Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
BATTLE OF THE CRATER.
THRILLING INCIDENTS IN THE CAREER OF THE THIRD MAINE BATTERY.
All Written Especially for the Boston Journal.
I pass again over many events of interest from camp at Alexandria, Va. Bladensburg and Fort Sumner, Georgetown to Camp Barry, where we recruited in men and horses. After some time spent in drilling we received orders to join Grant’s army in front of Petersburg. We loaded our cannon and camp equipage on transports at Washington and sailed down the Potomac and up the James to City Point. I will relate a little anecdote of one “Sam” Kalock [Samuel Kalloch], a member of the Third Maine Battery, who on all occasions, when extra duty was to be done, managed to be pretty well stuffed with commissary whisky. Our Captain, E[zekiel]. R. Mayo, had often, in words, consigned “Sam” to hades for neglect of duty, so when, as usual, “Sam” did not turn up until the last cannon was to be run on board, the Captain ordered him to catch hold of that cannon and run it on deck. The hatches were open in front of the fires, and “Sam” landed head first in the coal heap. Pulling himself together, he gazed for a moment into the fiery furnace, and said: “Say, Captain! (hic) I’m (hic) here at (hic) last!”
LIFE IN A BOMB PROOF.
We landed at City Point and marched to Meade’s Station in front of Petersburg [probably on July 9, 1864].1 As we halted behind some woods a few shells from a rebel battery, as a reminder that we had been seen, caused us to fall back for the night. The next day [probably July 10, 1864] we were ordered into Fort Hell [aka Fort Sedgwick], so called from its proximity to the rebel lines. Opposite was Fort Damnation [aka Fort Mahone], a rebel fort. We lived in holes dug in the sides of the fort and only exposed ourselves to the enemy when ordered to man our guns. It was the nearest and most exposed part of the line, and at all times during the night and day the enemy kept up a constant fire, and it was sure death to whoever exposed himself to the “Johnnies” for a moment. A few trees stood outside their works, so that a sharpshooter in them commanded a fine view of our fort. Our officers’ bomb proof was struck by shells so many times one night that they became alarmed and detailed a number of the boys to go out in front of the fort to get “gabions” that had been left by the “rebs.” The writer was detailed among the rest.
It happened that I was writing a letter home, and [Private James W.] “Jimmy” McLeod, my schoolmate and friend, volunteered to go in my place. It was a risky job, crawling on hands and knees all the time, in full view of the enemy. They got the wicker baskets all right and all but McLeod came back the same way they went out, but he, thinking to save a little time, and get a good look at the enemy, threw his basket over into the fort and scrambled up after it, directly in face of a sharpshooter in the tree. The “reb” fired and McLeod tumbled over into the ditch, his good right arm hanging to his body by a slender thread. I went out and helped him into the fort. The blood from his arm ran all over me, causing me to turn pale. His face being so red the boys all thought I was wounded instead of him. His arm was amputated and he lived for years after the war, holding positions of trust in the Customs Department at Calais[in Maine]. He sleeps now with the others in the little cemetery in Calais. He was a splendid specimen of manhood, our champion in many a wrestling match with the boys in the Army of the Potomac. The “reb” that fired that shot never came down out of that tree alive, as one of our sharpshooters tumbled him down and shot four others who attempted to carry his body into their lines.
FORT HELL AND FORT DAMNATION.
No troops stand very long at one time in Fort Hell, so we were soon relieved and assigned to Burnside’s Ninth Corps. We built our redoubt at night, falling in just at dusk in the woods to the rear, and after partaking of our rations of quinine and whisky, marched in a crouched position through the various covered ways to our position in front on the crater on Cemetery Hill. What exciting times those were, how we worked to cover ourselves! The least noise would draw the fire from the pickets and guns, and many a poor fellow was mustered out while digging in the trenches. Our fort completed and our guns in position, for nights and days we kept up a constant duel with the “Johnnies.” One of their guns took a particular delight in shooting into our port holes. One shot exploded in the embankment covering up Sergeant Sanborn and Sergeant “Lou” Callagan. It was a laughable sight when we dug those fellows out. Every night the “rebs” would sing out, “When are you ‘uns going to blow we ‘uns up?” For months the mining at the fort had been going on. We knew it, but could not go near the entrance as we would be stopped by the guard.
THE MINE EXPLODED.
It had become an old story, when, on a hot sultry day in July, we knew that something was about to take place. The mine had been completed and large bodies of troops were massing in our rear. Colored troops from Bermuda Hundred, under Gen[eral Benjamin F.] Butler2, were marching through the covered ways and forming a line of battle behind the skirmish line in our front. Brigades of the Ninth Corps, composed of Massachusetts troops, stood in line of battle in the woods in our rear. From our commanding position on the hill we looked down the line of Warren’s Fifth Corps, brave boys of many a fight, all ready for the fray. The critical time had arrived. The fort was to be blown up at 4 o’clock in the morning of July 30. That was the signal for every gun to speak. Night closed in on the scene and we laid down by our guns but not to sleep but with lanyard in hand we waited anxiously for the morrow. At twenty minutes past four o’clock the fort was blown up. It shook the earth like an earthquake and we were on our feet in an instant.
THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER.
The fight had begun. Boom went the cannon in front, to the right and left. Nearly 75 pieces were all directing their fire on the crater and along the Confederate line. After the first discharge the smoke was so dense that we could not see a thing in front. We could hear the cheers of the charging infantry, when a wounded man hobbled into our redoubt and said: “You are firing into our own men.” We had no orders to stop, so kept on firing. At last an officer rode into the fort and said to Capt. Mayo “For God’s sake, stop those guns! You are killing our own men. There are no rebels along that line of works.”
We had orders to cease firing. The smoke cleared away, and, sure enough, our infantry had captured the line. The white troops of the Ninth Corps and the colored troops of Gen. Butler3 were huddled in front of the crater and along the lines to right and left. The ‘Johnnies” were running away at the sight of the fort going into the air, thinking the day of judgment had arrived. We could count 27 stands of colors planted on the fort. No forward movement was made, and there did not seem to be any officer in command, the only one present being the brave Gen. [William F.] Bartlett of Massachusetts [who commanded 1/1/IX/AotP], and he was disabled by the loss of his wooden leg. The minutes flew by, and our boys were coming back to our line in large numbers.
THE CONFEDERATE CHARGE.
The Confederates also took courage at the delay. Wild cheering rose from the woods beyond the hill and large bodies of rebel troops could be seen forming a line of battle for the charge. Why had we not advanced into Petersburg? Had the Confederates been reinforced? It was too true. Heth’s division of Gordon’s corps [sic, Mahone’s Division of A. P. Hill’s Third Corps] had made a forced march from in front of our lines at Bermuda Hundred and were now forming for the charge. We could see the Confederate officers riding up and down in front of their men with drawn swords. A wild rebel yell pierced the air, and with slouch hats drawn over the eyes and arms at trail, on they came. Every gun that could be brought to bear on that body of brave sons of the South opened fire. They swerved, they staggered, but pressed on until, unable at last to stand the terrible fire of shot and shell, they broke and retreated into the woods. Again they formed, and again they met that terrible fire.
The third time, by an oblique movement, they entered the covered way, half a mile to the left of the crater, and marched in a solid mass on our defenceless troops. We artillerymen had nothing to do but to watch the infantry fight hand to hand. Two field pieces, captured from the enemy, were manned by the boys of the Twenty-first Massachusetts. I can see them now in imagination as they flush out death and destruction on that solid mass of advancing men. Unable at last to clamber over their dead, they leaped to the bank. The flashes became less frequent, and finally the firing ceased. The battle of the Crater was over.
A TERRIBLE LOSS BUT NO GAIN.
We had gained nothing had lost 2000 men in killed and wounded, and the Confederates held the field. There was nothing for our boys to do but surrender or run back into our lines. Many attempted the latter and were shot. The ground in front was strewn with the dead and wounded. The next day was hot and sultry. A flag of truce was sent across and a parley took place, but nothing was accomplished. We understood that Lee was paying off an old debt to Grant. The day turned into night and the groans of the wounded was something terrible to listen to, but no one dared show his head above the breastworks.
The next morning [July 31, 1864] at 9 o’clock two hours was allowed to bury the dead and care for the wounded. I was detailed on the burying party. Two trenches were dug, one for the whites, the other for the blacks. I took from the pocket of one poor fellow a Testament, on the fly leaf of which was written ‘To my son James, from his affectionate mother, Harriet Woods South Framingham, Mass.” I sent it, with an account of his death, but never received an answer. If she is living to-day and reads this, I can tell her how nobly her son died for his country. He had just returned from a furlough having on a white shirt and paper collar, something unusual for a soldier.
A HORRIBLE SIGHT.
The trenches were not dug deep enough, so the dirt had to be heaped up on both sides. A heavy rain in the night washed the dirt off and when we looked from our breastworks in the morning two rows of dead stared us in the face, as if in mute appeal at somebody’s blunder. In a few days the stench from the bodies was so great that we were ordered to another part of the line. Until the surrender of Petersburg in the spring of ’65 we occupied various positions along the line from Bermuda Hundred to the Weldon Railroad. When the city was evacuated we followed the enemy to the little town of Pocahontas and there fired one last shot at the retreating foe. Falling back again into the fortifications around Petersburg, in a short time we received the joyful news of the surrender of Lee. I had the honor of saluting ‘Old Abe” as he passed through Petersburg and Richmond on his way to Washington to meet his death at the hands of an assassin.
HOME ONCE MORE.
We marched through to Washington, camped on Alexandria Heights, took part in the grand review, and in a few days were drawn up in line in front of the Soldiers’ Retreat to take the train for home. Our Captain, after many attempts to straighten the line, steadying himself against a fence made one of the best temperance lectures I think I ever heard. He said: “Boys, we are about to return to the old Pine Tree State (hic). Don’t do anything (hic) to bring discredit on your good name (hic). If there is any drinking to be done, I will do it myself! (hic).” We took the train, and all along the line were cheered and welcomed by a grateful people. After spending three weeks in Augusta we were mustered out of Uncle Sam’s service on June 17, 1865.
- SOPO Editor’s Note: According to Dyer’s Compendium, the battery moved from City Point to the front at Petersburg from July 5-9, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The writer was mistaken. These USCT regiments were part of the Ninth Corps, NOT part of Butler’s Army of the James. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: See previous note. ↩
- “Battle of the Crater.” Boston Journal. March 30, 1893, p. 3 col. 1-3 ↩