Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
A PEN PICTURE
OF THE TRAGIC AND THE GLORIOUS DAYS OF WAR— A SOLDIER FIGHTS HIS BATTLES O’ER AGAIN.
To the State Herald:
The letter written by Mr. [William R.] Houghton, and published in your paper, in which he makes mention of the part Sanders’ [Alabama] brigade—Wilcox’s old brigade—took in the fight at the Crater, was read with a great deal of interest by the old soldiers. I belonged to the Tenth Alabama regiment, of that command, which was in all of the big battles with the army of Northern Virginia, except the first Manassas, reaching the field just as the battle closed. We were also at the capture of Harper’s Ferry, our position being on the Maryland heights, Sharpsburg, and Gettysburg.
I will only give partly in detail the fights the brigade was in, the last twelve months of the war. We spent the winter of 1863-64 at Orange Court House. On May 6, 1864, Grant crossed the Rapidan river and General Lee met him in the wilderness on the morning of the 6th. Sanders’ brigade was left at Orange Court House, to guard the ford. We reached the wilderness early on the morning of 7th. Longstreet, with his command, was at Gordonsville, eight or ten miles south of Orange. The head of Longstreet’s column reached the field at the same time Sanders’ brigade did. That part of our line, to the right and left of the plank road, had given away and was in full retreat. Longstreet formed on the right, Sanders on the left. Here they come, one, two, three lines deep, but back they went. I remember seeing General Lee there in the thickest of the fight. The woods caught fire, the same as at Chancellorsville, and the wounded between the lines, on both sides, begged for water and help. We could not do anything for them. Night closed the battle.
From the morning of the 6th to the night of the 7th [of May 1864], two days of misery and death, we had driven Gen. Grant back over a mile. At Spottsylvania the fighting was very severe, losses heavy; perhaps more so for us, than at the wilderness. North Anna was nothing in comparison to the others, but at Cold Harbor—that battle will stand amongst the most memorable of history. Mr. Swinton, and he is good authority, says that Gen. Grant lost from the Wilderness to Petersburg 60,000 soldiers, as many as Lee had in his army. After the battle of Cold Harbor the federal chief established his headquarters at City Point. There was already a federal force [under Benjamin F. Butler] in front of Petersburg confronted by Gen. Beauregard, the advance of Grant’s army arriving there before Lee. They made a desperate effort to capture our works there, and the town.1 But there was fire in the hero of Manassas yet, and as Mahone’s division was rapidly approaching to reinforce Beauregard, we could hear the thunder of his artillery, the rattle of his musketry, and the cheering of his men. The sun was just setting [on June 18, 1864] as Mahone’s division passed through the streets of the town, Gen. Lee and Mahone riding at the head of the column. The old men, the women, the girls and the boys were all in the streets cheering, shouting and weeping. I can’t describe the scene!
We reached the lines at dark; the fight was over; the gallant Louisiana Frenchman had won another victory.
The position we took on the line that night, the 18th of June, 1864, we held as our main position until the night of the 2d of April, 1865. Just here I wish to remark that during all of this time, day and night, we were under fire, except when sent to reinforce some other part of the line.
If any man ever did love the battlefield it was Billy Mahone. If there was no fight on hand, he would hunt up one. He was so little and poor the yankees couldn’t hit him. His wife heard once that he was wounded. She said: “I know some bone is broken; there is nothing else for a bullet to hit!” One time he carried us down to Ream’s station, twenty-five miles south of Petersburg, on the Weldon railroad. We met Gen. Wilson and his raid, there, 10,000 or 15,000. We whipped them and captured nearly all of them, too.2 They had 3,000 or 4,000 negroes who followed them from North Carolina and southwest Virginia. If any of those yankees are living they remember about carrying several hundred nigger bodies in their arms to Petersburg that night.
This is what I know about the Crater fight. Early on the morning of July 30  we occupied our position in the trenches. All at once something, we thought, the Old Scratch3, had blown all the Yankee army up. But as soon as they opened their two or three hundred canons [sic, cannons] and mortars on us we knew it was a Yankee trick and it was a trick and a big one, too,—one they never tried any more. The day before the mine was blown up Gen. Grant, to mislead Gen. Lee, sent a large force to the north bank of the James, but recalled them during the night. Gen. Lee’s five divisions that he had sent to meet the federal forces across the river had not returned, nor any part of them. That only left him three divisions at Petersburg.4 Sanders’ brigade was ordered down to charge and take back the crater. We went and we did it. Now, I don’t know what troops, if any, were there before us, but I do know that none were there, between the crater and cemetery hill, when we reached the place.5 We went up the covered ways, the ditches and field out to the left, and lay down there some time in a low place in the ground, I think about two hours. From our line in the old field to the crater was about 250 or 300 yards. Gen. Mahone, on foot passed along the line and said: “Boys, hold your fire and go into the breast works. I am going with you. Pour your volley into them and then give them the bayonet.” As soon as we started on the charge the enemy opened fire on us, with both artillery and musketry. It was an awful scene; the dead and dying and the earth covered with blood. We lost 1,800 of our comrades there, dead and wounded. The enemy, 5,000. It was a miserable failure for them.
There are some of our old command living in our midst now who were there. I remember seeing Capt. Tom [Thomas J.] Hickman lying there, wounded. A little strange, on our retreat from Petersburg, I noticed this same man and our little [Lieut.] Col. Billy [William T.] Smith lying wounded in the road together.
The brigade remained in the ditches, on both sides of the crater, until the night of the 2d of August , when we were relieved and took our old place on the line. The day the flag of truce came in—the 1st of August—I looked around at the scene. It was by far the most wretched that I saw during the war.
Our lines were broken at Petersburg the night of the 2d of April . The road we traveled from there to Appomattox was lined with our dead and wounded. On the morning of the 9th [of April 1865], with nothing left but a remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia, but with that resolute and undaunted column staggering in line of battle from hunger, ragged, and many barefooted, all around in those old fields, could be seen our old battleflags, looking as defiant as ever, and we never did furl them, until our noble confederate chief said: “I have surrendered!”
Four years and more of war, old Virginia, a graveyard, the shadows of Round top hovering over thousands of our dead, the beautiful Potomac, as it splashes its clear waters on Maryland soil, flowing to the sea, to linger and sing its sweet lullaby to our dead there!
We want no monument at Appomattox. Our humiliation there was complete. The early grass was wet with our tears. Lee’s heart was broken there.
To the young men of the south. I desire to say, be kind to the old confederate soldier; bear with our weaknesses and our infirmities; have a pleasant good morning and evening for us; be more familiar with our tale. We are the men who fought by the side of our fathers. Soon we will all drop into our graves and then from books, and not from living lips, you will only know of our victories and defeats. Talk peace rather than war. Brains, and not blood ought to settle disputes and wrongs. To those who met us on the field of battle—to the dead—sleep sweetly. To the living, “here is the hand of a friend.”
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Grant’s desperate attempt to capture Petersburg was the Second Battle of Petersburg, fought from June 15-18, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Mahone’s Infantry division was part of a combined arms force of infantry and cavalry meant to trap the Yankee horsemen of the Wilson-Kautz Raid and destroy them. It was a close run thing at the First Battle of Ream’s Station on June 29, 1864, but most of the Yankee troopers of Wilson’s and Kautz’s divisions escaped to fight again another day. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Old Scratch is a nickname for the Devil. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The author essentially has this correct, but Grant’s diversionary force was sent on July 27, 1864 four days prior to the Crater, and the First Battle of Deep Bottom was fought north of the James from July 27-29, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The charge of Sanders’ Alabamians against the Crater happened early on the afternoon of July 30, 1864. It was the third and final charge of the Confederates against the Crater, and it won the battle. ↩
- “A Pen Picture.” Birmingham (AL) Age-Herald. December 6, 1896, part 2, p. 15 col. 1-2 ↩