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Brilliant Page in history of War. From the Birmingham age-herald, February 4, 1906.

Eye witness describes Bloody battle of the Crater— the losses were heavy.

Gallant conduct of Alabamians in Wilcox Brigade related by man who took part at Petersburg.

By Captain John C. Featherston, 9th Alabama Regiment, now of Lynchburg, Va.
On the night of the 29th of July, 1864, Wilcox's old brigade of Alabamians, at that time commanded by Gen. 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 brigade, 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 fire 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 counter mines 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.

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 important information. 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. [162] The news soon reached our lines that the enemy had exploded a mine under a fort then known as ‘Elliott'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 was the ‘supporting division’ of the army while in front of Petersburg, and consequently whenever the enemy was making serious attacks this command, or a part of it, was sent to reinforce the point assailed. Hence it was in many hard-fought battles while the army was in front of Petersburg.

Was a Bloody fight.

Of the many battles in which this command engaged, however, none will equal or even approximate in bloody and stubborn fighting the battle of the Crater, where the loss on the Federal side was five thousand and on the Confederate side one thousand eight hundred, out of the small number engaged, and all on about two acres of land. For quite awhile after the explosion all was quiet, but then commenced a severe cannonade by the Yankees, which was promptly replied to by the Confederate artillery.

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 entrenched in strong force immediately in our front, and dispatched as directed. This occurred about 8 or 9 o'clock. About II o'clock an order came, delivered by that gallant officer, R. R. Henry, of Mahone's staff, for the Alabama (Wilcox's old) brigade. We were quietly withdrawn from the works, leaving the space which the three brigades had covered unoccupied except by a few skirmishers—one man every twenty paces—commanded by Maj. J. M. Crow, a brave officer of the Ninth Alabama regiment.

By a circuitous route we arrived at Blandford cemetery, and then entered a ‘zigzag,’ 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 soon came out of the covered [163] way into a slight ravine which ran parallel with the enemy's line of fortifications and also our own, in which was the fort, now famous as the ‘Crater,’ and then occupied by the enemy.

Situation Explained.

As we came out of the covered way we were met by General Mahone, himself on foot, who called the officers to him, 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 the possession of the enemy, as was also a part of the works on the right of it, and we of the Alabama brigade were expected to storm and capture the fort, as we were the last of the reserves, it being necessary to retain our other two brigades in the main trenches. 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 farther up until we were immediately in front of the fort, then to lie down on the ground until our artillery, in the 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.’

Brigade moves forward.

The officers then returned to their places in line and ordered [164] 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 to my side and said: ‘Captain, can I go in 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. I 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 coming down, and he said: “I will try to have breakfast ready by the time you get back.” ’

I have often since wished that even under those desperate circumstances, 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; but if he is alive and this page should ever meet his eye, I trust he will write to me.

Wilcox's old brigade, then commanded and led by the gallant and intrepid brigadier general, J. C. C. Saunders, as above stated, with Capt. George Clark, another brave office, assistant adjutant general, was composed of the following regiments: Eighth Alabama, Capt. M. W. Mordecai commanding; Ninth Alabama, Col. J. H. King commanding; Tenth Alabama, Capt. W. L. Brewster commanding; Eleventh Alabama, Lieut. Col. George P. Tayloe commanding; Fourteenth Alabama, Capt. Elias Folk commanding.

Ninth Alabama in front.

The Ninth 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 include a similar list of the officers of the other regiments but for the unfortunate fact that their names were not given. They are as follows:

Company A, Captain Hayes commanding; Company C, Sergt. T. Simmons commanding; [165] Company D. Capt. J. W. Cannon commanding; Company E, Lieut. M. H. Todd commanding; Company F, Capt. John C. Featherston commanding; Company H, Lieut. R. Fuller commanding; Company I, Lieut. B. T. Taylor commanding; Company K, Lieut. T. B. Baugh commanding.

By the report of Capt. George Clark, assistant adjutant general, this brigade of five regiments carried into the battle of the Crater 628 men, and of this number it lost eighty-nine. The brigade early in the war had numbered about five thousand. 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 the 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 latter 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.

Cruel Spectacle presented.

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 six hundred and twenty-eight men was charging a fort in an open field, filled with the enemy to the number of over five thousand, supported by a park of artillery said to number fifty pieces. The line of advance was in full view of the two armies and in range of the guns of fully twenty thousand 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 that 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 [166] signal for everybody within range of the fort 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 heavy guns joined in the awful din, and the air seemed literally filled with missles.

The Virginians, Georgians and South Carolinians commenced firing from the flanks at 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.

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 down 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 negroes and whites together, and history tells what they did for them).

Novel Methods of fighting.

Then commenced a novel method of fighting. There were 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, bayonet 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 some of the Yankees were undoubtedly so killed.

In almost less time than I can tell it we were in condition to go in. Col. H. 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 grapple continued until most of the Yankees found in there were killed. This slaughter would not have been so great had not [167] 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, but, their intentions being mistaken, they were shot and fell back. We heard those remaining cry: ‘They are showing us no quarter; let us sell 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.

Yankees kill Yankees.

In the confusion and in their eagerness to get from that point they went across the open field, along the same route over which we had charged. Their artillery, seeing them going to the rear, as we were told, under a subsequent flag of truce, thought that they were our men repulsed and retreating, so they at once opened fire on them, killing and wounding quite 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 had not done it.’

This practically ended the fight inside the fort; but the two. armies outside continued firing at this common center, 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 in that war, or any other the history of which I have read, which had the unique distinction of having been assailed from literally every quarter.

The slaughter was fearful. The dead were piled on each other. In one part of the fort I counted eight bodies deep. There were fut few wounded compared with the killed.

There was an incident which occurred in the captured fort [168] 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. The 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 entire cessation of firing that evening. Indeed, by the sharpshooters it was continued for months.

Fort reconstructed.

After dark tools were brought in with which we reconstructed the wrecked fort. In doing this we buried the dead down in the fort by covering them with earth, as the fire of the enemy was entirely too severe to carry them out. We were therefore forced to stand on them and defend our position 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, and 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, in strengthening the wrecked fort, we 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 heads. They seemed never to have moved after the explosion. We buried them in the fort, in the excavation, ‘Crater,’ [169] made by the explosion, fifty-four negroes and seventy-eight Yankees, exclusive of those buried in the trenches.

That night after the work was done we slept in the fort over those who slept ‘the sleep that knows no waking’ and with those who 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 exceeding 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 to go to them either by day or night.

Flag of truce raised.

About noon or a little later 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. 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 the black flag.’

The general finally got a handkerchief, which answered the purpose, though not altogether suitable for a drawing room. He and Capt. George Clark, assistant adjutant general, tied it 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 graphically illustrated the condition of the two armies). They met half way, about forty yards from each line. After a few minutes' interview, the Yankee officer handed to Captain Clark a paper. They then withdrew to their respective [170] sides. In handing this communication to General Saunders, Captain Clark said: ‘They are asking for a truce to bury their dead and remove their wounded.’

Terms agreed on.

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 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 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 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. When this 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 was peopled with men. It seemed an illustration of Cadmus sowing the dragon's teeth. Both sides came over their works, and, meeting in the center, 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 Gen. R. B. Potter, who commanded, as he informed me, a Michigan division in Burnside's corps. He was extremely polite and affable, and extended to me his canteen with an invitation to sample its contents, which I did, and found it containing nothing objectionable. He then handed me a good cigar and for a time we smoked the ‘pipe of peace.’

General Ferrerro pointed out.

In reply to a question from me as to their loss in the battle [171] 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 Ferrerro, 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 Ferrerro papers. He wanted them for a purpose. I did so. The others I kept, and they are 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 of the Alabama brigade, who had harge of affairs, came over and mingled with the crowd). I pointed out to him Generals Harris, of Mississippi, and 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 its entrenchments, and soon the sharpshooters were firing at each other when and wherever seen. True ‘war is hell.’

Saunders' Alabama brigade continued to occupy the ‘Crater,’ which they had captured on Saturday about 2 o'clock, until Monday night, August I, when under cover of darkness, we were relieved by another brigade, as was also the gallant Virginia brigade, which had, by a charge, captured the intrenchments 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.

History in letters.

I am not writing this alone from memory, but in addition [172] 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 herewith.

The Petersburg correspondent of the Richmond Dispatch of July 30, 1864, after describing the charge made by the Virginia and Georgia brigades, says:

About this time General Mahone, having ordered up Saunders' Alabama brigade, sent it forward to recapture the rest of the works. Led by their gallant brigadier, they moved forward in splendid style, making one of the grandest charges of the war, and recapturing every vestige of our lost grand and other lost guns and capturing thirty-five commissioned officers, including Brigadier General Bartlett, commanding first brigade, first division, ninth corps, three hundred and twenty-four white and one hundred and fifty negro privates, and two stands of colors.

Under date of Sunday, 31, the Richmond Dispatch reports:

All quiet today. Our wounded are being cared for, and the dead on both sides in our lines are being buried.

Still they come. Saunders of the Alabama brigade has just sent in another battle flag, thrown away by the enemy yesterday and picked up by General Saunders's men this morning.

General Saunders reports that he has buried in the mine alone fifty-four negroes and seventy-eight Yankees, exclusive of the men buried in the trenches.

The following extract is from the Dispatch of August 3, 1864:

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 seven hundred Yankees, whites and negroes, were buried. A. P. Hill was there with long gauntlets, a slouch hat and round jacket. Mahone, dressed in little boy fashion out of clothes made from old Yankee tent cloth, was beside himself. The gallant Harris of the Mississippi brigade, and the gallant intrepid Saunders, who but forty-eight hours before had so successfully retaken those works, the best looking and best [173] dressed Confederate officer present, was sauntering leisurely about, having a general superintendence over the whole affair.

Soldiers Fraternize.

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.

Congratulatory orders from Gen. A. P. Hill.

Headquarters Third Army Corps, August 4, 1864.
General Order No. 17: Anderson's division commanded by Brigadier General Mahone, so distinguished itself by its successes during the present campaign as to merit the special mention of the corps commander, and he tenders to the division, its officers and men, his thanks for the gallantry displayed by them whether attacking or attacked. Thirty-one stands of colors, fifteen pieces of artillery and four thousand prisoners are the proud mementos which signalize its valor and entitle it to the admiration and gratitude of our country.

Major Etheredge of the Forty-first Virginia regiment, an eye witness, wrote of the event: ‘General Mahone then ordered up the Alabama brigade; they formed; the command was given, and when they reached the point where the Georgians suffered so severely they too met with a heavy loss; but, unlike the Georgians, as soon as they received the shock, every man that was left standing started in a double-quick, and before the enemy could reload the Alabamians were on them. A handto-hand fight took place, and in a few minutes the gallant Alabamians had driven out and killed those who couldn't get out, and were masters of the situation.’

The reapture of the ‘Crater’ restored our lines in statu quo and gave to history one of its most brilliant pages.

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