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Southern Historical Society Papers.

Vol. XVIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1890.

The battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864.

An Address delivered before the A. P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans, of Petersburg, Va., in that city, on the 24th of June, 1890.

by Comrade George S. Bernard.
comrades:

It was my fortune as a member of the Petersburg Riflemen, Company E, Twelfth Virginia Infantry, General William Mahone's brigade, to take part in the memorable engagement known as ‘The Battle of the Crater,’ and it is now proposed to give some account of the action—to tell a war story from the standpoint of a high private in the rear rank, supplementing information within my personal knowledge with some material drawn from other sources believed to be reliable—this being necessary to a proper understanding of what will be told.

On Saturday morning, the 30th of July, 1864, when the mine under the angle in the Confederate's works around Petersburg, known as ‘Elliott's sailent,’ was exploded, blowing up, or burying under the debris of earth and timber, between two hundred and fifty and three hundred officers and men occupying the works at this point, making therein a huge chasm, described in the report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War as ‘from 150 to 200 feet in length, about 60 in width, and from 25 to 30 feet in depth, and aptly called “a crater,” from its resemblance to the mouth of a volcano, Mahone's brigade was occupying the breastworks on the Willcox farm, immediately south of our city’—say about a point which would be reached by a prolongation of Adams street. The site of the ‘Crater,’ as is well known probably to all now present, is east of the Jerusalem plankroad [4] and about half a mile southeast from Blandford Cemetery, being located a short distance beyond our city limits, in the county of Prince George, on the farm of Mr. T. R. Griffith.

Some time during the night preceding the explosion, our brigade received orders to be ‘ready to move at a moment's warning,’ which, of course, indicated that something was expected requiring a movement of the command.

It was well understood that the enemy were mining somewhere on our line, but exactly at what point was not known. A counter-mine was made by the Confederates several hundred yards to the right of the Crater, near the point at which the Confederate breastworks cross the Jerusalem plank-road, as may be seen at this time. At the Elliott salient a counter-mine was begun, but was abandoned for want of proper tools.

The explosion took place between daybreak and sunrise (4:44 A. M. was the exact time), and the impression made upon those hearing it may be likened to that of a nearly simultaneous discharge of several pieces of artillery. The concussion of the atmosphere was unusual. We were all soon in the breastworks. Something extraordinary, we knew, had happened. Soon a report came down the line from the direction of the scene of action that a mine had been exploded and a part of our works blown up and was occupied by the enemy.

A little after six o'clock, when the Crater had been in the enemy's possession for more than an hour, a staff officer rides rapidly past us; General Mahone's headquarters, which were at the Branch House, just west of the Willcox farm, is the point of destination of this staff-officer, who is Colonel Charles S. Venable, aide-de-camp to General Lee. Colonel Venable is bearing a message to General Mahone, who was then, as he had been since the wounding of General Longstreet at the battle of the Wilderness, in command of Anderson's division, which was composed of the brigades of General William Mahone (Virginians), General A. R. Wright (Georgians), General J. C. C. Saunders (Alabamians), General N. H. Harris (Mississippians), and General Joseph Finegan (Floridians).

The message borne to General Mahone is to send at once two of his brigades to the support of General Bushrod R. Johnson, who commanded that part of the Confederate lines embracing the works now in the enemy's hands.

Very soon, under orders received, the men of Mahone's brigade of Virginians and Wright's brigade of Georgians, began to drop back from their places in the breastworks, one by one, into the cornfield in [5] their rear, and, when they were well out of sight of the enemy, the line was formed and the two brigades marched to the Ragland House,1 were there halted, and the men were directed to divest themselves of knapsacks, blanket-rolls and other baggage; an order which to the veteran plainly bespoke serious work, and that in the near future.

In a written statement made by Colonel Venable in 1872, referring to the carrying of the message from General Lee to General Mahone, he says:

‘He sent me directly to General Mahone (saying that to save time the order need not be sent through General A. P. Hill), with the request that he would send, at once, two of the brigades of his division to the assistance of General Johnson. I rode rapidly to General Mahone's line, and delivered my message. He immediately gave orders to the commanders of the Virginia and Georgia brigades to move to the sailent and report to General Johnson. The troops moved promptly, the Virginia brigade (General Weisiger) in front. We rode on together, at the head of the column, General Mahone giving instructions to his officers and inquiring as to the condition of things at the sailent. When we reached the peach orchard, in rear of the Ragland House, noticing that the men were encumbered with their knapsacks, he halted the column, and caused both brigades to put themselves in battle trim. While the men were throwing aside their knapsacks he turned to me and said: “I can't send my brigades to General Johnson—I will go with them myself.” He then moved the column towards the opening of the covered way, which led to the Crater salient. I left him at this point to report to General Lee, who, meantime, had come to the front. I found him sitting with General Hill, among the men in the lines, at a traverse near the River salient. When I told him of the delivery of the message, and that General Mahone had concluded to lead the two brigades himself, he expressed gratification.’

Leaving the Ragland House, we marched along the edge of the hills skirting Lieutenant Run to New Road, or Hickory street, and entered this road a hundred or two more yards east of the brigade, then marched westwardly to within a few yards of the bridge over this run, and then filed northwardly down the ravine on the east side of [6] the run to Hannon's (now Jackson's) old ice-pond; here entered a military foot-path leading along the pond eastward to the head of the pond; thence filed eastwardly up a ravine along the same military foot-path to the Jerusalem plank-road. We are now at a point a few feet from the southwestern corner of the Jewish cemetery of to-day, and the position of the foot-path in this ravine along which we came is yet plainly marked.

At the plank-road we are halted and counter-march by regiments, thereby placing each regiment with its left in front. Here we see on the roadside, General Mahone, with other officers, dismounted, their horses standing near by. Mahone had then reported to General Beauregard at the headquarters of General Johnson, which were at the old house, which, until a few years ago, stood on the crest of the hill a short distance northwest from the northwest corner of Blandford Cemetery and near the road leading southwardly up the hill to the cemetery. It was now about half-past 8 o'clock, and the enemy were just as they had been for nearly four hours, in quiet occupation of the Crater, with about one hundred and fifty yards of our breastworks to the south and some two hundred yards of these works to the north of the Crater, reaching down to the foot of the hill on the north side. To these limits on either side the Confederates occupying the lines north and south of the Crater confined them.

General Mahone, having had the regiments counter-march at the Jerusalem plank-road, goes ahead along the covered way leading directly across the road, southeastwardly to the ravine in rear and west of the Confederate works now occupied by the enemy. Ascending the little knoll at the point where the ravine is entered by another smaller ravine or gully, into which the zig-zag covered way led and terminated, he sees the Confederate works filled to overflowing with Federal troops, and, counting eleven regimental flags, estimates the Federal force in possession as at least 3,000 men. The situation is an extremely grave one. His own little force of two brigades, then approaching in the covered way, if assailed in this position, would be inevitably cut to pieces and destroyed. So Mahone orders Courier J. H. Blakemore to go at once back and bring up the Alabama brigade (Saunders') to come by the same route which the Virginia and Georgia brigades had taken.

Whilst General Mahone is at the knoll surveying the enemy and arranging for the attack, we are cautiously approaching the ravine along the covered way. At the angles, where the enemy could see a moving column with ease, the men are ordered to run quickly by, [7] one man at a time; which was done for the double purpose of concealing the approach of a body of troops and of lessening the danger of passing rifle balls at these exposed points.

I should have mentioned that there was constant shelling as we moved along our route from the breastworks at Willcox's farm, but we were well protected by the shelter of intervening hills. As we passed the Hannon pond, I remember seeing a solid shot, or shell, fired from one of the enemy's guns, descend into the water but a few feet from our moving line.

Arriving at the ravine, we found General Mahone standing near the mouth of the gully into which the covered way led and along which we were filing into the ravine, now and then exchanging word of encouragement with some passing officer or man in the ranks.2

In this ravine are some artillery men, with one or more mortars in position; and I have a strong impression that I saw, skirting the slope of the hill, a slight line of breastworks which looked as if it had been made that morning for temporary shelter by men working with their bayonets.

Soon the line of battle is formed; the Twelfth Virginia on the left of the brigade, the Sixth Virginia on the right, the brigade sharpshooters on the right of the Sixth. The middle regiments were the Sixteenth, the Forty-first and Sixty-first—the Sixty-first being the centre regiment.

On the field to-day may be seen a tree that marks the position of the right of this line of battle.

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