Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
Battle of the Crater.
Petersburg, July 30, 1864.
Thomas H. Cross, late of Co. A, Sixteenth Va. Inf., in Philadelphia Times.
The morning of July 30, 1864, was bright, but the air was filled with an intense heat that bought little refreshment to the soldiers of the opposing armies which occupied the lines around Petersburg. Few save the generals of the Federal army knew, and certainly few save the generals of the confederate army suspected that beneath one of the confederate batteries which formed a re-entrant in the confederate lines lay the dormant power of many tons of powder which would soon rend the earth and air and bring death to many a sleeping soldier. At the point selected for the explosion the lines were so near to each other that during the night a desultory fire was kept up on each side to prevent a surprise from the opposite party, and the confederate line just here formed an angle angle which was covered by a fort. To blow up this fort and thus cause a breach in the lines seemed a comparatively feasible plan of gaining the crest of the hills in rear of the confederate line, and distant from the Federal lines about five hundred and fifty yards. In executing any movement in which co-operation of many persons is essential, there is, of course, unavoidable delay, and the explosion of this mine was no exception to the general rule. So, what by pre-arrangement should have occurred at half-past 4, took place just twelve minutes after, when the defective fuse, having been repaired or replaced, brought the spark to the powder, and the event for which thousands of eyes and ears were watching and waiting, proclaimed itself to the world as an accomplished fact, amid fire, smoke, death and desolation.
The First division of Federal troops under, command of Brigadier-General Ledlie, was assigned by lot to the hazardous duty of filling the deadly breach, and immediately following the explosion they leaped their own defenses, swept across the short space dividing the lines, and gained the confederate lines before the latter troops could fully realize what had occurred or could rally from the inextricable confusion into which the event had thrown them. Ledlie was supported by Generals Potter and Wilcox, but the troops seemed to look upon the chasm which had been rendered by the explosion rather as a place of refuge than as an initial point for making further assault upon the town now almost within their power. It is needless here to attempt to describe the dull, heavy thud produced by the explosion of many tons of powder down in the bowels of the earth. The earth yawned as if just awakening and shaking off the sleep of centuries, a heavy rumbling noise pervaded space, a perceptible quaking told those at a distance that some untoward event was happening, the ground immediately covering the mine lifted and was thrown more than a hundred feet into the air, while the lurid flames shone from below through the awful fissures in the earth and lit up a scene at once grand and appalling. A heavy veil of smoke stood for a moment over the wreck as if reluctant to disclose the destruction which the hand of man had caused, and then, stirred by the early morning breeze, it floated slowly away in the great mass of smoke which was now pouring from the throats of all the available guns in both armies. The grand chorus of artillery which immediately succeeded the explosion was such a roar as would fitly herald the introduction of fiends from the lower regions, and was played by an orchestra that combined in its awful diapason all the notes from the shrill treble of the whistling shell to the heavy bass of the Dahlgren or mortar.
On the confederate side, men quietly sleeping were hurled into eternity, no moment of waking, reflection or preparation, while their places were filled by the legions of invading soldiery. But with the Federals what was apparently plain sailing soon began to be a difficult problem, and as line after line of troops pressed into the breach, confusion naturally followed, and an unmanageable mass of men huddled behind the very works which were intended only as a place of rest and alignment. This point reached, they seemed to have felt that glory enough for one day had been won, and they were fully disposed to rest upon their laurels, and seek safety and enjoy honor in the accomplishment of this easy and unresisted assault. The Stars and Stripes defiantly floated from earthworks that had been built by confederate hands, a panic had seized upon the confederates immediately adjacent to the “Crater,” and nothing apparently was between the Federals and their coveted prize but the hills of Blandford Cemetery. Every effort was made by Federal officers to align and reform the troops for a further advance, but confusion grew worse confounded, and a sort of elfish fate had ordered a delay which proved fatal to the whole enterprise. In the meantime the dawn of day had been supplanted by that light which marks Virginia’s July weather, and the sun looked with a burning eye through the sulphurous cloud down upon a scene of sickening carnage.
The artillery duel had fully aroused all who had failed by that sound–sweet sleep which none but the thoroughly tired can know–to hear the explosion, and there was hurry, hot haste and wild speculation rife amid the boys who wore the gray. Statements, vague, contradictory, and doubtful, were readily told and as readily believed, but soon all gave way to the brief recital of the fact that the Federals had blown up and taken a part of our lines, and that somebody had to retake them. This fact was speedily confirmed by Thomas Bernard, the courier of General Mahone, then in command of the divisions of which his old brigade formed a part. Bernard soon found General Weisinger’s headquarters and delivered his order. Then came that peculiar rat-ta-tat of the kettle drum: “fall in!” was passed down the line, and soon what was a sleeping camp became a line of soldiers ready for any duty, and prepared for any danger. To avoid as much as possible a concentration of artillery fire, we repaired to a valley just in our rear by squads, and there the line was formed. After marching a short distance, possibly half a mile, we were ordered to “unsling knapsacks,” and soon a mingled pile of Yankee blankets and tents showed with what a confederate soldier’s knapsack was packed. Our baggage was soon disposed of, the line of march was resumed, the steady, regular tramp of the veteran line told of the determination to do the task assigned us, let the hazard be ever so great. Wright’s Georgia brigade, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Hall, was also detailed to take part in the day’s work, but Mahone’s old brigade had reached the line before the Georgians had deployed, and then they were twice met by a fire so galling that not even Georgia valor could face the storm or achieve their purpose. Mahone’s brigade, numbering about eight hundred guns, was the first to strike the enemy, and from that blow, struck by a veteran soldiery, the enemy never recovered.
When we first set out on our expedition we did not know that we should be called upon to “lock horns” with negro troops, and that they had leaped our works with the exultant cry of “No quarter!” The information gained, a stranger would perhaps have noticed a quickening of the step, each eye burned with a brighter glow, and each gun received more than a casual examination to see that it was properly loaded and ready for action. We had never met negro troops. We did not know whether we should be met by a sort of savage ferocity or whether we should meet that cool, imperturbable bravery which characterizes men fighting for freedom. But we did know that behind us lay the town of Petersburg with its inhabitants looking to us for protection; we knew that this was the key to Richmond. We knew that an enemy who had proclaimed “No quarter!” was before us, and we determined to spare neither ourselves nor the enemy till the earthworks were retaken and the city was safe. A ditch dug by the former occupants of the lines enabled us to approach near them with comparative safety. From this ditch we deployed in a little valley, and then came the final preparation for the assault. The tops of fifteen flagstaffs could be seen over the hill, and fifteen hostile banners flaunted defiance in our face. The order was passed in that subdued tone which denotes a stern purpose, to “fix bayonets,” and by those to whom the thought occurred an extra turn was taken in the little screw which holds the bayonet shank on the gun. The thought of having his bayonet “unshipped” flashed across the writer’s mind, and his right hand instinctively sought his cartridge-box and the possibility was provided against.
Some said that Generals Lee and Beauregard would witness the charge, and thus another incentive was given to us to do our work well and faithfully. Orders were given to the commanders of regiments to withhold the fire until the works were reached, and we were cautioned against unnecessary and exhaustive speed until the top of the hill was gained, when we would be exposed to the heavy fire of five lines of infantry which had been gathered in our front. All was now ready. “Forward!” came down the line as a movement among the enemy was noticed and the counter-charge was successfully made before their lines could be arranged. Slowly and deliberately we came to the top of the hill, and here, as we became more exposed, our step was quickened and the lines were gained, but not taken. Guns were emptied in the face of the foe and then the bayonet was relied on, as it was then almost impossible to reload. The blood of whites and blacks, of friend and foe, combined to form rivulets which should bear down to future generations the testimony that men can forget mercy, and that human wrath is stronger than human love. The earth then drank to satiety, while every dripping bayonet, every flashing sword, and every hissing ball told that the sacrifice was not yet done.
Major Woodhouse, of the Sixteenth Virginia infantry, was the first man whom the writer saw fall, but soon the field and trench were covered with the dead and wounded. The first line which we encountered was a traverse running parallel with the main line of breastworks, the interval between the two being honeycombed by sleeping apartments, so constructed as to insure the greatest possible safety to the occupants. This traverse was about seventy-five feet in rear of the main line, was about ten feet from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the embankment, and commanded the line of works which was nearest to the enemy. All of this space, more than one hundred feet, was occupied by the enemy, and when they had realized the fact, from the impetuosity of our charge, that their attack was a failure, they incontinently sought refuge in these little “bomb proofs” and in the “Crater.” But the confederates followed close on their heels, and here the hand-to-hand fight continued until the work of recapture was fully and irrevocably accomplished. All this happened i much less time than it takes me to tell it; some say it was twenty minutes, but certain it is that before the sun had reached meridian some of those who had escaped the dangers of assault and the wounds of conflict had yielded to the heat, which was well nigh intolerable. Then we began to realize the fact that several thousand dead and festering bodies would soon force an abandonment of the lines, but still more must be added to the list before those already dead could be buried.
The “Crater” had by this time become a place of retreat for the crouching foe, and while a part of the line was assigned to the task of keeping up a fire on the enemy in our front, in their own lines, the remainder of the line was called upon to prevent the escape of Brigadier-General Bartlett and several hundred men who had gathered in the “Crater.” To do this more effectually, we took advantage of the many guns lying about us, and loading all of them, when the enemy would make a rush for their lines we would give them such a volley as would force them back within the pit. Then came in the Alabamians with a rush, a yell, and a volley, and Bartlett, with his disheartened troops, was marched to the rear as prisoners of war, their number being estimated at about five hundred. As an evidence of the number killed in the “Crater,” the writer remembers keeping count for Corporal Shepherd, of Company A, Sixteenth Virginia infantry, who had charge of the burial of the bodies within the “Crater,” and knows that one hundred and forty-two–white and black–Yankee soldiers were buried in the bottom of the pit, being covered by the loose dirt from its sides. In the adjustment of the troops after the surrender of Bartlett, a portion of the Sixteenth regiment was assigned to the “Crater,” a banquet-tread having been constructed in the sides of the pit. It became necessary to bury the dead here as soon as possible, and Corporal Shepherd was assigned to that duty on Sunday morning, the banks protecting the squad from the fire of the enemy. Where all did well it were invidious to say who did best, but the writer is certain that no man who took part in the battle of the “Crate,” and lives to-day to tell the tale, would exchange his proud recollections for a coronet, while of the dead who fell there it may be truly said that their death in defense of a cause and country which they dearly loved is their highest encomium. Of instances of personal prowess, of hair-breadth escapes, of instances of devotion on the part of soldiers to officer or friend, the writer could recount not a few, for deeds of valor were not wanting. Nor need I recount them here to make good the boast that every man there had witnessed a baptism of fire equal to Balaklava. Many an old confederate, who had drawn a nice bead on a Yankee in more than a score of battles and skirmishes, could then swear to his man, and could swear to a bayonet encrimsoned, when before it had served only to glitter on dress parade. Bradbent, of Company E, Sixteenth Virginia infantry, who commanded the detail of sharpshooters, here met his fate. The victory was with us, but dearly had we paid for it, for every company left more than half of its number among the dead or wounded. The company to which the writer belonged, Company A, Sixteenth Virginia regiment, out of twenty-eight men who went into action, lost in killed and wounded, fifteen men, while his regiment, with only seven companies, lost twenty-one killed and twenty-one wounded. Other regiments, numbering ten companies each, lost in like ratio.1
- Cross, Thomas H. “Battle of the Crater – Petersburg, July 30, 1864.” National Tribune 25 February 1882. 3:1-3. ↩