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NP: September 16, 1878 Petersburg Index-Appeal: A Terrible Story of the Crater

Editor’s Note: Transcribed by Jackie Martin.




[Correspondence of the Jacksonville (Ala.) Republican.]

     In your issue of the 17th instant I notice an article, the first sentence of which asks the question, “Can a person’s hair turn white within a short time?”  Having seen such an instance, and one that can be authenticated beyond all cavil, by persons now living, I will give you and your readers the circumstances as they occurred, when, where, and who they are.

When Grant sprang the “mine,” or “blowup,” as many call it, in front of Petersburg, Va., at twilight on the morning of the 30th of July, 1864, the point immediately over it was occupied by a Virginia battery1.  The ditches on the right immediately next to the battery were occupied by the Twenty-second South Carolina Volunteers, Col. [David G.] Fleming.  On the left of the battery the ditches were occupied by the Eighteenth South Carolina, Col. W[illiam]. H. Wallace, (now Judge Wallace, of South Carolina,) of which regiment I was surgeon.  All along our lines our soldiers had dug out small bomb-proofs, as they called them.  These bomb-proofs were generally about four feet broad, three feet high and 7 feet long—large enough for two or three men to crawl into and sleep with comparative comfort and safety, which they did when off duty, during that never-to-be forgotten siege by every man who participated therein.

In one of the bomb-proofs on the extreme right of the Eighteenth South Carolina Volunteers, and just to the left of the mine, Lieut. Williard [Hilliard?] Hill, Company E and Sergt. [Charner S.] Greer, Company A, Eighteenth South Carolina Volunteers, having been relieved from duty an hour before, were sleeping.  The first they realized of it was the shock, then a deep darkness, then a consciousness that the mine had been sprung, and that they had been buried, how deep they could not imagine.  Their first impulse was a deep indescribable despair—heart-sickening, heart-rendering hopelessness, that left them almost powerless for a time.  But what could they do?  They had nothing to dig out with but a bayonet that Sergt. Greer had in his belt, and there was but a canteen of water in the cell.  But what was going on above them?  Grant had consummated the most diabolical of all deeds of a terrible war.  I was within 180 yards of it on my morning visit to my regiment, and it was just at that time of day—twilight—that even trees can look like ghosts, and that added to the weird scene of death.  Simultaneous with the deep, dead sound, and quiver of the earth, there arose in the air a cloud of dust and smoke, and timbers, men and muskets, and all manner of shapes and fragments were flying in every direction—and then for a moment a stillness—and it seemed as if every cannon on the whole Federal line was turned loose upon our lines.  Shells shrieked through the air—musket balls and fragments of shell fell in every direction, plowing up the earth and cutting off limbs from the few trees that the relentless hand of war had spared.  Then came the charge.  Negro troops in front with splendidly caparisoned troops of the Federal army behind, driving them, as it were, to the front, like sheep to slaughter, with the battle-cry of “Remember Fort Pillow,” and the few—the very few—that survived no doubt remember the crater of Grant full as well.

High above all the confusion and smoke and dust and groans of the wounded, could be heard the battle-cry of the Federal, and the words of encouragement of gallant officers—the few that are left of the Eighteenth and Twenty-second South Carolina Volunteers, and of those brave Virginians whose battery was buried in a common grave with nearly every soldier who manned it.  But the Confederate lines were broken in twain.  Federals and negroes had made breastworks of the boulders that were blown up by the explosion.  But they were not to stay there.  Soon came General Mahone with reinforcements; and, after one of the most gallant fights of all the war, he carried the works, and the Crater turned to a grave for its captors.  I had heard of pools of blood—it was there that I saw them.  Then silence reigned, that painful silence which always follows on the battle-field after death has held high carnival.

Then came the sad duty of counting up the cost.  My brigade had suffered severely—the Twenty-Second South Carolina had lost its gallant Col. Fleming, and many a brave soldier.  My regiment had lost 163 men.  Two whole companies, A and C, Eighteenth South Carolina had not a man left, who was on duty, to tell the tale.  One hundred and one of my men, including Capts. McComich and Birdgis were dead—buried in the crater or scattered along the works—and 62 missing.

Among the missing are Lieut. Hill and Sergt. Greer.  We left them in their almost living grave; Greer digging with his bayonet, while Hill passed back the dirt, with all the desperation of despair.  They hear not, heed not, the battle that is raging above them, but toil on.  Often hope would spring up in their hearts to give way only to despair.  Hill has often told me how, when he awoke to a consciousness of his condition, the thoughts that flashed through his brain like lightning; how he thought if he could only see one ray of light, or breathe the fresh air once again; that if he could only let his wife know how and where he died, that death would be a relief to him.  Almost suffocated for want of fresh air, they worked on; at last, it seemed to them that something had crushed them; they had dug through the loose boulders, and the light burst upon them.  They both, overcome with the sudden transition from their suffocation and despair to light and hope, fainted.  How long they remained there they know not.  When they awoke from their swoon the first sound that broke on their ears was the clash of arms, and the quick rolling roar of the battle as it raged around and above.  Almost in stupor, trying to realize that they could again see the light of heaven, and hear the voice of a living creature, they lay still until they recovered their minds enough to know what was going on.  Hill has often told me that when he knew and realized that it was a battle, the sound was the sweetest music that had ever greeted his ears.  At last the cry of victory rose high above everything else.  They knew that somebody was vanquished, and that somebody was victor, who, they knew not.  They emerged from their awful retreat, weak, worn in body, and with minds almost crazed.  They knew not how long they had been there; they did not even know their old comrades.  Nor could they realize that it was the same day that they were buried.

They were brought back to me at the field hospital, more dead than alive, for, strange as it may seem, they were the most sadly changed men that I ever beheld.  Both were fine looking soldiers before, now they were weak, with sunken cheeks and eyes.  Lieut. Hill, whose hair 24 hours before was black, without a single gray hair in it (as he was only 30 years old) was now almost as white as snow.  Whether it turned from horror at his condition, or the deathly heat of his subterranean bed, or both, I do not pretend to say.  I simply give the facts, not as I heard, but as I saw them, and he still lives to verify that this is no romance, but one of my experiences in a war whose first gun I heard fired and last gun of which sounded the requiem of the lost cause when I was at my post on duty.                                           HUGH TOLAND, M. D.2

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  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: The “Virginia battery” was Pegram’s Petersburg Branch Virginia Artillery.
  2. “A Terrible Story of the Crater.” Petersburg Index-Appeal. September 16, 1878, p. 1 col. 5-6
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