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The battle of the crater, July 30, 1864.


Letter from Colonel McMaster.

Columbia, S. C., February 25th, 1882.
Mr. Editor,--I have observed reports of the above-named battle published in your Journal very imperfect and erroneous. I commanded Elliott's brigade that day, the line on which was the scene of the battle, and am presumed to know something about it. In justice to the brigade, I have thought of giving you a sketch of the services of the brigade on that occasion, but have been unable to fulfill my desire. The best I can do at present is to give you the following two papers on the subject: First, an extract from a speech made by me before my regiment, Seventeenth South Carolina volunteers, at their reunion at Chester Courthouse, South Carolina, August 13th, 1879. This, of course, lacks detail of other commands, which would add to its value. Second, a full report made me by Major J. C. Coit, who commanded some batteries that day. This will amply repay perusal from its accurate account of the batteries north of the crater, which has never yet been published in your Journal.

Honorable J. C. Coit was invited to attend the reunion of the Seventeenth, and being unable to do so, furnished me this report with permission to publish.

Very respectfully, &c.,



Extract from a speech of Colonel McMaster.

I will with some care describe this terrific battle, for it seldom falls to the lot of a regiment to act such a conspicuous part in saving an army. The Seventeenth, with the assistance of a small number of the Twenty-sixth regiment, with the cooperation of Wright's battery, prevented Grant from entering Petersburg that day and capturing the whole of Beauregard's army.

Pegram's salient, where four guns, under Captain Pegram of Richmond, forming part of Major Coit's battalion, was in the centre of [120] Elliott's brigade. The brigade was arranged in the following order, from left to right-Twenty-sixth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, Twenty-second and Twenty-third regiments.

Grant had massed 65,000 men opposite this brigade. Beauregard's whole force in the line was only three-and-a-half brigades. The theory of the assault, as stated by General Meade in the Court of Enquiry, held by the Federals soon after, was for General Burnside, with 15,000 men to rush in the opening made by the explosion, and dash over to Cemetery Hill, five hundred or six hundred yards to the rear; this corps to be followed by General Ord with 10,000 men. He states he had 40,000 to 50,000 for the attack of the place, and to rush in the rear of the Confederate lines.

The mine was exploded one-quarter of 5 A. M. 30th July, 1864, with eight thousand pounds of powder. It overwhelmed the battery, the whole of the Eighteenth, three companies of the Twenty-third and part of company A, Seventeenth regiment.

For some minutes there was the utmost consternation among our men. Some scampered out of the lines; some, paralyzed with fear, vaguely scratched at the counter-scarp as if trying to escape. Smoke and dust filled the air. A few minutes afterwards General Ledlie's division began to charge.

This aroused our officers; they began to cheer, and our men bounded on the banquette and commenced firing on the ranks of men who were rushing in without firing a gun. By this time some of the men of the gallant Eighteenth, who extricated themselves from the bank which covered them, came rushing down the trenches, and as many as could picked up guns and began firing. For a considerable time the firing was done entirely by the infantry.

In a few minutes after the explosion Major Coit, who commanded the most effective artillery on our side, came up to see if any of his guns were uninjured.

As soon as he could reach Wright's battery of four guns, in the ravine to the rear of Ransom's brigade, which was at least half an hour after the explosion, he began to fire, and shot six hundred balls into the divisions of Potter, Wilcox and Ferrero, which succeeded Ledlie's division. These guns were the only ones on our lines which, besides enfilading the enemy at close range, could also fire on the crater and part of our lines.

Major Gibbes, who had only one gun on the right of the Confederate line capable of enfilading the enemy, began with this gun about one hour after the explosion, and killed many of the enemy. One or two [121] hours later, Major Gibbes and Major Haskell moved their mortar batteries and dropped a number of balls in the crater and lines.

In fifteen or twenty minutes after the explosion General Elliott came up through the crowded ditch, followed by Colonel Smith of the Twenty-sixth regiment, with a few of his men, and ordered the Twenty-sixth and Seventeenth to form a line on the crest of the hill, and charge the crater. He and a few men gallantly jumped up on the crest of the hill, about fifty yards of the crater, he pointed out the line, and was in less than five minutes shot down and brought back. The command then devolved on your Colonel, who countermanded the order to form on the crest of the hill, which was utterly impracticable, and formed some of the men in the ditches, which went to the rear and commanded some yards in the rear of the crater. Courier after courier was sent to the division commander, and one courier to the regiments on the right of the crater. I ordered Colonel Smith to take his regiment, with three companies of the Seventeenth, under Captain Crawford (which then were larger than the Twenty-sixth regiment) to form in the ravine in the rear of the crater, and cover up the gap, there to lie down and to rise up and fire when necessary, so as to prevent the enemy from rushing down the hill and getting in the rear of our lines. This order was promptly executed, and gave the remainder of the Seventeenth in the main trench more room to use their guns.

The damage done — let the enemy tell. General Meade says the assault came principally from his right (our left) of the crater.

The enemy brought guns from all points and threw shells into the crater. General Potter began his movement towards the crest, and was met by another force of the enemy, and was compelled to fall back.

General Potter says: “The next fire I saw came from the right; there was a battery behind some timber, which it was very difficult for our batteries to reach. I ordered my own batteries to turn their whole attention to that one, but they apparently produced no effect.”

Many officers testify that repeated assaults were made to secure the crest; some say they saw them make two distinct charges early in the morning, but were repelled by men who rose up in the ravine. One fixes the number of these men at 200, some as high as 500. These men who repelled these charges were the Seventeenth and part of the Twenty-Sixth.

The negroes, numbering 4,300 muskets, under General Ferrero, rushed to the mine at 8 o'clock, and one distinct charge, as alleged, occurred soon after. Some of the officers allege their men got 200 yards towards the crest, which was 500 yards to the rear, but this is a clear [122] mistake. None ever advanced 50 yards beyond, for I watched their efforts with great anxiety up to about 9 o'clock; as I believed the fate of Petersburg depended on it. The officers frequently attempted to urge their men forward, and some would rush across a few yards and then run back. Colonel Smith informed me after the battle, that the enemy made a charge, and upon his men rising and pouring in a volley, they did not make the attempt again. Captain Crawford, who commanded the detachment of the Seventeenth, says, the Federal officers succeeded in getting about 200 men, three different times, outside of the crater, and they never advanced more than 30 yards before his men drove them back.

We saw at one time fourteen beautiful banners waving in the crater and gallant officers, trying to urge their men on in the direction of Cemetery Hill. But all efforts to reach this point, from the rear of the crater, failed by 9 o'clock. And they then attempted to effect their purpose by taking the lines north of the crater, which would secure them a chance to reach the point of their destination, by the ravine which passed through Ransom's lines. This, together with the conformation of the ground necessarily forced the burden of the battle on the Confederate line, north of the crater and in close proximity to it. And especially on Elliott's brigade; the right of Ransom's brigade and the artillery under the command of Major Coit.

The enemy, thus having changed their tactics, would occasionally rush on our right flank — we made barricades to oppose them; then they would run down the front of the line and jump over and were met with the bayonet and clubbed with the musket. Generally they were repelled, occasionally they succeeded and captured some men. Private Hoke, of Company A, was thus cut off, and refused to surrender, and struck down several of the enemy before he was bayonetted. Few battles could show more bayonet wounds than this.

After a severe hand to hand fight, disputing every inch, and losing the gallant Lieutenants Lowry, Pratt, McCorwell, and Captain Dunovant, whose arm was shot off, and many brave men, we were driven down the the hill to Ransom's brigade, which at this time was pouring in an enfilading fire.

The fourth division, in front of the lines of Elliott's brigade, must have numbered 16,000. Besides this, General Turner with 4,000 men charged Ransom's brigade on our left, and was driven back.

At 10 o'clock I was ordered to the brigade Headquarters to see General Bushrod Johnson, our division commander. Sometime after Mahone came up, the Seventeenth under Captain Steele, the ranking [123] officer present, was turned over to him by order of General Johnson. Mahone's troops were formed in the line already there. It took probably two hours before Mahone's men all came and then a splendid charge was made.

The final charge which captured the works was made about 1 o'clock P. M. The testimony of the enemy is that the troops retreated at 2 o'clock, but this refers to the many who ran back before our men got the prisoners out of the crater — our dutiful Lieutenant-Colonel was on the brink of the crater and came from the hospital, when he was ill, in time to join in the charge, when the prisoners surrendered, and had the opportunity of receiving a number of banners, but cared not for such honors. Our adjutant more ambitiously received two of them, but subsequently allowed some of Mahone's men to spirit them away.

Elliott's brigade lost 677 men that day, according to the estimate made by Adjutant Fant a few days after the battle. This was more than half the Confederate loss on this day:

The 18th South Carolina Volunteers lost205men.
The 22nd South Carolina Volunteers lost216men.
The 23rd South Carolina Volunteers lost49men.
The 26th South Carolina Volunteers lost72men.
The 17th South Carolina Volunteers lost135men.
  
 677 

The enemy's loss, according to General Grant's estimate a short time afterwards, was above 5,000 men, including 23 commanders of regiments and two commanders of brigades. These desperate trenches became the abode of the Seventeenth for the rest of the war.


Letter from Major J. C. Coit.

Dear Colonel,--Yours of the 29th ult. received. In giving you an account of the part taken by the artillery under my command, and my observations of the conduct of the other troops engaged at the battle of the crater in front of Petersburg, on July 30th, 1864, you will excuse me for going somewhat into details, as it seemed to me that I could not give an intelligent account of that engagement without doing so. I would state in the beginning that my camp-desk and all official papers [124] of my command were captured when the enemy's cavalry made an attack on the artillery train near Appomattox station, on the night of April 8th, 1865. What I state, therefore, is from recollection without reference to official documents.

My immediate command consisted of four batteries of artillery, of four guns each, to-wit: Bradford's, of Mississippi, four 20-pounder Parrots; Wright's, of Halifax, Virginia, four 12-pounder Napoleons; Pegram's, of Petersburg, Virginia, four 12-pounder Napoleons; Kelly's, of Chesterfield, South Carolina, (my old battery,) four 12-pounder Napoleons.

At the time of the explosion of the mine Kelly's battery was on detached service in North Carolina.

When General Grant crossed to the south side of the James River my battalion was in position in front of General Butler at Bermuda Hundreds, and was moved upon the lines in front of Petersburg, when Grant made his first attack upon that place from City Point. In the defence of Petersburg, therefore, my command occupied the front from the beginning until the close of the siege. During the ten months of that siege, while the infantry were shifted from point to point, my artillery, except for a short time, occupied the same position. While my recollection therefore as to the position of brigades at certain dates (owing to the frequent changes) may not always be correct, still I was perfectly familiar with the general topography of the country and location of troops upon the part of the line occupied by my command. The same may be said in reference to artillery upon the Jerusalem plank road. These guns being some distance from the front line could be easily removed, and frequent changes were made. There were some mortars on the plank road near the covered way, and some guns near the Gee house on the morning of the explosion, but I do not recollect who commanded them that day. Of these I will speak hereafter. I enclose herewith a sketch from memory of the lines and the position of the troops. Batteries, covered ways, and important points adjacent to the crater. This sketch will probably aid you more in understanding the position of the troops as I recollect than any written description I could give.

The salient marked A, when the mine was exploded, was occupied by Pegram's battery, four guns. The battery to the left of the crater, marked B, was Wright's, of Halifax, Va., four guns. The battery marked C, on north side of Appomattox, was Bradford's, of Mississippi, four 20-pounder Parrotts.

This battery was opposite the enemy's battery No. 1, and was intended [125] to enfilade their lines as far as the Hare house and beyond. These were the batteries under my command on the 30th July, 1864. Elliott's brigade occupied the position marked A, the right being in a gorge line in rear of Pegram's battery, and the left extending to or near the ravine in front of Wright's battery. My recollection is that Ransom's brigade occupied the line on Elliott's left, and Grace's brigade on Ransom's left. I have no distinct recollection what troops were to Elliott's right and beyond the centre; I think Wise's brigade. I do not know who commanded the one-gun battery to the right of the crater. This gun was in a ravine or hollow; was intended to sweep the space in front of the salient on the right, but I am sure could not reach the enemy after they occupied our works. I understood at the time the assault was made that this gun was abandoned by those having it in charge, but was afterwards effectively served; Captain McCabe, in his account of the defence of Petersburg, says by Hampton Gibbs and Lieutenant Chamberlayne. This also is the gun alluded to by General Hunt as being the only gun on the right of the crater that he did not silence. The truth is, it was the only gun on the right that could reach the assaulting columns, and it could not reach them after they entered our works. As to the guns in position on the Jerusalem plank road, in rear of the crater, I have no certain recollection. I remember that a section of Garden's, South Carolina battery, was there a few days before the battle, but whether it was there on the 30th I do not know. I see by the May No., 1878, Southern Historical papers that Captain Flanner's North Carolina battery occupied that position. General Bushrod Johnson's headquarters was upon the Jerusalem plank road, near the cemetery, and is marked in the sketch, General Elliott's and my own near the spring on the covered way, in rear of his brigade.

The artillery to the left of Wright's battery, and to the right of the one gun battery on the right of the crater, may have thrown a few shot into the enemy's lines in their front, but took no part in the engagement at the crater. During the day some artillery was brought from the right or rear and placed in position on Cemetery hill, but took no part in the engagement. The only artillery actually engaged was Wright's battery, the battery at the Gee house, and the two mortar batteries marked on sketch M, and the one gun battery to the right of crater (F C). The ravine in which General Mahone formed his division, before making the charge upon the crater, is shown in the sketch to the rear of Elliott's Headquarters, and extending out from the covered way in a direction between the crater and the Plank road.

The night before the explosion I remained in Pegram's battery until [126] 12 o'clock, at which time all was quiet on the lines, the men being in remarkably good spirits, singing songs, &c., all unconscious of the fate that awaited them with the dawn.

At 12 o'clock I returned to my Headquarters at the spring and slept soundly until awakened at daylight by the dull heavy sound of the explosion and by a sensation as of being rocked in a cradle. In a moment I suspected what had occurred and ran up the line in the direction of Pegram's battery. When within a few yards of the crater, I was met by the few men of the battery that survived the explosion, and the fate of the remainder was fully revealed. At this time the enemy were pouring over our works into the crater. Immediately after the explosion the enemy opened upon our lines with all the artillery concentrated in our front. The roar of the enemy's guns, the bursting of shells and rattle of musketry was deafening; yet with all I found the men of Elliott's brigade bravely manning the works up to the borders of the crater, leaving no front for the entrance of the enemy except such as had been made vacant by the up-heaval of the earth. I immediately made my way down the lines, to the left, to Wright's battery. The battery was not in the main line, but a few yards in the rear; it bore directly upon the salient at very close range, and was erected for the purpose of defending that front of our works. It was upon the hill to the left of and very near the ravine or covered way, in rear of Ransom's right. The position was a very elevated one (more elevated than the salient) and as there was a gradual ascent from the ravine to Pegram's battery, Wright's guns were enabled to sweep the front of our works over the heads of our men in the line occupied by Elliott's brigade.

From the moment of the explosion, until my arrival in Wright's battery, could not have exceeded twenty or twenty-five minutes. Up to this time no artillery from our lines had opened that I know of. I immediately ordered the battery to open with shrapnell and canister, first sweeping the ground in front of Elliott's line and the salient. At this time the enemy were still pressing their columns from their lines over the intervening space to the crater. This fire, together with the musketry from Elliott's brigade and other troops along the line within reach, soon checked the advance of the enemy from their own lines. The crater itself could not contain the masses that had already been hurled into the breach, so that thousands were crowded over its interior rim, and stood in its rear without apparent organization in one immense crowd.

Having checked the advance of the enemy from their lines, Wright's guns were turned directly upon the crater, and the masses assembled [127] in its rear. The fire from this battery was unremitting from the time it opened until the close of the engagement by the surrender of the crater, having thrown during the time from five to six hundred shell and canister. Anticipating a large expenditure of ammunition, additional supplies were ordered from the rear and brought in wagons from Cemetery Hill as near our lines as it was safe to do so in rear of Gracie's right, from which point it was borne by details of men appointed for that purpose. From my position in this battery I had a complete view of all the movements in front and rear of the crater and ground within our lines from the ravine to the plank road. Feeling that our safety depended upon our success in preventing the formation of the enemy, I watched their movements closely, and redoubled the fire when I saw any indication of formation or attempt to advance in the direction of the plank road.

During the engagement, Bradford's battery opened a heavy fire with his 20-pounder Parrots, enfilading the enemy's lines as far as the Hare house and beyond. I cannot speak in too high praise of the conduct of Captain Wright, his officers and men during this engagement. The day was excessively hot, and the labor of serving the guns so rapidly and bearing ammunition from the rear was very exhausting. So busy were we, that though conscious of the continual bursting of shells over us, I was not aware until after the firing ceased, to what a cannonade we had been subjected. Our works were literally battered, and the ground around us and in our rear was so honey-combed by the explosion of mortar shells that you could have walked all over it by stepping from hole to hole. Notwithstanding this heavy fire, the casualties were not great, owing to the fact that the enemy could only obtain an oblique fire upon the front of the battery, and the gunners were protected by heavy traverses between each gun. I may state here that owing to the nearness of the enemy's lines to the salient, the gun detachments of Pegram's battery were required to be awake and ready for an assault at all hours of the night and day. This necessitated the relief of the officers and men each day; two officers and sufficient men to man the guns being on duty, the remainder being in the rear. On the morning of the explosion, Lieutenants Hamlim and Chandler being on duty, were both, with twenty men, killed, three or four only of those on duty escaped.

Now, Colonel, I have stated all that I think necessary in reference to the part taken by the artillery under my command in the engagement of July 30th, 1864. It is not for me to say whose artillery did most effective service on that day. I think, however, I have cause to [128] complain of the slight praise bestowed upon Wright's battery by Captain McCabe in his account of the defence of Petersburg, (published in the Southern Historical Society papers). Captain McCabe was Adjutant of Pegram's battalion of artillery, and probably not upon the scene until the arrival of Pegram's artillery, which was brought from the right of our lines, and I presume was the artillery that took position on Cemetery hill. I am willing to be judged by those who were present, and in position best able to decide. The enemy certainly were in no mean position to know from what point came the most destructive fire. General Potter, of Burnside's corps, says in the court of inquiry, “The worst fire I saw came from the right (his right). There was a battery there behind some timber, which it was very difficult for our batteries to reach. I ordered my batteries to turn their whole attention to that one, but it apparently produced no effect.” I have no criticisms to make upon Captain McCabe's account of what was done by others, but I do claim for the men under my command that they merited, and should have, the meed of praise due to those most prominent in the defence of Petersburg on that day.1 [129]

Captain McCabe, in the same account, has failed to do full justice to the men of Elliott's brigade; for on page 284, Southern Historical papers, (December, 1876,) he says: “The dread upheaval has rent in twain Elliott's brigade, and the men to the right and left of the huge abyss recoil in terror and dismay. Nor shall we censure them, * * etc.” Now I have already stated that when I reached the crater, which could not have exceeded ten minutes after the explosion, I found Elliott's men standing firm and undaunted, almost up to the very borders of the crater. From my position in Wright's battery, the whole of the line from the ravine to the crater was exposed to my view, and I witnessed the hand-to-hand engagement in each successive charge made by the enemy, and I venture to say that more men were then killed with bayonet and clubbed guns than in any other engagement during the war. The only thing separating our men and the enemy in the same ditch were hastily thrown up traverses, over the tops of which the opposing forces crossed their bayonets and delivered their fire. So stubbornly did Elliott's men contest every inch of ground, that the enemy failing to press them down the line from the direction of the crater, resorted to the expedient of rushing from the crater down the front of our works, and then by a flank movement mounting the works and jumping pell-mell upon Elliott's men in the trenches. I witnessed this manoeuvre executed several times, sometimes with success, but oftener they were repulsed or bayoneted as they leaped from the works. In this manner did they gain the little ground they held of our lines to the left of the crater. All beyond the crater was hid from my view by the rim of the crater and intervening ridge. The only mistaken movement I noticed was when one of our regiments, the Twenty-sixth South Carolina Volunteers, I think Smith's, attempted to leave the line and occupy the open ground between the crater and Elliott's headquarters. It was an effort gallantly made to interpose and prevent the advance of the enemy in the direction of Cemetery Hill and the plank road. The whole of this ground was swept by the enemy's artillery and musketry from their main line, not to speak of the fire from those within our works. No troops could stand a moment exposed to such a fire, and such as did not fall were immediately withdrawn. I think it was at this time Elliott was wounded. The saddest sight I saw was the wounded left in this exposed position appealing for help until they [130] sank down in death. Any attempt to remove them would have been vain under that fife.

It was thus the battle raged from daylight until the arrival of Mahone's division, which, I think, was near 11 o'clock. The troops under Mahone were formed in the ravine in rear of Elliott's headquarters, extending from the covered way in a direction between the crater and the Plank road. New hope was inspired by the arrival of reinforcements, and not without good cause, for no sooner did Mahone's men emerge from that ravine at a double quick than did the immense mass in rear of the crater break, and without standing upon the order of their going, sought shelter in the cover of their main line. The fire of the artillery was increased, and as Mahone's men neared the crater, Wright's guns were turned upon the flying masses in front of the salient. The slaughter was terrific, and probably more men were killed in the retreat than in the advance. The victory was virtually won, but those of the enemy within the crater continued for sometime the desperate contest. In my opinion they remained in the crater more from fear of running the gauntlet to their own lines than from any hope of holding their position. At 1 o'clock P. M. the white flag was raised and the final surrender of the crater made.

From the time of the explosion until the charge of Mahone's division, the men of Elliott's brigade bore the brunt of the battle, and with a portion of Ransom's, were the only infantry troops that I saw opposing the advance of the enemy to Cemetery Hill and the Plank road, at least to the left of the crater. To the bravery and skilful handling of the brigade is due, more than to all other infantry troops, the credit of saving Petersburg on that day.

This account has been so hastily written, and is so disjointed that I fear it will not be very intelligible. Perhaps, however, you may extract a few grains of wheat from the chaff, and if anything I have said will aid you in giving a more correct account of that battle I shall be amply compensated for the time it has taken me to scratch it off.

I am, Colonel, very respectfully yours,


1 Without intimating that Captain McCabe's sources of information were unreliable, I will state here that an army correspondent of the Richmond papers, in a letter published a day or two after the battle, gave the credit of repelling the enemy to Major Caskie's battalion, of Virginia. The account was never publicly corrected, and I suppose some future historian will seize upon the files of papers containing that letter as the best evidence to be obtained as to the artillery engaged. The truth is Major Caskie's battalion of artillery was to the left of Wright's battery; it could not reach the attacking columns of the enemy, and did not fire a single gun that I know of. I know that Major Caskie, having nothing to do in his front, spent some time with me in Wright's battery, as being the best position for obtaining a view of the battle. So much for the material out of which history is made up. I think Wright's battery did most effectual work, for the following reasons: 1st, it was erected for the special purpose of defending the salient; 2d, it was nearest the crater; 3d, The men were well protected from the enemy's fire, and the gunners fired with deliberation; 4th, the men were inspired to avenge the death of their comrades. Two of the guns of Pegram's battery were by the explosion thrown over between the two hostile lines, one of them nearly half-way to the enemy's lines. We recovered both by undermining and drawing them through a ditch into our lines. They were all remounted and placed in battery at the Gee house, where they remained until the evacuation of Petersburg. Only one gun was afterwards placed at the salient. This was a 24 pounder howitzer, and manned by a detachment of Kelly's South Carolina battery under Lieutenant Race. This gun was not brought out at the evacuation, being too heavy. The orders were to stand by it until the last moment after all the troops were withdrawn, and then to spike it. After sending out the other artillery, and when the troops were all gone I personally attended to the execution of this order. With that gun detachment I was the last to leave that part of the line, made so famous in the defence of Petersburg. Not a Confederate was to be seen as we marched down the line and through the covered way to Petersburg.

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