The charge of the Crater.
A graphic account of the memorable action.
By Lieutenant-Colonel Wm. H. Stewart, C. S. Army.The editor is indebted to the gallant author for a revised copy of this excellent paper, which was published in the Norfolk, Virginia, Landmark, July 30, 1897, the thirty-third anniversary of the memorable action which is so graphically described. The article has been highly commended by Henry Tyrrell, the author of a series of articles on General R. E. Lee, which recently appeared in Pall Mall Gazette, London. Colonel Stewart, a valued citizen of Portsmouth, Virginia, is favorably known to the public by his contributions to the press, as well as an entertaining lecturer: As the wild waves of time rush on, our thoughts now and then run back over rough billows, to buried hopes and unfulfilled anticipations, and oft we linger long and lovingly, as if standing beside the tomb of a cherished parent. Thus the faithful follower of the Southern Cross recalls the proud hopes that led him over long and weary marches and in bloody battles. These foot-sore journeys and hard contested fields are now bright jewels in his life, around which the tenderest chords of his heart are closely entwined. They are monuments of duty! They are sacred resting places for his baffled energies! They are rich mines from which the very humblest  actor gathers the wealth of an approving conscience! He hears no paeans from a grateful country—no bounty rolls bear his name—yet these are sweet choristers ever chanting priceless praises to the zeal and manhood with which he faced his foe. The veteran of an hundred battles always points with greater pride to one as the crowning glory of the many achievements. So the soldiers of Mahone's Old Brigade look upon the great battle which I shall attempt to describe. My little fly tent, scarcely large enough for two persons to lie side by side under, was stretched over a platform of rough boards, elevated about two feet above the ground, in that little grave-yard on the Wilcox Farm, near Petersburg. I was quietly sleeping within it, dreaming, perhaps, of home and all its dear associations (for only a soldier can properly appreciate these), when a deep, rumbling sound, that seemed to rend the very earth in twain, startled me from my slumbers, and in an instant I beheld a mountain of curling smoke ascending towards the heavens. The whole camp had been aroused, and all were wondering from whence came this mysterious explosion. It was the morning of Saturday, at 4:44 o'clock, on the 30th day of July, 1864. The long-talked — of mine had been sprung, Pegram's battery of four guns was blown up, and about 278 sleeping soldiers were buried beneath the upturned earth. Immediately the leading columns of the Ninth Army Corps, U. S. A., commanded by Colonel E. G. Marshall and Brigadier-General W. F. Bartlett, pressed forward and occupied the Crater and the earthworks for a distance on either side. Two hundred cannons roared in one accord, as if every lanyard had been pulled by the same hand. The fiery crests of the battlements shone out for miles to our left, and, sweeping together, formed one vast range of gloom. It was a great gun conflict, with thundering, booming, flashing, blazing, smoking, shrieking, thudding, crashing, majestic terrors of war.
A great artillery duel.The sun rose brilliantly, and the great artillery duel continued to rage in all its grandeur and fury. An occasional shell from a Blakely gun would swoop down in our camp and ricochet down the line to our right, forcing us to hug closely the fortifications for protection. Soon after sunrise ‘Captain’ Tom Bernard, courier for General William Mahone, came sweeping up the lines on his white charger  to the headquarters of our brigade commander, Colonel D. A. Weisiger. Then the drums commenced rolling off the signals, which were followed by the command ‘fall in’ and hurried roll calls. A large part of General Lee's army were on the north side of the James river, no reserves were at hand, and the line of fortifications on the south had to be unmanned to meet the emergency. So it fell to the lot of three brigades of Mahone's division to make the
Charge on the Crater.We were required to drive back the Federal troops, who were then holding and within the very gates of the city of Petersburg. It was startling news; but our soldiers faltered not, and moved off at quickstep for the seat of war. Wright's Georgia Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel M. R. Hall, and our Virginia brigade commanded by Colonel D. A. Weisiger, the latter numbering scarcely 800 muskets, constituted the first force detailed to dislodge the enemy, who held the broken lines with more than fifteen thousand men, and these were closely supported by an army of fifty-five thousand. I remember that our regiment (the Sixty-first), which I commanded, did not exceed two hundred men, including officers and privates, and I am quite sure this was the strongest in the two brigades. The distance from Wilcox Farm to the Crater in an air line is about one and a half miles; by the circuitous route taken by Mahone's Brigade about two and a half miles. I suppose we had marched the half of a mile, when we were commanded to halt and lay aside all luggage, except ammunition and muskets. Fighting-trim was the order. We then filed to the left a short distance to gain the banks of a small stream called ‘Lieutenant Run,’ in order to be protected from the shells of the Federal batteries by placing a range of hills between. These the enemy were already viewing, within four hundred yards, with covetous eyes, and making dispositions to attempt their capture; for they were the very keys to the invested city. When nearly opposite the portion of our works then held by the Federal troops, we met several soldiers who were in the works at the time of the explosion. Our men began to ridicule them for going to the rear, when one of them remarked: ‘Ah, boys, you have hot work ahead; they are negroes and show no quarter.’  This was the first intimation that we had to fight negro troops, and it seemed to infuse the little band with impetuous daring as they pressed forward to the fray.
A brutal and inhuman Slaughter.I never felt more like fighting in my life. Our comrades had been slaughtered in a most inhuman and brutal manner, and slaves were trampling over their mangled and bleeding corpses. Revenge must have fired every heart and strung every arm with nerves of steel for the Herculean task of blood. We filed up a ditch, which had been dug for a safe ingress and egress to and from the earthworks, until we reached the vale between the elevation on which the breastworks were located and the one on the banks of the little stream just mentioned-within two hundred yards of the enemy. The ill-fated battery, which had been demolished by the explosion, projected from the line of earthworks for the infantry at an acute angle, and was called Elliott's Salient. It overlooked the enemy's line of works, which were on the northeastern slope of the same elevation, about 100 yards distant. The ‘Crater,’ or excavation caused by the explosion, was about twenty-five feet deep, sixty feet wide and 150 feet long, with its crest about twelve feet above the ground. About seventy-five feet in rear of the line of earthworks there was a wide ditch with the bank thrown up on the side next to the fortifications. This was constructed to protect parties carrying ammunition and rations to the troops. Between this irregular and ungraded embankment and the main line the troops had dug numerous caves, in which they slept at night to be protected from the mortar shells that every evening traced sparkling circles in death search, like shooting stars bespangling the heavens with meteoric beauty. The embankment, from the bottom of the ditch, was about ten feet high, and commanded the outer or main line. The space from the outside of the fortifications to the inner edge of the ditch was probably more than 100 feet wide. The Crater and a space of about 200 yards on the north were literally crammed with the enemy's troops. Official report shows that five army corps were massed to aid in the assault of the lines broken by the explosion, which reported present for duty on the 31st of July, the day after the battle, as follows: 
|Add to these the losses on the 30th, as reported in the War Records, Series 1, Volume XI, Part 1, page 167,||4,400|
|Making a total of||70,936|
A great victory.The heroic achievement of the artillery corps, in keeping this army checked until reinforcements arrived, deserve equal share in the great victory of that day. Mahone's Old Brigade and part of the Georgia Brigade, deployed, covered the enemy's front from about the centre of the Crater to their right. The silken banners of the enemy proudly floated on the breezes, supported by countless bayonets glistening in the sunlight, might on an ordinary occasion have daunted our little band and made them forfeit a trial of arms; but they were desperate and determined, and reckoned not the hosts that confronted them. I recollect counting seven standards in front of our regiment alone, and said to my soldiers, ‘We must have those flags, boys!’ Our column was deployed in the valley before mentioned, in full view of these hostile thousands. As the soldiers filed into line, General Mahone walked from right to left, commanding the men to reserve their fire until they reached the brink of the ditch, and after delivering one volley to use the bayonet. Our line was hardly adjusted, and the Georgians had not finished deploying, when the division of negroes—the advance line of the enemy—made an attempt to rise from the ditch and charge. Just at that instant, about 8:45 o'clock, A. M., a counter charge was ordered. The men rushed forward, officers in front, with uncovered heads and waving hats, and grandly and beautifully swept onward over the intervening space, with muskets at trail. The enemy sent a storm of bullets in our ranks, and here and there a gallant fellow would fall, but the files  would close, still pressing onward, unwavering, into the jaws of death. Was Cardigan's charge of the 600 more desperate, save that his was to defeat, Mahone's to victory. The orders of General Mahone were obeyed to the very letter. The brink of the ditch was gained before a musket was discharged. The cry ‘No quarter’ greeted us, the one volley responded, and the bayonet was plied with such irresistible vigor that success was insured within a short space of time. Men fell dead in heaps, and human gore ran in streams that made the very earth mire beneath the tread of our victorious soldiers. The rear ditch being ours, the men mounted the rugged embankments and hurled their foes from the front line up to the very mouth of the Crater. A clipping headed ‘A Grand Spectacle,’ in the Saturday Blade, of Chicago, Ill., October 26, 1895, says: I asked an old soldier the other day what was the most interesting scene he had ever witnessed, and his reply was:
General William Mahone and his troops on dress parade at the Battle of the Crater. It was the grandest spectacle ever seen on a battlefield. Men were falling like leaves under the raking volleys of the enemy, but there was not a break in the line that was not instantly filled up with a calmness and a precision that were sublime!
Charged the Crater.The Georgians, who did not charge with our Virginia brigade, formed in column of regiments, and at 11 o'clock A. M. charged the Crater; but they were met by such a withering fire that they recoiled with heavy slaughter. Their casualties numbered 231. Our bloody work was all done so quickly that I had scarcely an idea of the time it required to accomplish it. It was over, I am sure, about noon, and then for the first time I realized the oppression of the scorching rays of that July sun, under whose burning glow many sank from exhaustion. Our brigade captured fifteen battle-flags, and our own regiment owned five of the seven that I had counted in its front. The Georgians captured one. How many men rallied to each of these flags I can only estimate from the figures above given. The 9th corps had been recently recruited, and its regiments must have been well up towards a thousand. General Burnside said he put every single man into action; so, from these facts and the captured flags, the reader may form a correct idea of  the number we had overcome. In that supreme moment, when exulting over a great victory, as our eyes fell upon the bleeding comrades around us, our hearts sickened within for those who lay dead, dying, wounded and writhing in agonies of pain. The wonderful triumph had been won at the price of the blood of the bravest and best and truest. Old Co. F, of Norfolk, Va., carried in twelve men, all of whom was killed or wounded; the 6th regiment, to which it was attached, carried in ninety-eight men, and mustered ten for duty at this time; the sharpshooters carried in eighty men, and sixteen remained for duty. Our regiment, the 61st, lost nineteen killed and forty-three wounded; the 12th regiment lost twelve killed and twenty-six wounded; the 16th lost twenty-one killed and eighteen wounded, and the 41st regiment lost thirteen killed and thirty-one wounded. Colonel Weisiger, commanding our brigade, was wounded and the command devolved upon Colonel Rogers. The total loss of the brigade was 258. There were many special acts of gallantry exhibited on this field, which I shall not stop to detail, for General Lee said: ‘All who charged from that vale crowned themselves heroes,’ and they need no encomiums from my feeble pen. Although our principal task was finished at noontide, yet more heavy work remained to be done to fully re-establish our lines. Brigadier-General Bartlett, with about 600 men, was cooped up in the Crater, and their capture was the crowning event of the bloody drama. Our wounded men were sent to the field hospital as fast as possible, and after piling the enemy's dead on each side of the trenches, to make a clear pass-way, the ranks of our brigade were closed up in proper order. General Mahone carefully examined the lines, and ordered us to keep a sharp fire on the enemy's works in front to keep them close, and on the Crater to our right to prevent Bartlett's escape, as our position commanded his rear, while Saunders' Alabama Brigade formed in the valley and charged.
A desperate struggle.The Alabamians made a grand charge under a terrible fire, reaching the crest of the crater without faltering. Here a short and desperate struggle ensued. They tumbled clubs, clods of earth, muskets and cannon balls into the excavation on the heads of the enemy with telling effect. This novel warfare lasted only a short time before the  white flag went up, and about 500 prisoners marched to the rear and three flags were surrendered to the Alabama Brigade. Hon. George Clark, of Waco, Texas, who was then on the staff of the gallant General Saunders, in a graphic description of the charge, says:
 The negro prisoners were very much alarmed, and vociferously implored for their lives. One old cornfield chap exclaimed: ‘My God, massa, I nebber pinted a gun at a white man in all my life; dem nasty, stinking Yankees fotch us here, and we didn't want to come fus!’ The appearance of this rough, irregular hole beggars description. It was estimated that it contained 600 bodies. The importance of reconstructing this broken line of earthworks at once prevented the removal of all of these dead men, therefore 233 of the enemy's dead were buried as they had fallen, in one indiscriminate heap in the pit of the Crater. Spades were brought in, and the earth thrown from the sides of the excavation until they were covered a sufficient depth. By 3 o'clock P. M. all was over, and we were enjoying a welcome truce. The extreme heat of the sun had already caused putrefaction of the dead to commence, and the bodies in our front and rear, and especially the blood-soaked earth under our feet in the trenches, exhaled such a nauseating smell that I was forced to abandon my supper, although I had not tasted a morsel of food since the previous night. The reports of the losses on the Federal side vary, but as above quoted, it is put down from all the five corps which aided in the assault at 4,400 total; but their loss was estimated at the time to be between 5,000 and 6,000. General Burnside says in his report that his 9th corps lost twenty-three commanders of regiments, four killed, fifteen wounded, and four missing; two brigade commanders, General W. F. Bartlett and Colonel E. G. Marshall, prisoners; fifty-two officers and 376 men killed; 105 officers and 1,556 men wounded; eighty-seven officers and 1,652 men missing; total 3,828.
Shooting ramrods at the enemy.There were thousands of captured arms around us, and during the night some of our men would shoot ramrods at the enemy, just for the fun of hearing them whiz. One that was shot over, drew from a Federal soldier the exclamation, ‘Great God! Johnnie, you are throwing turkey spits and stringing us together over here. Stop it!’ A correspondent of one the New York daily newspapers, writing a description of this battle from accounts obtained from wounded officers, who arrived in Washington on the 2d of August, 1864, says:
Two steamers arrived here yesterday from City Point.  They brought up a large number of candidates for medical and surgical attendance. The wounds of the wounded are ghastly. They were inflicted by the enemy in front of Petersburg, on Saturday, the 30th of July—a day that will be memorable as witnessing the failure—the utter and disastrous failure—of the great plan that was expected to scatter or destroy the army of General Lee. A large number of the wounded are officers who participated in the assault on the enemy's lines. * * * Statements from such sources are worthy of attention if not full faith. * * * At forty minutes after four the earth began to tremble. Then a great mass of clay and debris was thrown about one hundred feet in the air. Then a heavy sound, deep and rumbling, differing from any ever before heard by the Army of the Potomac, was borne five miles around. For a few moments the air was thick with dust, and then the great yawning gap was visible. The mine had done its work. Then the artillery opened. Never on the American continent was heard such an awful roar. It commenced on the right and extended to the left, gun after gun joining in mighty chorus. Gettysburg, Malvern Hill, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor—these were as nothing. It was dreadful and unparalleled. * * * Often have the Confederates won enconiums for valor, but never before did they fight with such uncontrollable desperation. It appeared as if our troops were at their mercy, standing helpless or running in terror and shot down like dogs. The charge of the enemy against the negro troops was terrific. With fearful yells they rushed down against them. The negroes at once ran back, breaking through the lines of white troops in the rear. Again and again their officers tried to rally them. Words and blows were useless. They were victims of an uncontrollable terror, and human agency could not stop them.Such was the testimony of the Federal wounded of the terror and carnage of the battle! This correspondence estimated their loss at 5,000.
The awful explosion.Captain George L. Killmer, of Marshall's Brigade, says: ‘The awful explosion, when it came, confused our men more than it did the Confederates, except the few Confederates who were blown up. We were in a state of expectancy, awaiting orders, when suddenly the ground rocked under foot and an immense mass of earth, timbers, cannon and soldiers in gray, enveloped in dust and powder smoke, leaped into the air, and hung there, as it seemed, ready to fall and bury our lines in the ruins. Hundreds shrunk back, appalled and unmassed. Colonel Elisha C. Marshall, who was also colonel of my regiment, sprang upon the wall in front, and waving a signal, shouted “Forward.” Officers and soldiers, to the number of a couple of hundred, joined him instantly, climbing the barrier by the help of bayonets and upon one another's shoulders. Without looking to see how many followed, the party dashed forward to the pit, and there found a great hole encircled by a wall made of the falling earth and debris. We struck the left flank of the breach and planted our flag there.’ Then after describing intervening events, Captain Killmer says:
Pandemonium in the pit.
“The enemy” which took possession of the crest was evidently Mahone's Brigade, and the charge repulsed mentioned by General Grant must have been that of Wright's Brigade. Next morning was a bright and beautiful Sabbath, and nothing worth noting occurred. Many of the Federal dead remained on the field, putrefying under the scorching rays of the sun. I remember a negro, between the lines, who had both legs blown off. He crawled up to the outside of our works, struck three muskets with bayonets in the ground, and threw a small pice of tent cloth over them to shelter his head from the hot sunshine. After awhile, in an interval, when the shots from the enemy had slackened, one of our soldiers managed to push a cup of water to him, which he drank and immediately commenced to froth at the mouth, dying in a very short time after. He had lived in this mangled condition for nearly twenty-four hours and for a part of the time almost baking under the hot sun.
In the pit pandemonium reigned. Men shot on the crest tumbled in upon the wounded, lying in torture at the bottom. The day was hot. Sulphurous gases escaped from the debris and there was no water at hand, the way back to the Union lines was swept by fire and was corduroyed with dead. Refusing to retreat, men sought death by charging forward. Officers threw away their lives by mounting the walls to inspire the men to move out and relieve the horrible jam in the pit. One of these martyrs was a mere boy, Lieutenant Pennell, an aid to General Thomas. So many bullets struck him that his body whirled around like a top before it fell.Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, commanding the United States Army, in his report to General Halleck, under date of August 1, 1864, at City Point, Va., says:The loss in the disaster of Saturday last foots up about 3,500, of whom 450 men were killed and 2,000 wounded.It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect to again to have. The enemy, with a line of works five miles long, had been reduced,  by our previous movements to the north side of James river, to a force of only three divisions. This line was undermined and blown up, carrying a battery and most of a regiment with it. The enemy were taken completely by surprise and did not recover from it for more than an hour. The Crater and several hundred yards of the enemy's line to the right and left of it, and a short detached line in front of the Crater, were occupied by our troops without opposition. Immediately in front of this, and not 150 yards off, with clear ground intervening, was the crest of the ridge leading into town, and which, if carried, the enemy would have made no resistance, but would have continued a flight already commenced. It was three hours from the time our troops first occupied their works before the enemy took possession of the crest. I am constrained to believe that, had instructions been promptly obeyed, Petersburg would have been carried, with all the artillery and a large number of prisoners, without a loss of 300 men. It was in getting back to our lines that the loss was sustained. The enemy attempted to charge and retake the lines captured from them, and were repulsed with heavy loss by our artillery. Their loss in killed must be greater than ours, whilst our loss in wounded and captured is four times that of the enemy.Official Records, Serial Number 80, page 17.