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Chapter 22: the Mine

  • The Petersburg trenches.
  • -- Wilson and Kautz's cavalry raid. -- their rout on the 29th. -- Early's demonstration toward Washington. -- the Mine at the Elliott salient. -- extent of the tunnel and galleries. -- its ventilation. -- countermines. -- plans for a Federal charge to follow the explosion. -- movements of Hancock. -- the explosion on the 30th. -- the crater. -- failure of the Federal assault.

Our first days in the Petersburg trenches were exceedingly busy ones. From June 19 to 24, a daily entry in my note-book was ‘severe sharpshooting and artillery practice without intermission day or night.’ Our whole time was spent in improving our lines and getting our batteries protected and with good communications. Never until in this campaign had the enemy used mortar fire in the field, but now Abbot's reserve artillery regiment of 1700 men brought into use 60 mortars ranging from 24-Pr. Coehorns to 10-inch Sea-coast, which caused us great annoyance, as we had to keep our trenches fully manned and had no protection against the dropping shells. Fortunately, I had ordered some mortars constructed in Richmond about two weeks before, and they began to arrive on June 24, and were at once brought into use. They were only 12-pounders, but were light and convenient, and at close ranges enabled us to hold our own, with less loss than might have been expected. The cannoneers in the batteries, and the infantry in the lines who were exposed to this mortar fire, managed to build little bomb-proofs, and a labyrinth of deep and narrow trenches in rear of the lines. Abbott's siege-train also included six 100-pounder, and forty 30-Pr. rifles, besides their regular field-artillery. Many of the heavy calibres were mounted on the permanent forts, erected in the outer line already referred to.

These constituted a sort of intrenched citadel, consisting of [561] isolated forts connected by infantry parapets with ditches and abattis, and impregnable to any assault. Here a small fraction of the army could securely hold its line for days, and continue to threaten Petersburg, leaving the rest free to extend lines on the south or to threaten Richmond on the north. Meanwhile, in front, their offensive system of trenches and redans was pushed as close as possible to ours, and we were constantly menaced with assault, should we weaken our garrison.

One point in our front, called Elliott's Salient, was recognized as particularly weak. The edge of the deep valley of Poor Creek, approximately parallel to our general line of works, here approached within 133 yards of the salient, which was held by Pegram's battery, Elliott's brigade occupying the adjacent lines. Along the near edge of the valley, the enemy built strong rifle-pits, with elaborate head-logs and loopholes, from which a constant fire was kept up upon our works. In the valley behind was ample room for an unlimited force, which could be collected and massed without our knowledge, and would have but 133 yards to advance under fire to reach our works. We soon managed to place obstructions in front of the parapet at this point and watched closely, confidently expecting that the enemy would here begin soon to make zigzag approaches as in a siege.

On June 22, Grant sent Wilson's and Kautz's divisions of cavalry upon a raid against the Lynchburg and Danville railroads. On the same day, the 2d and 6th corps were stretched out to the left with the intent of reaching the Weldon R. R., and perhaps even to the road to Lynchburg.

Lee, advised of this movement, sent A. P. Hill with Wilcox's and Mahone's division, supported by Johnson's, to meet it. With Wilcox's division, he obstructed the advance of the 6th corps so effectively that it failed to reach even the Weldon road, by at least a mile. With Mahone's and Johnson's divisions, he passed through a gap carelessly left between the 2d corps, which was swinging around to its left, and the 6th, which was advancing, and struck Barlow's division of the 2d in the rear. Barlow's and Gibbon's divisions were both badly defeated, losing four guns (which were turned upon the fugitives), several colors and about 1700 prisoners. Mott's division was also routed but [562] retreated so precipitately as to lose few prisoners. Hill returned at night to his intrenchments, and the next morning the 2d corps reoccupied the lines from which it had been driven and the 6th corps formed on its left obliquely toward the Weldon road.

Wilson and Kautz were followed in their raid by W. H. F. Lee's division of cavalry which, however, was unable to prevent the tearing up of the Lynchburg R. R. from near Petersburg to Burkeville, and of the Danville road from Burkeville south to the Staunton River. Here the bridge was defended by local militia who were intrenched with artillery. The river was unfordable, and Lee, attacking in the rear, the Federals decided to rejoin Grant at Petersburg by a circuit to the east.

Unfortunately for them, Hampton's and Fitz-Lee's divisions had just returned from the pursuit of Sheridan's cavalry to Trevillian's Station, where they had had a drawn battle on June 11 and 12. These divisions, aided by W. H. F. Lee's, which had continued in the pursuit, and by two brigades of infantry under Mahone, fell upon Wilson and Kautz on the 29th at Ream's Station and routed them with the loss of 1500 killed, wounded, and captured, and all of their artillery (12 guns) and their wagon-train. They finally made their escape across the Blackwater, burning the bridge behind them, and thus cutting off pursuit by Hampton and Lee. They reached the James at Light House Point on July 2.

They had been absent 10 days, had marched over 300 miles, and torn up 60 miles of railroad. The tracks, however, were soon repaired and traffic restored by all the lines. By the Weldon road, however, it soon became necessary to halt the trains short of Petersburg, and to wagon by a roundabout road into the town.

Between July 6 and 9, Grant had found it necessary to send the three divisions of the 6th corps to Washington to oppose Early and Breckenridge. These, whom we saw sent by Lee, from Cold Harbor, to check Hunter's advance upon Lynchburg, had reached Lynchburg before him. Hunter feared either to attack, or to retreat by the way he had come. After a pause of two days he started, on June 19, through W. Va. via the Great Kanawha, the Ohio River, and the Baltimore and Ohio R. R. to Harper's Ferry. This left the valley open. Early at [563] once moved down it to demonstrate against Washington. The only force available to oppose him was Wallace's command from Baltimore, with Ricketts's division of the 6th corps, which was the first to arrive. Early had crossed the Potomac at Shepherdstown and moved through the passes of South Mountain. On July 9, he attacked and defeated Wallace on the Monocacy. The next day he moved upon Washington, Wallace being driven toward Baltimore.

Never before, probably, had Washington been as bare of troops as when Early arrived before it on the afternoon of July 11. But there were regular garrisons of infantry and artillery at many of the permanent forts, — District of Columbia volunteers, regiments of Veteran Reserves, many miscellaneous detachments at the camp of instruction, and about 2000 organized employees of the quartermaster's department, —in all over 20,000 men. These troops alone, without aid, could have defended the city indefinitely and forced Early to undertake a siege. That night, there arrived the two remaining divisions of the 6th corps, and 6000 men of the 19th corps, under Emory, from New Orleans.

In the afternoon, Early had reconnoitred, and, in consultation with his officers, had ordered an assault in the morning. It is scarcely credible that he would have made more than a demonstration, for any real attack would have been but a bloody farce. In the night he heard of the arrival of the troops and in the morning could see them. He did not attack and that night he withdrew, marching to Leesburg, where he recrossed the Potomac. Grant had intended, on Early's repulse, not only to bring back the 6th corps to Petersburg, but also to bring down the 19th. Had he now carried out those intentions, it is likely that Lee would have brought down Early. It was Lee's policy, however, to fight for time and delay matters by division, rather than to hasten them by concentration. So he left Early in the Valley, where his presence would be a constant menace and would neutralize more troops than his equivalent elsewhere.

On June 30, I became convinced that the enemy were preparing to mine our position at the Elliott Salient. At that point, incessant fire was kept up by their sharpshooters, while a few hundred yards to the right and left the fire had been gradually [564] allowed to diminish and men might show themselves without being fired at. That indicated that some operation was going on, and for several days I had expected to see zigzag approaches started on the surface of the ground. When several days had passed and nothing appeared, I became satisfied that their activity was underground. On my way home, I was that day wounded by a sharpshooter and received a furlough of six weeks to visit my home in Ga. On my way to the cars next day, I was driven by Lee's headquarters, where I reported my belief about the mine. There happened to be present Mr. Lawley, the English correspondent of the London times, who was much interested and asked how far it would be necessary to tunnel to get under our works. I answered about 500 feet. He stated that the longest military tunnel or gallery which had ever been run was at the siege of Delhi, and that it did not exceed 400 feet. That it was found impossible to ventilate for any greater distance. I replied that in the Federal army were many Pa. coal miners who could be relied on to ventilate mines any distance that might be necessary, and it would not do to rely upon military precedents. It proved that my suspicion was correct.

It was June 30 when I guessed it. The gallery had been commenced on June 27. It was undertaken, in opposition to the advice of all the military engineers at Federal headquarters, by Lt.-Col. Pleasants of the 48th Pa. regiment, a coal miner, who saw the opportunity which the situation offered. A gallery was successfully extended 511 feet, with two branch galleries at the end, to the right and left, each 37 feet long. These branch galleries were charged with gunpowder in eight parcels of 1000 pounds each, connected by open troughs of powder to be fired by safety fuses coming through the tamping and along the gallery.

His method of ventilation was very simple. When the tunnel had penetrated the hill far enough to need it, a close partition was built across it near the entrance with a close fitting door. Through the partition on the side of this door was passed the open end of a long square box, or closed trough, which was built along on the floor of the tunnel, conveying the fresh [565] outside air to the far end of the tunnel, where the men extending it were at work.

To create a draft through this air-box, a fireplace was excavated in the side of the tunnel, within the partition, and a chimney was pierced through the hill above it. A small fire in this chimney place, and the outside air would pass through the air-box to the far end of the tunnel, whence it would return and escape up the chimney, taking with it the foul air of the tunnel. This tunnel was finished July 17, the galleries on the 23d, and the mine was charged and tamped on the 28th.

Lee, on receipt of my message on July 1, ordered our engineers to start countermines at the Elliott Salient. Two shafts were sunk about 10 feet and listening galleries were run out from each. Unfortunately, the shafts were located on the right and left flanks of the battery, and the enemy's gallery passed at a depth of 20 feet under the apex, and was so silently built that our miners never knew of their proximity. Had they detected it, they would have hastened to explode what is called a camouflet, an undercharged or ‘smothered mine,’ which does not disturb the surface, but caves in adjacent galleries.

By July 10, our miners had done enough work, had it been done at the apex of the salient, to have heard the enemy, who would have been directly beneath them. Work was not only kept up, however, on the flanks, but at two other positions farther to the left, known as Colquitt's and Gracie's salients, countermines were also begun; at Colquitt's on the 10th and at Gracie's on the 19th. All four of our mines were constantly pushed until the 30th, when the explosion occurred, the total length of our galleries being then about 375 feet. Of the two galleries on each side of the mine, one, which was unoccupied, was destroyed by the explosion. In the other, the miners were at work, but, though much shaken up, the galleries were not crushed and the miners climbed out and escaped.

Meanwhile, in spite of predictions of failure, the mine had been constructed, and though we were known to suspect it, and our countermining operations could be heard, it was now determined to delay the explosion until preparations could be made to have it followed by a grand charge, supported by the [566] concentration of a great force, both of infantry and artillery. That it might be the more effective, Grant determined to combine strategy with main force, and first endeavor to draw a large part of our infantry to the north side of the James. At suitable points, he had already built signal-towers overlooking our lines, and some of our most important roads; and now the artillery officers were directed to prepare specially to concentrate fire upon every gun in our lines which could be used for the defence of Elliott's Salient. In obedience to these instructions, Humphreys reports, ‘heavy guns and mortars, 81 in all, and about the same number of field-guns,’ were prepared with abundant ammunition.

At Deep Bottom, Butler maintained two pontoon bridges across the James, with part of the 10th corps on the north side, under cover of his gunboats and ironclads. Of course, we had to maintain a moderate force in observation, which, under Gen. Connor, was located near Bailey's Creek. Grant could cross both the Appomattox and the James and go from his lines around Petersburg to Deep Bottom by a march of 12 miles, all of it entirely concealed from our view. Lee could only send troops to meet him by a march of 20 miles.

On the afternoon of July 26, Hancock with about 20,000 infantry and Sheridan with two divisions, about 6000 cavalry, were started to Deep Bottom. It was expected that this force, aided by the 10th corps, would surprise the Confederate brigade (Conner's), and would then make a dash toward Richmond. Sheridan was directed also to endeavor to cut the railroads north of Richmond. During the night, this force crossed the river, and, at dawn on the 27th, moved upon our lines and captured four 20-Pr. Parrotts in an advanced position.

It happened that Lee had noted activity of the enemy in that quarter. Wilcox's division was already at Drury's Bluff, and, on the 24th, it and Kershaw's division were sent to reenforce Conner. This force made such a show that Hancock, finding it there before him, did not deem it wise to assault their line. On their left, Kershaw even advanced against Sheridan's cavalry and forced it to retreat. It took a position behind a ridge, where it dismounted a considerable force armed with the Spencer [567] magazine carbines. Kershaw unwisely attempted a charge and was quickly repulsed, losing 250 prisoners and two colors.

On hearing of Hancock's crossing on the morning of the 27th, and that prisoners had been captured from the 2d, 10th, and 18th corps, Lee immediately sent over W. H. F. Lee's division of cavalry and Heth's infantry of Hill's corps. Later in the day, he arranged to have Field's division of infantry withdrawn from his trenches at dark, to follow during the night, and Fitz-Lee's cavalry the next morning. President Davis was also advised, and on the 29th the Local Defence troops in Richmond were called out to the defence of the Richmond lines. These troops were never called out except in the gravest emergencies, which indicates the importance Lee attached to the demonstration.

But it was only a demonstration designed to be abandoned, if it failed to make a surprise of our lines at Deep Bottom on the 27th. As this became fully apparent on the 28th, orders were issued from Deep Bottom to prepare the mine for explosion on the morning of the 30th. Orders were also given for the 2d corps with a division of the 18th corps and one of the 10th to return and take part in the assault. Sheridan's cavalry was also to return, and passing in rear of the army to take position on its left to threaten our extreme right and prevent our reenforcing the vicinity of the mine. The explosion might have been arranged for the afternoon of the 29th, but the morning of the 30th was chosen, as it permitted the placing of more heavy guns and mortars for the bombardment, which would follow the explosion, as well as preliminary arrangements, such as massing the troops, removing parapets and abattis to make passages for the assaulting columns, and the posting of pioneers to remove our abattis and open passages for artillery through our lines. Depots of intrenching tools, with sandbags, gabions, fascines, etc., were established, that lodgments might be more quickly made, though the pioneers of all regiments were already well supplied with tools. Engineer officers were designated to accompany all columns, and even pontoon trains were at hand to bridge the Appomattox in pursuit of fugitives. Finally, Meade personally impressed on every corps commander the importance of celerity of movement. Briefly, no possible precaution was [568] omitted to be carefully ordered, and the success of the Deep Bottom expedition, in drawing Lee's forces to that locality, had exceeded all expectations.

On the morning of the 30th, Lee had left to hold the 10 miles of lines about Petersburg but three divisions (Hoke's, Johnson's, and Mahone's), about 18,000 men, most of the rest of his army being 20 miles away. Hoke and Johnson held from the Appomattox on the left to a little beyond the mine. Mahone held all beyond, one brigade being four miles to the right. The 2d, 5th, 9th, and parts of the 10th and 18th, with two divisions of Sheridan's cavalry, 16 divisions in all, near 60,000 men, were concentrated to follow up the surprise to be given by the explosion under Johnson's division. That it should be the more complete, for two days no heavy guns or mortars had been fired, that the Confederates might believe that the Federals were preparing to retreat.

Everything now seemed to be working exactly as Grant would have it, and it is difficult to entirely explain how the attack came to fail so utterly. Several causes cooperated which will be presently referred to, but among them was the same cause which, on May 12, nullified the Federal surprise at the Bloody Angle at Spottsylvania. Too many troops had been brought together, and they were in each other's way. On a smaller scale, in the assault of Fort Sanders at Knoxville, three Confederate brigades got mingled in the assault, which at once lost its vigor, though it did not retreat until after receiving severe punishment. The brigadier in command, on this occasion, ascribed his failure to the presence of the two other brigades who should have been upon his flanks.

The assault was to be led by Ledlie's division of the 9th corps, a selection made by lot, and a very unfortunate one, as Ledlie and Ferrero, who commanded the colored division, which was to follow Ledlie, both took shelter in a bomb-proof, where they remained during the entire action. The mine was ordered to be fired at 3.30 A. M., but the fuses had been spliced and when first fired, failed at the splice. After an hour, an officer and sergeant entered the tunnel and relighted the fuse. The explosion occurred at 4.40. As the sun rose about 4.50, the delay had been [569] advantageous, as it gave daylight for the movements of the troops and for the artillery fire.

The explosion made a crater 150 feet long, 97 feet wide, and 30 feet deep, the contents being hurled so high in the air that the foremost ranks of the assaulting columns, 150 yards away, shrank back in disorder in fear of the falling earth. The bulk of the earth, however, fell immediately around the crater, mingled with the debris of 2 guns, 22 cannoneers, and perhaps 250 infantry (nine companies of the 19th and 22d S. C., which had been carried up in the air). Quite a number of these who fell safely were dug out and rescued alive by the assaulting column. Some, not yet aroused, were lost, covered up in the bomb-proofs of the adjacent trenches by the falling earth. This formed a high embankment, as it were, all around the crater, with one enormous clod, the size of a small cabin, perched about the middle of the inside rim, which remained a landmark for weeks. A high interior line, called a trench cavalier, had been built across the gorge of the salient enclosing a triangular space, and the left centre of this space about coincided with the centre of the explosion. The parapets were partially destroyed and largely buried by the falling earth.

Into this crater the leading division literally swarmed, until it was packed about as full as it could hold, and what could not get in there, crowded into the adjacent trenches, which the falling earth had caused to be vacated for a short distance on each flank. But, considering the surprise, the novelty of the occasion and the terrific cannonade by 150 guns and mortars which was opened immediately, the coolness and self-possession of the entire brigade was remarkable, and to it is to be attributed the success of the defence. This was conducted principally by Col. McMaster of the 17th S. C., Gen. Elliott having been soon severely wounded. The effect of the artillery cannonade was more a moral effect than a physical one, for the smoke so obscured the view that the fire was largely at random, at least for one or two hours, during which it was in fullest force. The effort was at once made to collect a small force in the trenches upon each flank, and one in an intrenchment occupying a slight depression which ran parallel to our line of battle some 250 yards in rear [570] of it, the effort being to confine the enemy to the crater and the lines immediately adjoining. The multiplicity of the deep and narrow trenches, and the bomb-proofs in the rear of our lines, doubtless contributed to our success in doing this on the flanks, but there was also decided lack of vigor and enterprise on the part of the enemy, which permitted us to form barricades, which were successfully defended to the last.

Meanwhile the reenforcements to the storming column, instead of spreading to the flanks, massed outside of our lines in rear of the storming column, which had made no further advance, but had filled the crater and all the captured lines. Several efforts were made to advance from time to time, but the first were feeble, and could be checked by the remnants of the brigade under McMaster, until two regiments of Wise's brigade and two of Ransom's were brought up from the left. With their aid, the situation was made safe and held until about 10 A. M., when Mahone arrived at the head of three brigades of his corps, drawn from the lines on our right. A regiment of Hoke's from the left also came up later.

In the meantime, a few of our guns had found themselves able to fire with great effect upon the enemy massed in front of our lines. The left gun in the next salient to the right, occupied by Davidson's battery, was in an embrasure which flanked the Pegram Salient, but was not open to any gun on the enemy's line. This gun did fearful execution, being scarcely 400 yards distant. It was fired by Maj. Gibbes commanding the battalion, for perhaps 40 rounds, until he was badly wounded, after which it was served by Col. Huger and Haskell, Winthrop, and Mason of my staff, and later by some of Wise's infantry. A hot fire was turned upon it, but it was well protected and could never be kept silent when the enemy showed himself.

Five hundred yards to the left was a four-gun battery under Capt. Wright of Coit's battalion, in a depression behind our line, and masked from the enemy by some trees. But it had a flanking fire on the left of Pegram's Salient and across all the approaches and a number of infantry of Wise's brigade could also add their fire. Wright's fire was rapid, incessant, and accurate, causing great loss. The Federal artillery made vain [571] efforts to locate him with their mortar shells which tore up the ground all around, but could never hit him or silence him.

Besides these, a half-dozen or more of Coehorn mortars, under Col. Haskell, from two or three different ravines in the rear, threw shell aimed at the crater. And, finally, 600 yards directly in rear of the mine was the sunken Jerusalem Plank road, in which I had placed Haskell's battalion of 16 guns about the 20th of June, and he had been kept there ever since, without showing a gun or throwing up any earth which would disclose his position. He had suffered some loss from random bullets coming over the parapets at the salient 500 yards in front, but it was borne rather than disclose the location.

This morning, on one occasion, a charge was attempted by the colored division, part of which was brought out of the crater and started toward the Plank road. Then Haskell's guns showed themselves and opened fire. The charge was quickly driven back with severe loss among its white officers. A single private, with his musket at a support arms, made the charge, running all the way to the guns and jumping into the sunken road between them, where he was felled with a rammer staff. Meanwhile, our guns across the Appomattox on the Federal right, and from our left near the river, had kept up a reply to the Federal cannonade to prevent their concentration opposite the mine. Lee and Beauregard had early come to the field, which they surveyed from the windows of the Gee house, where Johnson made headquarters, on the Jerusalem Plank road, near Haskell's guns. Hill had gone to bring up his troops.

On the arrival of Mahone, he at once prepared to attack, and had formed Weiseger's brigade, when a renewed attempt to advance was made from the enemy's lines on our left of the crater. He at once met this by a counter-charge of Weiseger's with a portion of Elliott's which drove the enemy back and which caused the retreat from the rear of their lines of many who had been sheltered within them. These suffered severely by our fire from the flanks as they crossed the open spaces behind, under fire from the guns upon both flanks and infantry as well.

This retreat under such severe fire was seen in the Federal lines, just in time to put a stop to an attack upon our right [572] flank, about to be made by Ayres's division of Warren's corps, which had been ordered to capture the ‘one-gun battery’ on our right, as they called the one at which Gibbes had been wounded.1

There was very little infantry supporting this gun, or able to reach it, without exposure. Ayres's attack would probably have been successful. He was about to go forward, when Meade directed all offensive operations to cease. Wright's brigade arriving about half-past 11, Mahone made a second attack, which was repulsed with the aid of the Federal artillery bearing upon the ground.

Between 1 and 2 P. M., Sanders's brigade having arrived, and also the 61st N. C. from Hoke, a combined movement upon both flanks of the crater was organized. Mahone attacked on the left, with Sanders's brigade, the 61st N. C. and the 17th S. C.; Johnson attacked on the right with the 23d S. C. and the remaining five companies of the 22d, all that could be promptly collected on that flank.

This attack was easily successful. Mahone has stated that the number of prisoners taken in the crater was 1101, including two brigade commanders, Bartlett and Marshall.

The tabular statement of the Medical Department gives the Federal casualties of the day as: killed, 419; wounded, 1679; missing, 1910; total, 4008. Elliott's brigade reported the loss by the explosion as:—

In 18th S. C. 4 companies86About 300 were blown up, but a small percentage escaped alive.
In 22d S. C. 5 companies170
In Pegram's battery out of 30 Present 22278

Including these, Johnson reports the casualties in his division (Elliott, Wise, Ransom, Gracie), as follows:—

Killed, 165; wounded, 415; missing, 359; Total, 938.


There are no returns for Mahone's and Hoke's divisions. Hoke's division was composed of Corse's, Clingman's, Fulton's, Hagood's, and Colquitt's brigades, and Mahone's had only three brigades on the field,—Weiseger's, Wright's, and Sanders's. Of these eight brigades, only Weiseger's had serious losses, but there are no reports except for Colquitt's, who, like the rest of Hoke's division, held a portion of the line not attacked. His casualties were 4 killed and 27 wounded. The total Confederate loss is given in the Tabular Statement of the Medical Department as: 400 killed, 600 wounded, and 200 missing, which is perhaps between 200 and 300 too small.

The Military Court censured Gens. Burnside, Ledlie, Ferrero, Willcox, and Col. Bliss, commanding a brigade. They also expressed their opinion: —

‘That explicit orders should have been given assigning one officer to the command of all the troops intended to engage in the assault when the Commanding General was not present in person to witness the operations.’

There is nothing in the Reports to explain this. Grant sent a despatch to Halleck at 10 A. M., saying that he ‘was just from the front,’ and about that time Humphreys reports that Meade, with Grant's concurrence, ordered the cessation of all offensive movements.

1 Humphreys calls this a two-gun battery. There were two embrasures and two guns, but only one used. The other did not bear where desired.

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