Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
WISE’S FAMOUS BRIGADE AT CONFLICT OF THE CRATER
Its Commander, Colonel Goode, Narrates the Part Played by His Regiments in That Bloody Scene, When the Battle Waged Over the Pit of Dead and Dying.
BY J. THOMAS GOODE,
Ex-Colonel Thirty-Fourth Virginia Infantry.
Having commanded Wise’s Brigade, composed of the Twenty-sixth, Thirty-fourth, Forty-sixth and Fifty-ninth Regiments of Virginia Infantry, during the siege of Petersburg from May, 1864, to March, 1865, General Wise being on detached service, I have been urged to write an account of the service rendered by that command in the great battle of July 30, 1864, known as the battle of the Crater. At that time Wise’s Brigade held the main line from Elliott’s1 right at a small ravine about one hundred yards south of the Crater, the full front of the brigade extending across the Baxter Road several hundred yards.
We had been warned some time before by a major who deserted from the enemy that his people were undermining the hill north of the Baxter Road held by Elliott’s Brigade, and possible the hill we held, over which the Baxter Road runs, for the purpose of making breaches in our lines through which assaulting columns could be rushed into Petersburg. On the 28th and 29th of July we observed unusual activity in the enemy’s camps, and supposed that some movement would soon be made. On the evening of the 29th a large number of sand bags were sent us, but too late to be used. My acting aide-de-camp, Edward Bagby, one of the best and bravest soldiers of the Confederacy, said he would make us a bed of the bags on which we could get one good night’s rest, if we never had another. It was his last. He was killed the next morning by a Minie ball through the head. About 4 o’clock A. M. on the 30th we were aroused by a terrific explosion, and were on our feet in an instant. The earth trembled so that we could scarcely stand, and the scene before us was indeed appalling. Human forms, cannon, broken gun carriages, etc., high in the air. Two of our cannon fell fifty yards in front of our line and were recovered later by cutting covered ways out to them and hauling them in with ropes. The troops were in their places in the shortest possible time, and the firing commenced when the enemy emerged from his works. It was soon reported by one of our officers that the battery in our lines had been abandoned. No artillery was to be found. Captain [Samuel D.] Preston’s Company (B), Thirty-fourth Virginia Infantry, was withdrawn from the line and placed in charge of the battery, which, having a clear field and short range, did great execution and suffered heavy loss.
It was here that Edward Bagby was killed, and about 10 o’clock Captain Preston was desperately wounded, his skull being broken with a fragment of shell. His company was so cut up that it was relieved by Captain Bagby’s Company K, same regiment. These troops, being trained artillerists, did excellent work to the end of the struggle.
Knowing that the enemy’s object was to rush into Petersburg, I as speedily as possible after the explosion withdrew the Fifty-ninth Regiment, Captain [Henry] Wood commanding, and placed it in a covered way facing the Crater, and about 100 yards distant, with orders to concentrate his fire on any troops attempting to form in the rear of the Crater. I then wrote our division commander, General Bushrod Johnson, in Blandford, of the situation and the disposition made of the troops, suggesting that he come out and direct the fighting in person. He sent Lieutenant Saunders, his aide-de-camp, to say the arrangements were very good and to hold the works to the last extremity, which we did, but with heavy loss. The battle was then raging all along our front. The Thirty-fourth and Forty-sixth Regiments were much weakened by having to extend their lines over the space vacated by the withdrawal of the Fifty-ninth Regiment and the two companies of the Thirty-fourth. Still they held the line and did most valiant service.
The enemy, being anxious to widen the breach, concentrated the fire of 160 pieces of artillery on our lines to the right and left of the breach. The Twenty-sixth Regiment held the extreme left of our line to the ravine on which Elliott’s right had rested, about 100 yards from the Crater, and were the first troops left in line. The enemy fired down our lines from the Crater, and the shelling was furious and incessant. We had to put the dead out of the works to give room for the living to fight, and I saw a stream of blood run down the incline, which I believe was from fifteen to twenty feet long. The left of the regiment was almost annihilated, but we held the key to Petersburg, and indirectly to Richmond, and we held it to the last. Burnside succeeded in occupying the Crater, but to no purpose. He failed to go further. Five times they attempted to form a line in the rear of the Crater, their flag bearers and guards running out as a nucleus for the troops to form on, and each time they were swept away by the fire of the Fifty-ninth. Afterwards their officers failed to force them from the cover of the Crater.
A member of the Fifty-ninth Regiment, an Irishman, named Sweeney, from New Orleans, went over in rear of the Crater about this juncture and brought me three of the flags which had fallen there—two United States flags and one State flag. He got a bullet through one shoulder, but he didn’t care for that.
Meade, in urging Burnside to press forward, asked him: “Do you mean to say your officers and men will not obey your orders to advance?” Burnside replied: “I mean to say that it is very hard to advance to the crest.” They crouched in that hole packed like sardines, sweltering in the baking sun for two hours, more considerate of the little Minies of the Fifty-ninth than the earnest exhortations and sulphuric execrations of their own officers. Finally Billy Mahone came with his “ragged Rebs,” and then they got a move on them, skipped like conies. From my position on the left of our lines I could plainly see all that transpired on the south of the Crater.
I saw Weisiger’s [Virginia] Brigade when it left the Jerusalem Plank Road on that grand and glorious charge on the Crater. In almost perfect order they came like an avalanche, and went right in on them, knowing nothing of what they had to encounter. Wright’s Georgia Brigade (I then heard it was Sands’s, or Saunders’s) [sic, John C. C. Sanders’] came in the same splendid and glorious style as the Virginians, and did the same kind of work. I there saw hand to hand fighting with bayonets and clubbed muskets. When the charge commenced I think I saw as many of Burnside’s troops running from the Crater to their lines as we had Confederates coming to it. Still there were very many left who chose to fight there rather than take the chance of crossing the space between the lines, where they had lost so fearfully coming in. Those who ran out lost as heavily as when they came in. About midday General Johnson came out and said to me that General Lee wished to know the exact condition of things at the Crater, and he wished me to go there and report to him. I went, and the scene was sickening. Dead and dying everywhere, and the Crater half-filled with dead and wounded—Confederates, Federals and negroes—many wounded of both armies, lying under several corpses imploring relief. After fighting a while longer those in our lines surrendered, and the battle ended with the re-establishment of our lines.2