IN THE CRATER.1
BY CHARLES H. HOUGHTON, BREVET MAJOR, 14TH NEW YORK HEAVY ARTILLERY.
ON the evening of July 29th, 1864, we of the Ninth Corps in front of Petersburg knew that an important movement was to take place, as we were ordered out for inspection and dress parade, and soon after returning to our place in the trenches, orders came to prepare three days’ cooked rations, and ammunition was distributed. Soon we were relieved by troops from the Eighteenth Corps and marched back to the open ground several rods in rear of our works and halted, lying down in the sand till about 3 o’clock in the morning of the 30th. We now marched toward the left, and passing out through covered ways advanced to the front line of works. The men were cautioned to prevent the rattling of tin cups and bayonets, because we were so near the enemy that they would discover our movements. We marched with the stillness of death; not a word was said above a whisper. We knew, of course, that something very important was to be done and that we were to play a prominent part. We formed our lines of battle in the trenches of General Potter’s division. Our brigade, commanded by Colonel E. G. Marshall of the 14th New York Artillery, was first in line and formed three lines of battle, the 2d Pennsylvania Provisional Artillery in the first line, the 14th New York Artillery in the second line, and the 179th New York and 3d Maryland in the third line. Our regiment, originally composed of three battalions, had been consolidated into two of six companies each, the 1st Battalion commanded by Captain L. J. Jones, and the 2d Battalion by myself. Each battalion was acting as an independent regiment.
While waiting quietly and anxiously for the explosion, men had been allowed to lie down in line. I was lying on the ground resting my head on my hand and thinking of the probable result, when the denouement came. I shall never forget the terrible and magnificent sight. The earth around us trembled and heaved — so violently that I was lifted to my feet. Then the earth along the enemy’s lines opened, and fire and smoke shot upward seventy-five or one hundred feet. The air was filled with earth, cannon, caissons, sand-bags and living men, and with everything else within the exploded fort. One huge lump of clay as large as a hay-stack or small cottage was thrown out and left on top of the ground toward our own works. Our orders were to charge immediately after the explosion, but the effect produced by the falling of earth and the fragments sent heavenward that appeared to be coming right down upon us, caused the first line to waver and fall back, and the situation was one to demoralize most troops. I gave the command “Forward,” but at the outset a serious difficulty had to be surmounted. Our own works, which were very high at this point, had not been prepared for scaling. But scale them in some way we must, and ladders were improvised by the men placing their bayonets between the logs in the works and holding the other end at their hip or on shoulders, thus forming steps over which men climbed. I with others stood on top of the works
pulling men up and forming line; but time was too precious to wait for this, and Colonel Marshall, who was standing below within our works, called to me to go forward. This was done very quickly and our colors were the first to be planted on the ruined fort. We captured several prisoners and two brass field-pieces, light twelve-pounders, which were in the left wing (their right) of the fort and had not been buried beneath the ruins. Prisoners stated that about one thousand men were in the fort. If so, they were massed there over night, expecting an attack, as the fort could not accommodate so many men; but nearly all who were within it were killed or buried alive. We succeeded in taking out many — some whose feet would be waving above their burial-place; others, having an arm, hand, or head only, uncovered; others, alive but terribly shaken. Being convinced that a magazine was near the two pieces of artillery, I detailed a sergeant and some men to search for it and to man the guns. The magazine, containing a supply of ammunition, was found. We then hauled back the pieces of artillery to get a range over the top of works on a Confederate gun on our left that was throwing canister and grape into us. We loaded and fired and silenced the gun, and at our first fire forty-five prisoners came in, whom I sent to our lines. We loaded and placed the other piece in position to use on the advance of the enemy if a counter-charge should be attempted. A charge was made upon us, and the fire from this piece did terrible execution on their advancing lines, and with the fire of our men they were repulsed. On the repulse of this charge we captured a stand of colors. Sergeant James S. Hill of Company C of our regiment secured the flag in a hand-to-hand encounter.(1) At this time General Hartranft, who stood within the crater, called for three cheers for the members of the 14th New York Artillery who were handling the guns, at the same time requesting me to continue in command of them. But other work had to be done. We charged and captured the works behind the crater, but our supports had not come. The delay in getting them over our own works gave the enemy a chance to recover their surprise and resume their stations at their guns, which they opened upon our men then crossing the field. When the colored troops advanced they could not be forced beyond the “crater” for some time, and when they were, were driven back to our lines, or into the pit.
When our brigade line was forced back from the enemy’s breastworks to the crater, the colored division and other troops having previously fallen back, I stopped at the crater. Only a few of the 14th were there, most of them wounded. I went through the crater to the wing of the fort where I had left the guns in charge of a sergeant, and while I was passing through a narrow entrance General Hartranft, who had preceded me, called to me to drop down and crawl in, as sharp-shooters were picking off every one passing that point, which was in full view of the enemy. I escaped their bullets, but the next officer who came received a serious if not mortal wound. In this wing of the fort were Generals Potter, Hartranft, and S. G. Griffin, and myself, with one or two other officers. Bartlett, who was in the pit of the crater, had received a shot, disabling his artificial leg, and he could not be carried to the rear. Colonel E. G. Marshall, commanding our brigade, was then on the outside of the fort. After remaining there some time and knowing that if the stay was prolonged we would go to Richmond and to Confederate prisons, or be killed, as the enemy were on the right flank and front of the crater then, I decided to get back to our works. The generals tried to dissuade me, predicting sure death to any one crossing that field, which was swept by both artillery and infantry fire of the enemy from both directions and was so thickly strewn with killed and wounded, both white and black, that one disposed to be so inhuman might have reached the works without stepping on the ground. The generals thought that a covered way back to our lines could be dug, or if we could hold the breach till night we could escape. The sun was pouring its fiercest heat down upon us and our suffering wounded. No air was stirring within the crater. It was a sickening sight: men were dead and dying all around us; blood was streaming down the sides of the crater to the bottom, where it gathered in pools for a time before being absorbed by the hard red clay.
Corporal Bigelow of Company L was that day serving me as orderly. When asked which he preferred, to remain in the crater or attempt to reach the works, he replied that he would follow his commander whichever way he decided upon. So we passed through the embrasure looking toward our own line to prepare for the attempt. Colonel Marshall asked what I intended doing, and when informed, he also said it was sure death to go. I replied that it would be sure death or starvation in Confederate prisons to remain, and that if I could reach our lines I could release all of them by opening fire so that the smoke would obscure the field and all could come out. I gave the word that when the next shell came, Corporal Bigelow and I would start, keeping a little apart. We did so, and, passing through showers of bullets, we reached our line in safety and I ordered my men to open fire on the enemy’s line. They replied by a furious fire, and soon the smoke settled over the field, and under cover of that fire all the general officers but Bartlett escaped. Bartlett and Colonel Marshall were captured.
The loss of our regiment that day was as follows: One lieutenant (Hartley) killed, two wounded; Colonel Marshall and Lieutenants George H. Wing (Company L), Faass, and Grierson prisoners; and 126 men killed, wounded, and missing—this from less than 400 taken into the charge.
(1)Adjutant C. H. VanBrakle and Sergeant Hill presented the flag to General Ledlie to be forwarded to the War Department, and then returned to the front. When the regiment was forced back to our own works, Sergeant Hill was missing; he was probably killed.
For his bravery that day he was awarded a medal by Congress, which was afterward presented by General Meade in person to his company for him. He was also commissioned a lieutenant in the regiment. Both medal and commission were sent to his mother.—C. H. H.
- Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, pages 561-562 ↩