Editor’s Note: Gary Skinner sent along this letter from an anonymous member of the 11th Massachusetts Battery (we’re working on finding his identity) to his friend Mille Stevens just after the Battle of the Crater. Gary makes the letter available from his private collection. This transcription is used with his express written consent and may not be reproduced without Gary’s permission. All rights reserved.
[SOPO Editor’s Note: Gary writes: “Letter on embossed paper to friend Mille Stevens. Dated Aug 4th, 1864. Sent from Washington D.C. to Chelmsford, Massachusetts.”]
11th Mass Battery
2nd Division, 9th AC
Before Petersburg, VA
Aug 4th, 1864
Dear Friend Millie,
Your favor of July 20th was received some time ago, and I beg pardon for not answering ere this, but I have had no opportunity to write any until this morning since July 22nd for this reasoning. Capt. Jones1 has been sick with an intermittent the fever since July 22nd and I have had the sole care of him day and night, consequently I have had no chance to write any letters. I am not well myself as it has worn on me, and I feel all beat out. He is much better today and I am in hopes he will continue so, if I have a few days rest I shall feel better I hope, as it is now, I am miserable and fear I shall not be able to write you a very interesting letter.
You remember I have written you from time to time of the mining operations part of the ninth corps under a large rebel fort. Last week the mining operations were finished, the powder was carried in (6 tons) on Thursday and Friday, and Saturday morning was fixed upon for an attack by our corps.2
At 4:00 AM Saturday morning the fort was blown up, killing a large number of rebels, mostly South Carolina soldiers and dismantling their guns, throwing the dirt in all directions.3 I was up to the front and I will never forget what a noise the explosion made, this was the signal for artillery to open, and immediately our batteries on the line, and others “some 200 guns” opened a terrific fire on the rebels and kept up our fire about 4 hours. In the meantime our infantry charged on the rebel works and took the 1st line, then charged on the 2nd . When the 4th division of our corps (colored) were brought into position, everything indicated success for us, the rebels were leaving their guns and works, but when they saw the colored troops they charged on them, driving them in disorder back to our works, and they rushing back so it tended to confuse our white soldiers, and no commanding officers to be found to rally them for the simple reason that they were in the rear drunk, incapable of doing anything.4 That our gallant boys were defeated with great (loss in?) killed and wounded, besides losing several stands of colors, and we are now in the same position we were before the attack. It was an unfortunate affair, it being the first defeat we have experienced in the army of the Potomac since the campaign opened. It was not the fault of our brave soldiers by no means, but can be summed up in 3 letters “rum was the cause of it”.
On Monday a flag of truce was sent out to bring off the wounded and bury the dead. I went out onto the late battlefield and truly it was a sad sight to view, one I shall never forget. Our wounded had been laying between the two lines for 48 hours in the hot sun, only 21 (one) alive for brought off the field and their wounds were alive with maggots. You could not distinguish a white man from a colored one, all turned black. (&c)
I saw the rebel general Hill and other officers. Hill is a splendid looking man. It seemed odd to see our man and the Johnnies trading when only a short time before they were trying to kill each other. I conversed was several of them and they all said if the colored troops had been kept out of the fight, we would have gained the day, but when they saw them they were determined not to surrender to them, but if some of the Generals commanding certain divisions had been in their right mind as they should have been, no such disaster would have occurred to us. Our boys felt disheartened at first, but are ready to try again and I think we will not be so unlucky. I suppose the matter will be kept quiet as to the cause, but it will work out sooner or later by letters sent north from the soldiers. I Trust the officers who are guilty will be punished as they deserve and receive the just merit do them for the conduct unbecoming in an officer and a gentleman.
General Burnside feels mortified at our defeat and I hear from good authority that several officers in the corps will be court martialed.
I am happy to say although our batteries were under a severe fire from the rebel artillery and musketry, none of our boys were killed or wounded. Since I wrote to you though, we have had a 3 men wounded severely. Probably one of them will lose the use of his left arm. The battery is still in position on the skirmish line of having been there since July 5th. The weather out here is very hot, but not dusty as we have at last had our long looked for (rain storm).
In your letter you ask me why I thought you would take offense in sending you the relic I did in my last, it was this, on account of our short acquaintance. (&c)
Lieutenant Booth is the identical party that used to be to our late parties (“never to be forgotten”) accompanied with his wife. “Don’t you remember him now” I saw him today and wished me to give you his compliments when I wrote.
Did not you flatter me a little too much in your conclusion of your last letter about dancing (&c) I am afraid I shall begin to feel as if I was quite an “important individual by and by”.
You also spoke about keeping my letters. I have every letter now in my (valise?) I have received since the campaign opened. Rather a I mean since I left Massachusetts. I keep them all separated and mark on the outside of the wrapper. I have them enclosed in what party said letters were received from (&c) “No trouble at all”.
I suppose you are still enjoying yourself mistaking I belong to “can’t get away club” and consequently must be contended with my lot. If I was well, I should feel much better contented, but probably shall soon as nothing serious is the matter with me, only tired out. I must close now as Capt. J. (Jones) has woke up and I must bathe his head. Trusting to hear from you soon, I will bid you good afternoon.
I remain as ever your friend
(?) [Closeup of signature is shown below. Can YOU identify what is written?]
Thursday afternoon 4 ½ P.M.5
Closeup of signature:
Envelope used to send the letter:
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Captain Edward J. Jones was the commander of the 11th Massachusetts Battery. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This mining was of course carried out by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants and the miners of his 48th Pennsylania, leading up to the Battle of the Crater. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Members of the 18th South Carolina and 22nd South Carolina of Elliott’s SC Brigade plus members of Pegram’s Petersburg Branch Artillery were blown up in this explosion. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Ninth Corps division commanders Edward Ferrero and James H. Ledlie were observed in a rear bombproof drinking liquor during the attack. You can read the entire court of inquiry into what happened at the Crater here. ↩
- Anonymous member of the 11th Massachusetts Battery. “Letter to Mille Stevens 4 Aug. 1864.” 1864. TS. Private collection of Gary Skinner. Used with written permission. All rights reserved. ↩