‘Fighting With the Fury of Madmen’: Tar Heels Describe the Battle of the Crater
by Dave Hunter
With the impending release of the “Cold Mountain” movie, there will no doubt be some interest in the role of North Carolina troops in defense of the Crater at Petersburg, 30 July 1864. Most discussions of the battle focus on the actions of Mahone’s Division, but the Tar Heels of Matt Ransom’s brigade and another N.C. regiment played a critical role in the defense of the breach and the repulse of the repeated Federal assaults.1
It should be noted that no North Carolina regiments were within the salient, the target of the Federal mine, so they were not caught in the explosion. Elliott’s South Carolina brigade and Pegram’s battery have that sad distinction. However, Martin’s Brigade had moved from the salient two days prior to the Federal attack. The brigade was scheduled to return on 30 July, but those orders were changed.2
After the detonation of the mine, the 25th NCT moved to occupy a second line behind the crater to block the attack.3 The 25th NCT, along with the 26th SC and part of the 17th SC, moved to a ravine to the rear of the destroyed works, with the Tar Heels on the left of this line. Mahone’s troops arrived in the ravine later to form for an attack, but were first called on to repulse a Federal assault. Mahone’s Brigade was joined by the 25th, 49th and 61st NCT in this action.
“General Mahone had placed one brigade in position, and was waiting for his second to come up when the enemy advanced upon his line of battle. He met their advance by a charge, in which the Twenty-fifth and Forty-ninth North Carolina [and the S.C. regiments] … gallantly joined, moving upon the left of General Mahone’s line. The enemy was driven from three quarters of the trench cavalier and most of the works on the left of the crater.”4
The 24th and 49th regiments of N.C. troops from Ransom’s brigade fought on the northern “shoulder” of the breach and, along with the remnants of the Elliott’s brigade, prevented the Federals from expanding their penetration of the Confederate works. “The new line to the left and rear was of the salient was scarcely finished when the enemy attempted … to charge our left along our breast-works and in rear and front. The Twenty-fourth and Forty-ninth North Carolina Regiments, Ransom’s brigade, had promptly closed in on the part of the Seventeenth South Carolina Regiment remaining in the trenches … and now met and repulsed the charge in front. … Two companies of the Forty-ninth North Carolina Regiment, posted in the covered way near the main line, poured a heavy volley on the flank of the enemy in rear … and our men of the Seventeenth South Carolina and Forty-ninth North Carolina Regiments, under the cover of angles, boyeux, &c., drove back the charge along the trenches.”5
The other regiments of the brigade, the 35th and 56th NCT, defended from their positions in the trenches on the north flank of the breach. The 61st NCT of Clingman’s Brigade, Hoke’s Division, was sent to reinforce the defensive line behind the Crater. This regiment joined with troops of Mahone’s division in the counterattacks to restore the Confederate line: “[A] third charge was made a little before 2 p.m. which gave us entire possession of the crater and the adjacent lines. This charge was made on the left and rear of the crater by Sanders’ brigade, of Mahone’s divisions, by the Sixty-first North Carolina, of Hoke’s division and Seventeenth South Carolina Regiments of this division. The last two regiments … advanced on the right of Sanders’ brigade.”6
The Tar Heels who fought in the battle have left us a clear picture of the intensity of the close-quarters fighting, an intensity fueled in part by the participation of black Federal troops in the attack. These troops, shouting for “no quarter” to be given to the Confederate defenders, spurred the Confederates to a desperate defense of the position and sealed the fate of the U.S. Colored Troops when the attack failed.
Here are two accounts from the postwar regimental histories:
Lieutenant Thomas F. Roulhac, Company D, 49th NCT:
Most fortunately for our army, we had completed but a day or two before a cavalier line in the rear of the salient, where the explosion occurred; the two lines, salient and cavalier, forming a diamond shaped fortification. Into this cavalier line, from the left of the salient, rushed by the right flank the Twenty-fifth and Forty-ninth Regiments of Ransom, and from the other side, the remnant of the Twenty Sixth South Carolina, which had been blown up, and part of another regiment of Elliott’s Brigade, These rapidly formed for a charge to retake our works, but the enemy massed his troops so rapidly into the broken salient that it was deemed useless to make the attempt, and best to hold on to the cavalier line. Now began some of the most desperate fighting of the war … our troops were clinging to the works with the tenacity of despair, and fighting with the fury of madmen. … From early morning till nearly 3 o’clock in the afternoon of that fateful July day, the Twenty-fifth and Forty-ninth North Carolina and the Twenty Sixth South Carolina held the line against tremendous odds and until the force of the assault of was spent and broken, when Mahone’s Virginia, Wright’s Georgia, and Sander’s Alabama Brigades charged with the Twenty-fifth North Carolina and retook the entire salient, inflicting frightful slaughter upon the enemy.7
Lieutenant Garland S. Ferguson, Company F, 25th NCT:
Immediately after the explosion the Twenty-fifth regiment, then numbering about two hundred and fifty men moved from the trenches and formed a new line in the rear of the trenches occupied by the South Carolinians, which had been taken at the time of explosion and which were then occupied by the enemy. The regiment, with a remnant of the Sixth South Carolina, was the only force between the enemy and the city, was the only force between the enemy and the city at that point. … The regiment led Mahone’s men in the charge which retook the works. In retaking the works, the fight was hand to hand, with guns, bayonets, and swords, in fact anything a man could fight with. One sixteen year old boy had his gun knocked out of his hands and picked up a cartridge box and fought with that. Major Grady, who commanded the regiment, was mortally wounded and Captain Jas. M. Cathey, of Company F, killed.8
Several members of the 49th NCT have left accounts of the battle and its aftermath. Captain Henry Chambers, commanding Company C, described the battle in his diary. Private William Day of wrote of the battle in his history of Company I. Both of these give us a good idea of the regiment’s role in the defense of the Crater and the intensity of the fighting.
First, here is Captain Chambers’ view of the battle:
Friday, July the 29th 1864.
Moved to the right last night about the length of two regiments. Nothing of consequence today.
Saturday, July the 30th 1864.
This morning at about four o’clock the enemy sprung a mine under Capt. Pegram’s battery on a hill about four hundred yards to the right of our Regiment. The 25th N.C. Reg’t of our brigade was on the right of our (Ransom’s) brigade. Our regiment was next. Elliott’s brigade was on the right of ours and supporting the battery that was blown up. Many men belonging to the battery and to Elliott’s S.C. Brigade were blown up. In the smoke and confusion which ensued from the explosion the enemy charged in heavy column and effected a lodgment in the blown up portion of our works. When the dust and smoke cleared away several of the enemy’s flags were floating on our line. They re-enforced rapidly and overwhelmed our men in the trenches on either side of the chasm. The enemy’s assaulting column was compiled principally of negroe troops. These came over the works with the cry, “No quarter to the rebels.” Then ensued the most desperate fighting I have ever witnessed and equal to any I ever heard of. Our regiment had been moved to the right, the 25th N.C. and part of Elliott’s Brigade had been thrown to the right and rear, to charge, and if possible, retake our works. The rapidity with which the enemy massed his troops made this madness. Before our troops could form and get ready for a charge, the enemy displayed twelve colors on the lost works. Two small regiments could not dislodge such a force. Our regiment, as I said before, had been moved to the right to take the place of the 25th N.C. and 26th S.C. This brought us near the scene of conflict and enabled us to engage very effectively in the battle. No troops but the few disorganized South Carolinians who had been confused by the explosion and who, though fighting heroically, were by vastly superior numbers pressed back upon us — remained between us and the enemy. We witnessed the charge of the negroes — we saw the desperate hand to hand fight — saw the bayonets lock — the thrusts given — the rifles clubbed. Maddened by the sight our men were nerved to fight to desperation. Our destructive fire checked the advance of the enemy and finally compelled him to seek cover in our deserted trenches and bomb proofs and to lie on the outside of our works. This gave the brave South Carolinians a chance to reform behind us. A close fire was now kept up during which our brave Lieutenant Colonel John A. Flemming was killed and several men killed and wounded. Things, however, remained unchanged until the arrival of Mahone’s Brigade which, together with Wright’s Georgia and Sanders’ Alabama brigades, the 26th S.C. and 25th N.C. regiments charged and retook the works with tremendous slaughter of the enemy. The enemy fled in one great confused and surging mass down the hill to their own works. Then it was that our regiment and the 24th N.C. did most effective work as also did Wright’s Va. Battery. A large number of the discomfited enemy sought shelter in the great chasm which their mine had made. Our men brought up a mortar and threw in a few shots when the enemy, about four hundred in number, surrendered. Among these prisoners were Brig. Gen. Bartlett and staff.
I did not this evening visit the scene of the carnage but those who did, describe the sight as perfectly awful. The dead and wounded Yankees and negroes were literally crammed in our trenches and bomb proofs and the field in front of our works where the enemy had charged and over which they had retreated was thickly strewn with the dead of the enemy. Well had our brave boys taken revenge for the unmerciful conduct of the enemy in the morning. Little quarter had in turn been shown those who when flushed with temporary success had cried, “No quarter to the rebels.”
But to return to our own regiment. After the charge was over, we were ordered to return to our old position, and while moving by the left flank along the trenches for that purpose, my friend and college mate Capt. Edwin V. Harris was shot through the neck. The great artery was severed and in a short time he died. Poor fellow, as soon as he was shot he seemed to realize his situation. The blood, his life blood, spouted from his neck in a stream as large as one’s finger and gushed from his mouth. He could not speak but going up to Maj. Davis who was near he grasped his arm to support himself and extended his right hand to tell him farewell and at the same time he gave the Major a look in which all the emotions of his soul seemed concentrated. Maj. Davis says that to his dying day he shall never forget that look. Capt. Harris then took leave of Lieut. Crawford in the same affecting manner. By this time, the loss of blood caused him to faint and he breathed his last as he was being carried to the rear. Thus ended this memorable day.
Sunday, July the 31st 1864.
This morning I visited the scene of yesterday’s sanguinary fight. The captured negroes had been busy yesterday, last night and this morning in carrying off the wounded of the enemy and yet many still lay in the trenches. A great pile of their dead was heaped up in the bottom of the mine where we were going to bury them. Many of our poor fellows had been dug out and many arms and legs and hands could yet be seen protruding from different parts of the upheaved works. It was such a sight that I never again desire to see. It was solemnizing in the extreme. Nothing of particular interest occurred today except the passing of a flag of truce.9
Private William Day recalled the events of the battle:
On the 30th was the battle of the Crater, which if the enemy had gained, would have cut Lee’s army in two and put them in possession of Petersburg. It was the intention of the enemy to blow up Pegram’s battery on the crest of the hill, charge through the breech and take possession of a long high ridge, known as Cemetery Ridge, half a mile in rear of our works. On reaching this ridge the whole country around would be at the mercy of their guns. And by moving their army rapidly on both wings they would soon have Lee’s army surrounded or put to flight. For some time they had been digging under our works and our men had sunk a shaft in the works and tunneled out from it each way, but did not go deep enough. The battery stood in the open field on top of the hill about two hundred yards to the left was a ravine with a small stream running through it which headed at a spring about a hundred and fifty yards above. Immediately in front was a piece of woodland full of rifle pits, and reached nearly up to the battery and in the rear were open fields. On the right the works sloped off gradually down the hill. A traverse or covered way ran back from the battery at right angles with the works. The enemies’ works were a hundred yards distant at that point. The place was known as Elliott’s Salient.
The enemy started their tunnel at the foot of the hill behind their works and drove it up to the battery, then cut each way some distance, curving in the shape of a rainbow. There were eight magazines cut on the cross section at equal distances from the main shaft. These magazines were charged with eight thousand pounds of powder, one thousand to each magazine, with all of them connected by a fuse. The tunnel was made by a Regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners and were men who understood the business perfectly. On the morning of July 30th, 1864, about daylight, the mine was fired and it raised the ground and sent the men whirling in the air and lumps of earth as large as a barrel were thrown a hundred yards. One of the guns, a brass twelve pounder was thrown to within thirty feet of the enemy’s breastworks. Where the battery stood was a hole one hundred feet long, sixty feet wide and twenty feet deep, with the smoke rising in clouds out of it. Our men gave way for a considerable distance on each side of the Crater. The dirt had scarcely stopped falling before they were in our works. Simultaneous with the explosion the enemy opened two hundred pieces of artillery on our lines. Our position at the time of the explosion was on the front line, to the left of the ravine. We were moved down in a double quick across the ravine and up the works to the Crater.
When the head of the 49th Regiment arrived near the Crater it filed to the right along a covered way until the colors were about the angle. The position of Company I was on the left of the angle. The company occupied our works for some distance on each side of the Crater. When we reached our position we counted twelve United States flags in works, and the whole field in front of the Crater was full of Yankees. They had no lines, they moved in solid bodies. They appeared to be mixed, whites and blacks together all moving towards the Crater shouting: “No quarter!” “No Quarter to the Rebels!” Oh, but they looked black and ugly. It was said they were drunk, but I don’t know whether they were or not. We plainly saw the position we were in, to be captured by negro troops meant death. It meant the capture of Petersburg, and the slaughter of helpless women and children. We knew the negroes would spare neither sex. There were no cowards in the ranks that day, we stood our ground and fought them with the heroism of men, reduced to desperation, we shot and shot to kill. We had the whole field full of negroes to shoot into, at about seventy-five yards distance. Good brest-works, and plenty of ammunition, we made every shot tell. Captain Wright’s battery on the hill, left of the river, which until then had been masked, had full sweep at them at point blank range and opened great lanes through them. At last they broke back to the works, some of them ran on and jumped in the Crater. This gave them a little time to rest.
Immediately in front of Company I was a neck of woods, we being a little to the left of the field. In a short time they charged again -white troops this time, square in our front. About that time a fresh lot of ammunition was sent in. Captain Connor tore the wrappers off and ran along the Company scattering the cartridges on the banquet ground so we would have nothing to do but pick them up. They charged up to within twenty yards of our works but we poured it to them so heavy they could not go any further. They tumbled into the rifle pits and hid themselves from view and this gave us another rest. About two hundred yards in rear of the Crater was a small ravine in which our men planted some mortars and opened them on the Crater which was packed full of Federals both white and black. The shells fell right in on them and they couldn’t stand that long. They would jump out in squads and try to get back to their lines but we kept our eyes on them and very few of them ever reached their works. They held their position until two o’clock in the evening when Mahone’s brigade arrived and with the 25th North Carolina Regiment and a regiment of South Carolina troops charged in on them and drove them out. The assaulting columns formed their lines back in the ravine three columns deep, and moved slowly up the hill until they were in full view, then the charge began. How grand they looked and they moved across the field three columns deep waving their colors, with the cheers of their comrades who were holding the lines on each side of the Crater ringing in their ears. They rushed up to the works which were working alive with Yankees both white and black. They halted on the brink and fired one volley into the surging mass, then turned the butts of their guns and jumped in among them. How the negroe’s skulls cracked under the blows. Some of them ran over on our side and started for the rear, while others made a dash for their own lines, and a great many of them made their escape. I, boy like, ran up the line to see them. When I got there they had the ground covered with broken headed negroes, and were searching about among the bomb proofs for more, the officers were trying to stop them but they kept on until they finished up.
The tables were turned and they had gotten the dose they prescribed for us, “No Quarter!” This charge ended the battle. Our lines were re-established and every thing quieted down except the sharpshooters and mortaring. The enemy lost 5,000 men and we lost 1200. The ground in front was covered with the dead and in some places they were piled up on each other. It was a very warm day, and the wounded suffered terribly for the want of water. The wounded negroes pulled off their clothes and lay about in the hot sun with the blow flies swarming over them, and the maggots working in their wounds. All who were able crawled down to the branch and filled up on water which killed in a few minutes. Some of them died before they could crawl out. The field in the rear of the Crater was almost as bad as the battle-field. Lieutenant Colonel Fleming of the 49th Regiment was shot through the head and died immediately. Lieutenant J. H. Sherrill, acting Adjutant tried to keep him from exposing himself so needlessly, but his warnings were unheeded. Alison Fox and John Wilfong of company I were wounded, the former so badly that he was never fit for service again. Among the prisoners captured was General Bartlette. He had lost a leg at Yorktown and had his cork leg broken at the Crater. He was carried on a litter by own men and they stopped at the spring and filled their canteens. The General said his leg was broken but did not hurt him much. The Prisoners were walking about without any guard. A Rhode Island man came along where a squad of us were standing, stopped and talked awhile and said he knew their Generals made a mistake when they sent negro troops in to fight us. He said he was a prisoner, asked the way to Petersburg, and walked on in the direction of the city.
The next day the dead were buried. The white flag was planted midway between the works. The dead were buried in two pits about fifty feet long. The enemy wanted to mound the earth over the pits but our men refused, fearing they would use the mounds for breast-works. It took them nearly all day to bury their dead. The breast-works on both sides were covered with men looking on; among them several Generals. A sixty days furlough was offered to any man, who would slip out to the gun which had been thrown out near the enemies’ lines and tie a long rope to it so it could be hauled in, but the risk was so great, no one would undertake it.10
In his after-action report, Major General Bushrod Johnson gave this comment as a lesson learned: “The troops of this division I would invite a lesson yet more profitable, in view of what may lie before them. They have learned in practice that which has been taught them by theory and historical example — that the coolness and steadiness of a few resolute and determined officers and men will prove the salvation of a command, whether in an unavoidable surprise or against the disordered lines of a charging column.”11 As seen from these accounts, the Tar Heels were clearly part of the “resolute and determined” Confederates that fought at the Crater. As always, they did their full duty … too bad “Inman” did not.
1Refer to the usual histories for the principal details of the battle. The Federals in the attack were mainly from Burnside’s IX Corps.
2The 42nd NCT had occupied the center of the line in the salient. See T.J. Brown, “Forty-second Regiment,” in Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-65, ed. Walter Clark, (Goldsboro, N.C.: Nash Brothers, 1901) Volume II, p. 801. Cited hereafter as NC Regts.
3This second line is behind the rear line of the salient, called the “cavalier line” or “trench cavalier” in some accounts. This was a line of fortifications that was a little higher than the salient and could cover the salient and the area to the front of it.
4See General Bushrod Johnson’s after-action report for the battle in U. S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1900), Series 1, Volume LX, Part 1 p.791. Hereafter cited as OR.
5OR, Series 1, Volume LX, Part 1, 790.
6OR, Series 1, Volume LX, Part 1, 791-92.
7NC Regts., Volume III, 141-43.
8NC Regts., Volume II, 298-99.
9T.H. Pearce, ed., The Diary of Captain Henry A. Chambers (Wendell, N.C.: Broadfoot’s Bookmark, 1983), 209-11.
10 William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops in the Great Civil War Between the North and South (Newton, N.C.: Enterprise Job Office), 1893. Reprinted 1997, Butternut and Blue, Baltimore Md., pp. 80-85. The “banquet ground” Day refers to is the banquette, the firing step behind the breastworks.
11 OR, Series 1, Vol.LX, Part 1, 792-93.
Facts and figures about the Crater
Since you will probably view, or will be compelled to view, the “Cold Mountain” movie, here are some useful facts you can use to impress — or bore — your significant other, curious co-workers, other movie-goers, etc.
• Size of the Crater: 135 feet long, 97 feet wide, 30 feet deep (as estimated in Major General Bushrod Johnson in his after-action report).
• Amount of black powder detonated in the mine: 8,000 lbs., black powder. (Lieutenant Colonel Pleasants had requested 12,000 lbs.).
• Number of Confederate casualties from the blast: 278 known killed and wounded, 76 missing (most of those probably captured by the Federals).
• Federal casualties during the battle: 3,298 (504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing).
• Confederate casualties during the battle: 1,491 (361 killed, 727 wounded, 403 missing).
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