Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
How It Held The Crater and Saved Petersburg.
A Story of the Bloodiest Hand-to-Hand Conflict of the War as Told to the Veterans by Col. [F. William] M’Master—Laying and Firing the Mine.
The following paper was read Dec. 5, 1895, before Camp Hampton, Columbia, by Col. F. W[illiam]. McMaster [of the 17th South Carolina]:
Comrades—The battle of the crater or the mine, as it is sometimes called, which occurred near Petersburg, Va., July 30, 1864, was a terrible contest, and differed from any other engagement during the war of the Federals and the Confederates. It was peculiar from the fact that there was no point from which the spectator could witness the engagement, and the soldier, while fighting for his life, could not see what was transpiring around him.
This resulted from the peculiar structure of the Confederate lines. Before giving a detailed account of the battle, as I saw it, and as described by others, it will assist you to understand the character of the work, and the “locus in quo.” [SOPO Editor’s Note: The scene of the event.]
The line of defences around Petersburg has been pronounced the finest engineering of the war, and they came about in this way: General Grant outgeneraled Lee by secretly transferring his army to the south side of James river. General Beauregard repeatedly informed General Lee that Grant was crossing the river, and asked for more troops. Lee would not believe the dispatches, and battles began in which Beauregard displayed wonderful strategy. However, Lee was satisfied of his blunder in time to increase Beauregard’s troops to 11,000 men. Seeing that an attack on Petersburg was inevitable, General Beauregard instructed Colonel Harris to stake the line of new fortifications on the undulating hills about a mile and a half from Petersburg, on the east side. After the heavy battle of the 18th of June [SOPO Editor’s Note: The Second Battle of Petersburg], where the Confederates opposed 47,000 Federals, General Beauregard slipped away after dark and retired to the new line marked out by Colonel Harris, where the soldiers during the whole night, with no tools except bayonets and tin cups, entrenched themselves so securely that the enemy declined to renew the attack the next day.
You will observe this construction of breastworks was opposite to the usual mode of building military fortifications, which is to build from the outside, so the enemy will have a ditch and a breastwork to cross, and the soldiers within the breastwork can have free locomotion on level ground to the rear. By our plan we were hemmed in by a counterscarp at our back, and we could not move except in the ditch. The bank towards the enemy was finally made higher than our heads and we had to make a step called a “banquette” in order to shoot over without much exposure. These trenches ran zig-zag for some miles. The enemy made a line nearly parallel.
“Pegram’s,” sometimes called “Elliott’s” salient, was on the highest hill on the line, and the nearest to the enemy. Four cannons were placed in a semi-circular shape on the nose of the hill and pointed to the enemy. It was under the command of Captain Pegram, of Coit’s Battalion. Immediately in rear of this battery of four guns was a breastwork for infantry to protect the guns in case of an attack by the enemy. This was a very strong, wide and high breastwork, with a wide trench in the rear, which in each end terminated in the main trench, which was continuous. The distance to the enemy’s line from this “fort,” as the enemy called it, was said to be 80 yards.
On the north side of the crater (our left) the hill sloped to a branch, which passed in a culvert through our line. The distance from the crater to this branch was about 400 yards. About 300 yards down the hill was a covered way of 100 yards running northwest up the branch, near a spring. General Elliott’s headquarters was located near this spring, and at the mouth of a ravine, where Mahone and his Virginians won so much glory. This ravine runs parallel to Elliott’s line and is 200 yards distant from it. The hill slopes from the trench’s front and rear. Immediately north there were four or five traverses running to the rear perpendicular to the main trench perhaps 20 yards. These traverses were erected to protect the line from an enfilading fire of the enemy on our left.
Besides the traverses there were many ditches to obtain access to the rear. In the sides of these ditches close to the trench officers burrowed holes in which to sleep. Some of these were covered with mounds of earth. There was a ditch in the extreme rear which communicated with all the traverses and ditches. No wonder that some of the Federal officers compared this network of ditches to the catacombs of Rome!
The mine was suggested by Colonel Pleasants, who commanded a regiment from the mining region of Pennsylvania. Its main gallery was 510 feet and the lateral galleries 37 feet, under which were created eight magazines containing 1,000 pounds of powder. The mine was commenced June 25 and finished July 23. By reason of a defective fuse the explosion was delayed from 3:30 to 4:45 a. m. The dimensions of the crater proved to be 200 feet long by 50 feet wide, the explosive charge being 8,000 pounds of powder.
I will mention in passing that during the excavation, the Federals, especially at night, kept up a perpetual fusillade of musketry to deaden the sound of the picks. Bushrod Johnson, in order to discover the sound of the enemy’s picks, used a device of General Gracey’s [sic, Gracie’s], which was a pole 10 feet long, with a sharp iron ring affixed to the end, by which small holes were made in the floor of the ditch for 100 yards. Frequently while the pole was used the enemy would pierce them with bullets.
At these little wells our soldiers would listen for the picks. Besides our engineer sunk a shaft 30 feet deep in the gorge line behind Pegram’s battery, but for some cause abandoned it. A short time before the explosion Gen. Beauregard and Col. Harris stopped at my quarters, where Col. Fleming of the Twenty-Second [South Carolina] and Adjutant Quattlebaum were subsequently overwhelmed, I heard Col. Harris say, “In a week’s time they will blow us up here.”
The explosion did not blow up all the ground occupied by Pegram and the infantry in his rear; but left a few feet of his line and the gorge line—please mark this point, as the space left made a fine rallying point for troops and the Federal writers confound it with the crater proper.
Major Coit, who was with Captain Wright during the whole engagement, says Wright shot near 600 [SOPO Editor’s Note: 500?] rounds of shells and canister. It was 455 yards from the centre of the crater. Davidson’s battery of one gun on the south about 375 yards, was commanded by Maj. Gibbes of this city until he was wounded, and afterwards by Capt. Chamberlane [sic, Chamberlayne] and Maj. Haskell, who brought up two small Coehorn mortars about 11 o’clock and placed them near the crater under the order of Gen. Mahone. These batteries undoubtedly rendered more effective service than the rest of our artillery during that day. Wright’s battery was built especially to resist an assault on the salient. It was located behind the right wing of Ransom’s brigade and commanded three sides of the crater. Davidson’s single gun could not be pointed on the crater or to its rear, and could only be used on the masses as they charged the crater in the front.
The chief officers of the Federal artillery repeatedly reported that they had no difficulty in silencing the Confederate guns except two (Wright’s and Davidson’s). The reason assigned was that one gun was on the line and they expected that their infantry would take it in 15 minutes after the springing of the mine—hence they had not placed mortars to silence it and the other was so concealed by the woods that they could not locate it. Hence their failure to silence it, notwithstanding they honeycombed the ground around the battery so that you could step from hole to hole around it after the battle. Gen. Potter says: “The most formidable fire I saw came from a battery on the right, behind some timber which it was very difficult for our batteries to reach. I ordered my artillerists to turn their whole attention to it; but apparently they produced no effect.” This evidently was Wright’s battery.
There have been some extravagant publications about the rest of our artillery during the battle, but the greater part is “Vox et paeterea nihil.”[SOPO Editor’s Note: “Voice and nothing more” (i.e. nonsense)]
Outside of the artillery firing the whole force of Federal infantry was directed against Elliott’s front, except during the few minutes the charge was made on the right of Ransom’s right, just before Mahone came up. The South Carolina regiments were in the following order from left to right: Twenty-Sixth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Twenty-second, and Twenty-third. The Eighteenth and Twenty-second were blown up; only one man in Company E., of the Eighteenth survived, and at our last meeting Capt. Lake informed us that he and two others survived out of the 31 of Company G of the Twenty-second.
Adjutant Fant and myself were asleep in our bomb-proof, 10 feet from the line and about 20 yards of the blow-up. We sprung from our blankets and witnessed the greatest consternation amongst our men. The sentinels and a few others stood their ground, but the great majority, roused from their sleep, rushed down the trench. I saw one man listlessly scratching the counterscarp. Numbers of the Eighteenth who extricated themselves rushed down the trench, and a few of them, bless their brave hearts! asked me for guns.
An amusing incident occurred at this time illustrating how even the bravest men are affected in a panic. Lieut. Moss of Company E had gone to sleep with his coat off, which was contrary to orders. In relating personal experiences after the battle he said that without coat and shoes he had run down to Ransom’s brigade, and coming to his wits he cried out: “What! old Moss running!” and immediately returned to his company. The panic was not confined to our men. The Federal lines were formed for the assault and were so frightened with the sight of the earth, timber, cannon and falling human bodies that they broke ranks and it took 10 minutes to reform them.
General Hancock thus describes the scene: “July 20th [sic, 30th], 1864, 4:45 a. m. At this hour the head of our column arrived nearly in rear of the Eighteenth corps and we witnessed the explosion of an immense mine under one of the enemy’s redoubts. The earth was thrown to a great height and seemed from where we stood to rise in the air like an enormous whirlwind. The whole redoubt must have been torn to pieces and many men killed. Immediately after all our artillery opened and I have scarcely ever heard a more crushing roar of big guns. Very soon the little valley along which the entrenchments ran was covered by a heavy pal[l] of black smoke which lay suspended but a short distance above the earth, which, with the thunderous roar of the artillery, made one of the most magnificent war pictures I have ever beheld.”
General Ledlie’s division, 3,000 strong, bounced over their breastworks by companies. About 100 yards off was the crater. The abbattis [sic] and the cheveaux de fries were destroyed by the explosion. The enemy soon filled the crater and the little plateau former [sic, formed] by a part of Pegram’s trench and the gorge trench already described.
We could see through the smoke the moving masses and began a feeble fire from Elliott’s brigade and I suppose from a part of Wise’s brigade. I saw Starling Hutto of Company H, a boy of 18, standing on top of the breastwork firing at the enemy. I rushed up and pulled him down and ordered him to stand on the banquette and shoot over the breastworks.
About this time General Elliott and Major Coit arrived on the scene of action. Coit came to look after Pegram’s battery and found every man killed except one who had gone to the spring for water. Coit went to Wright’s battery, fired his guns and then the other batteries took it up. At 5:15 Wil[l]cox’s division came over his breastworks 140 yards distant. He sent some of his troops to our right. The colonel of the leading regiment was killed, which diverted his men to the crater, and we found General Hart[r]an[f]t half an hour after exhuming one of his guns in the crater. About this time General Elliott with Colonel [Alexander D.] Smith [of the 26th South Carolina] and some of his men came up to me and General Elliott directed me to follow Colonel Smith’s regiment, as he intended
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[Illegible] ne on the hill and drive the [illegible] of the crater. He climbed up [illegible] scarp and about a dozen men [illegible] followed him. In less than five [illegible] hero of Fort Sumter was [illegible] o the trench shot through [illegible] with his face to the enemy. [Illegible] me with wonderful calmness: [illegible] you must take charge of the [illegible]. [SOPO Editor’s Note: In this section, which was damaged and partly illegible, brigade commander Elliott was wounded and ceded command of the brigade over to Colonel McMaster.]
Colonels Benbow of the Second and Wallace of the Eighteenth were absent [with?] furlongs [sic, furloughs?]. At this time there was [illegible] firing about the crater, and I counted [15?] or 16 beautiful banners floating from the crest. Adjutant A. L. Evans and Captain James Lowndes of General Elliott’s staff promptly reported for duty and served faithfully throughout the day.
Believing that the only way that the enemy could reach Petersburg was by dashing to the ravine, thence taking the covered way to the crater at Cemetery hill, which they could do without the loss of a man, I immediately countermanded General Elliott’s order and ordered Col. Smith to take his regiment, the Twenty-sixth, and Captain Crawford, with the three largest companies of the Seventeenth, to hurry down to the ravine and cover the gap caused by the crater; to lie down and wait for the attack of the enemy in that direction which order they faithfully executed. I sent couriers to General Johnson for reinforcements and sent Phillips, a faithful soldier of Co. I, to the right of the crater to inform the officer there that General Elliott was shot and I was in command, and to report their condition as soon as possible. General Potter followed Wil[l]cox with 3,000 men. This made 9,000 men against about [300?] men of Elliott’s—a full estimate, deducting those in and on the right of the crater.
About this time the Federals began to advance from the plateau adjoining the crater. They first attacked Company A, which having been in the gorge line of the crater, some of them were covered with earth. Notwithstanding this the feeble squad resisted and Private Hoke, Company A, refused to surrender “to a d—d Yankee,” knocked down four of his antagonists with the butt of his musket and was bayonetted. They next attacked Company D, which was surrendered by their lieutenant and 27[?] men were captured. These men were sent to Elmira—14 died with scurvy and two died soon after their release.
Soon afterwards Capt. William Dunovant of Company C passed by me in the trench with his right arm shattered. He was a youth of only 18, and was cheerful as a lark. This devolved the command on Sergeant LaMotte of this city, who, with his men, occupied the second traverse. This traverse was assailed and the enemy repulsed with about 15 men. The company had 27 men on duty that morning, and at the close of the fight seven were killed, nine wounded, and seven made prisoners, leaving only six for duty. The enemy rested for a short time, and LaMotte suggested to Captain Steele of Company I to make a barricade of sand bags, which was soon executed. Lieut. Samuel Lowry of Company E, only 18 years of age, was shot through the head while superintending this work. A few yards below this spot I saw Lieutenant Pratt lying down in the trench, shot in the head. The night before he was at my quarters merrily chatting, and said when he got home he would plant his fine red clay farm in clover and emulate the Virginians in raising clover. I remarked that before the war was over at least one in every three would be laid beneath the sod. He gaily replied: “I do not expect to be that one.” A few yards further down I saw Lieutenant McConnell of Company B shot through the head.
A short time afterwards General Ferrero, with 4,300 buck niggers, came dashing up the hill and spread themselves along the whole line and front of the crater for [150?] yards. They hugged the breastworks. This made 13,300 men attacking our little band. During a short time Wright’s and Davidson’s batteries got in some good work.
The artillery ceased firing and the fight slackened, and Company C, Seventeenth regiment, continued to hold traverse No. 2. The first negro LaMotte saw was a lieutenant, who, sword in hand, showed his head above the rampart and was immediately killed. This was after 8 a. m. Just after that Captain Simms showed himself and was killed and fell on the ramparts. At night LaMotte returned to the spot and secured Captain Simms’ sword and a memorandum book, which he returned to his widow after the war.
About 7 o’clock my courier returned from the right of the crater and reported that Captain Shedd told him that fully half his men and Colonel [David G.] Fleming and the adjutant were buried in the blow-up, that the enemy had driven him and Major [Henry H.] Lesesne’s regiment (Twenty-third) from their breastworks, but that they had recovered their whole line and would hold it. The fact is the enemy, upon being repulsed twice on the right of the crater, ceased to make efforts in that direction, as it was out of the line of Cemetery hill, Meade’s objective point.
The battle seemed to get sluggish. Ocationally [sic, occasionally] a daring Federal would jump over the breastwork or barricade to be killed with a bayonet or club end of the musket. There was no volleying of infantry. In passing along a traverse I saw Captain Steele throwing bayonets over at the enemy. An Irishman’s voice was recognized once in “Tarke thart, Johnny,” which salutation accompanied his bayonet. I saw Sergeant LaMotte resting on one knee and pointing at the top of the traverse. Upon inquiry I found he was trying to get the drop on a soldier on the other side trying the same game. Some time before this I was anxious about my detachment in the rear, and went occasionally down a traverse to a secure place to see the detachment I had sent to the ravine, and returning I saw the men pressing down the hill. I was smoking a pipe with a long ti-ti stem. As I entered the trench it was knocked off by the crowd, and a strong man stopped the rush by crying out: “Hold on, men, the colonel can’t fight without his pipe.” He then picked up the bowl of my pipe and restored it to me.
Soon thereafter I observed that there was a small space of the trench in front of me vacant, and on stepping into it I saw two muskets which two Federal soldiers were trying to shoot around the bend down the line without exposing their bodies. The balls harmlessly entered the breastwork. I immediately concluded it was not a safe place for the commander of the brigade and hurried down the trench for a few yards.
At the risk of being garrulous I will relate another incident, especially as it concerns a private to whom I gave the wrong name in a letter I wrote Mr. Bernard of Petersburg, which he published in his elaborate book on the defences of Petersburg, “War Talks,” etc. Mr. Bernard deserves great credit for industry, patriotism and disposition to do justice. The only objection I have to Mr. Bernard is the one we soldiers had to the Richmond Examiner during the war—that all the great men were born and lived in Virginia, and all the great events happened on her soil.
To do justice to the soldier whose name was published as Dye, instead of “Free,” his true name, I must state that the principal fighting for some hours was generally hand to hand in coming down the hill from the plateau. The soldiers further shot over the breastworks and occasionally bayonetted a rash enemy who dared to jump over. The sun was intensely hot and the fighting lazy.
Joseph Free ha[d] a severe headache and he sought an officer’s den for a short time for a shade. After a few minutes he looked out and discovered that some negroes had cut him off from the trench, and he dodged back and a short time afterwards he was rescued by Mahone’s men.
After the battle, the 17th, which had been in the trenches since the 18th of June without the privilege of changing their wearing apparel, were relieved. The adjutant went to the wagonyard and heard a group of soldiers discussing the events of the battle. He happened to hear Free say: “Well men, I never prayed so hard in my life as when I saw them niggers.” The adjutant came from the same neighborhood and knowing that Free’s education was limited, said to him: “Well, Joe, what did you say in your prayer.” Joe replied: “I said, ‘God have mercy on me, and keep these d—d niggers from killing me!’” Free’s prayer was soon answered by the Intervention of Mahone.
The Seventeenth was pressed down the trench nearly 75 yards when Potter’s men made the last charge that day that was made by the enemy. General Carr, commanding the First division of the Eighteenth corps, says: “About 8:30 a. m. when General Turner was forming his command, an attempt was made by the troops on my right to charge the riflepits. I took command of a part of Turner’s troops to fill a gap in the line and charged the riflepits in front. That was 200 yards to the right of the crater. After placing the troops I stepped 10 or 15 yards towards our covered way, when the stampede began. I suppose 2,000 men came back.” “Did the enemy fire from the main line upon your party?” “Yes, sir, briskly with musketry. I do not know the exact hour, but it was about 8:30 a. m.”
This was the most terrific musketry I think I heard that day. The enemy had spread their line down to near the branch, which took in part of the right wing of Ransom’s brigade. The conformation of the ground gave Ransom’s men an opportunity to shoot to some effect, and the companies on the right of the brigade were eager to get into the fight and they pressed up the trench in the space which Smith’s regiment [SOPO Editor’s Note: 26th South Carolina] occupied and with the Seventeenth they poured a fire into Turner’s troops, and the negroes which broke up their lines and caused “the landslide” amongst the negroes. The enemy’s infantry was clearly whipped. General Turner fixes this event at 8:30 a. m.
Just about this time Lieutenant Colonel Fleming of Ransom’s brigade, near the covered way, suggested the building of a barricade in a low place in the trench where there was a bend. I accepted his suggestion and directed him to assist my men. He stepped on the banquette and fell at my feet, dead. At that moment General Johnson sent an aide to me to request my immediate presence at Elliott’s headquarters. I quickly went there and saw General Mahone, who had just arrived and asked how he should form his men. I pointed out my men in the ravine as the only place to form: and his brigade was formed to the left of Smith’s command, which had been there all day. In less than five minutes after I was introduced to Mahone, his troops began to file in. I guessed the number to be about 600. They were formed parallel to the line of entrenchment, a short space to the left and a little in advance of my detachment. General Johnson ordered me to remain with him and to turn my regiment over to my next ranking officer who at that time was Captain [James F.] Steele. We occupied a place close by Elliott’s quarters where we could see without exposure every part of Elliott’s line except the small portion south of the crater.
The first charges made from the crater and plateau to the rear of the crater was by Ledlie’s men. Fererro made a charge and there were other charges. Some officers said there were repeated charges and all of them were repulsed.
One officer who led a charge said that when he made a charge, from 200 to 400 men arose from a breastwork and drove his men back. Colonel Smith informed me after the battle that when the enemy charged, his men arose and drove them back. Captain Crawford said the enemy got about 200 men outside of the crater and before they advanced 30 yards his men drove them back. Cusack Moore, a very intelligent private of Crawford’s company, said that the Yankees made three distinct charges and were driven back each time when our men would fire the first volley—that he, with Crawford’s men and a considerable number of Smith’s men, joined Mahone’s first charge.
The findings of the court of inquiry states as a fact “that some of our troops were able to get 200 yards beyond the crater towards the crest” is erroneous. The only evidence as to advancing towards the crest is that of Colonels Thomas and Russell. They testify that in their charges some of their troops advanced “not exceeding 50 yards” and were driven back by men in the ravine (Smith’s men.) What they called the 200 yards advance was the slow progress made down our line during the four hour’s resistance made by Elliott’s men and is only 116 yards north of the crater—which is the furthest point reached by the enemy according to the map published by Mr. Bernard in his book. It was in the trench and not in the rear of the crater nor in the direction of the crest of Cemetery hill.
It took Mahone a long time to arrange his men. There was a considerable abatement in the noise of battle, and I anxiously awaited the charge. The Virginians looked eager for the combat. About 15 Federals jumped out of the main trench and quickly jumped back again. Then 30 or 40 jumped out again and began to form a line. You could hear the words, “They are going to charge,” anxiously repeated along the line. At this moment the command to charge was given, and every man sprung to his feet and ran up the hill, every man for himself, muskets in every position of trail, and “right shoulder shift,” every man tugging or himself. It vividly recalled to my mind Wellington’s order, ‘Up, guards, and at them!” as to alignment there was none. It no a drill would disgrace a West Point man, but it glorified Virginia’s soldiers. They arrived irregularly at the pits and trenches. There was a moderate fusillade—they jumped into the trenches pell mell, and the bloody work of the bayonet and clubbed musket began. Nobody could see the conflict, but it was hand to hand, and man to man. Our men, filled with fiery indignation on the sight of the negroes, and exasperated against a government which sent slaves to destroy them, fought with the ferocity of tigers and slew the negroes right and left, and the harvest of death was plentiful. The white soldiers on surrender was spared, but it was rare when mercy was extended to the negro.
In the charge Mahone’s men on the right bent to the left, the consequence was they failed to take the trench for fully 50 yards. About an hour after Mahone made the charge Wright’s brigade of Georgians charged, and after charging a few yards they suddenly bent too much to the left and covered a portion of Mahone’s right and took very little of the trench remaining in possession of the enemy, if any.
One other fact I think diverted Wright’s brigade to the left. It was that the traverses were closer. Near the crater, and there were more men packed in and around the plateau, and the firing was so severe that it naturally forced the men to the left. I think this also prevented the right of Mahone’s brigade from taking the trench next [to] the crater.
At the sound of three signal guns the Alabamians, under General Sanders, took the crater and the traverses which the previous brigade failed to accomplish. At this time the Federals turned their guns on the crater and cruelly murdered many of their own men who were escaping to their own lines. In a few minutes the tumult of war ceased and we had the quietness of peace. When our men entered the crater there was a great butchery of the enemy. Judge Clark, in the March number of the Confederate Veteran, says that while the hand-to-hand fighting was going on “Morgan Cleveland, a brave and tender-hearted man, cried out: “Why in the h-ll don’t you fellows surrender?”—with emphasis on the curse word—and a Federal close by answered quickly: “Why in the h-ll don’t you let us?” This terminated the action. Judge Clark also recites this pleasing incident: He saw General Bartlett with one leg off and helping himself out of the mine with two inverted muskets which he used as crutches. Clark said to him: “You must have nerves of steel to endure such pain.” The general replied: “I lost my real leg at Williamsburg two years ago—the one I lost today was my cork leg.”
A curious indication of the multitude of minie balls which filled the air at times that fatal day was shown by the number of “Yankee and Rebel” balls which met point to point on murder bent and fused into an amorphous lump of lead—the grooves of the butts distinctly preserved. I owned one of these rare specimens and saw three others picked up by soldiers. At this time such a union of “the Blue and the Grey” would gladden the heart of a curiosity hunter.
Banners also seemed to have been hanging around loose that day. Adjutant Fant, Seventeenth South Carolina volunteers, informed me that he captured two flags and laid them down for a moment and some of Mahone’s men spirited them off. Lieutenant Colonel Culp, having worked his way up the shelving bank of the crater, got a position close to where the prisoners came out and got possession of four banners, but caring little for such trophies, he turned them over to some privates, who rejoiced in them.
This is a short account of one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war, where more men fought hand-to-hand and more men were bayonetted and clubbed with muskets than in any other battle ever fought on this continent.
Including General Turner’s men the enemy had above 18,000 men. Elliott’s and Mahone’s troops amounted to about 3,000.
WHO SAVED PETERSBURG?
Had Petersburg been taken, Richmond would have soon followed and soon thereafter the war would have ended.
Elliott’s brigade claims that after the springing of the mine, when its numbers were reduced and the enemy had an attacking force of more than sixteen to one, it kept back the enemy for more than four hours before Mahone’s men came up; that during this period the enemy made three charges beyond the crater and was driven back by Elliott’s men; that not a man crossed its breastworks who were not slain. That the only part of the line occupied by the enemy was one hundred yards which was gained by entering from the crater and the plateau adjoining, and was resisted by small squads of the Seventeenth South Carolina Volunteers, inch by inch, and that the enemy did not gain this small distance of one hundred yards until 9 o’clock a. m. That every time the enemy attempted to advance towards Petersburg beyond this line, he was driven back to the shelter of the trenches by Smith’s detachment of about 200 men. That fully an hour before Mahone’s charge General Meade had given up the battle as lost and contemplated the withdrawal of his troops. That the whole fight was directed against Elliott’s line except at the last of it General Turner’s charge included a small portion of the extreme right of Ransom’s brigade. If the saving of Petersburg that day is to be attributed to a single factor, it is not to Mahone’s men, but to Smith’s men in the ravine, for this detachment from Elliott’s brigade kept the enemy from getting in our rear and occupying Cemetery hill.
AFTER THE BATTLE.
About 4 o’clock p. m., after the battle, my orderly, M. C. Heath, now a distinguished physician of Louisville, Ky., came to Elliott’s headquarters and informed me that Lieutenant Colonel Culp (who was on detached service early in the morning but had gotten back soon enough to participate in Sander’s [sic, Sanders’] charge), Adjutant Fant, and Acting Sergeant Major LaMotte were at my den on the line, and requested my presence. In going there I stepped over a number of dead bodies of the enemy. As I turned in the narrow ditch which led to my quarters, I saw a dead negro with [h]is legs hanging down the breastwork. With difficulty I got over two more dead negroes wedged in the ditch, and saw in my den two more negroes severely wounded and bleeding, and in the narrow space in front of my den, in presence of the dead and dying, four poor soldiers enjoying as savory a meal as a soldier ever sat down to.
The next day, under a flag of truce, we went over the two or three acres of the battlefield, and it was a piteous sight of the horrors of the war. There were literally hundreds of Federal soldiers slain by bullet and shell. During the day the bodies were removed. The next day it was rumored that General Lee, after removing all the Confederates he could discover, piled in the crater 625 of the dead bodies of the enemy.
According to an estimate made by Adjutant Fant, Elliott’s brigade lost 667 men as follows: Seventeenth regiment, 135; Eighteenth regiment, 205; Twenty-second regiment, 216; Twenty-third, 49; Twenty-sixth, 72—nearly one half of the Confederate loss that day. General Grant estimated his loss at 5,000—the loss of the Confederates was estimated at 1,500 I think.
A short time ago I went to the adjutant general’s office to procure an exact report of our casualties, but was sadly disappointed to discover a great number of the records incomplete. You heard Captain Lake at our last meeting say that 31 to 34 of his company were buried in the crater, but there is no mention of them.
Our cause was just, our fighting sublime, and the State ought not to allow the name of a single hero to perish. If the State would select a competent man at a salary of $2,500 per annum and enforce him to visit every neighborhood where companies were formed a complete record could be made in three years. It can be done now—in five years time it will be too late.
The Federals that crossed their breastworks to attack our lines were about 18,000, with a reserve of 30,000 more. The Confederates, including Mahone’s, Sanders’, Wright’s, Elliott’s, and parts of Ransom’s and Wise’s brigades, amounted to about 3,300, with no reserve.
The enemy used 81 out of their 144 cannon; shot 3,833 rounds and 75 tons of iron. The Confederates used about 25 cannon and shot at a guess about 1,600 rounds.
The Federals speak of the battle as a most disgraceful one on their part.
Many Confederates may ask the question, “Cui brono?”—what good has it been to us? The answer is: “The world has not forgotten Thermopylae—neither will it forget the battle of the crater!1
- “ELLIOTT’S BRIGADE. How It Held The Crater and Saved Petersburg.” The State (Columbia, SC). December 16, 1895, p. 1 col. 4-5 and p. 5 col. 1 to 4 ↩