Alabamians in the Crater Battle
The following article is from the Confederate Veteran, Vol. III, No. 3, Nashville, Tenn., March, 1895.
By George Clark, Waco, Texas
I have read with much interest and pleasure the article in your January number by Col. Geo. T. Rogers, entitled “The Crater Battle, 30th July, 1864,” and as I was a participant in said battle, I deem it due to history that some inaccuracies which have crept unintentionally into Col. Rogers’ account should be corrected. I do this with the feeling of an old comrade for the Colonel, whom I knew and highly respected in those historic days. Doubtless the long time which has intervened since the occurrences he relates, added to the fact that a regimental line officer could not know particulars relating to the movements of other commands than his own, must account for the injustice he does “Wilcox’s old Brigade,” from Alabama, then commanded by the brave young Saunders.
I was a Captain in the Eleventh Alabama Regiment, and at the date of this battle was serving temporarily on the staff of Brig. Gen. Saunders, as assistant adjutant general. I was also flag of truce officer after the battle, and with Col. Jas. F. Doran, Twenty-fourth New York Cavalry (dismounted), who was the Federal truce officer, had charge of the burial of the dead on the morning of August 1st, 1864. My opportunities for knowing the movements of the brigade were therefore excellent, and the nature of the work before us on that day so strongly impressed itself upon me that I retain until this day a most vivid recollection of all incidents which came under my observation.
The regular position of the brigade at that time was a short distance west of the right angle in our defensive works, near the plank road. On the morning of the explosion, about three o’clock, the Brigadier-General was aroused by an order from Division Headquarters to get his men up and man the works. This was immediately done. As our regular battalion of sharpshooters (under command of Major James M. Crow, of Florence, Ala.) had been relieved from skirmish duty on the night before, Gen. Saunders became anxious as to his skirmish line, and directed me to see that Maj. Crow went to the front with his battalion relieving our pickets. This was done. The General and staff were sitting on the gallery of a little house which constituted our headquarters when the explosion occurred. Immediately a tremendous bombardment opened from the enemy along the whole front. We galloped to the works, and took position in the rear of the center of the brigade, near a company of Washington Artillery. The bombardment was kept up an hour or two, perhaps longer, when Gen. Lee came to where we were and held a short talk with our brigade commander. About an hour, or perhaps two hours, after this, and after the bombardment had slackened, we were ordered to quietly leave the works, retire to a ravine in the rear, and form. This was done, and nothing but the artillery was left in the line we abandoned. From Col. Rogers’ description of the route pursued by his brigade to the scene of the explosion, we must have traveled the same route. On our way there, the general and staff having abandoned their horses, we met Col. Weisiger, of the Twelfth Virginia, wounded in the side, and supported by a soldier. The Colonel who was then in command of Mahone’s Brigade, told us of the charge of the Virginians, which had already occurred. When we reached the scene, we were met by Gen. Mahone, accompanied by Gen. Bushrod Johnson, and Gen. Mahone gave directions as to how he wished the brigade formed. It was then about eleven a. m. The rife pits to the left of the crater (enemy’s right) were then held by the Virginia brigade, their right resting at the crater. I was sent by Gen. Saunders to look over the ground, and went forward to the rim of the crater. I there met and talked with Lieut. Col. W. H. Stewart, and other acquaintances in the Virginia brigade, including Col. Rogers, if my memory is correct, both of whom I knew well, having served with them upon General Court Martial the preceding winter. I found that while the Virginians had done their part of the job thoroughly, and were holding their positions heroically, Wright’s Georgia brigade had failed to carry the trenches on the right of the crater (enemy’s left), and the crater itself was still in possession of the enemy, filled not only with Negro troops, but also with a much larger per cent of white troops, as was demonstrated after the capture. I returned and reported the situation to Gen. Saunders. At this time our brigade was resting on their arms just east of a little branch or marsh under the hill. I was instructed by Gen. Saunders to pass along the line, count the men, and inform them, as well as company commanders, that our attack would begin at two o’clock, upon the firing of two signal guns from the batteries in our rear—that every man must be ready to rise and go forward at the signal, slowly at first, and then at a double quick as soon as we rose the hill—that our object was to recapture the rifle pits on our right as well as the crater, and for this purpose the brigade would be compelled to right oblique after starting so as to cover the points of attack—no man was to fire a shot until we reached the works, and arms must be carried at a right shoulder shift. I was also instructed by Gen. Saunders to inform the men that Gen. Lee had notified him that there were no other troops at hand to recapture the works, and if this brigade did not succeed in the first attempt, they would be formed again and renew the assault, and that if it was necessary, he (Gen. Lee) would lead them. As a matter of fact, a large portion of the army was on that day east of the James river. These directions of Gen. Saunders were communicated at once to every officer and man, and by actual count made by me the brigade had in line 632 muskets.
At the boom of the signal guns the Alabama brigade rose at a “right-shoulder shift,” and moved forward in perfect alignment—slowly at first, until we came in sight of the enemy and received his first fire, and then with a dash to the works. For a moment or two the enemy overshot us and did no damage, but as we reached the works many were struck down and the gaps were apparent, but the alignment remained perfect. It was as handsome a charge as was ever made on any field, and could not have been excelled by the “Guard” at Waterloo, under Ney.
On reaching the works the real fight began. Our men poured over into the crater and the ring of steel and bayonet in hand-to-hand fight began. Men were brained by butts of guns, and run through with bayonets. The brave Saunders (who sleeps in Hollywood) had a regular duel with a big Negro soldier, and both proved bad marksmen. Adjutant Fonville, of the Fourteenth Alabama (the bravest soldier ever under fire), was killed by a Negro soldier. So was Lieut. John W. Cole, of the Eleventh Alabama, and many other brave officers and men. This melee kept up for at least fifteen minutes, the enemy fighting with desperation because they were impressed with the idea that no quarter would be given. The credit of capturing the crater and all its contents belongs to Morgan Smith Cleveland, then Adjutant of the Eighth Alabama Regiment, who now fills a Patriot’s grave at Selma, Alabama. I am told that his grave is unmarked, if not unknown, and that he was buried by charity; and I hang my head in humiliation if this information is true. Morgan Cleveland was as humane and tender as he was brave. Standing in the crater, in the midst of the horrid carnage, with almost bursting heart he said to a Federal colonel who was near him, “Why in the hell don’t you fellows surrender?” and he put the accent on the cuss word. The Yankee replied quickly, “Why in the hell don’t you let us?” A wink being as good as a nod, either to a blind horse or a brave soldier, the effect was instantaneous. The enemy threw down their arms, marched out as prisoners, some being killed or wounded by their own cannon as they filed past where I stood, and the day was saved as a glorious heritage for the Southern soldier and those who come after him. I remember helping Gen. Bartlett, of Boston (I think Bartlett was his name), who was trying to get out on two muskets inverted and used as crutches. I could see no evidence of physical pain in his face, and remarked to him that he must have nerves of steel, as his leg was shot away. He smiled and replied that he had lost his real leg at Williamsburg two years before, and the leg he had just had shattered was a cork leg.
This is a brief account of the Alabama Brigade on that day—too brief and imperfect to do even partial justice to my old comrades, most of whom have already “passed over the river.” It was a gallant band, and many of them sleep their last sleep in the soil of old Virginia, having given their lives in defense of its firesides. I am sure the gallant Col. Rogers, himself a brave Virginian, would not intentionally do them the slightest injustice if he knew it. And yet his article, without so intending perhaps, minimizes its services in these particulars:
1. Mahone’s Brigade did not take charge of the line between the Appomattox and the James a little after the battle of the crater, but the whole of Mahone’s division, including Forney’s Alabama Brigade (Wilcox’s old Brigade), Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Finnigan’s Florida Brigade, Sorrell’s (Wright’s) Georgia Brigade, and Mahone’s Virginia Brigade, took charge of that line in February, 1865; the Alabama Brigade occupying the extreme left of the line, its left resting at the Howlett Batteries on James river. We withdrew from this position on the night Richmond was evacuated.
2. The Alabama Brigade came up at the “Mine” and did the work of capturing the crater, which was the purpose of the movement, but it was not a “walk-over,” as the Colonel terms it. It was one of the hardest fought fields of the war, and brilliant success was wrenched by valor from serious danger.
Doubtless our friends, the Virginians and the Georgians peppered away at the enemy during the charge, but their fire did not “keep down all heads,” as our lists of killed and wounded attest, nor did they go down into the crater like the Alabamians did. With a handful of men more than treble its numbers were captured, the lines re-established, and what promised at early dawn the closing victory of the war for the enemy, was turned into disastrous defeat by a few ragged Alabamians. I once asked a prominent officer on Gen. Grant’s staff, what the General thought ought to have been done with Burnside for this failure at the Mine. He replied without hesitating, “He ought to have been shot.”