Graphic account of battle of Crater. From the times-dispatch, October 22, 1905.Charge of Wilcox's old brigade under General Saunders, of Mahone's division.
Story of a participant.One among the most wonderful fights in the history of the wars.
General Henderson, of the English army, who is the celebrated author of the life of Stonewall Jackson, says that, ‘contemporaneous accounts are the life of history.’ I have the pleasure of sending you a story admirably told by Captain John C. Featherston, of Lynchburg, who is so well and favorable known throughout the State, as soldier, legislator and citizen, of the part taken in the battles of the Crater by Wilcox's old brigade of Mahone's division, under General J. C. C. Saunders. He has shown me the letters which he wrote in the trenches on August 1st and August 2d, while yet the contending forces confronted each other on the field of battle. One of them is written on the paper of the United States Christian Commission, of Washington, which was part of the captured spoil of the battle, and these letters addressed to his wife have the flavor of the ‘real thing.’ When the Alabama Brigade, under Saunders, was put in by Mahone at the right moment, and after his other brigades had captured the trenches close by the Crater Fort, the last infantry reserve of Lee was casting the die of fate, and Lee himself watched the movements of Mahone's division, and of his last brigade with the indescribable feeling that a commander must possess when playing his piece on the checker-board of war, for at that time a considerable portion of his forces was on the north side of the James, and the Petersburg line was in great attenuation. Captain George Clark, the assistant adjutant-general of the brigade, who now lives at Waco, Tex., relates in a letter to Captain Featherston, which I have seen, that he went along the line of the brigade and told the privates that General Saunders had been informed  by General Lee that the brigade was his last available reserve, and unless they recaptured the works he intended to reform it in person, and lead it. ‘Well,’ said one of the men, ‘if the old man comes down here, we will tie him to a sapling while we make the fight.’ The gallant officer who has kindly furnished this valuable account, has made a valuable contribution to that history which will surely accord the credit due to all the gallant officers and men who participated on this memorable occasion with Mahone's division. Very respectfully,
The battle of the Crater as I saw it.On the night of the 29th of July, 1864, Wilcox's old brigade of Alabamians, at that time commanded by J. C. C. Saunders, which was one of the five brigades composing Mahone's (formerly Anderson's) division, was occupying the breastworks to the right of Petersburg at a point known as the Wilcox farm. The division consisted at the time of Wilcox's ‘old brigade’ of Alabamians; Wright's Georgia brigade, Harris' Mississippi, Mahone's Virginia brigade and Perry's Florida brigade (by whom commanded at the time I fail to remember). All was quiet in our immediate front, but an incessant and rapid firing was going on to our left and immediately in front of Petersburg, where the main lines of the hostile armies were within eighty yards of each other. There was a rumor that the Federals were attempting to undermine our works and were keeping up this continuous fire to shield their operations. The Confederate army had dug countermine in front of our works at several points, but failed to sink them sufficiently deep to intercept the enemy and thwart their efforts, as was subsequently proven.
Explosion of the Mine at ‘the Crater’ the night of July 30th.During the night of the 29th (I think about 2 o'clock) we received orders to get our men under arms and ready for action at a moment's notice, which convinced us that General Lee had information of which we were ignorant. We remained thus until between daybreak and sunrise of the 30th of July, when suddenly the quiet and suspense was broken by a terrific explosion on our  left. The news soon reached our lines that the enemy had exploded a mine under a fort then known as ‘Elliot's Salient,’ subsequently named the ‘Crater,’ from its resemblance in shape to the crater of a volcano, and during the terrible struggle one in active operation, caused by the smoke and dust which ascended therefrom. Mahone's division was the ‘supporting division’ of the army while in front of Petersburg, and consequently whenever the enemy were making serious attacks, this command, or a part of it, was, when reinforcements were needed, sent to the point assailed. Hence it was in many hard fought battles while the army was in front of Petersburg. Of the many battles in which this command was engaged none will equal or ever approximate in such bloody and stubborn fighting as occurred at the battle of the Crater, where the loss on the Federal side was 5,000 and on the Confederate side 1,800, out of the small number engaged, and all on about two acres of land. For quite a while after the explosion all was quiet, but then commenced a severe cannonade by the Yankees, which was promptly replied to by the Confederate artillery.
Preparation for the counter attack.Soon orders were received for two of our brigades to move to the point of attack. The Virginia and Georgia brigades, being on the right of the division, were withdrawn from the works in such a manner as not to be seen by the enemy who were intrenched in strong force immediately in our front, and dispatched as directed. This occurred about 8 or 9 o'clock. About 11 o'clock orders came for the Alabama (Wilcox's) brigade, then commanded by General J. C. C. Saunders. This order was delivered by the gallant officer, R. R. Henry, of Mahone's staff. We were then quietly withdrawn from the works, thus leaving the space which the three brigades had covered unoccupied, except by a few skirmishers (one man every twenty paces), commanded by Major J. M. Crow, of the 9th Alabama regiment, a brave officer. By a circuitous route we arrived at Blandford Cemetery and then entered a ‘ziz-zag’ or circuitous covered way through which we had to pass in single file in order to shield ourselves from the fire of the enemy. We came out of the covered way into a ravine which ran parallel with the enemy's line of fortifications, and also of our  own in which was the fort subsequently called the ‘Crater’ and then occupied by the enemy.
Mahone gives his orders for retaking the Fort at the Crater.As we came out of the covered way we were met by General Mahone, himself on foot, who called the officers to him and explained the situation and gave us orders for the fight. He informed us that the brigades of Virginians and Georgians had successfully charged and taken the works on the left of the fort, but that the fort was still in possession of the enemy, as was also a part of the works on the right of it, and that we of the Alabama brigade were expected to storm and capture the fort, as we were the last of the reserves. He directed us to move up the ravine as far as we could walk unseen by the enemy, and then to get down and crawl still further up until we were immediately in front of the fort, then to order the men to lie down on the ground until our artillery in our rear could draw the fire of the enemy's artillery, which was posted on a ridge beyond their main line and covering the fort. When this was accomplished our artillery would cease firing, and then we should rise up and move forward in a stooping posture at ‘trail arms,’ with bayonets fixed, and should not yell or fire a gun until we drew the fire of the infantry in the fort, and the enemy's main lines, and then we should charge at a ‘double quick,’ so as to get under the walls of the fort before the enemy could fire their park of some fifty pieces of artillery, stationed on the hill beyond their works. He further informed us that he had ordered our men who then occupied the works on either side of the fort to fire at the enemy when they should show themselves above the top of the fort or along their main line, so as to shield us as much as possible from their fire. As we were leaving him, he said: ‘General Lee is watching the result of your charge.’ The officers then returned to their places in line and ordered the men to load and fix bayonets. Immediately the brigade moved up the ravine as ordered. As we started, a soldier, worse disfigured by dirt, powder and smoke than any I had before seen, came up by my side and said: ‘Captain, can I go into this charge with you?’ I replied: ‘Yes. Who are you?’ He said: ‘I am —— (I have forgotten his name) and I belong to——South Carolina Regiment ——was blown up in that fort and I want to even up with them.  Please take my name and if I get killed inform my officers of it.’ I said: ‘I have no time now for writing. How high up did they blow you?’ He said: ‘I don't know, but as I was going up I met the company commissary officer coming down, and he said: “I will try to have breakfast ready by the time you get down.” ’ I have often since wished I had taken his name and regiment, for he was truly a ‘rough diamond,’ a brave fellow. He went in the charge with us, but I do not know whether he survived it or not. I never saw him again.
The Alabama brigade.This brigade was composed of the 8th Alabama, Captain M. W. Mordecai, commanding; 9th Alabama, Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. King, commanding; 10th Alabama, Captain W. L. Brewster, commanding; 11th Alabama, Lieutenant-Colonel George P. Tayloe, commanding; 14th Alabama, Captain Elias Folk, commanding. This (Wilcox's old brigade) was commanded and led in this battle by the gallant and intrepid Brigadier-General J. C. C. Saunders, with Captain George Clark, assistant adjutant-general, another brave officer. The 9th Alabama being on the right of the brigade, was in front as we ascended the ravine or depression to form line of battle. I copy from the Petersburg Express the names of the officers who commanded the companies of this regiment, and would do the same for the other regiments but for the unfortunate fact that they were not given. They were as follows: ‘Company A, Captain Hays, commanding; Company C, Sergeant T. Simmons, commanding; Company D. Captain J. W. Cannon, commanding; Company E, Lieutenant M. H. Todd, commanding; Company F, Captain John C. Featherston, commanding; Company H, Lieutenant R. Fuller, commanding; Company I, Lieutenant B. T. Taylor, commanding; Company K, Lieutenant T. B. Baugh, commanding.’ By the report of Captain George Clark, assistant adjutantgen-eral, Wilcox's Alabama brigade of five regiments carried into the battle of the Crater 628 men, and of this number it lost 89. The brigade early in the war numbered about 5,000. It will be observed that such had been our losses in former battles that regiments were commanded by captains, and companies  by sergeants, some of the companies having been so depleted that they had been merged into other companies. After we had crawled up in front of the fort, and about two hundred yards therefrom, we lay down flat on the ground, and our batteries in rear opened fire on the enemy's artillery in order to draw their fire. This was done that we might charge without being subjected to their artillery fire, in addition to that of the fort and the main line, which was only eighty yards beyond the fort. But the enemy appeared to understand our object and declined to reply. Our guns soon ceased firing, and we at once arose and moved forward, as directed, in quick time, at a trail arms, with bayonets fixed. In a short distance we came in view of the enemy—both infantry and artillery—and then was presented one of the most awfully grand and cruel spectacles of that terrible war. One brigade of 628 men was charging a fort in an open field, filled with the enemy to the number of 5,000 and supported by a park of artillery said to number 50 pieces. The line of advance was in full view of the two armies, and in range of the guns of fully 20,000 men, including both sides. When we came within range we saw the flash of the sunlight on the enemy's guns, as they were leveled above the walls of the wrecked fort. Then came a stream of fire and the awful roar of battle. This volley seemed to awaken the demons of hell, and appeared to be the signal for everbody within range to commence firing. We raised a yell and made a dash in order to get under the walls of the fort before their artillery could open upon us, but in this we were unsuccessful. The air seemed literally filled with missiles. The Virginians, Georgians and South Carolinians commenced firing from the flanks of the fort and at the enemy's main line, as did our artillery, and the enemy's infantry and artillery from all sides opened upon us.
‘Into the mouth of hell charged the six hundred.’On we went, as it seemed to us, literally ‘into the mouth of hell.’ When we got to the walls of the fort we dropped on the ground to get the men in order and let them get their breath. While waiting we could hear the Yankee officers in the fort trying to encourage their men, telling them among other things to ‘remember Fort  Pillow.’ (In that fort Forrest's men had found whites and negroes together. History tells what they did for them.) Then commenced a novel method of fighting. There was quite a number of abandoned muskets, with bayonets on them, lying on the ground around the fort. Our men began pitching them over the embankment, bayonets foremost, trying to harpoon the men inside, and both sides threw over cannon balls and fragments of shells and earth, which by the impact of the explosion had been pressed as hard as brick. Everybody seemed to be shooting at the fort, and doubtless many were killed by their friends. I know that some of the Yankees were so killed. In almost less time than I can tell it we were in condition to go in. Colonel J. H. King ordered the men near him to put their hats on their bayonets and quickly raise them above the fort, which was done, and, as he anticipated, they were riddled with bullets. Then he ordered us over the embankment, and over we went, and were soon engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle of life and death. The enemy shrank back, and the death battle continued until most of the Yankees found in there were killed. This slaughter would not have been so great had not our men found negro soldiers in the fort with the whites. This was the first time we had met negro troops, and the men were enraged at them for being there and at the whites for having them there. The explosion had divided the pit into two compartments. As soon as we had possession of the larger one, the Yankees in the smaller one cried out that they would surrender. We told them to come over the embankment. Two of them started over with their guns in their hands, and were shot and fell back. We heard those remaining, cry: ‘They are showing us no quarter; let us sell our our lives as dearly as possible.’ We then told them to come over without their guns, which they did, and all the remainder, about thirty in number, surrendered and were ordered to the rear. In their confusion and eagerness to get beyond that point, they went across the open field, along the same route over which we had charged them. Their cavalry seeing them going to the rear, as we told, under the flag of truce, thought that it was our men repulsed and retreating, and they at once opened fire upon them, killing and wounding a number of their own men. One poor fellow had his arm shot off just as he started to the rear, and returning, said: ‘I could bear it better if my own men had not done it.’  This practically ended the fight inside the fort, but the two armies outside continued firing at this common centre and it seemed to us that the shot, shell and musket balls came from every point of the compass and the mortar shells rained down from above. They had previously attacked from below. So this unfortunate fort was one of the few points of the universe which had been assailed from literally ever quarter.
The Aftermath and incidents. General Bartlett's cork leg.The slaughter was fearful. The dead were piled on each other. In one part of the fort I counted eight bodies deep. There were but few wounded compared with the killed. There was an incident which occurred in the captured fort that made quite an impression on me. Among the wounded was the Yankee General Bartlett. He was lying down and could not rise. Assistance was offered him, but he informed those who were assisting him that his leg was broken and so it was, but it proved to be an artificial leg, made of cork. One of our officers ordered a couple of negroes to move him, but he protested, and I believe he was given white assistance. This general afterwards, so I have been informed, became an honored citizen of Virginia, though at that time, I must say, I never would have believed such a thing possible. One of our soldiers seeing the cork leg and springs knocked to pieces waggishly said, ‘General you are a fraud. I thought that was a good leg when I shot it.’ As the dust and smoke cleared away the firing seemed to lull, but there was no cessation of firing that evening. Indeed, it was continued for months by the sharpshooters. After dark tools were brought with which we reconstructed the wrecked fort. In doing this we buried the dead down in the fort by covering them with earth. The fire of the enemy was entirely too severe to carry them out. We were therefore forced to stand on them and defend our positions while we remained in the fort, which was until the following Monday night. As we went over the embankment into the fort, one of my sergeants, Andrew McWilliams, a brave fellow, was shot in the mouth, the ball did not cut his lips. It came out of the top of his head. He was evidently yelling with his mouth wide open. He fell on top  of the embankment with his head hanging in the fort. We pulled him down in the fort, and that night carried him out and buried him. During the night we strengthened the wrecked fort and in doing so unearthed numbers of Confederate soldiers who were killed and buried by the explosion. I remember in one place there were eight poor fellows lying side by side with their coats under their head. They seemed never to have moved after the explosion.
The Confederate line restored Sharpshooting July 31st.The recapture of the fort restored our lines in statu quo. That night we slept in the fort over those who slept ‘the sleep that knows no waking,’ and with the living that slept that sleep caused by exhaustion. The morning came as clear and the day as hot and dry as the preceding one. The sharpshooters were exceedingly alert, firing every moment, each side momentarily expecting active hostilities to be renewed. While the wounded in the fort and our trenches had been removed during the night and were being cared for, the ground between the main lines of the two armies was literally covered by wounded and dead Federals, who fell in advancing and retreating. We could hear them crying for relief, but the firing was so severe that none dared go to them either by day or night.
A flag of truce.About noon or a little after, there went up a flag of truce immediately in our front. The flag was a white piece of cloth about a yard square on a new staff. General Saunders ordered the sharpshooters to cease firing. Then a Yankee soldier with a clean, white shirt and blue pants jumped on top of their works holding the flag and was promptly followed by two elegantly uniformed officers. General Saunders asked those of us near him if we had a white handkerchief. And all replied: ‘No.’ A private soldier near by said to the men around him: ‘Boys, some of you take off your shirt and hand it to the general,’ to which another replied: ‘Never do that; they will think we have hoisted a black flag.’ The general finally got a handkerchief, which, though not altogether suitable for a drawing-room, he and Captain George Clark, A. A. General, tied to the ramrod of a musket, and Captain Clark, with one man carrying the improvised flag, went forward to meet  the Yankee flag. (I have frequently thought that the ‘get up’ of these flags of truce illustrated the condition of the armies.) They met half way—about forty yards from each line. After a few minutes interview they handed to Captain Clark a paper. They then withdrew to their respective sides. In handing the communication to General Saunders, Captain Clark said: ‘They are asking for a truce to bury their dead and remove their wounded.’ The communication was forwarded to the proper authorities and proved to be from General Burnside, who commanded the Federal troops in front, but not being in accordance with the usages and civilities of war, it was promptly returned, with the information that whenever a like request came from the general commanding the Army of the Potomac to the general commanding the Army of Northern Virginia it would be entertained. Within a few hours the Federals sent another flag of truce, conveying a communication, which was properly signed and addressed, and the terms of the truce were agreed on. These terms were that they could remove their wounded and could bury their dead in a ditch or grave to be dug just half way between the two lines. They brought in their details, including many negroes, and the work was commenced and was continued for about four hours. In that ditch, about one hundred feet in length, were buried seven hundred white and negro Federal soldiers. The dead were thrown in indiscriminately, three bodies deep.
The dragon's teeth.As soon as the work was commenced I witnessed one of the grandest sights I ever saw. Where not a man could be seen a few minutes before, the two armies arose up out of the ground, and the face of the earth seemed to be peopled with men. It seemed an illustration of Cadmus sowing the dragon's teeth. Both sides came over their works, and meeting in the centre, mingled, chatted and exchanged courtesies as though they had not sought in desperate effort to take each other's lives but an hour before. During the truce I met General R. B. Potter, who commanded. as he informed me, a Michigan division in Burnside's corps. He was exceedingly polite and affable, and extended to me his canteen with an ivitation to sample the contents, which I did and found in it nothing objectionable. He then handed mea good cigar,  and for a time we smoked ‘the pipe of peace.’ In reply to a question from me as to their loss in the battle on Saturday he replied that they had lost five thousand men. While we were talking a remarkably handsome Yankee general in the crowd came near us. I asked General Potter who he was, and was informed that he was General Ferrero, who commanded the negro troops. I said: ‘I have some of his papers which I captured in the fort,’ and showed them to General Potter. He then said: ‘Let me call him up and introduce him, and we will show him the papers and guy him.’ I replied, however, that we down South were not in the habit of recognizing as our social equals those who associated with negroes. He then asked me to give him some of Ferrero's papers. He wanted them for a purpose. I did so. The others I kept, and they are now lying before me as I write. He also asked me to point out to him some of our generals, several of whom were then standing on the embankment of the wrecked fort. (I noticed that none of our generals except Saunders, who had charge of affairs, came over and mingled with the crowd.) I pointed out to him Generals Harris, of Mississippi; A. P. Hill, and finally pointed out General Mahone, who was dressed in a suit made of tent cloth, with a roundabout jacket. Be it remembered that General Mahone was quite small, and did not weigh much, if any, over one hundred and twenty-five pounds. Potter laughingly said: ‘Not much man but a big general.’ When the dead were buried each side returned to their entrenchments, and soon the sharpshooters were firing at each other when and wherever seen. Truly ‘War is hell.’ I am not writing this alone from memory, but, in addition thereto, from letters contemporaneously written to my wife, whom I had but a short time before married, which letters, as well as extracts from Richmond papers of that date, as contemporary records, will probably prove of sufficient interest to publish in these columns. Saunders' Alabama brigade continued to occupy the ‘Crater,’ which they had captured on Saturday about 2 o'clock, until Monday night, August 1st, when, under cover of darkness we were relieved by another brigade, as was also the gallant Virginia brigade, which had, by a superb charge, captured the entrenchments on the left of the ‘Crater.’  The two brigades returned to their former positions at the Wilcox farm. I do not remember when the Georgia brigade was relieved. I herewith submit, by request of comrades, two letters written by me to my wife, one as will be noticed by the heading and date was written on Confederate paper, while I was in the fort, to inform her that I survived the battle. The other was written on Yankee paper letter headed, ‘U. S. Christian Commission, 500 H street, Washington, D. C.,’ immediately after we had been withdrawn and returned to our former position, ‘where times were easier,’ in which I gave her an account of the battle. I will also give some extracts from the Richmond Dispatch, giving an account of the part this brigade took in the capture of the ‘Crater.’ The Petersburg correspondent of the Richmond Dispatch of July 30, 1864, after describing the charge made by the Virginia and Georgia brigades, says:
Extract from the Richmond Dispatch of August 3, 1864. In speaking of the burial of the dead under the flag of truce, it says: 
For five hours the work of burying the dead went vigorously forward. The Yankees brought details of negroes, and we carried their negro prisoners out under guard to help them in their work. Over 700 Yankee whites and negroes were buried. A. P. Hill was there with long gauntlets, slouch hat and round jacket. Mahone, dressed in little boy fashion, out of clothes made from old Yankee tent cloth, was beside him. The gallant Harris, of the Mississippi brigade, and the gallant and intrepid Saunders, who but forty-eight hours before had so successfully retaken those works, the best looking and best dressed Confederate officer present, was sauntering leisurely about, having a general superintendence over the whole affair. Whilst the truce lasted the Yankees and the “Johnny Rebs,” in countless numbers flocked to the neutral grounds and spent the time in chatting and sight-seeing. The stench, however, was quite strong, and it required a good nose and a better stomach to carry one through the ordeal. About 9 o'clock the burial being completed, the officers sent the men back to the trenches on each side. The officers bade each other adieu and returned to their respective lines.