Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
Recapture of the Crater Again.
Editor Journal: See some time ago in your valuable columns a request from a lady that some old veteran give his experience in the battle of the Crater, near Petersburg, Va., July 30, 1864. I have waited to see if some one better qualified to describe the scenes enacted there on that dreadful and never-to-be-forgotten day, but having waited in vain, I concluded to try in my feeble way to tell of some of the soul trying experiences of that day, also to give one of the closest calls I had during my entire period of service.
To begin with, the command to which I belonged, Wright’s Georgia brigade, had about the 10th or 11th of July, 1864, been ordered to take position on the breastworks, where the Jerusalem plank road crossed the works, nearly, or quite, south of Petersburg, and afterwards was moved a little farther to the right and across the road, and then still farther to the right until we were about one mile from the above mentioned road.
As I remember, Wilcox’s Alabama brigade, commanded by General Saunders, was on our left, Mahone’s brigade on our right. These three brigades, Mahone’s, Wright’s and Wilcox’s, were the ones detailed to recapture the works.
Wright’s brigade had no general officer in command, but one of the colonels, I forget which, was in command. We were ordered up about 2 o’clock that morning and placed in position behind the works, just a few steps in front of where we were lying under our bush arbors, and after being there some time most of us had slipped back to our arbors to snatch another snooze, when just after daybreak we were rudely aroused from our peaceful slumbers by a horrible trembling of the earth, followed by a most terrific explosion, and then by one of the heaviest discharges of artillery and musketry I ever heard. We could see between us and the light of the eastern sky the smoke of shells as they hurtled through the air or burst in mid air, and it seemed to us the air was alive with them, while the huzzahs and yells of the combatants, combined with the other horrible sounds, seemed as if hell had torn loose sure enough. And right well we knew a terrible and sanguinary conflict was going on and we expected every moment to be ordered into the midst of it.
After waiting nearly two hours, we had orders to fall in, left face, and forward. We were rushed over hill and vale, with shells screaming overhead and an occasional bullet whistling by, and above all the roar the command, “close up, men.” Finally we reached the Petersburg ice houses directly in the rear and about one-half mile from the crater, where we halted to let the rear catch up. Then forward again, up a zig-zag path out around the hill and toward the front, with the wounded filing out, some on stretchers, some walking, some leaning on sticks or guns improvised as crutches; others being carried in blankets by four comrades, and all uniting in telling us boys “it’s the worst place you ever saw. You’ll never be able to retake it.”
The groans and cries of agony, and the sufferings of these poor fellows we were obliged to pass, was enough to sicken the hearts of the bravest among us. When we got to the top of the hill where we could peep over the ditch and see the works, all we had heard seemed verified, for the captured works were bristling with battle flags and from the number indicated a strong force, but nothing daunted, on we pushed. About this time Mahone’s brigade, which was in front of us, was ordered to charge, and right gallantly did they respond, and although met by a withering fire from the ditches as well as from the Yankee breastworks about 100 yards away, they precipitated themselves on the foe with such a determined rush that they were in the ditches before the enemy were aware of it, and captured hundreds of prisoners and made themselves masters of about one-half of the captured works in a few minutes.
Now, let me say right here that was one of the most brilliant charges made during the war and against much greater odds then are often given in history. Our regiment, the Sixty-fourth Georgia, commanded by Captain [Thomas J.] Pritchett, was in front of the brigade, and had to file right up a ravine behind the works before we could form in line. Here we lost our colonel, John W. Evans, who, while not on duty, would go into the battle with us. He jumped up on the bank of the ditch and was waving his hat and cheering when he was shot and instantly killed.
As we went rushing up the ravine the prisoners came pouring down the hill from the breastworks, and some one shouted (I never knew who) to “carry out the prisoners,” and most of Company K, the one to which I belonged, started out, when General Mahone, who commanded the division, called to Captain Pritchett. I ran and told him General Mahone was calling him and as he turned and ran up General Mahone ordered him to take the regiment up to support his brigade. Captain Pritchett rushed off, but ran a little too far to the right and jumped into the ditch, which was full of Yankees, and was captured, as was Lieutenant Morn, of Company G.
I was close behind them, but seeing the danger in time dropped down behind a little traverse about 3 feet high. Glancing around I met a sight that was enough to appal the stoutest heart. The ground just in my rear seemed to be swept clean by the storm of shot and shell across it from every direction, and I did not stop to think, but began to fire and load as rapidly as I possibly could, when just as I raised up on my knees for a fourth shot over the traverse in my front a bullet cut the hair just back of my right ear, coming so close that it burned the skin without breaking it.
Of course I ducked my head and felt for blood, and was relieved to find none. Soon there was a shout from the Virginia boys just a few feet to my left: “Look at those d___d negroes over there!” and looking hastily up I saw the barrels of several guns. Just overhead, aimed at the Virginians, who greeted the holders of the guns with a quick volley. I found that place a leetle too warm for comfort, and by a quick somersault threw myself into a partly sheltered nook in the ditch below me on my left, but soon found that I was the target of some Yankees about twenty or thirty feet down the ditch, so with a plunge was across in the ranks of the Virginians in comparative safety. Here I had leisure to look around, and beheld the death of many a brave man and officer who rushed, as it was, into the very jaws of death.
Here Captain Craven, Company A, Captain Buren, Company I, from Columbus, Georgia, with Lieutenant Captain Boer, also of Company I, were shot down and their bodies literally riddled with bullets; while Captain Joe McKee, Clark Rifles, Third Georgia regiment, and Sergeant Ben Liddon, Home Guards, from Morgan County, were instantly killed with hundreds of other brave boys, whose lives were sacrificed; but not in vain, for the works were held stubbornly by our men and for nearly two hours a constant fire was kept up on both sides, and loaded guns were cocked and with bayonets fixed, were thrown over the embankments, and everything to make the place dangerous as well as unpleasant to hold. Later in the day about 1 o’clock, the lack of water became apparent; for with the stench of battle in our nostrils and the scent of blood all around us, (for the ditches were full of dead negroes and Yankees) and a hot sun overhead, our thirst grew almost intolerable.
A great many, myself among the number, crawled back to the ravine for water, but the springs were so crowded that the water was mudded so as not to be fit to drink, while the branch was filled with dead and wounded, and there was nothing to do but wait and take chances to fill canteens.
There being a lull in the firing, we lay down and waited. While waiting Saunder’s [sic, Sanders’] brigade came marching up the ravine, and took position further to the right, and just in the rear of where the works had not been recaptured, and about 4 o’clock orders were given for every man of the Virginia and Georgia brigades to go up to the works, and when two mortar guns, which were being carried up the hill, were placed just on the right of the recaptured works, should fire two rounds each, and when Saunder’s [sic, Sanders’] men were seen coming in sight up the hill on our right we were to yell with all our might, and fire our guns as rapidly as possible, whether we saw anyone to shoot at or not.
The instructions were carried out to the letter and from the time that Saunder’s [sic, Sanders’] men came creeping up the hill till they were in the ditches with the works in full possession of our forces seemed but a very few minutes, and the battle of the Crater was over.
Now, all these things happened much more quickly than it takes to describe them. I will close by quoting Corporal Jessee Reese, of Warrenton, Ga., of the Twenty-second Georgia, who made use of the expression in your columns some time ago, as well as in Jackson hospital, Richmond, Va.,: “The Crater was a little the hottest place while it lasted I ever got into.
- “Recapture of the Crater Again.” Anderson (SC) Intelligencer. August 9, 1905, p. 2 col. 1-3 ↩