SOPO Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Kelly Goodwin, who sent me this reminiscence of her ancestor from her family’s private collection. Reuben P. H. Morris was only 16 ½ years old when he wrote this reminiscence of “[his] first battle” in October 1864. And what a first battle it was! Young Reuben had lied about his age and used his birth parents’ last name of Jones to enlist in the 2nd Michigan in 1864. He had the singular misfortune of experiencing his first major battle in one of the nastiest fights of the entire war at the Crater on July 30, 1864. Morris had just turned 16 when the battle was fought. He and the rest of Ledlie’s Division went through a maelstrom of hell on earth that day. Fortunately for young Morris (and us!) he came out fine on the other end and lived to write this account. As far as I and Kelly know this truly amazing reminiscence has never before been seen outside of the family. Read on to find out what Reuben thought of his first battle of the war…
My First Battle
During the month of July, 1864, General Burnside, commanding the 9th Army Corps [IX/AotP] , had been engaged in working a mine under one of the Rebel forts in front of Petersburg, Va.1 It was only about three hundred yards from our lines. He thought by blowing it up that fort, we could take the City by assault. The mine was finished about the 28th and the 30th [of July 1864] appointed for the day of Battle.2
Our Division [3/IX/AotP] had been doing picket duty for a few days on the extreme left near the Weldon R[ail]. R[oad]. about ten miles from the horse shoe as it was called, when the assault was to be made. So about 4 o’clock P.M. of the 29th [of July, 1864] every man received four days rations and sixty rounds of cartridges, and and told to strike back and be ready to march by dark. We started at eight o’clock [P.M. on the night of July 29, 1864], all loud talking and rattling of firearms strictly prohibited and to march as still quietly as possible, to keep the Rebels from noticing anything unusual.
We arrived at the horseshoe about twelve o’clock that night [midnight on the night of July 29-30, 1864] took our place in the second line of battle, boiled some coffee and [?] eat our supper, then laid ourselves down to sleep till four o’clock [on the morning of July 30, 1864], wondering who would bite the dust before another night.
At four we were roused up, had our breakfast, ordered to put our knapsacks in pile so we would have nothing to impede our movements. Forty extra rounds of cartridges given us, then moved forward to a ravine, about a quarter of a mile from the first line of battle.
It was now time for the explosion, but it seems the fuze went out. It was soon fixed and lighted again. It was now daylight, a beautiful, quiet, summer morning. But the stillness was soon to be broken by the dreadful carnage of battle. Little did those men in the Rebel fort know or think it was the last morning they would see.
All at once we saw a great cloud
of earth and smoke rise suddenly rise up about two hundred feet in the air, [proved?] seeming to hang there a moment, then as it began to settle came the crack, and at the same moment two hundred cannon opened their Iron mouths and sent their missiles of death into the Rebel line. It was like an earthquake, the ground shook so we could hardly stand.
Then the first Brigade [1/3/IX/AotP] was ordered to charge over the works they went with a shout, the 27th Mich[igan] leading the way. Then we [2/3/IX/AotP] were ordered forward to support them – and for two hours we lay on the ground under the hottest fire I ever saw. Then Col. [Charles V.] DeLand of E[ast]. Sag[inaw]., commanding the First Mich[igan] sharpsooters was ordered to take the second Brig., consisting of the 1st [Michigan Sharpshooters], 2nd [Michigan], + 20[th] Mich[igan], 60th Ohio, 49th [Massachusetts] + 52nd Mass[achusetts] Reg[imen]ts3 and take the hill on the right of the fort.4 Just as we started one of the men in the 20th Mich[igan] was struck in the back with one of our own shell which burst as it struck. I was about five feet from him, and the
concussion knocked me over. I lay there a moment then got up and felt of myself all over to see if I was hit, but found I was all right, only a little nervous.5
We formed behind our works fixed bayonets and over the works we went yelling like demons, but the Rebels poured in such a storm of leaden hail, we fell back turned to the left and entered the ruins of the fort that had been blown up, but they soon made it too hot for us there and charged us, and we had to get out of that place pretty lively. I believe any one could have ridden on my coat tail and where + when I got back inside of our own works I could only find about a dozen of our Reg[imen]t there the Negro Div[ision] [Ferrero’s Fourth Division, Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac] which had been held in reserve was ordered in but they soon came back, cut all to pieces, the fight was kept up until dark, but we made nothing of it and Petersburg didn’t
fall that day. That night I went hunting up my Reg[imen]t and only found thirty seven and what made us feel worse, we lost our Colors, as also did the First [Michigan] + Twentieth Mich[igan] Reg[imen]ts, one of the Captains who had carried the flag through more than twenty engagements cried like a babe.
The next morning [July 31, 1864] what a sight met our gaze[.] [F]rom our lines to the Rebel works the ground was covered with the Dead and wounded. They lay so thick I believe I could have walked across on the bodies. The wounded would wave their hands and cry for water. We soon had out a flag of truce, and both sides turned in to bury the Dead and care for the wounded.
A Battle had been fought—some four thousand killed and wounded and nothing gained. Our [2nd Michigan] Reg[imen]t lost forty three (43) out of 140. The 30th of July 1864 will long be remembered by me.
Reuben P. H. Morris. Oct 13th 1864. Wabash College6
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- SOPO Editor’s Note: The fort was in what was called Pegram’s or Elliott’s Salient. The famous story of the mine dug by Pennsylvania coal miners in Henry Pleasants’ 48th Pennsylvania has been told so many times that I’ll let you find an account for yourself. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was, of course, the famous July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 49th and 52nd Massachusetts regiments were never at the Siege of Petersburg and were no longer even in existence, much less in Morris’ Brigade. He must have forgotten some of the other non-Michigan units in his brigade. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This hill was Cemetery Hill, which housed Blandford Cemetery. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: “Only a little nervous” he says! A man was obliterated in front of him while he was five feet away and Morris walked away unhurt. ↩
- Morris, Reuben P. H. My First Battle. Collection of Kelly Goodwin Winder, Georgia. Used with express written consent. All rights reserved for both the images and the transcription. Do not reproduce. ↩