Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
After Grant met the bloody repulse at Cold Harbor early in June, 1864, he moved to the left and, crossing the James river on pontoons, suddenly threw a large part of his army against Petersburg. Gen. Lee planning[?] to move by a longer line and across two bridges, was unable to meet the federals with anything like equal numbers, and there was a terrible struggle to save Petersburg on the 17th and 18th days of June . Hood’s old division, commanded at that time by Gen. Fields [sic, Field], to which the writer belonged, arrived at the front line during the night of the 18th of June, and took position behind the line which had fought all day, and when light dawned we found that we were in close range of the enemy and without works in an open field. With bayonets for picks and tin cups for spades we speedily threw up earthworks, which afterwards formed part of the famous line of defense.
Just to our left, and east of the city, was a slight elevation, and here the lines were only about a hundred yards apart, and firing was incessant. Men would load and fire for two hours in the night, wake up the relief and lie down in the trenches. The relief would often stand with one foot on each side of the head of a sleeping comrade and fire until relieved. Burnsides’ corps faced us at this point, and he reported that without a battle in about a month he lost 1,150 men, mostly killed.
The colonel of a Pennsylvania regiment, composed mostly of miners, suggested a mine to blow up our works, and obtained the consent of the commander.1 A tunnel about five feet square and 110 feet long was run from their lines to a point under our works, and then under our works on each side with chambers cut in the earth. In these chambers was placed powder, 8,000 pounds, and the tunnel filled with sand bags to confine the force of the powder. Our engineers had discovered that the enemy was tunneling, and had sunk a shaft at that point, but not deep enough to reach the tunnel.
Meantime Grant made preparations to make the blow effective. He crossed the James river to Deep Bottom, near Malvern Hill with a large force, and this caused Gen. Lee to carry five of the eight divisions which composed his army and one brigade over to the north side of the James to meet the demonstration. Grant recrossed the James at night, and had his whole army masssed to take advantage of the explosion of the mine, whilst less than three-eighths of the confederates were opposed to him.
The federals had eighty-one heavy guns and mortars, besides many pieces of light artillery, bearing on the point to be assaulted, including a division of negroes of 4,500 men, were massed in covered ways ready to spring upon the thin line in front as soon as the explosion took place.2 This was ordered at 3:30 a. m. on the 30th of July, 1864, but the fuse was defective and was relighted after the lapse of half an hour, and at 4:15 there was a vast upheaval of earth, resulting in a crater about thirty feet deep, fifty wide and 200 long. Many of our men, one a colonel, were buried under the masses of clay, and their bodies still remain there.
The forward division of the army poured over the intervening space into the crater and the adjoining works. It had better be explained here that our works were formidable. First, there was an earthwork six feet high with a broad trench behind it. At intervals banks of earth called traverses were thrown up perpendicular to these works to prevent an enfilade fire. Then there was a covered way some fifty feet in the rear, which was a broad ditch with the earth thrown up on the side next to the enemy, and intended to cover re-enforcements—those bringing in ammunition and rations—as well as for carrying out the dead and wounded. Besides these there were numerous cross ditches, sinks, etc., which cut up the ground.
The enemy took possession of these works and the crater on each side for a distance of more than 100 yards, and, once in them, the works afforded security against any attack by our men except a direct charge into them and mortar shells.
We had no second line and only a few mortars manned by less than fifty men were between the enemy and Petersburg. They had nothing to do but to move forward to the crest of the hill, and Petersburg was within their grasp. But the severe losses of the past month by this division from our sharpshooters and the recollection that it was not easy to win anything from the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as the want of competent leaders, caused the enemy to stop in the crater and adjoining works, and attempt to wrest more of our line on each side of the crater from our troops. Here the fighting was very severe. Each traverse formed a little fort and was defended with desperation. Behind one all the defenders had been killed but three, and one of these took his position kneeling whilst the other two loaded guns for him, and as fast as an enemy would try to pass around the end of the traverse he was shot until twenty-six men fell. The ground between the works of the enemy and ours, and in rear of the crater to the crest, was swept by a rain of fire.
Burnside, who was in command of the attacking force, from his safe position ordered in more troops, who rushed forward into the space already crowded by men sheltering themselves from the pitiless bullets and mortar shells. Finally the colored troops—4,500 strong—were ordered to charge. It is said that they had to be plied with liquor to enthuse them; but the delay caused by the failure of the fuse at first caused their inspiration to cool; but they rushed to the crater with loud cries of “Give the d___d rebels no quarter!” Their officers tried to get them to charge the crest behind the crater, and, in the court of inquiry held by order of the federal secretary, some of the officers testified that they advanced 300 yards past the crater towards Petersburg, but were repulsed.
Some of Sanders’ brigade now living in Birmingham say that when they charged over this very ground later in the day there were no dead or wounded visible on this portion of the field, so it is quite probable that these officers were mistaken.
Repeated orders were sent to the division commanders of the federal troops to advance; but the reply was that other troops were in front, and the scene of action so crowded that no more troops could find lodgement there. In fact, from all accounts, some 12,000 or 15,000 men were already packed into a space about the size of a block in one of our cities, and our mortar shells exploding in the midst of such masses produced frightful confusion and death.
As soon as troops could be moved from our right—a distance of nearly two miles—they were brought up to supply the places of those killed by the explosion, and to retake our works. Every foot of the ground over which the charge was made was swept by an incessant fire. Nearly 100 pieces of artillery and thousands of rifles were hurling missiles of death every instant.
Mahone’s [Weisiger’s Virginia Brigade] and Wright’s [Georgia] brigades were brought up, and after heavy loss succeeded in retaking our lines up to within forty yards of the crater on our left. Then Sanders’ Alabama brigade, about 1,500 strong, were brought up through the covered way and filed into the field about 300 yards in rear of the crater, where a small depression sheltered them as they lay prone upon the ground. Mahone went along the line and told the men not to fire a shot until they got to the enemy. Sanders’ brigade was composed of the Eighth [Alabama], Ninth [Alabama], Tenth [Alabama], Eleventh [Alabama] and Fourteenth Alabama regiments all of whom had seen service on many a well-contested field. These men lay under the burning July sun, with shells and bullets flying over them, for nearly two hours, when, at the word of command, they rose and moved off in quick time, in perfect line toward the crater. When within about fifty yards of the enemy, a terrific volley was poured into their line, and the devoted Alabamians trailed their arms and broke into a double quick. Before the federals could reload, our men plunged into the crowded mass, and the work of death began anew, but now with bayonet and clubbed guns.
The scene is said to have been indescribable. In places our mortar shells had exploded in the crowded mass of men, tearing them in pieces. In the hot sunshine the odor arising from the blood and mangled remains was horrible. One man, the son of a prominent judge, leaped into the crater, striking a federal to the ground as he jumped on him. Quickly recovering, he plunged his bayonet through the prostrate man with such force that it penetrated a plank, and when the gun was withdrawn the bayonet remained, pinioning the man down as a boy pins a fly to the wall. As the confederate withdrew his gun, a federal fired at him, and the ball shattered his left arm near the shoulder. Swinging his gun with his remaining arm, he brought it down on the head of the federal, crushing his skull. The wounded man then escaped, living long to tell the tale.
Adjt. [F. G.] Fonville, of the Fourteenth Alabama, was shot while surrounded by enemies, but Capt. [John A.] Terrell, of Dadeville, at once slew the man who killed him. It were vain to even attempt to relate the one-hundredth part of the personal conflicts which ensued when 1,500 men threw themselves into the midst of several thousand enemies, packed like sardines in the crater and ditches which formed our works. Death was everywhere and men fought like demons. Our men had heard the cry of the negroes to give no quarter the broiling sun, the smoke, the smell of powder and blood, and the desperation born of the resolve to conquer or die brought on a delirium which all soldiers have felt. And it is said that the work of slaughter went on long after resistance had ceased, and stopped only after Mahone had exerted himself for a long time to stay the hands of his infuriated men.3
A federal soldier, visiting the scene long afterwards, relates that he, with five white and fourteen negroes comrades, had crowded into a bomb-proof for shelter. Knowing that the confederates had heard the cry of “No quarter” from the negroes, and fearing that the whites, too, would be slaughtered, they deliberately resolved to kill all their black companions so as to get an opportunity to surrender, and they carried their resolution into effect.
The land on which the crater is situated was owned by Griffith, and is now owned by his son, who was 13 years of age at the time of the battle. He pulled the lanyards for two mortars in rear of the crater for two hours during that battle. And when the mortar ceased firing, he went to the edge of the crest and witnessed the charge of Mahone’s, Wright’s and finally of Sanders’ brigades. He says the soldier boys of the volunteer companies drilling in the streets do not make a better line or move with more precision than did Sanders’ brigade when they marched into the jaws of death on that eventful day. Griffith went to the crater on Aug. 1, when the dead were being buried under flags of truce; and, with the vivid recollection of a boy, he can tell many things forgotten by the men who took part in the scene.
He says that in some places men were piled up like cord-wood, tumbled into a heap at least six deep. The blood had been mixed by the feet of the struggling men with the clay, until the mud so formed was ankle deep.
The total loss of the federals as reported by Gen. Meade on that day was 4,400; and, when it is considered that most of these losses were in a space not much larger than one of our city blocks, and that space cut up by ditches and banks of earth, one can readily imagine what a scene of carnage and bloodshed, when so many men besides 1,800 of our own were lost.
The crater is now enclosed with a fence, and a growth of pines and cedars has sprung up as if to cover the awful scene. The works on each side have been levelled—done it is said to obtain the lead found in them—and the field is now cultivated. The same spring to which we resorted at night continues to flow with the cool, pure water, so grateful to us during the weary months of the siege.
The writer served in the trenches over a month about 100 yards to the right of the crater; but his command was ordered to the north of the James about three days before the battle, and he did not participate in it. This narrative is compiled partly from accounts given by others, and partly from the records of a court of inquiry held by the federal authorities, which rested much of the blame of their failure on Gen. Burnsides [sic, Burnside] and some of his subordinate commanders. Had a Jackson, Gordon or Mahone commanded on their side with Grant’s whole army present, and five-eighths of Gen. Lee’s absent, with the advantage of the surprise and loss occasioned by the explosion, the siege of Petersburg would have terminated on that day.
The writer has urged some of the participants to put on record the part taken by Sanders’ brigade; and this is written as a tribute to the gallant Alabamians, who on that memorable day made a record of valor and devotion which should be commemorated by a monument. Some of the survivors yet live in our midst, and a visit to the crater and a description by an eye witness will gratify and prove a reward to anyone who believes that heroism yet lives in the world.
When night closed on the dreadful scene, and other troops came to relieve the remnant of the commands who retook our works, it is said to have been inexpressibly sad. One Virginia regiment went into battle with ninety-seven men. At roll call that night only seven answered to their names, and none were prisoners. Ninety were dead or wounded. At the roll call of the Sixty-fourth Georgia of Wright’s brigade, the major of the regiment would answer to the names of those who had been killed, “dead on the field of honor.” He burst into tears, but with broken voice he continued the responses. Sanders’ brigade did not suffer so heavily as some of the others who charged earlier in the day.
There are now living in Jefferson county the following named persons who participated in the charge on the crater; Company F, Eleventh Alabama—S. W. Vance, P. M. Vance, J. L. Hill; Company F, Tenth Alabama—A. W. Hilton, Ike Mobley, J. H. Riggs, and of Company B, Tenth Alabama, the first company which went into the war from this county—J. Felix McLaughlin, Felix Montgomery, R. G. Hewitt, John E. Williams, T. J. Hickman, W. S. Morrow, William Higgins and Jesse Bell. By universal consent of his comrades, William Higgins is said to have been the best soldier in Lee’s army.4
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania is who Houghton refers to here. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The Black division was Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, Ninth Corps, Army of the Potomac. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Mahone’s Division made up the organized portion of the Confederate counterattacks on the Crater, and so presided over the Confederate troops who were responsible, by their own admission as you read here, of murdering Black prisoners. ↩
- “Sanders’ Brigade.” Birmingham (AL) Age-Herald. November 15, 1896, part 2, p. 13 col. 1-2 ↩