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Another story of the Crater battle.

Petersburg, Va., 1905.
Editor of The Times-Dispatch:
Sir,—The enclosed account of the charge of Mahone's Brigade at the battle of The Crater, Saturday, July 30th, 1864, written by Major William H. Etheredge, who commanded the Forty-first Regiment of Virginia, of that brigade, will prove interesting just now to many survivors.

This was a personal letter to me in March, 1892, and I have not had until recently, his permission to publish it.

Very truly yours,

Great Bridge, Norfolk county, Va., March 23rd, 1892.
Captain George J. Rogers:
My Dear friend.—Your favor of the 16th instant came to hand on Saturday, 19th, and I can say it gave me genuine pleasure.

At your request, I will undertake to give a description of the battle of the Crater on the suburbs of the city of Petersburg, July 30th, 1864.

ColonelParham, as you know, was wounded at the first battle of Malvern Hill in 1862, which rendered him unfit for duty, and LieutenantColonelMinetree was wounded on the sixth day of May, 1864, in the battle of the Wilderness, and was unfit for service, so you see the command of the old Forty-first Regiment fell upon my shoulders, and while I felt unequal to the task, I determined to do my duty to the best of my ability. We were satisfied that the enemy was undermining somewhere on the line, but could not tell where until the mine was sprung on the morning of July 30th, 1864, the whole country for miles around was startled when the explosion took place, and every piece of artillery that could be brought to bear on that particular [204] spot, opened fire and a most terrific cannonading followed. We knew there was hard work ahead for some of us, and sure enough just about sunrise there came an order for Mahone's old Virginia Brigade to hold itself in readiness to move at a moment's notice, and before we could get ready, here came the order for us to fall into line, without knowing what was ahead of us. After the line was formed, we were ordered to divest ourselves of all baggage, and to carry nothing but our arms and ammunition and a canteen of water, this being done, we headed towards the cemetery, and when arrived at the mouth of the covered way, used to protect our men when relieving picket, we marched up that covered way until we reached an angle, we then left the ditch, flanked to the right and marched a short distance down a ravine until nearly opposite the point where the mine was sprung, and were ordered to lie down. General Mahone was at the angle in the ditch, and saw the brigade pass. He had ordered the Georgia Brigade to form on the right of the Virginia Brigade, but failing to get there in time, he took a position in rear of his old brigade, for the purpose, as I supposed, to watch the movements of the enemy, and well enough did he, for they were getting ready to charge us, as we heard distinctly the command ‘Fix bayonets and no quarters.’ Just at that juncture, General Mahone being in rear of the brigade with General Weisiger on the right, the order came from General Mahone, as I have always thought, from that day to the present, to charge the enemy.

It has been a disputed question ever since the war as to who gave the command to charge the enemy, some claiming the order came from General Weisiger, while others say the order came from General Mahone. If General Weisiger gave the order, I did not hear him, as he was on the right of the line, and I on the left. I did hear the order, however, and coming from the rear, as I thought, and while I would not say or do anything (even if it was in my power), to wrest from General Weisiger any of the honors to which he was entitled on that occasion, I am still of the opinion the order to charge came from General Mahone. In a moment we were up and started up hill, where we could see the enemy in line, and fortunately for us, the first [205] line were negroes, who could not stand the rebel yell and cold steel, and in order to get out of the way, threw their guns down and broke for the rear. The next line were white men, and so great was their desire to keep the negroes in front of them as a sort of breastwork, they lost sight of us until we were only a short distance from them, and I believe every shot took effect, as they were as thick in the breastworks as they could stand, and it was almost impossible to miss a man; but the Yanks were determined we should not have it all our way, and before we reached the breastworks they poured a volley into us, and about one-half of our little brigade went down. Notwithstanding all this, we pushed to the front, and reaching the ditch, in we went with empty muskets, depending on the bayonet and breech of the gun, and a regular hand to hand encounter took place. The scene that follows beggars description: our men would drive the bayonet into one man, pull it out, turn the butt and knock the brains out of another, and so on until the ditch ran with blood of the dead and dying. So great was the slaughter that Lieutenant-Colonel William H. Steward, of the Sixty-first Regiment, in command, and myself, of the Forty-first, had to make a detail to pile up the dead on the side of the ditch to make room so we could reinforce to the right or left, as occasion might require.

The Yanks fought bravely to maintain the foothold they had gained, but the powers of the Southern soldier were too much for them at that particular time, knowing as we did, that if they succeeded in carrying out their designs, our friends in the city would fare but common, and with us it was to do or die; and in an incredibly short time the breastworks to the left of the Crater for some distance occupied by the enemy were taken back and hostilities for a few moments ceased, but the end is not yet, the breastworks to the right of the Crater were still in the enemy's hands, and General Lee said they must be taken back. About that time, the Georgia Brigade was on hand, and General Mahone called on them to perform that service. Accordingly the line was formed, and when the command was given they started as gallantly to the front as any set of men could, but [206] by the time the enemy had filled the breastworks as full of men as they could stand together, and as soon as the Georgians got near enough the enemy opened fire on them, and they fell like autumn leaves. They reformed, and tried it a second time, but with no better results. General Mahone then called on the Alabama Brigade; the line was formed the command 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 double quick, and before the enemy could reload, the Alabamians were on them, and as was the case on our side of the Crater, a hand to 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 loss of life on both sides was heavy, and I have often said, if a correct history of the late war is ever written, the fight at the Crater will be second to none, but the battle of Gettysburg, during the war.

And now, as you have requested me to do so, I will give you a short history of the part I took in the fight at the Crater. When we made the charge and reached the breastworks, I was among the first to jump in the ditch, where the Yanks were as thick as they could stand. First sergeant of Company D jumped in about the same time I did, and was killed instantly. Where I was there was a small bomb-proof, and two Yanks squatting down near its mouth to keep out of danger; they were white men with muskets in their hands, with fixed bayonets). My feet had not more than touched the ground when they rose up and stood before me. Just then the man that killed the sergeant stooped down and picked up a musket, evidently with the intention of killing me. I took in the situation at once, took hold of the two men in front of me, and kept them so close together it was impossible for him to kill me without endangering the lives of his own men. Just at that moment, our men were jumping in the ditch like frogs; one of them jumped in just behind me, and I sung out to him at the top of my voice to kill the man in front of me. The man, Peter Gibbs, by name, of [207] Company ‘E,’ Petersburg, stepped one pace to the right of me, and killed him as quick as you could wink your eye. The fellow was so intent on killing me, he died with his musket in his hands, trying to shoot me. I then made the two men throw down their arms and started them to the rear. It has been said that drowning men will catch at a straw, so you can readily imagine my feelings while facing death, but I never lost presence of mind during the terrible ordeal to which I was subjected. Would that I had the mind to picture to your imagination the heroism and many deeds of valor of our men on that memorable occasion, but have not, and will leave it for wiser heads than mine.

And now, my dear friend, I have given you all the points in the fight of the Crater that came under my notice, to the best of my recollection, and hoping this to some extent will satisfy you until you can gather all the facts in the case from some who took part in the struggle better qualified for the task than I am, I have the honor to be,

Your sincere friend,

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