THE BATTLE OF THE PETERSBURG CRATER.1
BY WILLIAM H. POWELL, MAJOR, U. 8. A.
BY the assaults of June 17th and 18th, 1864, on the Confederate works at Petersburg, the Ninth Corps, under General Burnside, gained an advanced position beyond a deep cut in the railroad, within 130 yards of the enemy’s main line and confronting a strong work called by the Confederates Elliott’s Salient, and sometimes Pegram’s Salient. In rear of that advanced position was a deep hollow. [See map, p. 538.] A few days after gaining this position Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants, who had been a mining engineer and who belonged to the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers, composed for the most part of miners from the upper Schuylkill coal region, suggested to his division commander, General Robert B. Potter, the possibility of running a mine under one of the enemy’s forts in front of the deep hollow. This proposition was submitted to General Burnside, who approved of the measure, and work was commenced on the 25th of June. If ever a man labored under disadvantages, that man was Colonel Pleasants. In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, he said:
“My regiment was only about four hundred strong. At first I employed but a few men at a time, but the number was increased as the work progressed, until at last I had to use the whole regiment—non-commissioned officers and all. The great difficulty I had was to dispose of the material got out of the mine. I found it impossible to get any assistance from anybody ; I had to do all the work myself. I had to remove all the earth in old cracker-boxes ; I got pieces of hickory and nailed on the boxes in which we received our crackers, and then iron-clad them with hoops of iron taken from old pork and beef barrels. . . . Whenever I made application I could not get anything, although General Burnside was very favorable to it. The most important thing was to ascertain how far I had to mine, because if I fell short of or went beyond the proper place, the explosion would have no practical effect. Therefore I wanted an accurate instrument with which to make the necessary triangulations. I had to make them on the farthest front line, where the enemy’s sharp-shooters could reach me. I could not get the instrument I wanted, although there was one at army headquarters, and General Burnside had to send to Washington and get an old-fashioned theodolite, which was given to me. . . . General Burnside told me that General Meade and Major Duane, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, said the thing could not be done — that it was all clap-trap and nonsense; that such a length of mine had never been excavated in military operations, and could not be; that I would either get the men smothered, for want of air, or crushed by the falling of the earth ; or the enemy would find it out and it would amount to nothing. I could get no boards or lumber supplied to me for my operations. I had to get a pass and send two companies of my own regiment, with wagons, outside of our lines to rebel saw-mills, and get lumber in that way, after having previously got what lumber I could by tearing down an old bridge. I had no mining
picks furnished me, but had to take common army picks and have them straightened for my mining picks. . . . The only officers of high rank, so far as I learned, that favored the enterprise were General Burnside, the corps commander, and General Potter, the division commander.”
On the 23d of July Colonel Pleasants had the whole mine ready for the placing of the powder. With proper tools and instruments it could have been done in one-third or one-fourth of the time. The greatest delay was occasioned by taking out the material, which had to be carried the whole length of the gallery. Every night the pioneers of Colonel Pleasants’s regiment had to cut bushes to cover the fresh dirt at the mouth of the gallery; otherwise the enemy could have observed it from trees inside his own lines.
The main gallery was 510 8/10 feet in length. The left lateral gallery was thirty-seven feet in length and the right lateral thirty-eight feet. The magazines, eight in number, were placed in the lateral galleries — two at each end a few feet apart in branches at nearly right angles to the side galleries, and two more in each of the side galleries similarly placed by pairs, situated equidistant from each other and the end of the galleries.
It had been the intention of General Grant to make an assault on the enemy’s works in the early part of July; but the movement was deferred in consequence of the work on the mine, the completion of which was impatiently awaited. As a diversion Hancock’s corps and two divisions of cavalry had crossed to the north side of the James at Deep Bottom and had threatened Richmond. A part of Lee’s army was sent from Petersburg to checkmate this move, and when the mine was ready to be sprung Hancock was recalled in haste to Petersburg. When the mine was ready for the explosives General Meade requested General Burnside to submit a plan of attack. This was done in a letter dated July 26th, 1864, in which General Burnside said:
“… It is altogether probable that the enemy are cognizant of the fact that we are mining, because it is mentioned in their papers, and they have been heard at work on what are supposed to
be shafts in close proximity to our galleries. But the rain of night, before last has, no doubt, much retarded their work. We have heard no sound of workmen in them either yesterday or to-day ; and nothing is heard by us in the mine but the ordinary sounds of work on the surface above. This morning we had some apprehension that the left lateral gallery was in danger of caving in from the weight of the batteries above it and the shock of their firing. But all possible precautions have been taken to strengthen it, and we hope to preserve it intact. The placing of the charges in the mine will not involve the necessity of making a noise. It is therefore probable that we will escape discovery if the mine is to be used within two or three days. It is, nevertheless, highly important, in my opinion, that the mine should be exploded at the earliest possible moment consistent with the general interests of the campaign. . . . But it may not be improper for me to say that the advantages reaped from the work would be but small if it were exploded without any cooperative movement.
“My plan would be to explode the mine just before daylight in the morning or at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon; mass the two brigades of the colored division in rear of my first line, in columns of division,—’ double-columns closed in mass,’—the head of each brigade resting on the front line, and, as soon as the explosion has taken place, move them forward, with instructions for the divisions to take half distance, and as soon as the leading regiments of the two brigades pass through the gap in the enemy’s line, the leading regiment of the right brigade to come into line perpendicular to the enemy’s line by the ‘ right companies on the right into line, wheel,’ the left companies on the right into line, and proceed at once down the line of the enemy’s works as rapidly as possible; and the leading regiment of the left brigade to execute the reverse movement to the left, moving up the enemy’s line. The remainder of the columns to move directly toward the crest in front as rapidly as possible, diverging in such a way as to enable them to deploy into column of regiments, the right column making as nearly as possible for Cemetery Hill; these columns to be followed by the other divisions of the corps as soon as they can be thrown in. This would involve the necessity of relieving these divisions by other troops before the movement, and of holding columns of other troops in readiness to take our place on the crest, in case we gain it, and sweep down it. It would, in my opinion, be advisable, if we succeed in gaining the crest, to throw the colored division right into the town. There is a necessity for the cooperation, at least in the way of artillery, by the troops on our right and left. Of the extent of this you will necessarily be the judge. I think our chances of success, in a plan of this kind, are more than even.” . . .
With a view of making the attack, the division of colored troops, under General Edward Ferrero, had been drilling for several weeks, General Burnside thinking that they were in better condition to head a charge than either of the white divisions. They had not been in any very active service. On the other hand, the white divisions had performed very arduous duties since the beginning of the campaign, and before Petersburg had been in such proximity to the enemy that no man could raise his head above the parapets
without being fired at. They had been in the habit of using every possible means of covering themselves from the enemy’s fire. General Meade objected to the use of the colored troops, on the ground, as he stated, that they were a new division and had never been under fire, while this was an operation requiring the very best troops. General Burnside, however, insisted upon his programme, and the question was referred to General Grant, who confirmed General Meade’s views, although he subsequently said in his evidence before the Committee on the Conduct of the War:
” General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would
have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.”
The mine was charged with only 8000 pounds of powder, instead of 14,000, as asked for, the amount having been reduced by order of General Meade; and while awaiting the decision of General Grant on the question of the colored
In the afternoon of the 29th of July, Generals Potter and O. B. Willcox met together at General Burnside’s headquarters, to talk over the plans of the attack, based upon the idea that the colored troops would lead the charge, and while there the message was received from General Meade that General Grant disapproved of that plan, and that General Burnside must detail one of his white divisions to take the place of the colored division. This was the first break in the original plan. There were then scarcely twelve hours, and half of these at night, in which to make this change—and no possible time in which the white troops could be familiarized with the duties expected of them in connection with the assault.
General Burnside was greatly disappointed by this change; but he immediately sent for General Ledlie, who had been in command of the First Division only about six weeks. Upon his arrival General Burnside determined that the three commanders of his white divisions should “pull straws,” and Ledlie was (as he thought) the unlucky victim. He, however, took it good-naturedly, and, after receiving special instructions from General Burnside, proceeded with his brigade commanders to ascertain the way to the point of attack. This was not accomplished until after dark on the evening before the explosion.
The order of attack, as proposed by General Burnside, was also changed by direction of General Meade with the approval of General Grant. Instead of moving down to the right and left of the crater of the mine, for the purpose of driving the enemy from their intrenchments, and removing to that extent the danger of flank attacks, General Meade directed that the troops should push at once for the crest of Cemetery Hill.
The approaches to the Union line of intrenchments at this particular point were so well covered by the fire of the enemy that they were cut up into a network of covered ways almost as puzzling to the uninitiated as the catacombs of Rome. (1)
(1) The writer of this article was serving as judge advocate of Ledlie’s division, and also performed the duties of aide-de-camp to General Ledlie at the time of the explosion. When the orders were published for the movement he and Lieutenant George M. Randall, also of the regular army, and aide-decamp to General Ledlie, were informed that they must accompany the advance troops in. the attack, but that the volunteer staff would remain with General Ledlie, all of whom did so during the entire engagement, in or near a bomb-proof within the Union lines.—W. H. P.
Upon General Ledlie’s return from the front orders were issued, and the division was formed at midnight. Shortly afterward it advanced through the covered ways, and was in position some time before daybreak, behind the Union breastworks, and immediately in front of the enemy’s fort, which was to be blown up. The orders were that Ledlie’s division should advance first,
pass over the enemy’s works, and charge to Cemetery Hill, four hundred yards to the right, and approached by a slope comparatively free from obstacles ; as soon as the First Division should leave the works, the next division (Willcox’s) was to advance to the left of Cemetery Hill, so as to protect the left flank of the First Division; and the next division (Potter’s) was to move in the same way to the right of Cemetery Hill. The Ninth Corps being out of the way, it was intended that the Fifth and Eighteenth corps should pass through and follow up the movement.
At 3: 30 A. M. Ledlie’s division was in position, the Second Brigade, Colonel E. G. Marshall, in front, and that of General W. F. Bartlett behind it, the men and officers in a feverish state of expectancy, the majority of them having been awake all night. Daylight came slowly, and still they stood with every nerve strained prepared to move forward the instant an order should be given. Four o’clock arrived, officers and men began to get nervous, having been on their feet four hours; still the mine had not been exploded. General Ledlie then directed me to go to General Burnside and report to him that the command had been in readiness to move since 3:30 A. M., and to inquire the cause of the delay of the explosion. I found General Burnside in rear of the fourteen-gun battery, delivered my message, and received the reply from the general information that there was some trouble with the fuse dying out, but
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, and spread out like an immense cloud as it reached its altitude, so close were the Union lines that the mass 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 were consumed in re-forming for the attack.(2)Not much was lost by this delay, however, as it took nearly that time for the cloud of dust to pass off. The order was then given for the advance. As no part of the Union line of breastworks had been removed (which would have been an arduous as well as hazardous undertaking), the troops clambered over them as best they could. This in itself broke the ranks, and they did not stop to re-form, but pushed ahead toward the crater, about 130 yards distant, the debris from the explosion having covered up the abatis and chevaux-de-frise in front of the enemy’s works.
Little did these men anticipate what they would see upon arriving there: an enormous hole in the ground about 30 feet deep, 60 feet wide, and 170 feet long, filled with 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 only their feet and legs protruding from the earth. One of these near me was pulled out, and proved to be a second lieutenant of the battery which had been blown up. The fresh air revived him, and he was soon able to walk and talk. He was very grateful and said that he was asleep when the explosion took place, and only awoke to find himself wriggling up in the air; then a few seconds afterward he felt himself descending, and soon lost consciousness.
The whole scene of the explosion struck every one dumb with astonishment as we arrived at the crest of the debris. It was impossible for the troops of the Second Brigade to move forward in line, as they had advanced; and, owing to the broken state 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 the flank, by any command, around the crater. Before the brigade commanders could realize the situation, the two brigades became inextricably mixed, in the desire to look into the hole.
However, Colonel Marshall yelled to the Second Brigade to move forward, and the men did so, jumping, sliding, and tumbling into the hole, over the debris of material, and dead and dying men, and huge blocks of solid clay. They were followed by General Bartlett’s brigade. Up on the other side of the crater they climbed, and while a detachment stopped to place two of the
(1) Sergeant Henry Rees entered the mine and found that the fuse had died out at the first splicing. He cut the fuse above the charred portion; on his way out for materials he met Lieutenant Jacob Douty, who assisted in making a fresh splice, which was a success.— Editors.
(2) Immediately following the explosion the heavy on his way out for materials he met Lieutenant guns along the line opened a severe fire.—W. H. P.
dismounted guns of the battery in position on the enemy’s side of the crest of the crater [see p. 562], a portion of the leading brigade passed over the crest and attempted to re-form. In doing so members of these regiments were killed by musket-shots from the rear, fired by the Confederates who were still occupying the traverses and intrenchments to the right and left of the crater. These men had been awakened by the noise and shock of the explosion, and during the interval before the attack had recovered their equanimity, and when the Union troops attempted to re-form on the enemy’s side of the crater, they had faced about and delivered a fire into the backs of our men. This coming so unexpectedly caused the forming line to fall back into the crater.
Had General Burnside’s original plan, providing that two regiments should sweep down inside the enemy’s line to the right and left of the crater, been sanctioned, the brigades of Colonel Marshall and General Bartlett could and would have re-formed and moved on to Cemetery Hill before the enemy realized fully what was intended; but the occupation of the trenches to the right and left by the enemy prevented re-formation, and there being no division, corps, or army commander present to give orders to other troops to clear the trenches, a formation under fire from the rear was something no troops could accomplish.
After falling back into the crater a partial formation was made by General Bartlett and Colonel Marshall with some of their troops, but owing to the precipitous walls the men could find no footing except by facing inward, digging their heels into the earth, and throwing their backs against the side
of the crater, or squatting in a half-sitting, half-standing posture, and some of the men were shot even there by the fire from the enemy in the traverses. It was at this juncture that Colonel Marshall requested me to go to General Ledlie and explain the condition of affairs, which he knew that I had seen and understood perfectly well. This I did immediately.
While the above was taking place the enemy had not been idle. He had brought a battery from his left to bear upon the position, and as I started on nay errand the crest of the crater was being swept with canister. Special attention was given to this battery by our artillery, but for some reason or other the enemy’s guns could not be silenced. Passing to the Union lines under this storm of canister, I found General Ledlie and a part of his staff ensconced in a protected angle of the works. I gave him Colonel Marshall’s message, explained to him the situation, and Colonel Marshall’s reasons for not being able to move forward. General Ledlie then directed me to return at once and say to Colonel Marshall and General Bartlett that it was General Burnside’s order that they should move forward immediately. This message was delivered. But the firing on the crater now was incessant, and it was as heavy a fire of canister as was ever poured continuously upon a single objective point. It was as utterly impracticable to re-form a brigade in that crater as it would be to marshal bees into line after upsetting the hive; and equally as impracticable to re-form outside of the crater, under the severe fire in front and rear, as it would be to hold a dress parade in front of a charging enemy. Here, then, was the second point of advantage lost by the fact that there was no person present with authority to change the programme to meet the circumstances. Had a prompt attack of the troops to the right and left of the crater been made as soon as the leading brigade had passed into the crater, or even fifteen minutes afterward, clearing the trenches and diverting the fire of the enemy, success would have been inevitable, and particularly would this have been the case on the left of the crater, as the small fort immediately in front of the Fifth Corps was almost, if not entirely, abandoned for a while after the explosion of the mine, the men running away from it as if they feared that it was to be blown up also.
Whether General Ledlie informed General Burnside of the condition of affairs as reported by me I do not know; but I think it likely, as it was not long after I had returned to the crater that a brigade of the Second Division (Potter’s) under the command of Brigadier-General S. G. Griffin advanced its skirmishers and followed them immediately, directing its course to the right of the crater. General Griffin’s line, however, overlapped the crater on the left, where two or three of his regiments sought shelter in the crater. Those on the right passed over the trenches, but owing to the peculiar character of the enemy’s works, which were not single, but complex and involuted and filled with pits, traverses, and bomb-proofs, forming a labyrinth as difficult of passage as the crater itself, the brigade was broken up, and, meeting the severe fire of canister, also fell back into the crater, which was then full to suffocation. Every organization melted away, as soon as it entered this hole in the ground, into a mass of human beings clinging by toes and heels to the
almost perpendicular sides. If a man was shot on the crest he fell and rolled to the bottom of the pit.
From the actions of the enemy, oven at this time, as could be seen by his moving columns in front, he was not exactly certain as to the intentions of the Union commander; he appeared to think that possibly the mine explosion was but a feint and that the main attack would come from some other quarter. However, he massed some of his troops in a hollow in front of the crater, and held them in that position.
Meantime General Potter, who was in rear of the Union line of intrenchments, being convinced that something ought to be done to create a diversion and distract the enemy’s attention from this point, ordered Colonel Zenas R. Bliss, commanding his First Brigade, to send two of his regiments to support General Griffin, and with the remainder to make an attack on the right. Subsequently it was arranged that the two regiments going to the support of General Griffin should pass into the crater, turn to the right, and sweep down the enemy’s lines. Colonel Bliss was partly successful, and obtained possession of some 200 or 300 yards of the line, and one of the regiments advanced to within 20 or 30 yards of the battery whose fire was so severe on the troops; but it could make no further headway for lack of support— its progress being impeded by slashed timber, while an unceasing fire of canister was poured into the men. They therefore fell back to the enemy’s traverses and intrenchments.
At the time of ordering forward Colonel Bliss’s command General Potter wrote a dispatch to General Burnside, stating that it was his opinion, from what he had seen, and from the reports he had received from subordinate officers, that too many men were being forced in at this one point; that the troops there were in confusion, and it was absolutely necessary that an attack should be made from some other point of the line, in order to divert the enemy’s attention and give time to straighten out our line. To that dispatch he never received an answer. Orders were, however, being constantly sent to the three division commanders of the white troops to push the men forward as
In October, 1887, Major James C. Coit, of Clicraw, South Carolina, wrote as follows with regard to this picture, and the Confederate battery, under his command, bearing on the crater:
“I am satisfied that I made that sketch of the crater. I had sent the sketch home after the battle, and had given some of the officers on the lines copies. It was made when I was In front of the Federal lines under the flag of trace for burying the dead. One gun that was blown up by the explosion fell between the lines, as represented in the sketch.
” My guns [Colt’s battalion] were all upon the front line up to the time of the explosion of the mine. After that time one of my batteries was placed upon a second line, upon the Jerusalem plank-road immediately in rear of the crater. I also had a mortar-battery between the crater and the cemetery, about 150 yards in rear of the battery that was so effective on the day of the explosion. This battery [Wright’s], where I was during the engagement, was just across the ravine to our left of the crater and just in rear of our infantry line, about three hundred yards distant from the crater. It was erected there to defend Elliott’s salient. It bore directly upon the crater, and was the only battery which could reach the Federal troops in advancing to our lines and after they occupied the crater. It commanded the ground from the Federal main line to the Jerusalem plank-road in rear of the crater. General Potter was unable to silence it, or even to do us any serious injury, because he could not fire directly upon its front. From this position, which was very elevated, I had a view of the whole field from the Federal main line to the ridge or plank-road. I saw all the movements of the Federal troops from the beginning to the end of the fight. I remember particularly being struck with the gallantry of one of the Federal officers, with a flag in one hand and waving his sword in the other, mounting our works.”
fast as could be done, and this was, in substance, about all the orders that were received by them during the day up to the time of the order for the withdrawal.
When General Willcox came with the Third Division to support the First, he found the latter and three regiments of his own, together with the regiments of Potter’s Second Division which had gone in on the right, so completely filling up the crater that no more troops could be got in there, and he therefore ordered an attack with the remainder of his division on the works of the enemy to the left of the crater. This attack was successful, so far as to carry the intrenchments for about 150 yards; but they were held only for a short time.
Previous to this last movement I had again left the crater and gone to General Ledlie, and had urged him to try to have something done on the right and left of the crater—saying that every man who got into the trenches to the right or left of it used them as a means of escape to the crater, and the enemy was reoccupying them as fast as our men left. All the satisfaction I received
was an order to go back and tell the brigade commanders to get their men out and press forward to Cemetery Hill. This talk and these orders, coming from a commander sitting in a bomb-proof inside the Union lines, were disgusting. I returned again to the crater and delivered the orders, which I knew beforehand could not possibly be obeyed; and I told General Ledlie so before I left him. Upon my return to the crater I devoted my attention to the movements of the enemy, who was evidently making dispositions for an assault.
About two hours after the explosion of the mine (7 o’clock) and after I had returned to the crater for the third time, General Edward Ferrero, commanding the colored division of the Ninth Corps, received an order to advance his division, pass the white troops which had halted, and move on to carry the crest of Cemetery Hill at all hazards. General Ferrero did not think it advisable to move his division in, as there were three divisions of white troops already huddled together, and he so reported to Colonel Charles G. Loring, of General Burnside’s staff. Loring requested Ferrero to wait until he could report to General Burnside. General Ferrero declined to wait, and then Colonel Loring gave him an order, in General Burnside’s name, to halt without passing over the Union works, which order he obeyed. Colonel Loring went off to report to General Burnside, came back, and reported that the order was peremptory for the colored division to advance at all hazards.
The division then started in, moved by the left flank, under a most galling fire, passed around the crater on the crest on the debris, and all but one regiment passed beyond the crater. The fire upon them was incessant and severe, and many acts of personal heroism were done here by officers and men. Their drill for this object had been unquestionably of great benefit to them, and had they led the attack, fifteen or twenty minutes from the time the debris of the explosion had settled would have found them at Cemetery Hill, before the enemy could have brought a gun to bear on them.
But the leading brigade struck the enemy’s force, which I had previously reported as massed in front of the crater, and in a sharp little action the colored troops captured some two hundred prisoners and a stand of colors, and recaptured a stand of colors belonging to a white regiment of the Ninth Corps. In this almost hand-to-hand conflict the colored troops became somewhat disorganized, and some twenty minutes were consumed in re-forming; then they made the attempt to move forward again. But, unsupported, subjected to a galling fire from batteries on the flanks, and from infantry fire in front and partly on the flank, they broke up in disorder and fell back to the crater, the majority passing on to the Union line of defenses, carrying with them a number of the white troops who were in the crater and in the enemy’s intrenchments.(1)
Had any one in authority been present when the colored troops made their
(1) A field-officer of one of the colored regiments [Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Bross] seized a stand of United States colors as he saw his men faltering when they first met the withering fire of the enemy, and mounting the very highest portion of the crest of the crater waved the colors zealously amid the storm of shot and canister. The gallant fellow was soon struck to the earth.
While this was taking place an amusing occurrence happened in the crater. As the colored column was moving by the left flank around the edge of the crater to the right, the file-closers, on account of the narrowness of the way, were compelled to pass through the mass of white men inside the crater. One of these file-closers was a massively built, powerful, and well-formed sergeant, stripped to the waist — his coal-black skin shining like polished ebony in the strong sunlight. As he was passing up the slope to emerge on the enemy’s side of the crest he came across one of his own black fellows, who was lagging behind his company, evidently with the intention of remaining inside the crater, out of the way of the bullets. He was accosted by the sergeant with “None ob yo’ d–n skulkin’, now,” with which remark he seized the culprit with one hand, and, lifting him up in his powerful grasp by the waistband of his trousers, carried him to the crest of the crater, threw him over on the enemy’s side, and quickly followed.—W. H. P.
charge, and had they been supported, even at that late hour in the day, there would have been a possibility of success; but when they fell back and broke up in disorder, it was the closing scene of the tragedy. The rout of the colored troops was followed up by a feeble attack from the enemy, more in the way of a reconnoissance than a charge; but the attack was repulsed by the troops in the crater and in the intrenchments connected therewith, and the Confederates retired.
It was now evident that the enemy did not fear a demonstration from any other quarter, as they began to collect their troops for a decisive assault. On observing this I left the crater and reported to General Ledlie, whom I found seated in a bomb-proof with General Ferrero, that some means ought to be devised for withdrawing the mass of men from the crater without exposing them to the terrific fire which was kept up by the enemy; that if some shovels and picks could be found, the men in an hour could open a covered way by which they could be withdrawn; that the enemy was making every preparation for a determined assault on the crater, and, disorganized as the troops were, they could make no permanent resistance. Not an implement of any kind could be found; indeed, the proposition was received with disfavor. Matters remained in statu quo until about 2 p. M., when the enemy’s anticipated assault was made.
About 9:30 A. M. General Meade had given positive orders to have the troops withdrawn from the crater. To have done so under the severe fire of
the enemy would have produced a stampede, which would have endangered the Union lines, and might possibly have communicated itself to the troops that were massed in rear of the Ninth Corps. General Burnside thought, for these and other reasons, that it would be possible to leave his command there until nightfall, and then withdraw it. There was no means of getting food
or water to them, for which they were suffering. The midsummer sun caused waves of moisture produced by the exhalation from this mass to rise above the crater. Wounded men died there begging piteously for water, and soldiers extended their tongues to dampen their parched lips until their tongues seemed to hang from their mouths. Finally, the enemy, having taken advantage of our inactivity to mass his troops, was seen to emerge from the swale [see cut, p. 554] between the hill on which the crater was situated and that of the cemetery. On account of this depression they could not be seen by our artillery, and hence no guns were brought to bear upon them. The only place where they could be observed was from the crater. But there was no serviceable artillery there, and no infantry force sufficiently organized to offer resistance when the enemy’s column pressed forward. All in the crater who could possibly hang on by their elbows and toes lay flat against its conical wall and delivered their fire; but not more than a hundred men at a time could get into position, and these were only armed with muzzle-loading guns, and in order to re-load they were compelled to face about and place their backs against the wall.
The enemy’s guns suddenly ceased their long-continued and uninterrupted fire on the crater, and the advancing column charged in the face of feeble resistance offered by the Union troops. At this stage they were perceived by our artillery, which opened a murderous fire, but too late. Over the crest and into the crater they poured, and a hand-to-hand conflict ensued. It was of short duration, however; crowded as our troops were, and without organization, resistance was vain. Many men were bayoneted at that time—some probably that would not have been, except for the excitement of battle. About 87officers & and 1052 men of the Ninth Corps were captured, the remainder retiring to our own lines, to which the enemy did not attempt to advance.
(1)Among tho captured was General William F. was standing in the crater, a shot was beard to Bartlett. Earlier in the war he had lost a leg, strike with the peculiar thud known to those who which he replaced with one of cork. While he have been in action, and the general was seen to totter and fall. A number of officers and men immediately lifted him, when he cried out, “Put me any place where I can sit down.” “But you are wounded, General, aren’t you?” was the inquiry. “My leg is shattered all to pieces,” said he. “Then you can’t sit up,” they urged; “you’ll have to lie down.” “Oh, no!” exclaimed the general, “it’s only my cork leg that’s shattered!“—W. H. P.
In the engagements of the 17th and 18th of June, in order to obtain the position held by the Ninth Corps at the time of the explosion, the three white divisions lost 29 officers and 348 men killed; 106 officers and 1851 men wounded; and 15 officers and 554 men missing,—total, 2903. From the 20th of June to the day before the crater fight of July 30th these same divisions lost in the trenches 12 officers and 231 men killed; 44 officers and 851 men wounded; and 12 men missing,— total, 1150. These casualties were caused by picket and shell firing, and extended pretty evenly over the three divisions. The whole of General Willcox’s division was on the line for thirty days or more without relief. General Potter’s and General Ledlie’s divisions had slight reliefs, enabling those officers to draw some of their men off at intervals for two or three days at a time.
In the engagement of July 30th the four divisions of the Ninth Corps had 52 officers and 376 men killed; 105 officers and 1556 men wounded; and 87 officers and 1652 men captured,— total, 3828.
It was provided in General Meade’s order for the movement that the cavalry corps should make an assault on the left. Two divisions of the cavalry were over at Deep Bottom. They could not cross the river until after the Second Corps had crossed, so that it was late in the day before they came up. Indeed, the head of the column did not appear before the offensive operations had been suspended. As General James H. Wilson had been ordered to be in readiness, and in view of the unavoidable delay of General Sheridan, orders were sent to Wilson not to wait for General
Sheridan, but to push on himself to the Weldon railroad. But the length of the march prevented success; so no attack was made by the cavalry, except at Lee’s Mills, where General Gregg, encountering cavalry, drove them away in order to water his horses. The Fifth Corps and the Eighteenth Corps remained inert during the day, excepting Turner’s division of the Tenth Corps (temporarily attached to the Eighteenth), which made an attempt on the right of the crater, but it happened to be just at the time that the colored troops broke up; so his command was thrown into confusion, and fell back to the trenches.
In this affair the several efforts made to push troops forward to Cemetery Hill were as futile in their results as the dropping of handfuls of sand into a running stream to make a dam. With the notable exception of General Robert B. Potter, there was not a division commander in the crater or connecting lines, nor was there a corps commander on the immediate scene of action; the result being that the subordinate commanders attempted to carry out the orders issued prior to the commencement of the action, when the first attack developed the fact that a change of these plans was absolutely necessary.(1)
(1) A revised table that has been prepared for publication in the ” Official Records ” shows the loss of the Ninth Corps to have been 50 officers and 423 men killed, 124 officers and 1552 men wounded, and 79 officers and 1277 men captured or missing=3475. The total loss at the mine (including Turner’s division of the Tenth Corps) was 504 killed, 1881 wounded, and 1413 captured or missing = 3798. General Mahone states that the number of prisoners taken was 1101. The loss in Lee’s army is not fully reported. Elliott’s brigade lost 677 and that was , probably more than half of the casualties on the Confederate side.-EDITORS.
- Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, pages 545-560 ↩