Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
OUR CONFEDERATE COLUMN
ANECDOTES OF THE ARMY IN BATTLE OF THE CRATER.
Springfield Republican Tells Interesting Stories on Occasion Of Visit of Confederate Veterans There.
The Petersburg campaign proper started in May, 1864, when General Grant ordered General Butler, then commanding the Army of the James, to cross to the south side of the river and march north on Richmond. On June 9  Butler ordered Generals Gilmore, Kautz and Hinks to capture Petersburg, but though they made the attempt, and Kautz, with his cavalry, reached nearly up to the city water works, the assault was repelled. The attacking force numbered about 4,500, whereas that of the defenders is variously estimated at about 2,500 infantry, with some cavalry and a number of reserves and militia, commanded by Col. Fletcher H. Archer. Colonel Archer was always careful about his men, and always tried to keep them from any unnecessary exposure, whereas he himself was most reckless. But one of his men, after an attack had been repulsed, jumped on the breastworks, waving his blanket, and dared the Federals to come on again.
Captain E. O. Hinton, of Petersburg, tells a story on Thomas H. Campbell, a Confederate civil officer, who made a rather big boast before the attack of June 9. Mr. Campbell didn’t believe it possible that the Union army could be near, and he bragged with great emphasis: “Gentlemen, give me a brigade of 2,500 men, and I will obligate myself to drive every Yankee this side of City Point into the James River before sunset this evening.” His associates immediately replied that such an opportunity was not to be lost, and that they surely ought to try to raise his 2,500 men. Just at that moment Otway P. Hare rushed into the store and announced the Yankee’s approach. Mr. Campbell immediately disappeared.
The repulse of Kautz left Petersburg safe for a little longer. But General Grant, after his heavy losses in his campaign from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, moved to the south, and in person brought a large army against Petersburg. On June 15, 1864, an assault was planned, but owing to a misunderstanding between Grant, Meade, Hancock and Smith, it was a failure. Had it been successful, the long siege would have been avoided. On the 16th, 17th and 18th other assaults followed, but by that time the Confederates had intrenched themselves securely, and repulsed all attacks. The Union army then threw up strong works, and proceeded to try to destroy all communications from the South, but in this they were not entirely successful.
In the latter part of June Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants, of the Forty-eighth Pennsylvania, suggested a plan, which was carried out later, and which was one of the most spectacular features of the entire war. It was to build a mine under a part of the Confederate redoubts. This was completed on July 23. It consisted of a main gallery 511 feet long, with two lateral galleries 37 and 38 feet long. In these galleries eight magazines were placed, of 1,000 pounds of powder each.
The Exploding of the Mine.
On the 30th [of July 1864] at 4:40 in the morning the mine was sprung. There was a terrific explosion, a mass of earth flew into the air, carrying with it men and cannon, and parts of the redoubts. A huge hollow was formed, 170 feet long by 60 wide, and from 25 to 30 feet deep. This was the famous Crater. The plan was to have Burnside rush in with General Ledlie’s division, followed by Ord’s corps on the right and Warren’s on the left. But the undertaking was a colossal failure. Burnside had made no preparations for clearing the way for his men, and Ledlie’s division after much difficulty in stumbling through their own lines, finally got into the Crater, to discover that their commander was nowhere to be found. It was then that the confusion started. The division did not advance, others were following behind them, until they were crowded together like sardines.
A sharp artillery duel was going on in the meantime and the confusion was terrible. It was then that General [William] Mahone directed his famous charge that led finally to the capture of the men in the Crater. It was a brave thing to attempt to charge a much larger force with a brigade that numbered only about 2,000. But the Federal troops were much disorganized, and this should be taken into account. The Confederate leaders, [David] Weisiger and [Victor] Girardey, behaved most gallantly.
George S. Bernard, commander of A. P. Hill Camp, who took part in the battle of the Crater as a private, tells an interesting incident of the fight. While he was lying in a trench preparatory to making the charge he noticed his friend, Emmet Butts, lying next him on the right. His proper position was on the left. Mr. Bernard, having a superstitious belief that the safest place for a man in battle was usually the right place, asked Butts to change places with him. He complied pleasantly but soon after reaching the works he fell dead, pierced with a ball.
The remarkable thing about the charge was that the Confederates could rush down in such perfect order upon men who had a full sweep of them with their rifles; and also that the Northerners, packed closely as they were and greatly demoralized, could put up such a gallant resistance. It was a hand-to-hand struggle a good part of the time. One man would thrust a bayonet into an enemy only to have his head blown off by a musket or a revolver not a foot away. The carnage was awful, and the dead of both sides were so thick that it was impossible to take a step without treading on them.
Fighting in the Ditches.
Commander Bernard in an address before A. P. Hill camp gave a thrilling account of his experiences at the Crater in the successful charge by which General Mahone won back the salient: “Getting within ten paces of the ends of the little ditches or traverses which led out permenducularly [sic] from the main trench of our breastworks some ten or fifteen paces, to my surprise I saw a negro soldier getting up from a recumbent position on the ground near my feet. I had not then fired my rifle, and I might easily have killed this man, but regarding him as a prisoner, I had no disposition to hurt him. Looking then directly ahead of me, within twenty feet of where I stood, I saw in the trench of the breastworks crowds of men, white and black, with arms in their hands, as closely jammed and packed as we sometimes see pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks of a city, and seemingly in great confusion and alarm.
“With my gun still loaded I might have fired into this mass of men, but I regarded these also practically as our prisoners. Casting my eyes upon the ground over and beyond the breastworks, I there saw large numbers of the enemy retreating to their own breastworks. Many, however, were taking shelter behind our breastworks, as I could see from the tops of their caps just over the parapet. Into a squad of those I saw retreating to their own works I fired my gun and jumped into one of the little ditches leading out from the main trench. This ditch was about as deep as I was high and about eighteen inches wide. Proceeding down it toward the trench or main ditch, I was suddenly confronted by a negro soldier at the other end of it standing with his gun pointed toward me at ‘a ready’ and looking me in the face with a grin on his.
“Just in front of me and to my height was a large recess in the earth perpendicular to the little ditch in which I stood and parallel to the main ditch or trench. Into this recess by a rapid stride I made my way and there loaded my rifle in the quickest possible time—no muzzle-loaded was ever loaded in less time. I was now less than five feet from a trench full of Federal soldiers with arms in their hand and was in a position critical and perilous in the extreme.”
John R. Turner joined Mr. Bernard in the recess and they discussed the propriety of remaining there or retreating. They finally concluded to stay, and they did so until the situation cleared up and the Confederates in larger numbers entered the main trench and obtained thorough command of the situation. This was a sample of the experiences of the Petersburg riflemen in this battle.
The Northern losses at the Crater have been estimated at over 3,500 killed, wounded and captured. General Grant sardonically remarked: “The effort was a stupendous failure, due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.” The Confederate losses were also heavy, and the sun did not set on a happy crowd in either army.
But there was at least one Confederate of whom Judge D. M. Bernard, of Petersburg, wrote as the happiest man he had ever seen. He joined the force in the afternoon. His clothes was saturated with red mud, made of red dirt and sweat. He was bareheaded and his hair was matted with the same red mud and his face was covered with it. He was one of Elliot’s command, who had been buried close by the side of the Crater after the mine had been sprung. He had been stunned for a while, and when he came to he saw a little crack near him through which the daylight came. His arms were pinned down by the weight of the clay, but he finally managed to free them, and began to dig himself out. It was not until the afternoon that he succeeded in getting free, and then he was the happiest man in the lines.
After the failure of the battle of the Crater, the Union forces withdrew, and the Confederates entrenched themselves more securely. But there was all the fighting the bloodiest might want. Apart from frequent skirmishes and occasionally small pitched battles, the opposing forces devoted most of their energies to bombarding each other. The Union troops built two forts very near Petersburg, known by the soldiers as Fort Hell and Fort Damnation, and these two kept up a steady fire on the beleaguered city.1 The Union forces also laid a military railroad outside of Petersburg and ran flat freight cars carrying siege cannon and mortars, from point to point where they could do the most damage. One of these was the thirteen-inch mortar, “Dictator,” known by the soldiers as the “Petersburg Express.” It was readily moved along the line, and was fired whenever required. It was very effective and annoying to the enemy, for it was something like the Irishman’s flea, “when he put his hand on it it wasn’t there.” When the Confederates turned the fire of the batteries on the “Dictator,” the boys would hitch on to the car and run it along out of the line of fire and begin pegging away again. This old mortar now stands on the Capitol Grounds at Hartford, Conn.
The siege lasted all through the winter. It was very severe, and both sides suffered intensely, especially the Confederates, who were poorly supplied with clothing and food. By March  General Lee foresaw that it would be necessary for him to withdraw when Sherman’s army approached, so he planned to move to Danville to join Gen. J. E. Johnston as soon as the weather should become favorable. To cover his plans and to cause Grant to draw in his left, Lee planned a sortie. This was made on March 25 , but was a failure, and marked the beginning of the end. Grant had been joined by Sheridan and the decisive battle of Five Forks was fought on April 1.
The Final Assault.
When Grant heard of this victory at 9 o’clock that night he ordered an immediate assault on Petersburg. Humphrey led the attack, but was repulsed. In the early morning of the 2d [of April 1865], however, Ord’s, Humphrey’s, Wright’s and Parker’s corps, in all about 63,000 men, assaulted the lines, then defended by less than 20,000 men. The Confederates offered desperate resistance and finally the exterior lines were captured. Lee ordered a retreat, which started at 8 o’clock that evening. Early next morning Wilcox’s division took possession of Petersburg, and at 8:15 Richmond was formally surrendered to General Weitzel, who entered it from the north of the James. The total loss in the campaign to the North was 4,883 dead, 34,414 wounded and 20,850 captured or missing.
At 9 o’clock on the morning of the 3d [of April, 1865] General Grant rode into Petersburg. There he made himself comfortable on the piazza of a deserted house, and waited until President Lincoln should come up to see him. The inhabitants of the town, such as had not left the city with the Confederate army, returned within their houses, but gradually they came out to look at the general. The people in the city were well nigh famished, and one of the first things the Northern army did was to hurry supplies into the city. It was not an easy matter, for the roads were not only in a miserable condition, but were choked with stragglers and wounded. Moving a wagon train was always a slow process, for its speed depended on its slowest part.
Frequently an axle would break, or a horse would balk, and then the whole train would have to wait, for the roads were seldom wide enough to let the rest pass. But the provision train finally entered Petersburg with its barrels of flour, pork, coffee and sugar, and the people of the surrendered city could once more have supplies. The war was now practically over. General Grant followed hard after Lee and in a few days he surrendered at Appomattox. A little later Johnston surrendered to Sherman.
It was not all beer and skittles after the hostilities ceased. There were the paroles that had to be filled out. The printed forms for these were not always on hand, and this caused many delays. Then, too, the soldiers were far from home, and it was a long way that many had to travel. But the worst of it was over, and before many months they were back where they belonged and peace reigned in the land.
Matthew R. Brady, the famous Civil War photographer, obtained many pictures in and around Petersburg, which constitute a graphic record of the struggle there.2
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This version of the story isn’t exactly correct. Forts Hell and Damnation were one Confederate fort, Fort Mahone, and one Union fort, Fort Sedgwick, which faced each other southeast of Petersburg along the Jerusalem Plank Road. ↩
- “Anecdotes of the Army in Battle of the Crater.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. July 24, 1910 p. 3, col. 1-4 ↩