Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
ELLIOTT’S BRIGADE IN “THE CRATER” FIGHT.
JUSTICE FOR THE SOUTH CAROLINIANS WHO BORE THE BRUNT OF BATTLE AND MADE THE VICTORY GLORIOUS.
A Full, Graphic and Authoritative Account, Showing That South Carolina More Than Virginia is Entitled to the Honors of the Desperate Conflict.
—By Col. F. W[illiam]. McMaster—
–Columbia, S C–
The Federals were so much mortified at the terrible defeat at the battle of the Crater that the secretary of war ordered a court of inquiry to investigate the causes of the defeat.
The court, with the noble Gen Hancock as president, met Aug 6, 1864, and was in session 17 days. The proceedings cover about 300 pages of the 40th volume of the “War of the Rebellion.”
LEE AND BEAUREGARD
were made happy by the glorious victory they achieved, and two days after the battle Gen. Mahone was made major general and Capt [Victor J. B.] Girardey, of Georgia, was appointed brigadier general.
Mr. G[eorge]. S. Bernard, now a distinguished lawyer of Petersburg, who was a private in Co E, Twelfth Virginia regiment, has written an extremely interesting account of Mahone’s brigade in his book entitled “War Talks With [sic, of] Confederate Veterans,” which every old veteran ought to read.
I have for the first time carefully read the proceedings of the court of inquiry, which in some particulars have modified views heretofore expressed.
In order to understand an account of the battle of the crater, a short sketch of our fortifications should be given.
Elliott’s brigade extended from a little branch that separated it from Ransom’s brigade [SOPO Editor’s Note: Led by Colonel Leroy M. McAfee of the 49th North Carolina.] on the north, ran 350 yards, joining Wise’s brigade [SOPO Editor’s Note: Led by Colonel John T. Goode of the 34th Virginia.] on the south. Capt Pegram’s Virginia battery had four guns arranged in a half circle on the top of the hill, and was separated from the Eighteenth and Twenty-second South Carolina regiments by a bank called trench cavalier.
The Federal lines ran parallel to the Confederate. The nearest point of Pegram’s battery to the Federal lines was 80 yards, the rest of the lines were about 200 yards apart. The line called gorge line was immediately behind the battery, and was the general passage for the troops. The embankment called trench cavalier was immediately in rear of the artillery and was constructed for the infantry in case the battery should be taken by a successful assault.
The general line for the infantry, which has been spoken of as a wonderful feat of engineering, was constructed under peculiar circumstances. Beauregard had been driven from the original lines made for the defense of Petersburg, and apprehensive that the enemy, which numbered 10 to one, would get into the city, directed his engineer, Col Harris, to stake a new line. This place was reached by Gen Hancock’s troops at dusk of the third days fighting [SOPO Editor’s Note: The third day of the Second Battle of Petersburg, on June 17, 1864.] and our men were ordered to make a breastwork Fortifications without spades or shovels, was rather a difficult feat to perform, but our noble soldiers went to work with bayonets and tin cups, and in one night threw up a bank three feet high—high enough to cause Hancock to delay his attack. In the next 10 days time the ditches were enlarged until they were eight feet high and eight feet wide, with a banquette of 18 inches high from which the soldiers could shoot over the breastwork.
Five or six traverses were built perpendicularly from the main trench to the rear, so as to protect Pegram’s guns from the enfilading fire of the big guns on the Federal lines a mile to the north. Besides these traverses there were narrow ditches five or six feet deep which led to the sinks.
The only safe way to Petersburg a mile off was to go down to the spring branch which passed under our lines at the foot of the hill, then go to the left through the covered way to Petersburg or to take the covered way which was half way down the hill to Elliott’s headquarters.
At this point a ravine or more properly a swale ran up the hill parallel to our breastworks. It was near Elliott’s headquarters where Mahone’s troops went in from the covered way and formed in battle array.
The soldiers slept in the main trench. At times of heavy rains the lower part of the trench ran a foot deep in water. The officers slept in burrows dug in the sides of the rear ditches. There were traverses, narrow ditches, across ditches and a few mounds over officers dens so that there is no wonder that one of the Federal officers said the quarters reminded him of the catacombs of Rome.
An ordinary mortal would not select such a place for a three months summer residence.
About 10 days after the battle and while I was acting brigadier general and occupying Gen Elliott’s headquarters a distinguished major general visited me and requested me to go over the lines with him. I gladly complied with the request. He asked me where the men rested at night. I pointed out the floor of the ditch. He said, “But where do the officers sleep?” We happened then to be in the narrow ditch in front of my quarters, and I pointed it out to him. He replied, in language not altogether suitable for a Sunday school teacher, that he would desert before he would submit to such hardships.
The explosion took place at 4:45 a. m. The crater made by 8000 pounds of gun powder was 135 feet long, 97 feet broad and 30 feet deep. Two hundred and seventy-eight men were buried in the debris—Eighteenth [South Carolina] regiment, 82, Twenty-second [South Carolina], 170, and Pegram’s battery, 22 men.
To add to the terror of the scene the enemy with 164 cannon and mortars began a bombardment much greater than Fort Sumter or battery were ever subjected to. Elliott’s brigade near the crater was panic stricken, and more than 100 men of the Eighteenth regiment covered with dirt rushed down. Two or three noble soldiers asked me for muskets. Some climbed the counterscarp and made their way for Petersburg. Numbers of the Seventeenth [South Carolina] joined the procession. I saw one soldier scratching at the counterscarp of the ditch like a scared cat. A staunch lieutenant of Co E without hat or coat or shoes ran for dear life way down into Ransom’s trenches. When he came to consciousness he cried out “What’ old Marse running’ and immediately returned to his place in line.
The same consternation existed in the Federal line. As they saw the masses descending they broke ranks, and it took a few minutes to restore order.
About 15 minutes after the explosion Gen Ledlie’s corps advanced in line. The cheval-de-frise was destroyed for 50 yards. Soon after Gen Wilcox’s corps came in line and [moved] to Ledlie’s left. Then Potter’s corps followed by flank and was ordered to the right of Ledlie’s troops.
The pall of smoke was so great that we could not see the enemy until they were in a few feet of our works, and a lively fusillade was opened by the Seventeenth regiment on the north side of the crater. I saw Starling Butto, of Co H, a boy of 16, on the top of the breastworks, firing his musket at the enemy a few yards off with the coolness of a veteran. As soon as I reached him I dragged him down by his coat tail and ordered him to shoot from the banquette. On the south of the crater a few men under Major Shedd of the Twenty-second, and Capt H E White, with the Twenty-third [South Carolina] regiment, had a hot time in repelling the enemy.
Adjt Sims and Capt Floyd, of the Eighteenth regiment, with about 30 men, were cut off in the gorge line. They held the line for a few minutes. Adjt Sims was killed and Capt Floyd and his men fell back into some of the cross ditches and took their chances with the Seventeenth.
It was half an hour before the Federals filled the crater, the gorge line and a small space of the northern part of the works not injured by the explosion. All this time the Federals rarely shot a gun on the north of the crater.
Major J C Colt [sic, Coit], who commanded Wright’s battery and Pegram’s battery, had come up to look after the condition of the latter. He concluded that two officers and 20 men were destroyed. Subsequently he discovered that one man had gone to the spring before the explosion, that four men were saved by a casemate and captured.
Col Colt [sic, Coit] says it took him 25 minutes to come from his quarters and go to Wright’s battery, and thinks it was the first gun shot on the Confederates. Testimony taken in the court of inquiry indicate the time at 5: 30 a . m.
GEN STEPHEN ELLIOTT
Gen Stephen Elliott, the hero of Fort Sumter, a fine gentleman and a superb officer, came up soon after the explosion. He was dressed in a new uniform, and looked like a game cock. He surveyed the scene for a few minutes, he disappeared and in a short time he came up to me accompanied by Col A R Smith, of the Twenty-sixth [South Carolina], with a few men, who were working their way through the crowd. He said to me, ‘Colonel, I am going to charge these Yankees out of the crater, you follow Smith with your regiment.’
He immediately climbed the counterscarp. The gallant Smith followed, and about half a dozen men followed. And in less than five minutes he was shot from the crater through his shoulder. I believe it was the first ball shot that day from the northern side of the crater. He was immediately pulled down into the ditch, and with the utmost coolness, and no exhibition of pain turned the command over to me, the next ranking officer. Cols Benbow and Wallace were both absent on furlough.
I immediately ordered John Phillips, a brave soldier of Co (illegible), to go around the crater to inform the commanding officer of the serious wounding of Gen Elliott, and to inquire as to the condition of the brigade on the south side. Major Shedd replied that Col Fleming and Adjt Quattlebaum, with more than half the Twenty-second were buried up but with the remainder of his men and with the Twenty-third under Capt White and a part of Wise’s brigade we had driven the Yankees back, and intended to keep them back.
Being satisfied that the object of the mine was to make a gap in our line by which Gen Meade could rush his troops to the rear, I ordered Col Smith to take his regiment, and Capt Crawford with three of my largest companies Cos K, E and B, containing nearly as many men as Smith’s, to proceed by Elliott’s headquarters up the ravine to a place immediately in rear of the crater—to make the men lie down—and if the enemy attempted to rush down to resist them to the last extremity. This was near 6 o’clock a. m. and the enemy had not made any advance on the north side of the crater.
By this time the crater was packed with men. I counted 14 beautiful banners. I saw four or five officers waving swords and pointing towards Petersburg and I supposed they were preparing for a charge to the crest of the hill.
The line and strength of the brigade from left to right was as follows: Twenty-sixth regiment, 250 men. Seventeenth, 400, Eighteenth, 350, Twenty-second, 300; Twenty-third, 200. In all 1,500 men, a full estimate.
The (illegible . . . . .) was on the south of the crater which was (illegible) by a part of the Twenty-second under Major Shedd and Benbow’s Twenty-third under Capt White. The enemy attacked with fury. Our men fought nobly, but were driven down their ditch. Wise’s brigade then joined in and our men rushed back and recovered the lost space. About this time they shot Col Wright, leading the Thirteenth Minnesota regiment [SOPO Editor’s Note: There was no 13th Minnesota at the Siege of Petersburg. I’m not sure who McMaster is referring to here.], and then the Federals slackened their efforts and (illegible) to their right, and multitudes of them climbed the crater and went to the rear of it and filled the gorge line and every vacant space on the north side. No serious aggressive attack was made on the Twenty-third regiment during the rest of the day. The principal reason I suppose was the direct line to Cemetery Hill was through the Seventeenth regiment. Every Federal officer was directed over and over again to rush to the crest of the hill.
The Federals being checked on the south of the crater charged Co A the extreme right company, next to the crater. Capt W H Edwards was absent sick, and a few of the men were covered with dirt by the explosion and were consequently demoralized. Private Hoke was ordered to surrender—declared he never would surrender to a Yankee. He clubbed his musket and knocked down four of his assailants, and was bayoneted. There were five men killed in Co A. Co H was the next attacked and private John Caldwell shot one man and brained two with the butt of his musket. Lieut Samuel Lowry a fine young man of 20 years, and four privates were killed. Co D surrendered in a traverse and 27 men were killed. Had the splendid Lieut W G Stevenson been present the result would have been different. Fourteen out of 27 of these men died in prison of scurvy at Elmira N Y. Private J S Hogan, of Co D leaped the traverse. He joined in Mahone’s charge and after the fight was sickened by the carnage, went to the spring to revive himself, then went into the charge under Gen Sanders. After the battle he procured enough coffee and sugar to last him a month. This young rebel seemed to have a furor for fighting and robbing Yankees. At the battle of Fort Steadman he manned a cannon which was turned on the enemy and in the retreat from Petersburg he was in every battle. He was always on the picket line by choice, where he could kill, wound or capture the enemy. He feasted well while the other soldiers fed on parched corn, and surrendered at Appomattox with his haversack filled with provisions.
Co C, the next company, had 14 men killed. Its captain, William Dunovant, was only 18 years of age, and as fine a captain as was in Lee’s army. Lieut C Pratt, a fine officer not more than 25 years old, was killed. The command devolved on Sergt T J. LaMotte, G and H (illegible), I, three, K, five and B, one, E, five.
The Federals had the advantage over the Seventeenth because there was some elevated points near the crater they could shoot from. After being driven down about 50 yards there was an angle in the ditch, and Sergt LaMotte built a barricade, which stopped an advance. A good part of the fighting was done by two men on each side at a time—the rest being cut off from view.
LOOKING AFTER SMITH’S MEN
About 6:30 [?] went down a narrow ditch to see if Smith and his men were properly located [?] to keep the enemy from going down to the ravine before I got back. I saw there was a vacant space in our trench. I hustled and saw two muskets poked around an angle, as I got in the muskets were fired and harmlessly imbedded the balls in the breastworks. I immediately concluded that it was not very safe for the commander being on the extreme right of his men and went lower down. In a short time I again went in a ditch a little lower down the hill, anxious about the weak point on our line. I was smoking a pipe with a long (illegible) stem. As I returned I observed a rush down the line. As I got in the ditch the bowl of the pipe was knocked off. A big brawny fellow [shouted] out, ‘Hold on men’ the colonel can’t fight without his pipe.” He wheeled around, stopped the men until he picked up the bowl and returned it to me. I wish I knew the name of this kind hearted old soldier.
The principal fighting was done by the bend of the column. A few game fellows attempted to cross the breastworks. A Capt Sims and [another] officer were bayoneted close together in our breastworks, but hundreds of the enemy for hours stuck like glue to our outer bank.
A LONG AND LAZY FIGHT
The sun was oppressively hot. There was very little musketry, the cannonading had closed. It was after 7 o’clock, and the soldiers on both sides as there was not much shooting going on, seemed to resort to (illegible) to pass the time. I saw Capt Steele throwing bayonets over a traverse. I saw LaMotte on one knee on the ground, and asked what he was doing. He whispered, “I’m trying to get the drop on a fellow on the other side.” They would throw clods of clay at each other over the bank. As an Irishman threw over a lump of clay I heard him say, ‘Tak thart, Johnny.” We all wished that Beauregard had supplied us with land grenades, for the battle had [slackened] down to a little row in the trenches.
THE BATTLE THAT CONQUERED MEADE
At 8.10 a. m. Ferrero’s (illegible) negroes rushed over and reached the right flank of the Seventeenth. These (illegible) of barbarians [fled] greatly to the thousands of white men that packed themselves to the safe side of the breastworks. Thousands rushed down the hill side. Ransom’s Twenty-sixth and Twenty-fifth regiments were crazy to get hold of the negroes. ‘Niggers” had been scarce around there during the morning, now they were packed in an acre of ground and in close range. The firing was great all down the hill side, but when it got down to the branch the musketry was terrific and Wright’s battery 200 yards off poured in its shells. About half-past 8 o’clock, at the height of the battle, there was a landslide amongst the negroes. Col (illegible) says 2,000 negroes rushed back and [lifted] him from his feet and swept him to the rear. Gen Delavan Bates, who was shot through the face, said (illegible) that time that Ransom’s brigade was reported to (illegible) those lines.
When the battle was at its highest the Seventeenth was forced down its line about 30 yards. Lieut Col Fleming, of Ransom’s Forty-ninth regiment came up to me and pointed out a good place to build another [barricade]. I requested him to build it with his own men as mine were almost exhausted by the labors of the day. He cheerfully assented, stepped on a [banquette?] to get around me, and was shot in the neck and dropped at my feet.
At this moment of time an aide of Gen Bushrod Johnson told me that the general requested me to come out to Elliott’s headquarters. I immediately proceeded to the place, and Gen Mahone came up. I was introduced to him, and suggested to him when his men came in to form them on Smith’s men who were lying down in the ravine. A few minutes afterwards by order of Gen Johnson Capt Steele brought out the remnant of the Seventeenth regiment, and they marched in the ravine back of Mahone’s men.
By this time Gen Mahone’s brigade of Virginians, 800 men strong, was coming in one by one, and were formed a few steps to the left and a little in advance of Smith’s and Crawford’s men. I was standing with Gen Johnson close to Elliott’s headquarters, and could see everything that transpired in the ravine. It took Mahone so long to arrange his men I was apprehensive that the enemy would make a charge before he was ready. A few Federal officers began to climb out of the main ditch until they numbered perhaps 25 men. Gen Mahone was on the extreme right it seemed to me busy with some men—I have heard since they were some Georgians. Capt (illegible) had gone to Col [David A.] Weisiger, who was worried with the delay, and told him Gen Mahone was anxious to take some of the Georgians with him. But the threatening attitude of the enemy precipitated the charge.
The noble old Roman, Col Weisiger cried out ‘Forward” and 800 brave Virginians sprung to their feet and rushed 200 yards up the hill. It had not the precision of a West Point drill but it exhibited the pluck of Grecians at Thermopylae. The men disappeared irregularly as they reached the numerous ditches that led to the main ditch until all were hid from view. The [thing?] was not very great for the bayonet and butt of the muskets did more damage than the barrel. If anyone desires a graphic description of a hand to hand fight I beg him to read the graphic detailed account given by Mr Bernard in his ‘War Talks of Confederate Veterans.’
In a few minutes the enemy in the ditch up to [50?] yards of the crater were killed or captured. The whole battlefield of three acres of ground became suddenly quiet comparatively.
Mahone in an hour’s time sent in the Georgia brigade, under Gen Wright [SOPO Editor’s Note: General Wright was not present. The Georgia Brigade was commanded by Colonel Matthew R. Hall of the 48th Georgia.]. There was such a heavy fire from the crater the brigade was forced to oblique to the left and banked on Mahone’s men in a few minutes after they landed at the foot of the crater in their second charge.
Sanders’ Alabama brigade came up at this time. Besides his Alabamians were Elliott’s brigade and Clingman’s Sixty-first North Carolina. The charge was made about 1 o’clock p. m., and the Federal artillery poured all its fire on the crater for some minutes slaughtering many of their own men. At this charge Lieut Col. Culp, who was absent at the explosion, being a member of a court martial came up and took charge of the Seventeenth in the ravine, where Capt Seele had them. In the charge of the crater under Sanders were Col Culp, Col Smith and Lieut Col J H Hudson with the Twenty-sixth, and a large number of privates, especially from the Seventeenth regiment, which also had a good many in Mahone’s charge.
A good many of the Twenty-third joined in the charge, and private W H Dunlap, Co. C, Twenty-third regiment, now of Columbia was the first man who got in the crater on the south side.
While the (illegible . . . . . .) in a minute they were spirited away.
A little accident recited by (illegible. . .) Clark Sanders, adjutant general illustrates how true politeness smooths the wrinkled brow of war. He says that he saw a fine looking Federal officer making his way out of the crater with much pain, using two reversed muskets for crutches, seeing one leg was shot off. He said I’m very sorry to see you in so much pain. The soldier replied the pain occurred at Spottsylvania a year ago. This is a wooden leg shot off today—then gave his name as Gen [William F.] Bartlett but Col Sanders kindly helped him out.
The horrors of war are sometimes [relieved?] with incidents which amuse us. Adjt Fant tells an amusing incident of Joe Free, a member of Co B. The adjutant had gone in the afternoon to the wagon yard to be refreshed after the labors of the day. There was a group of men [relating?] incidents. The adjutant overheard Free say he had gone into an officers [den?] for a few minutes to shade his head from the heat of the sun, as he was suffering from an intense headache, and as he began to creep out he saw in the trench full of negroes. He dodged back again. Joe says he was scared almost to death, and that he prayed until great drops of sweat poured down my face.’ The adjutant knew that his education was defective and said, “What did you say Joe?’ “I said Lord have mercy on me’ and keep them damned niggers from killing me.’
It was an earnest and effective prayer for Mahone’s men in an hour afterwards released him.
In a recent letter received from Capt E A Crawford he says the enemy formed three times to charge, but we gave them a well directed volley each time and sent them into the (illegible) in our trench. When Mahone came and formed my three companies charged with him Col Smith told me they charged four times. Cusack Moore [?], a very intelligent private of Co K said they charged five times. After the charge Capt Crawford requested Gen Mahone to give him permission to report to his regiment and he [allowed?] him to report to Gen Sanders and he joined in that charge with his men. Co K had (illegible) men. Capt Cherry, Co. E, (illegible) and Capt Burley Co B, 25, in all 118 men.
Lieut Col Culp was a member of a military court doing duty in Petersburg at the time of the explosion, and could not get back until he reported to me at Elliott’s headquarters. I made some extracts from his letter recently received.
I recollect well that in the charge (the flank[?] one) which we made that (illegible) soldier and Christian gentleman Sergt Williams, of Co K, was killed, and that one of the Crowders, of Co F was killed in elbow touch of me after we got into the works. These casualties I think well established the fact that Cos K and B were with me in the charge and as far as I know now at least a portion of all the companies were with me. I recollect that Adjt Fant was with us very distinctly, and that he rendered very excellent service after we got to the crater in ferreting out hidden Federals who had taken shelter there and who for the most part, seemed very loath to have their hiding places. I feel quite confident that Capt Crawford was also there, but there is nothing that I can recall at this late day to (illegible) the fact of his presence on my mind except that he was always ready for duty however perilous it might be, and I am sure his company was there in part at least. So too, this will apply to all of the officers of our regiment whose duty it was to be there on that occasion, and who were not unavoidably kept away. In the charge that we made we were to be supported by the Sixty-first North Carolina. They were on our left and I suppose entered the works entirely to the left of the crater for I am sure that our regiment, small as it was, covered the crater, and when I reached the (illegible) with my command we found ourselves in the very midst of the old fort which I (illegible) say, had been blown to [atoms?] in the early morning. When we arrived the Federals began in some instances to surrender to us voluntarily (illegible), as before intimated had to be pulled out of the hiding places. And with these prisoners we captured quite a number of colors probably as many as a dozen certainly not less than eight or 10. I was preoccupied in having to clear the trenches of the enemy that I gave no attention to these colors after they fell into the hands of our men, and afterwards learned to my sorrow that they had fallen into hands which were not entitled to them. Suffice it is to say that few, if any of them, could be found. After perfect quiet had been restored and we were thus robbed of these significant trophies of our triumph at which we felt quite a keen disappointment it is pleasing to me to say that I think that every man of our regiment who was present acted his part nobly in the performance of the hazardous duty assigned us on that memorable occasion.”
‘You gave me the order to make the final charge already referred to.”
The Confederates only had 26 cannon, and only three of them were conspicuous. The Federals had 16[?] cannon and mortars. They fired 50[??] rounds. They had only one man killed and two wounded.
Gen Hunt and others spoke slightingly of our guns, with two exceptions. Wright’s battery and Davenport’s which is mentioned as the two gun battery. Gen Hunt the day before had accurately prepared to silence all these guns except the Davenport battery. Gen Hunt said he expected a company of infantry would take us in 15 minutes after Pegram’s battery was gone. But the Wright battery was a complete surprise. It was consituated [?] just behind Ransom’s brigade, about 100 yards. Gen Hunt never could locate the place and shot at short range above 500 shells doing no damage but honeycombing the surrounding ground.
Wright’s battery was in 500 yards of the crater, and Col C(?) informed me he shot about 600 rounds of shell and shrapnel at short range.
In my opinion it did more damage than all our guns put together. Its concealed location gave it a great advantage over all other guns.
Davidson’s battery had only one gun which only could shoot in one line. But it created more anxiety amongst the enemy than any other. The infantry officers constantly alluded to its destructive power, and they dug a trench to guard against its fire. Maj. Hampton Gibbes commanded it until he was wounded, and then Capt D N Walker for the rest of the day did his duty nobly, and no doubt killed many Federals. Gen Warren was ordered to capture this gun about 8:30 but at 8:15 he was ordered to do nothing ‘but reconnoiter.” This was before Mahone came up.
The most interesting of our guns were the two coehorns of Major John C Haskell, because all of his shells were emptied into the crater which was packed with men Gen Mahone says. In the meantime Col Haskell, a brilliant officer of our military, hunting a place where he could strike a blow at our adversary presented himself for any service which I could advise. There were two coehorn mortars in the depression already referred to, and I suggested to him that he could serve them. I would have them taken up to the outside of the crater, at which place he could employ himself until I retook (illegible. . . . .) effective employment of these (illegible) implements of war. Col Haskell adopted the[?] suggestion and the mortars being removed to a ditch within a few feet of the crater, they were quickly at work emptying their contents upon the crowded mass of men in this horrible pit.
Lieut. Bowley, a Federal officer, says ‘A mortar battery also opened on us. After a few shots they got our range so well that the shells fell directly among us. Many of them did not explode at all but a few burst directly over us and cut the men down cruelly.’ He also speaks to a few Indians from Michigan ‘Some of them were mortally wounded, and drawing their blouses over their faces they chanted a death song and died—four of them in a group.’
A FEAST AFTER A FAMINE
About 3[?] o’clock p. m. absolute quietness prevailed over the battlefield where the carnage of war [lasted?] a few hours before. My orderly M C Heath, a boy of 16, who now is a distinguished physician of Lexington, Ky., came to me at Elliott’s headquarters and told me that the lieutenant colonel and adjutant sent their compliments, and requested me to come to dinner at my den in the trench. I went and had to step over the dead bodies—all negroes. A narrow ditch led to a plaza six feet square where a half dozen men in fine weather could sit on campstools. On the breastworks hung a dead negro. In the ditch I had to step over another dead negro. As I got to my plaza I saw two more negroes badly wounded in a [cell?] two feet deeper than the plaza where I slept. One of the negroes was resting his bloody head on a fine copy of Paley’s philosophy which I came across in my wanderings. Heath’s big basket was well stored with good viands, and we ate with the tenacity of starving men, regaling ourselves with the incidents of battle without any expressions of sorrow for our friends. Col David Fleming and Adj Quattlebaum who a few yards above were (illegible) in our old sleeping place in the crater which we occupied as our quarters until they succeeded us 10 days before, of any lamentations for the hundreds of dead and dying on the hillside around.
The joy of the glorious victory drowned out all sentiments of grief for a season, and it seemed a [weird?] holiday.
A BLUNDER IN BEAUREGARDS BOOK
Mr Bernard, in his interesting article on the crater, criticises a remarkable paragraph in Col Roman’s work basing his statements made by Gen Bushrod Johnson and Col McMaster. The only objection to my statement was I said Mahone’s charge was at 10 o’clock a. m.
The paragraph is as follows:
Such was the situation. The Federals unable to advance and fearing to retreat when at 10 o’clock Gen Mahone arrived with a part of his men who laid down in the shallow ravine to the (illegible) of Elliott’s salient held by the forces under Col Smith, there to await the remainder of the division but a movement having occurred among the Federals which seemed to menace an advance. Gen Mahone then forwarded his brigade with the Sixty-first North Carolina of Hoke’s division, which had now also come up. The Twenty-fifth and Forty-ninth North Carolina and the Seventeenth South Carolina, all under Smith, which were formed on Mahone’s left, (illegible) formed in the center movement and three fourths of the gorge line was carried with that part of the trench on the left of the crater occupied by the Federals. Many of the latter, white and black, abandoned the breach and fled under a scourging flank line of Wise’s brigade.
This is confusion worse confounded! It is difficult to find a paragraph containing so many blunders than the report of Gen Johnson to Col Roman.
The Sixty-first North Carolina of Hoke’s brigade was not present during the day, except at Sander’s charge two hours afterwards. The Twenty-fifth and Forty-ninth North Carolina were not present at all but remained in their trench on the front line.
Smith’s men on the extreme right did not as a body go into Mahone’s charge. Capt Crawford with 118 men did charge with Mahone. In fact he commanded his own men separate from Smith, although he was close by.
Col Roman’s account taken from Gen Johnson’s statement is unintelligible.
TIME OF MAHONE’S CHARGE
I dislike to differ with Mr Bernard who has been so courteous to me and with my friend, Col Venable, for we literally carried muskets side by side as privates in dear old Capt Casson’s company, the Governor’s Guards, in Col Kershaw’s regiment, at the first battle of Manassas, and I shot (illegible) times (illegible) Zouaves. Venable was knocked down with a spent ball and I only had a bloody mouth. And the rainy night which followed the battle we sheltered ourselves under the same oilcloth, but I can’t help thinking of these gentlemen as being like all Virginians which is illustrated by a remark of a great Massachusetts man, old John Adams in answering some opponent said ‘Virginians are all fine fellows. The only objection I have to you is in Virginia every goose is a swan.’”
Col Venable says, ‘I am confident the charge of the Virginians was (illegible) being 9 o’clock a. m.’ Mr Bernard says in speaking of the time ‘Mahone’s brigade left the plank road and took to the covered way.” It is now half-past 8 o’clock.” In a note he says ‘Probably between 8:15 and 8:30” “At the angle where the enemy could see a marching column with ease the men were ordered to run quickly by, one man at a time which was done for the doubt purpose of concealing the approach of a body of troops and of lessening the danger of passing rifle balls at these points.”
It took Mahone’s brigade, above 800 men, to walk at least 500 yards down this covered way and gulch, one by one occasionally interrupted by wounded men going to the rear, at least 20 minutes. At a very low estimate it took them half an hour to form in the ravine to listen to two short speeches and the parley between Weisiger and Girardey. With the most liberal allowance this will bring the charge at 9:15 a. m. but it took more time than that.
Capt Whitner investigated the time of the charge in less than a month after the battle. I extract the following p[age] 795, 40th “War of Rebellion.” ‘There is a great diversity of opinion as to the time the first charge was made by Gen Mahone——–But one officer of the division spoke with certainty. Col McMaster, Seventeenth S C V. His written statement is enclosed.” Unluckily the paper was “not found.’ But there is no doubt I repeatedly said it was about 10 o’clock a. m.
Gen Mahone took no note of the time but says “According to the records the charge must have been before 9 o’clock. Gen Burnside in his report fixes the time of the charge and recapture of our works at 8:45 a. m.” 40th War of Rebellion” p 528. He is badly mistaken. Gen Burnside says ‘The enemy regained a portion of his line on the right. This was about 8:45 a. m., but not all the colored troops retired. Some held pits from behind which they had advanced severely checking the enemy until they were nearly all killed.’
“At 9:15 I received, with regret, a peremptory order from the general commanding I withdraw my troops from the enemy’s [?] (illegible).
Now this battle (illegible) is at 8:45 was a continual [?] (illegible) that many it is said was about half past 8. (Illegible . . . ) Mahone and Mr Bernard were mistaken in stating that the great firing and retreat of soldiers was the result of the Virginians charge, whereas at this time Mahone’s brigade was at the Jerusalem plank road. Moreover, when Mahone did come up his 800 men could not create one-fourth of the reverberation of the Seventeenth regiment Ransom’s brigade, and the thousands of the enemy. Besides Mahone’s men’s fighting was confined to the ditches and then used mostly the butts and bayonets instead of the barrels of their muskets. So it was the fire of Elliott’s men, Ransom’s men, the torrent of shells of Wright’s battery and the (illegible) Ord’s men, and the 4,000 negroes all of them in an area of 100 yards. The part of the line spoken of by Gens Delavan Bates and Turner and others as the Confederates line were mere rifles pits which the Confederates held until they had perfected the main line, and then gave up the pits. They were in the hollow where the branch passes through both breastworks.
Now the tumultuous outburst of musketry, Federal and Confederate, and the [fusillade?] of the Federals, was beyond doubt before I went out to Elliott’s headquarters on the order of Gen Johnson.
For two hours before this Meade had been urging Burnside to [p]ush to the crest of the hill until Gen (illegible) was irritated beyond measure, and replied to a dispatch ‘Were it not insubordination [I] would say that the latter remark was un(illegible)like and ungentlemanly.’ Before this time Grant, Meade and Ord had given up hope. They had agreed to withdraw, hence the positive order “to withdraw my troops from the enemy’s line at 9:15.’
Now this must have been before Mahone came up for there is no allusion to a charge by any Federal general at the court of inquiry. With the 8:30 charge made at the hollow, there was a synchronous movement made by Gen Warren on the south of the crater, but at 8:[?] he was informed that it was intended (illegible) for a reconnaisance of the two gun battery.
At 9:15 Gen Warren sends despatch. Just before receiving your despatch to assault the battery on the left of the crater occupied by Gen Burnside the enemy drove his troops out of the place and I think now hold it. I can find no one who for certainty knows, or seems willing to admit but I think I saw a (illegible) in it just now, and shots coming toward this way. I am, therefore (illegible. . . ) no more able to take this battery now than I was this time yesterday. All our advantages are lost.
The advantages certainly were not lost on account of Mahone’s men but on account of the losses 200 yards down the hill of which he had doubtless been advised. He saw what he thought was a rebel flag, but for a half an hour he had heard of the terrific castigation inflicted on the Federals down the hill.
But there is something from the court of inquiry that approximates the time of Mahone’s charge.
Gen Griffin, of Potter’s Ninth Corps in reply to the question by the court.
When the troops retired from the crater was it compulsory from the enemy’s operations, or by orders from your commander?” Answer ‘Partly both. We retired because we had orders. At the same time a column of troops came up to attack the crater, and we retired instead of stopping to fight. This force of the enemy came out of a ravine, and we did not see them till they appeared on the rising ground.”
‘What was the force that came out to attack you? The force that was exposed in the open?’ Answer “500 or 600 soldiers were all that we could see. I did not see either the right or left of the line. I saw the centre of the line as it appeared to me. It was a good line of battle. Probably if we had not been under orders to evacuate we should have fought them and tried to hold our position but according to the orders we withdrew.’
Gen Hartranft, of Ninth corps says an answer to the question ‘Driven out?’
They were driven out the same time I had passed the word (illegible). It was a simultaneous thing. When they saw the assaulting column within probably 100 feet of the works I passed the word as well as it could be passed for everybody to (illegible). And I left myself at that time. Gen Griffin and myself were together at that time. The order to retire we had (illegible) to the effect that we thought we could not withdraw the troops that were there on account of the enfilading fire over the ground between our rifle pits and the crater without losing a great portion of them, that ground being enfiladed with artillery and infantry fire. They had at that time brought their infantry down along their pits on both sides of the crater so that their sharpshooters had good range, and were in good position. Accordingly we requested that our lines should open with artillery and infantry [bearing?] on the right and left of the crater, under which fire we would be able to withdraw a greater portion of our troops, and, in fact, every one that could get away. While we were in waiting for the approach of that endorsement and the opening of the fire this assaulting column of the enemy came up and we concluded—Gen Griffin and myself—that there was no use in holding it any longer and so we retired.”
This proves beyond doubt that Mahone’s charge was after 9:15. It probably took Burnside some minutes to receive this order and some minutes for him and Griffin to send it down the line and to send orders to the artillery to open on their flanks to protect them. This would bring Mahone’s charge to 9:30 or 9:45.
SMITH AND CRAWFORD SAVE PETERSBURG
I ordered Smith to take his regiment the Twenty-sixth, and Crawford with Cos K E and B to go down in the ravine. Every general was ordered to charge to the crest. Had the enemy gotten beyond Smith’s line 50 yards they could have marched in the covered way to Petersburg not a cannon or a gun intervened. Gen Potter says his men charged 200 yards beyond the crater when they were driven back. Col Thomas said he lead a charge which was unsuccessful when he went 300 or 400 yards and was driven back. Gen Griffin says he went about 200 yards and was driven back. Col Russell says he went about 50 yards towards Cemetery Hill and was driven back by 200 to 400 infantry which rose up from a little ravine and charged us” Some officer said he went 500 yards beyond the crater. There was the greatest confusion about distances. Gen Russell is about right when he said he went about 50 yards behind the crater. When they talk of 200 or 300 yards they must mean outside the breastworks towards Ransom’s brigade.
From the character of our breastworks, or rather our cross ditches it was impracticable to charge down the rear of our breastworks. The only chance of reaching Petersburg was through the crater to the rear. Smith and Crawford whose combined commands did not exceed 250 men forced them back. Had either Potter, Russell, Thomas or Griffin charged down 100 yards further than they did the great victory would have been won and Beauregard and Lee would have been deprived of the great honor of being victors of the great battle of the crater.
After the explosion with less than 1200 men and with the co-operation of Wright’s battery and Davenport’s battery and a few men of Wise’s brigade resisted 9,000 of the enemy from 5 to 8 o’clock. Then 4,500 blacks rushed over and the Forty-ninth and Twenty-fifth North Carolina, Elliott’s brigade, welcomed them to hospitable graves at 9 o’clock a. m.
At about 9:30 a. m. old Virginia—that never tires in good works—with 800 heroes rushed into the trench of the Seventeenth and slaughtered hundreds of whites and blacks with decided preference for the Ethiopeans.
Sic transit gloria mundi
Colonel Seventeenth S[outh] C[arolina] V[olunteers]
Columbia S C, March 2, 18991
- “Elliott’s Brigade in the Crater Fight.” The State (Columbia, SC). March 5, 1899, p. 1 col. 1-6 and p. ? col. 1-5 ↩