the earth fell immediately around the crater mingled with the debris of two guns, twenty-two commoneers, and perhaps 250 infantry, which had been carried in the air. Quite a number of those who fell safely were dug out and rescued alive by the assaulting column. Some not aroused were lost, covered up in the bomb proofs of the adjacent trenches by the falling earth”
We will now listen to the description as given by Jos. Nelson, Co. F, of the Roundheads, who was taken prisoner at the engagement: “We turned our eyes toward the doomed fort when the time
had arrived for the explosion, and in a few minutes a heaving and trembling of the earth followed by a heavy explosion, and a huge mass of earth arose in the air with all the contents of the fort, casions, timbers and guns, small arms, haversacks, blankets, and the soldiers of the garrison. It resembled a huge fountain, the mass seemed to stand still when it reached its height and fell as a shower from a fountain.”
Owing to the hazardous undertaking and the extraordinary risks attending its fulfillment, or successful accomplishment, lots were cast to select the attacking column for the preliminary assault. In this way the first division of the 9th army corps, commanded by General Ledlie, was selected. An unfortunate choice, as relates to the commander, as the sequel clearly proves.
It might be well to state that the 100th Pennsylvania was in line for the attack from midnight the 29th, and was placed as the rear regiment of the brigade, and therefore was not responsible for the confusion or mixup which resulted when the fort was entered.
When the order was given, “Charge the works, First Division.” bayonets were fixed and the assaulting division, the third brigade leading, leaped over their works, moving over a plain of about two hundred yards, constantly exposed to a flank fire from the enemy now fully aroused, and which came form the right and left of the fort. The troops passed through the covered ways, but were halted owing to the work of removing the abattis in front of both lines, as this had been imperfectly accomplished by the pioneers employed for that purpose, causing considerable delay. When in readiness for the assault the right of the 100th rested a short distance to the left of the entrance of the mine, and it entered at the extreme left of the fort moving to the rear embankment. When the fort was reached, after a short delay, a number of the troops, including many of the 100th, moved over the open space in rear of the enemy’s works to the crest of the Cemetery Hill, and near the streets of Petersburg, but were compelled to retreat being unsupported. We will again hear from Joseph Nelson: “We were not supported as we were to be, and were obliged to fall back to the fort, after being near enough to Petersburg to see into its streets, I mean part of the troops were, as part had to remain in the fort to defend it from the flanks, as the enemy still occupied the right
and left of the blown fort, so we fell back to the fort and helped out many ‘Johnnies’ who were still buried up to their knees, waists and armpits. We dug them out and got them water, and did not knock them in the head, as they reported.
In this place, which may be likened to a “seething caldron.” most of the assaulting force was compelled to remain, and to constantly defend themselves from the enemy on the right and left for over two hours, or until the belated charge was made by the colored troops, when the greater part of their ammunition was expended.
We will now quote from the Confederate side: “War Talks of Confederate Veterans,” page 150. “The explosion took place between daybreak and sunrise (4:44 was the exact time), and the impression made upon those hearing it may be likened to that of the simultaneous discharge of several pieces of artillery. The concussion of the atmosphere was unusual; we all were in the breastworks, something extraordinary we knew had happened. Soon a report came down the lines from the direction of the scene of action that a mine had been exploded, and that a part of our works was occupied by the enemy.” Major W.H. Powell, acting aid-de-camp to General Ledlie, commandant of the First Division, in his article, entitled “The Tragedy of the Crater,” published in the Century in 1887, says: “I returned immediately, and just as I arrived in rear of the First Division the mine was sprung. It was a magnificent spectacle, and as the mass of earth went up into the air, carrying with it men, guns, carriages and timbers, it spread out like an immense cloud as it reached its altitude, and so close was it to the Union lines, it appeared as if it would descend immediately upon the troops waiting to make the charge. This caused them to break and scatter to the rear, and about ten minutes was consumed in reforming for the attack. Not much was lost by the delay, as it took nearly that time for the cloud of dust to pass off.”
On the division went, the third brigade leading over meshy ground covered with bushes and trees. After passing through a long trench or covered way and single opening which caused considerable delay, th efort was reached. The entire First Division, without serious opposition, entered the crater, or lines immediately joining. The Second Division (Potter’s) followed, going to the righ, although many entered the crater, but all going into the enemy’s lines. The Third Division (Wilcox) was ordered to the
left of the First, but for some reason several regiments thereof followed the same course as Ledlie’s and entered the crater at the same place. Four or five regiments of this division bore too much to the left and came back to the Federal lines and took no part in the assault. This “mixup” added greatly to the confusion which existed in the fort. The Third brigade, the one to which the 100th Pennsylvania was connected, made its way into the yawning crater in a broken state, owing to the difficulties experienced and the appalling sights which met their gaze as the crest of the debris was reached. Into that enormous hole, already described, was seen dust, great blocks of clay, guns, broken carriages, projecting timbers and men buried in various ways. Some up to their necks, others to their waists, and some with their feet and legs protruding from the earth. Col. Powell further says: “It was impossible for the troops of the Second Brigade to move formed in line as they had advanced and owing to the disjointed conditions they were in, every man crowding up to look into the hole and being pressed by the First Brigade, which was immediately in rear, it was equally impossible to move by flank by any command around the crater.
Seeing the apparent inextricable mix of the Second Brigade the commander, Colonel Marshall, yhelled to his command to move forward, which it did, jumping, sliding and tumbling into the hole over the debris of material, huge blocks of clay and dead and dying men. Upon the other side of the crater they climbed, and while a detachment stopped to place two of the dismounted guns of the battery in position on the enemy’s side of the crest of the crater, a portion of the Second Brigade passed over the crest and attempted to reform. At this point, many were being killed by musket shots from the rear fired by Confederates, who were still occupying the traverses and trenches to the right and left of the crater. These men had been awakened by the noise and shock of the explosion, and when the Union troops had attempted to reorganize on the opposite side of the crater they faced about and delivered their fire into the backs of the Federals, causing them to fall back into the crater. The assaulting division was exposed to a flank fire of the enemy before the crater was reached, but notwithstanding, charged into the works and a large number over the field toward the crest of the hill driving the enemy before them. A part of the force was compelled to remain in the fort to defend it, as the enemy had posses-
sion of the right and left lines from the fort. This advance force, formed in part by the Roundheads, was compelled to fall back into the fort, and commenced digging out many of the enemy. Water was given them instead of bullets and the butts of muskets. Constant firing, however, was kept up at the active enemy for several hours, with the mercury at from 98 to 100 degrees in the shade, until the ammunition was nearly exhausted.
The 100th Pennsylvania and other troops were then ordered to move down and capture a cross pit extending from the rear line to the rebel fort. This was accomplished and one hundred and fifty prisoners were taken. This attacking force could only hold the position for an hour or two, owing to a raking fire from the enemy, as they were unsupported. About this time, being near 8 a.m., a colored division came into the fort in a disorganized condition, and a large number thereof passed over the fort and made a charge toward Cemetery Hill. It was repulsed by the enemy under McMaster. Two of Wise’s regiments and two of Ransom’s were promptly brought up, and the colored troops fell back into the crater in a very demoralized condition. Four thousand white troops too part in this assault on the crater, in all about thirty regiments, with one hundred and forty men, on an average to each regiment, also about four thousand three hundredd colored troops commanded by General Ferrero. It consisted of two brigades, Thomas’ and Sigfried’s, constituted the Fourth Division of the 9th corps, a part of which took part in this battle.
It was the original intention for the colored troops to lead the assault immediately after the mine explosion, and the troops were drilled several days with this understanding. The 30th regiment was to advance at once to the crater, and then turn to the left and sweep down the line of breastworks as far as possible, another regiment was to do the same work on the right of the crater. This would make a fair opening for the other colored troops to follow, and make a bee line for the battery on the elevated ground near the Cemetery. This plan of General Burnside was changed on the night of the 29th by General Meade. For some unexplained reason the colored division was not ordered in for near three hours after the explosion, and then with but little idea of what they were expected to do.
We will now listen to Colonel Bates, of the 30th U.S.C. regi-
ment: “The order to me was to go by division front, which order was promptly obeyed, although by the time the crater was reached the front had vanished, and we were rapidly moving by companies. My regiment entered the right of the crater as we faced the Union lines. Soon a staff officer approached asking for the brigade commander. As he could not be found he turned to me and said: ‘Colonel Bates, a charge must be made on Cemetery Hill at once!’ The surroundings were such that a line of battle could not be formed, and all that I could do was to order an advance to the front, which order was at once complied with by my regiment, and such portions of the other regiments that were near us. We reached the open plain beyond the line of breastworks. How far I went I don not know for a volley from our front and right disabled about one-half of our officers and one-third of the privates.” In this charge Colonel Bates was shot above the roof of the mouth, the ball passing clear through, but recovered. He further remarks: “The fighting of Mahone’s brigade did not occur until some time after I was shot.”
The volley from the right was from where Ransom’s North Carolina brigade was located, and the volley from the front was evidently from Flannery’s battery, which was in the rear of the crater and fifty yards east of the Jerusalem Plank Road. At about 8:30 a.m., General William Mahone, the Confederate commander with his own brigade (Virginia) and Wright’s (Georgians), after having been notified of the explosion by messenger from General Lee, to at once march to the assistance of General Johnston, after a circuitous route reached the scene of conflict.
I will slightly digress here and state that no evidence appears to be available to indicate that Ledlie’s First Division made any charge in an organized way after reaching and occupying the Salient” or Crater. It is charged that General Ledlie displayed cowardice by hiding in a bomb proof, thereby depriving his command of leadership. But it did whatever was required of it, and many conspicuous examples of bravery were displayed in assisting in a disjointed way to repel the attacks of the enemy, and showing eagerness for any service that might be required, and many of its members participated in the charge against the enemy in the direction of Cemetery Hill, and shared the fate of the other attacking troops. The Second, or Potter’s Division, was more fortu-
nate in having an intrepid and brave leader. It was among the first to move to the crest of the hill in rear of the dismantled fort. It charged over an open field subjected to a fierce fire of the enemy, and when nearly to the top of the hill the line wavered under the withering fire, and for want of support was compelled to fall back. This was near the time the colored troops made their charge, towhich reference has been made.
We now return to movement of the Confederates. When General Mahone arrived on the ground he at once had his troops lie down in a shallow ravine in the rear of the exploded “Salient,” and then proceeded to an elevated though dangerous position to the rear and west side of the Crater where he noticed that the Confederate works were filled to overflowing with Federal troops, and counting eleven regimental flags, estimated the force in possession as at least three thousand men. He regarded the situation as extremely grave, and if at once attacked his troops would be cut to pieces, so he ordered a courier to bring up the Alabama brigade (Saunder’s ). From this time Mahone was in complete command, his brigade being led by Colonel D.A. Weisiger, of the 12th Virginia. When General Mahone formed Weisiger’s brigade for an attack a renewed attempt was made to advance on the Union right by a portion of the Union forces. This counter charge was met by Weisiger’s and a portion of Elliott’s brigade, which drove the Federals back in confusion, and caused the retreat of many others to the rear of the lines in which they had taken shelter. During the charge the Federal soldiers suffered severely from the flank fire of the enemy as they crossed the open spaces behind. The Confederate artillery fire from the right was from a battery commanded by Haskell and Col. Huger, that on the left was from a four gun battery under command of Capt. Wright. Besides this many Coehorn mortars located in ravines in the rear added to the work of destruction. In this attack the enemy succeeded in re-taking the 100 yards of Johnston’s lines which had been captured early in the morning by the Union forces. This part of the line was on the left of the Crater and called the “retrenched Cavalier.” Here a hand to hand conflict ensued, or, as stated by Gen. Mahone himself, referring to the Virginia brigade.
the right of which the enemy occupied some fifty feet of his line, leaving it and the pit in possession of the enemy.” (Federals.) This ended the charge of the Virginia brigade.
About one hour after this brigade made its charge and accomplished all that was possible, the Georgia brigade, under General Wright, moved forward and endeavored to capture the balance of the main line still in possession of the Union forces south of the crater. It, however, obliqued to the left and was exposed to a terrific fire causing it to move too far to the north, and thus failed in its object. About 11’o’clock Wright’s brigade made another attempt to carry the works about the crater and south of it, but it met another repulse.
We pause at this point to learn the conditions in the crater and adjacent lines at this time, as detailed by Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley: “With a dozen of my own command, I went down the traverse in the crater; we were the last to reach it, and the rifles of the Union soldiers were flashing in our faces when we jumped down there, and the Johnnies were not twenty rods behind. A full line around the crest of the crater were loading and firing as fast as they could, and the men dropping thick and fast, most of them shot in the head. Every man that was shot rolled down the steep sides to the bottom, and in places they were piled up four or five deep. For a few minutes the fire was perfectly sharp, then the enemy sought shelter. The cries of the wounded pressed down under the dead was piteous to hear. An enfilading fire was coming through the traverse down which we had retreated. General Bartlett ordered the colored troops to build a breast work by throwing up lumps of clay, but it was very slow work, when some one gave the command, ‘throw in the dead’, and on this suggestion a large number of dead, white and black, Union and rebel, were piled into the trench.
We will now give attention to the horrible scene in this veritable slaughter pen, as described by George S. Bernard, of Petersburg, Va., who participated in this battle on the Confederate side as a member of the 12th Virginia Infantry: “Casting my eyes up the line toward the crater I saw Confederates beating and shooting the negro soldiers, as the latter, terror stricken, rushed from them.
A minute later I witnessed another deed which made my blood run cold. Just about the outer end of the ditch by which I had entered stood a negro soldier, a non-commissioned officer (I noticed by his chevrons), begging for his life. Two Confederate soldiers stood above him, one of them striking the poor wretch with a steel ramrod, the other holding a gun in his hand and seemed to be trying to get a shot at the negro. The man with the gun fired it at the negro but the shot did not seem to seriously injure him and he continued to beg for his life. The man with the ramrod continued to strike the negro therewith, whilst the fellow with the gun deliberately reloaded it and placing its muzzle against the stomach of the poor negro, fired, when the latter fell limp and lifeless at the feet of the two Confederates. It was a brutal, horrible act, and those who witnessed it exclaimed, ‘it is shocking.’ I have no doubt from what I saw and afterward heard, this was but a sample of many other tragedies, shortly after the first charge, or that of the Virginia Brigade.”
At this time the Crater was still in posession of the Union forces also fifty yards of the enemy’s works south, which Wright in his first two charges failed to recapture. The last charge on the part of the Confederates was made at one p.m., by the Alabama brigade under General Sanders, which formed nearly opposite the crater. This brigade attacked on the left under General Mahone, assisted in the assault by the 61st North Carolina and 17th South Carolina. Johnston attacked on the right with the 23rd South Carolina and the remaining five companies of the 22nd, all that could be promptly collected on that flank. This attack was entirely successful, causing surrender of the works and the prisoners poured out, making their way back under a severe fire from the Federal batteries, many of them falling on the way. During the charge many of the Union soldiers run the gauntlet of a fierce fusillade from the enemy’s batteries, and regained their own lines. A number were killed in the attempt.
At 9:45 a.m., General Meade sent the following dispatch to General Burnside, as follows: “The Major General commanding has heard that the result of your attack has been a repulse and directs that if in your judgement nothing more can be effected, that you withdraw to your own line, taking every precaution to get the men back safely.
Major General and Chief of Staff.”
As early as 9 a.m., General Meade received the following dispatch from Captain Sanders:
“To Major General Meade: The attack made on our right has been repulsed. A great many men are coming to the rear.
Captain and C.M.
This would indicate that the battle was apparently lost as early as 9 a.m. That the troops were not early withdrawn is shown by the following report of the Committee on Conduct of the War, which states: “The troops were withdrawn between one and two o’clock p.m., in considerable confusion and returned to their won lines.”
General Burnside, Ledlie, Ferrero, Wilcox and Col. Bliss, who commanded a brigade in Potters’s division were censured by the Military Court for the disastrous results of this engagement. The Court also expressed the opinion: “That explicit orders should have been given assigning one officer to the command of all troops intended to engage in the assault when the commanding General was not present to witness the operations.” This was the last of General Burnside’s military career, he having resigned the following month, and was succeeded by Gneral John G. Parke. General Ledlie was at once relieved as commander of the First Division, General Julius White being his successor.
Many of the survivors were sick and all very tired. They had been in the fort from early in the morning until their withdrawal without food or water.
Before closing this rather disjointed narrative in an attempt to describe the maneuvers which took place at the Union and Confederate lines prior to and at the “Battle of the Crater,” I will quote the address of a colored Sergeant of Company H, 30th U.S. Colored Troops, which he delivered before the assault. This regiment
led the charge of Ferrero’s colored division. It was as follows: “Now, men; this am g’wine to be a gret fight. If we take Petersburg, most likely we take Richmond, and ‘stroy Lee’s army, an’ close de wah. Eb’ry man had orter liff up his soul in pra’r for a strong heart. Oh! member de poor color’d man ober dere in bondage. Oh! member Gineral Grant and Gineral Burnside, and Gineral Meade, an’ all the gret Ginerals is right ober yander watching ye, and any skulker is g’wine to get a prod of dis bayonet. You heah me!” His name, John H. Offer, a preacher from the eastern shores of Maryland.
We turn now from the seeming humorous to the grave aspect of this most sanguinary struggle. The entire Union loss in killed, wounded and prisoners, was about 4800 officers and men. 420 were known to be killed in the 9th corps, and 3400 wounded and taken prisoners in the same corps. Balance of the loss in 2d and 18th corps.
The loss sustained by the Confederates for obvious reasons was much less. It is given as 1,200, 900 killed and wounded, and 300 prisoners taken by the Federal forces. The great disparity as relates to the losses of the two armies in this most destructive engagement, may be accounted for in this way: The Federal troops halted too long after their occupancy of the crater, waiting the arrival of General Ferrero’s colored division, which was to charge over in the direction of Petersburg. The cause of the delay is inexplicable. Then the skillful construction of this fort or salient under the direction of Colonel D.H. Harris, the Chief of Engineers on General Beauregard’s staff. Its ditches and traverses were most admirably for any emergency. Also the eligible situation of Captain Wright’s battery located on a hill about 500 yards north of the crater, and that of the battery of Major Gibbs, called the two gun battery, posted 300 yards south of the crater. Major Gibbs had also charge of Davidson’s battery, the one nearest the crater. Other batteries of the enemy have already been referred to. It is claimed that Wright’s battery was posted with special reference to the contemplated breach in the Confederate lines at the Elliot Salient, and that its presence was unknown to the Federals. It was so protected by traverses that it was not silenced during the entire engagement, and prior thereto had not fired a shot.
The casualties sustained by the 100th Pennsylvania in this battle are herewith given, as near can be determined, as follows:
Major Thomas J. Hamilton, and Adjutant George S. Leasure.
Co. A.–Killed–Louis Hager. Wounded–Sergeant Joseph Templeton, Benjamin S. McClure, Michael Curran. Captured–George W. Robertson, John G. Brice.
Co. B.–Killed–Captain Walter C. Oliver, James W. Black. Wounded–First Lieutenant William Hammond, Second Lieutenant William M. Gibson, Corporal William J. Hurd, John H. McConnell. Captured–Second Lieutenant William M. Gibson, Joseph L. Johnston.
Co. C.–Killed–Thomas M. Miller, Henderson H. McClure, Robert M. McKissick, Alexander Spear. Wounded–Robert C. Dunwoody. Captured–Corporal Henry S. Watson, John J. Hogue, Ernest Weyman.
Co. D.–Captured–Captain James L. Johnston, James Henderson
Co. E.–Killed–John M. Louden, William Montgomery. Wounded–Captain Norman J. Maxwell, Corporals E.R. Miles and David M. Locke, Thomas P. Offutt, Robert R. Jamison. Captured–Robert M. Jamison.
Co. F.–Killed–I.W. Wagoner, James W. Aiken, Henry F. Malarkey, Jackson McClean, Alexander M. Randolph. Wounded–Sergeant Moses Crow, James Crowl. Captured–Sergeant Moses Crow, Corporals Joseph Nelson and John J. Munnell, Conrad Shaffer, Silas W. Alford, Baxter Irwin.
Co. G.–Killed–James Porrine. Wounded–Lester M. Jacobs, John H. McCartney.
Co. H.–WOunded Hiram Ketler, William Caldwell. Captured–John M. Canon, Hiram Ketler, John H. McDonald.
Co. K.–Killed–1st Lieutenant Richard P. Craven, Corporals Thomas Kelty and D. M. McCallister, Charles C. Mitchell.
Co. M.–Wounded–Captain James L. McFeeters, 2nd Lieutenant William Oliver, John R. Moss. Captured—Sergeant Joseph W. Allen, John Addison, James Stewart.
Making the entire loss of the regiment 64. Twenty-two of that number being killed. The regiment was inspected three day after this battle and did not seem larger than a full company. Some of the companies came out of this battle with eight or ten members, commanded by a corporal. The two regimental flags, the old state flag and the one given the regiment at Camp Copeland were practically destroyed in this engagement.
“WHAT THOUGH THE FIELD BE LOST?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate
And courage never to submit or yield
And what is else not to be overcome.”
—Milton’s Paradise Lost. Bk I. L. 105
- Stevenson, Silas. Account of the Battle of the Mine Explosion, or Battle of the Crater in Front of Petersburg, Va., July 30, 1864. Ellwood City, PA: John A. Leathers, Printer, 1914. ↩
It is amazing how much detail was remembered from this battle 50 years later. The conditions inside the crater or pit after the explosion were horrific as the union soldiers were trapped and had great difficulty getting out because of the unconsolidated materials that formed the outer walls. To add to the misery was the eyewitness account of a colored regiment soldier being tormented prior to being killed by several Confederate soldiers.
The 100th PA colors were shattered when the color bearer, Lt. Richard Craven of Co. K was struck with a solid shell, obliterating his body according to eyewitness accounts. A portion of the colors was retrieved by James McFeeters, and a portion by the Confederates. Years later the portion taken by the south was returned to the State of Pennsylvania and matched up to the colors held in Harrisburg. Also, interestingly, a number of 100th PA soldiers that were captured here later escaped back to union lines.
The opening scene to the film “Cold Mountain” gives a close approximation of the size and extent of the explosion and crater as well as the shoulder-to-shoulder cramped nature of the union soldiers that were in the crater when the Confederate lines were reformed. The film also shows a good look at what the trenches around Petersburg looked like in these latter months of the war.
My great great grandfather Col. Norman J. Maxwell, then Captain of Co. E was wounded in the foot in that battle. A number of company officers met the evening before the explosion and assault and expressed their pre-sentiments regarding their chances of being wounded or killed. Many were correct, including my ancestor.
Thanks for the additional color and thanks again for generously offering to allow me to post this account at The Siege of Petersburg Online.
For anyone else reading this, these are the kinds of “donations” I need to make this site the best it can be. Do not hesitate to contact me if you have anything remotely pertaining to the Siege of Petersburg. Odds are I’ll be happy to use it here and link back to your site, as I did with David’s in this case.
This battle has always intrigued me. I’ve never understood why the union forces rushed into the crater after the explosion instead of going around the edges enforce. The leadership of the union forces here was almost as terrible as the carnage itself.