Editor’s Note: Transcribed by Brett Schulte. Captain Waller, the writer of this article, writes in a very difficult and choppy style and often refers to himself in the third person. You have been warned. Also see this follow-up article which Waller wrote the next year in the News and Courier.
THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER.
ONE WHO WAS PRESENT TELLS THE STORY OF THE FIGHT.
Capt. [Cresswell A. C.] Waller, of Greenwood, Gives the Inside History of this Remarkable Battle as Observed by Himself. His Command [SOPO Editor’s Note: Company H, 64th Georgia] was Isolated Within Two Hundred Yards of the Great Hole, whose Edges were Decked with Union Flags and Lined with Union Men—Stirring Scenes Graphically Described.
To the Editor of the News and Courier: No doubt you will be surprised at receiving a communication which ought to have appeared in the Petersburg Express 42 years ago, but was withheld out of respect to military rules. On August 2, 1864, this writer had been summoned to brigade headquarters in reference to being promoted “for distinguished valor and skill,” displayed in the Crater fight, when he protested to Lieut Col [Matthew R.] Hall [of the 48th Georgia], then brigade commander, against the many erroneous statements contained in that paper about the actions of Wright’s brigade, and was informed that he would write a letter to appear the next day. In view of a desire to make the site of that battle a military park, this writer, in order to re-establish truth on her throne, and to restore exact justice to departed valor, wishes now to corroborate, elucidate and make more clear the meaning and facts of that letter of August 3, 1864.
This writer now proposes to perform this solemn duty in a narrative form, on lines of truthfulness, so far as they go, regardless of consequences. May God give him truth alone for his compass. He was a private at Jarratt’s Hotel dinner, May 1, 1861. That night he camped at the water reservoir at Richmond, Va. He was on duty during every engagement of his regiment, except when he was in a hospital from a wound received in seven days’ fighting at Richmond and hence was a participant or onlooker from the skirmish line at Fairfax, July 17, 1861, to Gettysburg and Chickamauga. From there he was sent, on account of promotion, to Company H, of 64th Georgia.
At the battle of Olustee, Florida, he was in charge of the 64th’s skirmishe[r]s, and opened that fight. At replying fire of the enemy, with seven shooting rifles and other kinds, the lieutenant colonel was killed, and two field officers wounded and several officers of the line slightly wounded. Thus the temporary confusion resulting enabled the brother of this writer to rush with a large portion of the regiment to his brother’s firing line, and no other Confederate officer, of any command, was seen by this writer until [Col. Charles] Fribley [of the 8th USCT] was killed and the battery captured. Thus much as to experience. After watching movements of the enemy at Jacksonville, then following him along the coast, the regiment was brought to Petersburg and placed in charge of Fort Clifton and line of Swift Creek in May. About the middle of June it was hurried over the Appomattox to the defence of Petersburg. There by a very brilliant and gallant act of Lieut Thomas Bartlett, of Company B, it was enabled to capture nearly three hundred prisoners, and a portion of it sent to Andersonville with them, and the other part put on provost duty until the return. June 15 this writer was specially detailed and left to protect Fort Clifton and Swift Creek at all hazards with a very small picket relief, reinforced later by signal men and such stragglers as could be readily gathered up and one gun.
The position was held until the Federal railroad wreckers came within view and after reconnoitering refused to engage the 169 men posted in opposition to them by this writer. On June 24, after Hagood’s charge, the regiment was placed in works, near Hare’s Hill and attached temporarily to Colquitt’s brigade. Here the enemy began mortar firing with some accuracy. For trench protection traverses making three-sided compartments were constructed. We pass over the amusing as well as the thrilling scenes exhibited therein. Colquitt’s salient (the crater) was strengthened. The regiment was thus with Colquitt for two weeks, when it was moved to the south side of salient and attached to Wright’s brigade. When the brigade was relieved and brought to face westward it was still on the left. Hence on the 30th of July it was the southernmost regiment of the brigade but destined soon with Mahone’s brigade and its own to engage in a deadly struggle, facing eastward, for the safety of Petersburg and Lee’s army. At 4.45 A. M. a mine was sprung under Pegram’s battery and about five companies of the 22d South Carolina and four of the 18th South Carolina. In it 8,000 pounds of powder were used, and a hole 135 feet long, 97 feet wide and 35 feet deep made. This, according to Gen [Bushrod R.] Johnson. Immediately the enemy of one artillery regiment opened up 18 4 1-2-inch rifles, 10 30-pounder Parrotts and 53 mortars, varying in size from 13 inches, 10 inches, 8 inches down to coehorns, firing 3,833 rouonds and raining down in the aggregate 154,000 pounds of mettle by 10.30 A. M. (see Abbot War of Reb, No 80, page 674.)
DODGED A BOMB SHELL.
At 5.45 this writer was standing on the breastworks with his eyes eastward, when he saw a black spot, the size of a house fly, then of a horse fly and was assuming the shape of a humming bird, when he leaped obliquely to the Yankee side of the breastworks. “Got,” the boys laughed. It was justly theirs. “His first flinch,” with half of them it was the last hearty laugh. They did not then know that this writer had faced the house-fly, horse-fly, and humming bird incident before, when on June 26, 1862, a 10-pounder Parrott shell had sledge-hammered him into a Confederate hospital; an experience never had before nor since. In a very few minutes the order was passed to form in line under cover of a hill in rear of the breastworks by dropping out one by one, so as to avoid the observation of the enemy’s signal station in the southeast. Fortunately for us now the signal men saw us and so reported at 6.20 A. M. (W[ar]. Of Reb[ellion]. No 82, page 643.) While in the depression between the plank road and the breast works this writer was joined by Col. J[ohn]. W. Evans [of the 64th Georgia], in full dress uniform, but without command, he having just returned to duty from an over-elapsed furlough held on account of a severe wound received at the beginning of the battle of Olustee, Fla. He came to see and to condole with this writer in regard to the death of a brother, who was killed there in a charge on a battery; to examine a sword whose scabbard was taken from the body of Col. C[harles]. W. Fribley, of the 8th United States colored infantry, and to inquire after receipt for the flag of a battery, covered by Fribley, yet captured by Corpl Arnold Buchanan, under command of this writer whilst on the line of skirmishers. This was done in order to correct a report of a Col Harrison. He marched with said writer towards Petersburg, until the regiment filed to the east across a road just south of a part of a cemetery and just north of a section or more of artillery. Here, near the cemetery, it became necessary to make some changes in positions of companies and regiments. Instead of brigade marching by left flank and going into battle line on left by file into line, in extending line from left to right in direction of the crater, just as the opposite was done by this writer’s company in extending line from right to left with Hays’s Louisiana regiment at First Manassas. It was thought proper to do it by companies, first counter-marching them, so as to throw the right in front and when at the spot flank into line. Whilst this was being done Col Evans was killed, falling into the arms of this writer’s orderly sergeant. He and this writer had counted the flags over the hole on the Crater proper, and after passing of a few remarks, his last being: “Those flags indicate hot work for us to-day.” Suddenly the fatal ball did its work. In a few moments the stare of death was chasing away the flashing signs of life. Stern duty was beckoning his dumfounded comrades to a patriotic but more dangerous path. By order the brave sergeant gently lowered the gallant Col Evans to the ground. The fate of Petersburg and with it that of the Confederacy was hanging in the balance.
RUSHED INTO GRAVE DANGER.
This writer’s company, being part of the left wing (Companies C and D being left elsewhere on detail, and A and K out of position also.) started down the slope, its right in front, on by a spring, but no time for water, scurrying over an exposed danger point, jumping a ditch, filing right and to the south, came upon a speaker (Capt Girardey)1 in position on west bank of ditch, striving to impress on passers the importance of very patriotic and vigorous action in the soul-stirring emergency. Right wrere [sic, where] he was there was no danger, then, to either Girardey or to the company. The impending danger was claimed to be over the Virginians2, who were in line east of us, forming or to form, but concealed from our view by a small strip of woods. The speaking, with the hurry and scurry of the moment, was producing pandemonium. Girardey was emphatically told that the men were ready for action and wanted immediate assignment to a place in line. He indicated to the right of Mahone. The company was passing up to the right and south to get into position, when a courier or orderly came from a group of officers, and after inquiry and remarks as to there being no troops directly in front or west of the sal[i]ent extended an order. This order being immediately approved by Col [Matthew R.] Hall [of the 48th Georgia], the brigade commander that day, with some modification as to alignment and lying down to await orders, resulted in this writer’s company going southward up the side of the ditch to a place where it forked into prongs with a very small rise between them. The company was led over the east prong or water furrow and up against the west prong, halted, fronted to the Crater or hole, aligned, and made to lie down with only such protection as the very slight rise afforded. There it awaited orders, the obedience to which was bound to result in many deaths. At least five companies were aligned on it. As to two of the companies, E and K, he cannot speak with positiveness. It is true, however, that Lieut Robinson, of one, was found afterwards in the main trench with Col Hall and other men of both brigades, when this writer came from the south of to the north of the long and high traverse which had its southeastern end blown up, but the other end extending somewhat towards the south of cemetery.
UNDER THE ENEMYS GUNS
Soon our complete isolation became most painfully evident. There we were, perhaps, in a little less than two hundred paces of that immense hole whose edges were decked with Union flags and lined with men. There was also that long traverse fringed with danger to us. And yet there was another line of works running out from behind the traverse toward the north crowded with men ready to be rushed against the Virginians and the 3d Georgia, then forming on their right. Our artillerists, with their guns, mortars and coehorns, were rarely in sight or sound now, but under Wright, Coit, Haskel[l], Hamp Gibbes and others, must have done wonders in withstanding the iron hail storm that was poured out to crush them earlier in the day. They were now preparing to give powerful protection in the fearful storm that was about to burst with all its fury. This writer doffs his hat to our faithful artillerists; without their aid he would have been in eternity or captivity. B[ushrod]. Johnson, so willing to wilt, by snatching laurels not his own, was not seen by any of his by this writer. No one man, however, sees all of a battle. A strange stillness, with occasional zips of musketry and sporadic sounds of artillery, seemed to prevail. The company had taken in the situation, lips could be seen to move in silent prayer for grace to perform honest duty and resultant salvation of souls. In the face of the most sublime duty of life, thoughts of home and a widowed mother, who had already lost during this war four sons, were now stealing over her now eldest son , amid other reveries as to whether or not his memory would dwell with those for whom he was about to yield up his young life. A tidal wave was rolling back upon his mental beach, pearls from the deep sea of the past. Many incidents have been suppressed, but not the one showing the immortality of kind acts. There came floating on that wave an image of a patriotic girl of sixteen, who from Raymond’s College, somewhere near the Eastern Shore, was at Petersburg on May 1, 1861, after a dinner at Jaratt’s Hotel, given to a Palmetto company wearing long blue coats with white belts and sabre bayonets, and approaching one of said company, after a social conversation and a parley as to bearing mutual punishments for violated orders, exchanged a kiss for an artificial palmetto tree. Now in the face of the greatest perils, the “perl” of patriotism was gathering back its fragrance with which to burnish in gold the hooks of steel then grappling to the sternest duty and also adding sweetness to “Dulce et—pro patria meri.” That third word never came, the place and occasion repelled it. It was on hand in April, 1861, when he was gliding away from the school house and scenes of his boyhood days. Just now a touching appeal from Marcus Fletcher breaks off the reveries and immediately at 8.40 or 8.45 A. M. grand scenes of American valor on both sides began to be enacted. Northeast of us the bravest of the Union forces were mounting the Confederate parapets, jumping out of breastworks and beckoning their men on to one supreme effort. The grand struggle for supremacy was thus precipitated. The 3d Georgia and the Virginians began to fire, thus the fray was on. The smoke of the rifles could be seen as well as the visible effects produced. Amid the panic and confusion of the Union forces the charge was made and melee was on. A. J. S. Adler, of the 16th Virginia, gets the State flag of the 58th Massachusetts regiment, whilst Corpl F. J. Herndon, of Company F, 3d Georgia, gets its Stars and Stripes. This was done, perhaps, when B. R. Johnson was at his breakfast. In Bernard’s “War Talks of Confederate Veterans,” page 320, amends his error of page 183, by adding that he distinctly remembers that a small part of Wright’s brigade made the charge along with our brigade and were immediately on the right of the battalion of sharpshooters. Signed by John E. Laughton, Jr. first lieutenant of Company D, 12th Virginia regiment. Was it right for the Georgians to be ignored in the glories, when they shared most of the dangers? The 64th Georgia, one regiment, had as many officers killed as the whole Virginian brigade of five regiments. One company in the 64th Georgia had as many killed as the whole of the 41st Virginia. These facts can be specified, but who suppressed the report of Wright’s brigade?
VIRGINIANS IN CONFUSION.
Be that as it may, Col [George T.] Rogers [of the 6th Virginia], who commanded after the wounding of Gen [David A.] Weisiger, says that his Virginia brigade was in some confusion temporarily. We knew, on the next day that the 6th Virginia had lost its flag. Both Gen Weisiger and Rogers admit that they recaptured only so much of works as their lines covered. Col Hall said “that portion of the brigade that did not go in with Mahone’s was moving up rapidly, formed in line, and charged the works on the right of Mahone’s brigade.” The 10th Georgia had been left on picket, as said, and Company K of 64th had been sent back with prisoners, so said. All this was on the north side of the traverse that touched the northern edge of the Crater. No charges were made on the south side of that traverse, but those of the 64th Georgia and the Alabama brigade. That of the 64th was about directly from the west to the east and on the Crater only, that of the Alabama brigade [SOPO Editor’s Note: John C. C. Sanders’ Alabama Brigade of Mahone’s Division.] was from the northwest and on the Crater and the short line south of it. Col or Dr Hall was a brave man, but he was afoot and without a courier, yet as deliberate as possible in the hurry of the emergency. At 9 A. M., and not 6 minutes thereafter, Hall and Mahone were about 300 paces apart, more or less (all distances are guesses) with a strip of weeds intervening. Mahone way down on the left, Hall was in the open near the ditch coming south to the writer’s regiment. The adjutant was absent. This writer, having received Hall’s first order, went to the left to meet him. Right here it must be stated that the history of this battle can be fully written from no one man’s standpoint. This writer up to this time, standing about directly west of the Crater and south of the fork of the ditch had a better standpoint than any officer in Mahone’s division. Restore the small strip of weeds that were north and between the ditch and the works and the fact will appear. He had a ripe experience, having had over three years of it and most of it in skirmish lines and battles and on signal posts right up to lines of battle, and on hills of observation, from the skirmish line at Fairfax, July 17, 1861, to July 30, 1864. He knew well of the variant statement of officers in regard often to the same fact. He can now recite many about this battle, but will desist until necessary. But now for the charge of the 64th Georgia. Hall is by the side of this writer. “The 64th must charge, the works are not all ours.” “May we go at trail arms? It will be better for firing or uses of bayonet.” The 64th Georgia was the only body that went in at trail arms. We had Hardee’s tactics. Word was passed along the line. No doubt all guiding corporals received directions. Corporal Yoh was the writer’s guiding corporal. “Corporal, do you see that man yonder in that traverse with a white bosom?” “Keep your eye on him; if you fire, fire at him only; let me be where I may. We must clear that ditch.” The brave color bearer, Sparkman Godwin , was told to plant his flag in the centre of the crest. He said that he would or die. He did both gallantly. The regiment is now charging, making the grandest this writer had seen, and he had seen many grand ones on both sides, infantry and calvary [sic, cavalry].” Godwin, of Company G, with colors uplifted, is making right straight for the centre of the crest, where he lands. Gen Warren telegraphs “But I think I saw a rebel battle flag in it just now and shot coming from it this way.” This was 9.15 A. M. Capt Pritchett in command of the regiment, and Sergt or Acting Lieut Maund, are trying to defend the flag and are wounded and jerked over into captivity. Sparkman Godwin falls on the crest, covering his flag, wet with his precious blood. Capt J. K. Reddis dead, Lieut Wm Redd is wounded, both of Company F, but the decimated company goes gallantly on under Lieut Park. Capt Craven of Company A, is killed. The gallant Thomas Bartlett falls dead. Capt Burch, of Company I, and his Lieut Bowie, are killed. The gallant privates, without officers, are falling thick and fast, but pressing not to glory here, but most to eternity and the ground. Corpl Yoh is still on the death march to his man, with his commander by his side, in about thirty steps of his man, when the Christian soldier utters the words, “O, Lordy.” and drops into eternity. About this time the writer by his side received a slight wound on his left ear, but keeps right on for the centre of traverse. But as he draws his sword, shots from a hornet’s nest of Yankees behind a short work or traverse, just south of the Crater, slightly bleeds his left leg; indents his Fribley scabbard and pierces with six balls his 2d lieutenant, G. W. Mitchell, who is the only file closer. We are in between the swell of the Crater and the traverse on its north and out of sight of the hornets’ nest on the south. “Get out, you —-,” and they did. This writer had jumped into the trench and turned around to beckon the boys forward through it and into the hole, but they had jumped into places dug out for bunks or other purposes. On facing again the east end of ditch, lo, there was standing against the swell of the hole a chevroned negro with bright rifle pointing right at this writer’s head. It sent a ball right through the right of his hat. He sat down by Green Grant, who was aiming at the negro. The negro disappeared over the crest, hit or not. Now, there is between the hole and the traverse, three first lieutenants and very few men. All other officers that began this charge are dead, wounded or captured. The boys begin to sharp-shoot; negroes only reply. They have the disadvantage of natural awkwardness, on account of want of experience and poor foot-holds in the steep banks of the hole; also that from shock of the 12 and 24 pound balls and shells from coehorns and mortars making graceful curves generally right over the hole. But they are our best friends. One, however, wounds Lieut Park. Notwithstanding, but for the terror of these instruments of destruction, the contest for life and victory would be still more unequal. The negro always holds his gun straight up as he rises to fire, seeing our boys take advantage of it. But sometimes they miss, when danger often becomes the penalty. John Parish, who is credited with the death of Col Fribley, at Olustee, is dead. Green Grant, noble soldier, lies with hole through his brains. Sergt Cheeves has his cartridge box struck. Of the fourteen regimental officers of the 64th , who crossed the plank road, seven are now dead, two wounded and captured. Color bearer Sparkman Godwin, of Company G, lies on the crest protecting with his dead body his flag and neither friend not foe dares to remove it. Two more, severely wounded and this writer, with bloody shirt and red sock, is doing all that he can to hold down the enemy in the hole until arrival of friendly reinforcements. But the firing is decreasing on both sides and no friends are in sight. Are we forgotten? Or are the generals not attending properly to their duties? Both absolutely. If Mahone was not in the group of officers from which the courier came, this writer has not seen him to-day. Fearing capture this writer tears up his letters and begins to study the situation. Suddenly, he turns to a lieutenant who has done nothing. “You are in command.” “No, you keep it; I haven’t the experience.” “But I want someone to carry the word that 600 men can clear this field and I will risk my life in leading them, if necessary.” “You go do it.” “All right, you protect my honor in case of death, I will watch the shells in the air, run and fall as occasion suggests.” This writer begins his perilous trip. At the northwest end of ditch this writer in falling sees a gold watch lying by the side of a dead man. He is about to get it when two balls pass through the corpse. He immediately looks eastward, and seeing friends, breaks for them in the trenches. They were surprised at supposed escape. Mahone was asked for. He was pointed at. He was dodging up and down with field glasses to his eyes, scanning the enemy in the east front of the Crater. He was standing just north of a traverse and by it. Col Hall came to this writer and was told that he had just left a few men on south side of traverse and that he was very certain that six hundred men could save them and retake all the works.
THE ALABAMIANS CHARGE.
Hall went immediately to Mahone and brought back word for them to stay and that he would send for Alabama brigade, and when it arrived he would put it in. Mahone immediately left the works and was not again seen by this writer that day. Shortly afterwards this writer saw things in trenches that he had not seen there before. They were coehorns being borne by men. After a long while waiting, it was reported that the Alabama brigade had arrived and was about to charge. Men were ordered to keep up firing in order to protect the Alabamians. This writer now became an on-looker. He saw the Alabama brigade charge from northwest to southeast at double quick right shoulder shift, until the left regiment, the 9th, reached the edge of the traverse, when they came to a trail and charged. They took Crater and works south of it. Godwin’s body yielded back its last sacred trust. That flag had been on that crest since 9.10 A. M. Hall alluded to this flag when he wrote: “One of Wright’s regiments planted its colors on the edge of that immense hole and remained there etc.” The Alabamians received the most of their casualties from parties outside of and south of the Crater. Their loss in five regiments was eight officers killed, with twenty-two men. Total killed and wounded, eighty-nine. That of the 5th [sic, five?] Virginia regiments were eight officers, sixty-three men killed. Total, killed and wounded, two hundred and forty-three, missing thirteen and one flag. The 64th Georgia alone lost as many officers in its six companies killed as did the five Virginia regiments. The 64th with six companies lost ninety-nine killed and wounded, and two captured, or missing. This writer, afterwards captain of Company G, but then of Company H, wrote a letter in August 1864, which was returned to him in 1891 which has the following:
“Then I had to write to the relatives of ten of my men, informing them of the deaths of said ten. I took into the fight of the Crater, July 30th, twenty men and two officers, including myself, of which number ten were killed and seven wounded, excluding myself. My ear is now, August 22d, well.”
At no time did Wright’s brigade go in as a whole. It was sent in by piecemeal three times, and at no time altogether. Hall said total casualties were two hundred and thirty-one. That night the brigade returned to its own trenches, leaving the Virginia and Alabama brigades to fill the vacancy. Hence wild reports began to circulate. That sad night three men had been detailed from each company and when Company H was to fall in line, the gallant Sergt Cheeves approached and in saluting said, “All present, or accounted for, dead, wounded or on detail.” Then he broke down with the remark, “Me alone left.” This paper is too long to give authorities. As the United States officers gave time will quote them. That Mahone’s first charge began and ended before 9 A. M., see War of Reb. No 80, pages 143-144, in Sanders and Burnside to Meade. That 64th flag was on Crater before 9.15 A. M. See Warren to Humphreys in same book, page 151. As to this writer being in command of regiment, see War of Reb. No 96, page 1,272. Grant said of it: “Our experience of to-day proves that fortifications come near holding themselves without troops—With a reasonable amount of artillery and one infantryman to every six feet, I am confident either par[t]y could hold their lines against the other.”
Greenwood, S. C.3
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Captain Victor Jean Baptiste Girardey was a staff officer on Mahone’s staff. He was promoted in the field to Brigadier General by Robert E. Lee for his Crater performance and assigned to command Wright’s Brigade several days after the battle. He was killed at Fussell’s Mill a few weeks later in that role. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Mahone’s Virginia Brigade, then led by Colonel David Weisiger. ↩
- “The Battle of the Crater.” Charleston News and Courier. September 2, 1906, p. 1 col. 3-7 ↩