Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Michael Weeks, owner of Civil War Road Trip.
THE MASSACRE IN THE CRATER.
Personal Remembrances of That Sadly Mismanaged Affair.
Editor National Tribune: It may seem rather late in the day, 43 years after the battle of the Crater before Petersburg, to be condemning the colored troops who took part in that unsuccessful affair. It seems since the unhappy discharge of the colored battalion at Brownsville to be quite the fad when a party cannot find anything to hit or scold to make a shy at the colored troops, but those who condemn their action on that fatal day must remember that it was nearly three hours after the explosion before they were ordered in, time enough to get a regiment from New York to Philadelphia, and the enemy were plenty; they were right there; anything within 15 miles could have been rushed in during this time of waiting, and the Confederates were not slow; they had able generals, who were ready for any emergency. Again, the colored division had been specially drilled to lead the attack, and expected to until the last moment, when they were ordered back and another division of the Ninth Corps took their place. When the time came for us to go in the Colonel (afterwards brevetted Brigadier-General), Bates, called his officers together, and among other instructions to all, he turned to the writer, who was in command of the second company in line (the senior Captain being absent), and said, “We will charge by division, right in front. Capt. Proctor, you will command the First Division.” Our brigade led the division, our regiment led the brigade and my division of two companies led the regiment. Even at that late hour the abatis had not been removed, and the works so leveled so that we could go in even by fours, and before we got across the field we were badly broken up. The enemy were giving us an enfilading fire, and when we arrived at the Crater our Colonel, who led, said, “Push down the line,” which we did, driving the enemy out and capturing a few prisoners. One of them had a flag. All there was for me to do was to simply step up and take it, but, like many another, I failed to embrace the opportunity. Another Captain of another regiment coming in later saw it, took it, and was promoted Major for his bravery, and no doubt is a Medal of Honor man. A correspondent of yours of recent date says the colored troops only stayed there about a minute. It might have been the end of the division which he saw retreating soon after they came up, and it might have been something else. I cannot swear how long I was in there. I went in first and possibly came out with the first; but I’ll try to account for part of my time at least while there. Now, you know, a Yankee is quite inquisitive at times, and after stepping over several dead and wounded men in the trenches, a bomb proof invited, and I stepped inside, saw a blanket or two and a corncake, which I tasted to see what the poor fellow was to have for his breakfaet, and what it was like, but only for a fraction of a minute, when I came out. The trenches were almost deserted except for the dead and wounded. I soon learned the reason why the men had taken cover in the traverses – the enemy were firing down the line. About that time the 43rd U.S.C.T. came in over the main line of trenches; and, to say the least, I was mighty glad to see them. The Century gives the 43rd the credit of being there first, but my regiment was in there to welcome them. A Captain of that regiment was hit in the breast. He gave a yell, saying, “I am shot thru.” Unbuttoning his shirt, there was a swelling as large as an egg and the skin was not broken.
“No Head to This Thing.”
Capt. Bosbyshell, 48th Pa., who was Acting Assistant Adjutant-General on the brigade staff, came up. I remember saying to him, “Can’t we have some intrenching tools to turn these works? We cannot hold them 10 minutes; the ground in front is swarming with the enemy, and their front lines are within 25 feet of us.” His reply was something in regard to there being no head to this thing – nobody to give any orders. Later a division staff officer, came up and asked for our brigade commander, and not finding him gave the order to Col. Bates, of our regiment, to advance the brigade. He gave the order, and then sprang upon the earthworks with the command, “Come on! Come on!” He had not gone five paces when he was met by a volley, one of the balls penetrating the left cheek and coming out behind the right ear. We passed him to the rear, thinking him a dying man, but in less than 60 days he was back in command of his brigade with a star, and is now a Medal of Honor man, and all for what he did in that last minute in the Crater. After this futile attempt to advance it quieted down. Some one called, “Stop firing.” I think it came from the enemy. I suggested to the men around me to have their guns in order, and to be ready to meet the enemy when they came on. While waiting there a colored soldier not of my command, pointing to what I supposed a dead Johnny, said, “That man ain’t dead; shall I kill him?” “No,” I replied, “let the poor fellow live.” Upon which the supposed dead man rose up, and made a very pathetic appeal for his life. Among other things he informed me that he was from South Carolina; “that he was always opposed to this war; that he was drafted into the service; that he came against his will, and that he never expected to see home again.” I told the soldier to take him to the rear, and that was the last I ever heard of either. There seemed to be nothing doing except that some of our batteries were firing, and the enemies, too, with cannon to right, to left, in front, and, going Tennyson one better, cannon in rear of us, volleyed and thundered; but their fire was centered on the Crater, while we were quite a distance to the right in the trenches, and failed to get the full benefit. Then the rebel yell, and their whole line started forward and simply pushed us out. In the retreat I jumped upon the works and stood there for a moment, and in that moment I saw the enemy’s line moving forward in good order, while we were broken and could deliver but little resistance, and this was all done in a minute, and in that minute, besides taking a review of the enemy’s line, I saw a Captain of our regiment – Capt. Seagrave, of Uxbridge, Mass. – emptying his revolver and refusing to surrender, clubbed over the head with a musket. He was badly wounded at the time, but would not surrender. He was taken prisoner, and suffered every indignity possible at the hands of the enemy. He was exchanged, and died in his old home, and this year it was my privilege to place my sprig of evergreen upon his grave. And now, thinking I have been standing a few seconds too long upon the enemy’s redoubt, I turned and saw a fine line of battle of the Tenth Corps. They had advanced to within 20 feet of the enemy’s line. Some of us were in a hurry, and in less than 10 seconds that line had vanished and there was no more Tenth Corps in that neighborhood. They just flew across that field, and our men with them, all racers on that occasion, and the Tenth were just as good sprinters as the Ninth, and it was the best thing to do under the circumstances.
“Insane Over Defeat.”
I was literally insane over our defeat, and walked along slowly, watching that Tenth Corps and our own men put in their minutes, swearing like a sea cook, and signing everything to, well, ——. There was no firing at that point, as the enemy were engaged in taking prisoners until within 50 feet of our lines. A cannon shot disemboweled a young soldier a few feet in front, and the demoralization seized me, and I reached cover as soon as possible, and all this in a minute. But I think I was there the longest hour of my life, certainly the most strenuous. I think that perhaps the colored division might have huddled into the Crater at the onset, but the white troops already there kept them out by their bayonets with threats to shoot. It is claimed that several of our colored soldiers were shot at that time by our own troops in the Crater. Later on many of them took shelter there, only to be bayoneted on surrender. My company, with about 50 men, had 38 killed, wounded and missing, and had my missing been counted as killed, and they undoubtedly were, my death roll would have been 13, and Co. A, the first company, suffered even worse. We had five officers captured; four of these returned from captivity; the one who died gave himself up as a private, and died in Danville prison. Our Colonel was made a brevet Brigadier General, our Adjutant [illegible] brevetted Colonel, and several [illegible] had honorable mention. We saved our State flag (Maryland) colors, losing our Stars and Stripes, for which Capt. Seagraves gave life; but, strange to say, that flag has never been found. Some say a soldier tore it from its staff and buried it, but it is all speculation. It is simply non est as far as we can learn.
Credit to the Colored Troops.
One thing the colored division must have the credit for – that of capturing some of the enemy’s intrenchments outside the Crater, which three divisions of white troops failed to do. The great need of our colored regiments was a full complement and competent officers, and they should have had more than the white regiment. Certainly there should have been at least three officers in each company all the time. Take my own company, for instance; one hundred men from everywhere to make soldiers of; a boy not yet of age, his First Lieutenant detailed into another regiment, his Second detailed in charge of the Ambulance Corps, the boy Captain acting at times as Orderly-Sergeant, Sergeant of the Guard, Corporal of the Guard, and sometimes Guard himself. Six months campaigning, and there were only eight officers on duty in the regiment, including the Major, Adjutant and Doctor. One line officer to two companies. Possibly my story is now too long, but what I believe is just and right, that every man is entitled to a square deal, that he should be punished for a crime only when guilty and proven so by a tribunal of his peers. The faults of the colored race are many, and it appears somewhere that it was the white man who nailed the Savior to the cross; the white man who started the greatest rebellion on earth, costing a million lives and thousands of desolated homes; and it’s the white man’s burden now to settle the question whether a man is a man, without regard to race, color or previous condition. In God’s own time it will be settled rightly, but we feel that those who were participants in that great war for the preservation of the Union, and incidentally the freedom of the slave, will never see that day.
The Great Ruler of the Universe may have made the world in a minute, but his minutes are ages, and so, comrades, judge kindly the facts as I saw them as commander of the two leading companies of the colored division at the battle of the Mine.
D. E. Proctor, Captain, Co. F 30th U. S. C. T., brevet Major, Wilton, N.H.1
- Proctor, D. E. “The Massacre in the Crater.” National Tribune 17 October 1907. 6:3-4. ↩