Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
A Story of the Battle of the Crater.
The CONSTITUTION of December 11 publishes what purports to be an account of the battle of the Crater. It is perfectly evident to the writer, as to every other participant in that struggle, that F. D. M. knows nothing about what he attempts to describe. Nor does he believe that F. D. M. belonged to the gallant Virginia brigade, which had been commanded by General Mahone, and which at that time was commanded by Colonel Weisiger2. The exploits of that brigade were too glorious to need bolstering by claiming everything done upon a battlefield as the result of its action, to the disparagement of other troops. The writer does not wish to detract one iota of glory from the bright halo surrounding this brigade, believing, as he does, after witnessing many of its gallant feats, that it was the equal of any body of men that ever faced a foe upon the battlefield. Indeed, he believes that, on a charge, it surpasses any brigade of the army of Northern Virginia. This is saying a great deal, as by its side on many a stubbornly fought field stood Harris’ Mississippi and Wilcox’s Alabama3. These three, during the last year of the war, gave that reputation to Mahone’s division, which made it as famous on the side of the enemy as upon that of Northern Virginia.
The writer has not seen the scene of conflict around Petersburg since the Fall of 1864, but it is as vivid in his memory as if but yesterday. F. D. M. locates Fort Monroe on the Jerusalem plank road, and Fort Steadman just opposite. During the last half of June, the whole of July, August and September, 1864, the Alabama brigade of Mahone’s division occupied the main line of fortifications in rear of Fort Mahone, which was an advance work, and which was occupied only during attacks upon the enemy, it being completely commanded by the main line. During the time above mentioned the Eighth Alabama, in connection with the Washington Artillery, of New Orleans4, garrisoned battery No. 45, about one hundred yards immediately to the rear of said fort. It is located about one mile to the right of the point, where the works crossed the Jerusalem road, Fort Steadman about one thousand yards to its left, and about the same distance from said road. Opposite to Fort Steadman the Southern works make an abrupt turn, forming a considerable angle. Fort Steadman was built with two faces; one commanding the side of the angle extending to Southwest, the other, that which extended to Northwest. It also had an enfilade fire upon Fort Mahone.
The day before the explosion of the mine on the Jerusalem road severe fighting had taken place in the vicinity of Fort Harrison, North of the James. The whole of the army of Northern Virginia, except the division of Mahone, of A. P. Hill’s corps, had been concentrated there under the command of General Longstreet. Beauregard’s troops occupied the line at Petersburg, from the Appomattox to the angle and Mahone extended this line to near the shot tower South of the city.
General Grant’s plan of campaign was an excellent one, and ought to have succeeded. He concentrated the greater part of his army to the North of the James in front of Richmond, intending to take that place by direct assault, if not met by an opposing force strong enough to prevent; but, in case he found too strong an opposition to overcome, to march back to the front of Petersburg during the night, explode the mine, and carry Petersburg, thus forcing the evacuation of Richmond by severing its communication with the South. He soon discovered the army of Virginia in such force in his front as to render the first part of this plan hopeless, and proceeded to the execution of the second. The facts show, that although General Lee did not know of the intended explosion of the mine, nor of the concentration in front of the place to be blown up, yet he expected an attack at Petersburg. Only Mahone’s division of his army of Virginia was at that place; yet he and General A. P. Hill both remained, when the army marched to the North of the James. The whole force at Petersburg received orders the night previous to take their places in the fortifications at 2 a.m., and to remain in line until further orders. The troops were accordingly aroused at that hour, and formed ready for action. About the break of day, they began to struggle back into their blankets, grumbling, as usual, about being disturbed. All of a sudden, a furious cannonade was opened upon their lines by the enemy, from Ft. Mahone to the Appomattox. Those who had crawled into their blankets, lost no time in getting under the cover of the breastworks, as a perfect hurricane of shot and shell came plunging through their ranks. In about fifteen minutes, several men came down in rear of the works, covered with red clay, and reported the explosion of the mine. This occurred just before the commencement of the bombardment, the artillerymen having orders to be ready and open as soon as they saw the explosion take place. They opened so promptly as to drown the sound of the explosion before it reached us, we being about one mile away. At this time Generals Lee, Hill, and Mahone formed a group on the rising ground at the left of battery No. 45, busily peering through their field glasses in the direction of the mine. It now being broad daylight they could see what was taking place at that point. General Lee soon took his glasses from his eyes and said something to General Hill. After parlying a little, General Hill turned to General Mahone, and said something. The men of the eighth Alabama, nearest where they were standing, reported the following conversation:
General Lee—General Hill, take your command, and retake that position.
General Hill—General Beauregard lost the position, and military etiquette requires that he have an opportunity to retake it. I will stretch out Mahone’s division and relieve his troops, and let him retake it.
General Lee—You retake the position, and we will talk about military etiquette afterward.
General Hill—General Mahone, take your command and recapture that position.
General Mahone—I do not need my whole division. I can retake it with two brigades.
General Mahone then strode to his horse, mounted and rode off towards the right of his command. Weisiger’s Virginia and Wright’s Georgia brigades soon moved out of the works and moved off in a direction to bring them upon the scene of conflict facing the captured position. The tremendous cannonade of the enemy so completely drowned out every sound from the scene of the conflict that those out of sight of it could not tell how the battle was going. Stragglers reported the works blown-up, the commands in and around the position destroyed, and the enemy in full possession. Orders soon came for the Alabama brigade to report at the scene of conflict as speedily as possible. When it arrived, the crater and works for some distance to the right were found in the enemy’s possession. Weisiger’s brigade had charged with its usual gallantry driving, with great slaughter, the attacking column, which was formed in four lines, back to the works; and had recaptured these to the left of the crater. It was intended that Wright’s brigade should retake the remainder, but half of the regiments failing to come to the scratch, the others, upon charging, found themselves too weak to cope with the force in possession. They obliqued to the left, and entered the works retaken by Weisiger. General Mahone, upon seeing this, ordered up the Alabama brigade. When it arrived he conducted it up a covered way and placed it opposite that portion of the line still in the possession of the enemy. It remained in this position for some time before being ordered forward. Near 12 p.m. the following instructions were received from General Mahone, and by their strict observance the fire of the artillery was very nearly avoided, as the artillerymen failed to observe the advance until close upon the infantry: “Advance as rapidly as possible, charging with the bayonet, without halting to fire, and without cheering.” As soon as these had been transmitted to the whole line, the order forward was given. Jumping out of the covered way at a single bound, a wild rush was made for the captured works. One gun, which had been dug out of the debris of the explosion, opened upon the line, and the enemy’s infantry poured in a heavy fire. The forts in the rear of their line opened more than a hundred guns, but were so late in doing so that their fire mostly passed over our heads and did but little damage. Paying no attention to all this, the brigade dashed up so close that the enemy was almost within reach of its bayonets.
Pausing then for an instant, a well directed volley from the whole line was sent right into their faces. The brigade then sprang upon them with the bayonet, and swept them from the works to the right of the crater as quickly and as effectually as the forest is swept from the path of a cyclone. But the crater was so densely packed that to spring upon the bayonet was to be impaled. Seeing this, when upon the point of springing into it, the Eighth Alabama closed around the South side of it, while the Eleventh took up a similar position on the opposite side. Every man on the inside, who dared to raise his head above the edge, was instantly killed. When no head was in sight, the rifles were laid over the edge and the balls sent into the dense mass packed so closely that not one could pass without striking several persons. The Cohorn mortar batteries, which had been brought forward and placed in the covered way from which the brigade started on its charge, and which had been firing all the while the brigade occupied that position, continued to drop their shells amid this mass of flesh. Those of the enemy who attempted to flee from the crater and from the line to the right were compelled to pass in full view of a portion of Weisiger’s line, and very few escaped the well-directed fire that greeted them from that quarter. As soon as the crater was surrounded, a white flag was displayed; but no attention was paid to this, as “no quarter” had been the enemy’s battle cry at the beginning of the battle, and our stunned and wounded men had been mercilessly bayoneted by the negro troops. The brigade had been informed of this before it entered upon the charge, and instructed by General Mahone to show them what this cry meant. Soon after the appearance of the first flag a second made its appearance, and then a third. But they were not heeded until General Mahone came along and remarked that we had better let them surrender, as enough had been done to show the meaning of the cry of no quarter. The firing ceased, and those able to travel were ordered to the rear. But comparatively few of these escaped, as Weisiger’s brigade turned in the works and fired upon them as they ran across the field for more than a quarter of a mile. The large forts upon the other side opened all their guns upon them, being led to believe by the action of Weisiger’s men that they were our men repulsed.
Out of about nine hundred that surrendered only three hundred reached the shelter to the rear. Weisiger’s brigade killed with the bayonet everything it met during its charge. The field in rear of the crater was thickly dotted with the slain, and in many places along the trenches they were piled three and four deep. When these were thrown out, the blood remained shoe mouth deep. The day was the hottest that the Alabama troops ever had experienced, and was said to be the hottest in Virginia for thirty years. Under the rays of the sun, the stench of powder and blood which arose was terrible to endure. In an hour not more than one in ten of the troops remained in the line, and many of these were vomiting. If the attack of the enemy had been renewed the position, and the city would have been taken.
If the enemy upon entering after the explosion had dashed upon the only battery left to oppose them; and had proceeded in the usual manner, to sweep the line to the right and to the left of the break; instead of halting to dress the lines, and advance in dress parade style, the day would have ended in great disaster to the Confederates.
Only two batteries of artillery and six companies of infantry belonging to a South Carolina regiment were destroyed by the explosion. The batteries were immediately over the mine, and were blown into the air; the earth, etc., from the explosion, all fell to the North, on the infantry, destroying all out of the bombproofs. The infantry to the right and the left were more or less unnerved by the shock, and retreated, making but slight resistance. The losses of the enemy were stated at more than 6,000, nearly all in killed. Mahone’s two brigades lost 580 in killed and wounded. This loss was greatly in disproportion to the undertaking, but was no greater because of the rapid and desperate way in which the attack was made. The enemy were paralyzed as soon as they perceived the nature of the charge they were about to receive.—BY L[ucius]. L. McCURDY, LATE SERGEANT COMPANY D., EIGHTH REGIMENT ALABAMA VOLUNTEERS.5
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the Atlanta Constitution of November 30, 1885. Lamar Williams, who has helped me with the site in the past, sent along an image of the article referred to here, and I transcribed and published it as well. Click here or on the link in the main text above to access the original article. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Lucius McCurdy, the author of this letter, apparently had poor reading comprehension skills. Nowhere in the Atlanta Constitution letter does F. D. M. claim to have been with Mahone’s Brigade. In fact, he seems to have been in the Union army, or at least partial to the Union cause. He writes at one point, “Our men huddled up in the Crater instead of pushing on to Cemetery Hill, as ordered, and soon an enfilading fire made it as dangerous to go back as to go forward.” This implies he was a Union soldier. Several other clues in the article, such as referring to the Confederate cause as a poor one, lend credence to this idea. Feel free to read the Atlanta Constitution article and make up your own mind. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This brigade of Alabamians was commanded by Brigadier General Sanders by this time, and included the 8th Alabama, the regiment to which the writer of this article belonged. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I’m unsure which of the four companies of Washington Artillery this refers to. ↩
- “A Story of the Battle of the Crater.” Anderson (SC) Intelligencer. February 4, 1886, p. 1 col. 5-7 ↩