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Then one volley crashed from the whole line,

and the Sixth and Sixteenth, with the Sharpshooters, clutching their empty guns and redoubling their fierce cries, leaped over the retrenched-cavalier, and all down the line the dreadful work of the bayonet began.

How long it lasted none may say with certainty, for in those [292] fierce moments no man heeded time, no man asked, no man gave quarter; but in an incredibly brief space, as seemed to those who looked on, the whole of the advanced line north of the Crater was retaken, the enemy in headlong flight,1 and the tattered battle-flags planted along the parapets from left to right, told Lee at the Gee House that from this nettle danger, valor had plucked the flower, safety for an army.

Redoubling the sharpshooters on his right, Mahone kept down all fire from the Crater, the vast rim of which frowned down upon the lower line occupied by his troops.

And now the scene within the horrid pit was such as might be fitly portrayed only by the pencil of Dante after he had trod “nine-circled Hell.” From the great mortars to the right and left, huge missiles, describing graceful curves, fell at regular intervals with dreadful accuracy and burst among the helpless masses huddled together, and every explosion was followed by piteous cries, and often-times the very air seemed darkened by flying human limbs. Haskell, too, had moved up his Eprouvette mortars among the men of the Sixteenth Virginia--so close, indeed, that his powder-charge was but one ounce and a half--and, without intermission, the storm of fire beat upon the hapless men imprisoned within.

Mahone's men watched with great interest this easy method or reaching troops behind cover, and then, with the imitative ingenuity of soldiers, gleefully gathered up the countless muskets with bayonets fixed, which had been abandoned by the enemy, and propelled them with such nice skill that they came down upon Ledlie's men “like the rain of the Norman arrows at Hastings.”

At half-past 10, the Georgia brigade advanced and attempted to dislodge Wilcox's men, who still held a portion of the lines south of the Crater, but so closely was every inch of the ground searched by artillery, so biting was the fire of musketry, that, obliquing to [293] their left, they sought cover behind the cavalier-trench won by the Virginia brigade — many officers and men testifying by their blood how gallantly the venture had been essayed.

Half an hour later, the Alabamians under Saunders arrived, but further attack was postponed until after 1 P. M., in order to arrange for co-operation from Colquitt on the right. Sharply to the minute agreed upon, the assaulting line moved forward, and with such astonishing rapidity did these glorious soldiers rush across the intervening space that ere their first wild cries subsided, their battle-flags had crowned the works.2 The Confederate batteries were now ordered to cease firing, and forty volunteers were called for to assault the Crater, but so many of the Alabamians offered themselves for the service, that the ordinary system of detail was necessary. Happily, before the assaulting party could be formed, a white handkerchief, made fast to a ramrod, was projected above the edge of the Crater, and, after a brief pause, a motley mass of prisoners poured over the side and ran for their lives to the rear.

In this grand assault on Lee's lines, for which Meade had massed 65,0003 troops, the enemy suffered a loss of above 5,000 men, including 1,101 prisoners, among whom were two brigade commanders, while vast quantities of small arms and twenty-one standards fell into the hands of the victors.4

Yet many brave men perished on the Confederate side. Elliott's brigade lost severely in killed and prisoners. The Virginia brigade, too, paid the price which glory ever exacts. The Sixth carried in 98 men and lost 88, one company--“the dandies,” of course--“Old Company F” of Norfolk, losing every man killed or wounded.5 [294] Scarcely less was the loss in other regiments. The Sharpshooters carried in 80 men and lost 64--among the slain their commander, William Broadbent, a man of prodigious strength and activity, who, leaping first over the works, fell pierced by eleven bayonet-wounds--a simple captain, of whom we may say, as was said of Ridge: “No man died that day with more glory, yet many died and there was much glory.”

Such was the battle of the Crater, which excited the liveliest satisfaction throughout the army and the country. Mahone was created Major-General from that date; Weisiger, who was wounded, Brigadier-General; Captain Girardey, of Mahone's staff, also Brigadier — the latter an extraordinary but just promotion, for he was a young officer whose talents and decisive vigor qualified him to conduct enterprises of the highest moment; yet fate willed that his career should be brief, for within a fortnight he fell in battle north of the James, his death dimming the joy of victory.

On the Federal side, crimination and recrimination followed what General Grant styled “this miserable failure.” There was a Court of Inquiry, and a vast array of dismal testimony, which disclosed the fact that of four generals of division belonging to the assaulting corps, not one had followed his men into the Confederate lines.6 Nay, that the very commander of the storming division, finding, like honest Nym, “the humor of the breach too hot,” was at the crisis of the fight palpitating in a bomb-proof, beguiling a Michigan surgeon into giving him a drink of rum, on the plea that “he had the malaria, and had been struck by a spent ball” 7--legends of a hoary antiquity, whereof, let us humbly confess, we ourselves have heard.

Three weeks of comparative quiet followed along the Petersburg front, yet, during this time many brave men fell unnoticed in the trenches, for there was no change in the proximity of the hostile lines, and the dropping fire of the pickets by day, and fiery curves of mortar-shell by night, told that the portentous game of war still went on. [295]

Never was the Army of Northern Virginia more defiant in its bearing — never more confident in the genius of its leader. Deserters pouring into our lines brought consistent reports of the demoralization of the enemy — gold rose to 2.90, the highest point it touched during the war — while from the west and certain States in the North the clamors for peace redoubled, the New York Herald being loudest in demanding that an embassy be sent to Richmond, “in order to see if this dreadful war cannot be ended in a mutually satisfactory treaty of peace.” 8

“An army,” says the great Frederick, “moves upon its belly,” and I am not prepared to say that the jaunty bearing of Lee's men, as “shrewdly out of beef” at this time as ever were the English at Agincourt, was not due in a measure to the fact that just then their eyes were gladdened by droves of fat cattle sent them by an old comrade--Lieutenant-General Jubal Early, who, without the trifling formality of a commission from Governor Curtin, had assumed the duties of Acting Commissary-General of the rich Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.9

We have seen that shortly after Grant's arrival in front of Petersburg, there was open to him “a swarm of fair advantages,” for his superb line of formidable redoubts, capable of assured defence by a fraction of his force, made it possible for him to operate on either Confederate flank with the bulk of his army, or, should the conjuncture favor, to assault in front.

But now, tenacious of purpose as was the Union general, he had, according to his own explicit testimony,10 satisfied himself that an attack on Richmond from the north side would be attended with frightful loss of life — he had just received humiliating proof that Lee's front could not be shaken by mining or assault — and thenceforward the campaign narrowed itself to a continuous effort to turn the Confederate right and cut Lee's communications — a series of rough strokes parried with infinite skill, although at times the “Thor-hammer” beat down the guard of the slender rapier, which so often pierced the joints of the giant armor.

By the end of August, Grant was firmly established across the Weldon road — a line of communication important, indeed, to Lee, [296] but not absolutely necessary. Yet was it not yielded without much desperate fighting, as was witnessed by the sharp “affair” of August 18th, favorable to the Confederates, who were commanded by Gen. Harry Heth; by the brilliant action of Aug. 19th, in which the troops were immediately commanded by Heth and Mahone (the brunt of the fighting falling on Heth's division and Pegram's artillery), and in which the enemy sustained a loss of many standards and above 2,700 prisoners; by the battle of August 21st, in which Mahone failed to dislodge the enemy, for, attacking with six small brigades, and twelve guns under Pegram, he encountered, instead of the weak flank his scouts had led him to expect, a heavily-entrenched front manned by an army corps, the approaches to which were swept by a powerful artillery;11 finally, by

1 Ib., pp. 21, 121, 208. General Ayres, U. S. Volunteers, says: “I saw the negroes coming back to the rear like a land-slide.” --Ib., p. 165. General Ferrero, the commander of the Negro Division, who was censured by the Court of Inquiry for “being In a bomb-proof habitually” (p. 216) on this day, also testifies emphatically to the disorderly flight, but scarcely much weight can be attached to his statements unless corroborated by others. On Aug. 31, 1864, excusing the behavior of his troops, he testifies: “I would add that my troops are raw troops, and never had been drilled two weeks from the day they entered the service till that day.” --Ib., p. 181. On Dec. 20th, 1864, he testifies: (my troops) “were in fine condition — better than any other troops in the army for that purpose. We were expecting to make this assault, and had drilled for weeks and were in good trim for it.” --Ib., p. 106. Perhaps his excuse for this discrepancy of statement may be that of the notorious Trenck of the Life Guards, who, when reproached for his mendacity about the battle of Sohr, cried out: “How could I help mistakes? I had nothing but my poor agitated memory to trust to.” --Carlyle's Friedrich, vol. VI, p. 97.

2 After the recovery of the lines north of the Crater, Meade determined to withdraw all his troops. The order was given at 9.30 A. M., but Burnside was authorized to use his discretion as to the exact hour, and it was nearly 12 M. before the order was sent into the Crater. Of course, no one knew this on the Confederate side, and the fact can in no way detract from the splendid conduct of the Alabamians, but it accounts in great measure for the slight resistance they encountered. See Report on the Conduct of the War (1865), vol. i, pp. 58, 157. General Hartranft's statement is very naive as to the conclusion he reached when he saw the Alabamians rushing forward with their wild cries: “This assaulting column of the enemy came up, and we concluded--General Griffin and myself--that there was no use in holding it (the Crater) any longer, and so we retired.” --Ib., p. 190.

3General Burnside's corps, of 15,000 men, was * * * to rush through and get on the crest beyond. I prepared a force of from 40,000 to 50,000 men to take advantage of our success gained by General Burnside's corps.” --Meade.--Ib., p. 37.

4 After carefully analyzing all the Federal reports, General Mahone put the loss of the enemy at 5,240; Cannon (Grant's Campaign Against Richmond, p. 245) at 5,640; General Meade (Report of August 16th, 1864) puts loss at 4,400 in A. P. and 18th corps, but does not give loss in Turner's division, 10th corps.

5 Company K, of Sixth Virginia, carried in sixteen men; eight were killed outright and seven wounded. The small number of men carried into the fight by the Sixth is explained by the fact that quite half the regiment was on picket on the old front (on the right), and could not be withdrawn. The 41st Virginia lost one-fourth its number; the 61st within a fraction of half its number. The loss in the 16th was nearly as great as in the 6th proportionally, but I have been unable to get the exact figures in that regiment and in the 12th.

6 General Grant's statement--Report on the Conduct of the War (1865), vol. i, p. 110. See also finding of Court of Inquiry--Ib., p. 216.

7 The testimony of Surgeon O. P. Chubb, 20th Michigan (Ib., p. 191), and of Surgeon H. E. Smith, 27th Michigan (Ib., p. 206), is certainly very lively reading. Surgeon Smith is unable to say how often the doughty warriors, Ledlie and Ferrero, “smiled” at each other, for “I was not in the bomb-proof all the while that they were there. It was perfectly safe in there, but it might not have been outside. I had to go out to look after the wounded” --Ib., p. 207.

8 I have collected a great number of such excerpts from leading Northern and Western papers (1864), as being not without significance. Certainly no such utterances would have been tolerated In 1861-62.

9 Later (September 16th, 1864), Hampton made his brilliant “cattle raid,” in rear of the Army of Potomac, in which he inflicted considerable loss on the enemy in killed and wounded, and brought off above 800 prisoners and 2,500 beeves--Lee's Official Dispatch.

10 Report on Conduct of the War (1865), vol. i, p. 110.

11 In this action, the gallant Saunders, who led the Alabamians at the Crater, was killed. Immediately on the repulse of his first attack, Mahone carefully reconnoitred, under sharp fire, the whole front, and told General Lee that with two more brigades he would pledge himself to dislodge Warren before night-fall. The division from which Lee at once consented to draw the additional support, arrived too late to make the projected attack advisable.

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