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1864 August 13: More Details on the Explosion and Casualties at the Battle of the Crater Near Petersburg

August 18, 2014

The following report appeared in the August 13, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.

Attack on Petersburg.

The Times’ special, dated “before Petersburg, July 30th,” says :

As soon after day-break as was practicable for the troops to move in co-operation, an immense mine, reaching far away under the enemy’s line of earthworks in front of Burnside’s corps [Ambrose E. Burnside], was fired.  The explosion was the signal for the discharge of every piece of artillery we have in position from the Appomattox to our extreme left.  The effect was magnificent.  Ninety-five pieces of artillery were fired so simultaneously that it seemed as if they might have been discharged by a pull of one layard [sic: lanyard].  The firing thus opened was kept up in the same manner with scarcely a perceptible lull for at least an hour and a half, when it slackened to some extent.—The result of the explosion of the mine was almost to annihilate one regiment and bury three guns.

Under cover of the artillery, and pushing our advantage gained by the suddenness of the assault, the 9th Corps advanced, taking possession of the works through the gap made by the explosion and driving the enemy to the second line, which crowns the hill tops eastward of the town.  Nineteen of the 22d North Carolina, buried by the explosion, have been dug out alive, badly burned and scratched, and some of them doubtless mortally hurt.  The attack they pronounce a surprise.

The mine was 400 feet long, and constructed with two galleries diverging from the main passage, making three chambers in which a train of powder nineteen inches wide and deep was laid.  The effect of the explosion was very disastrous.

The grandeur of the artillery fire I have never seen surpassed.  The enemy’s artillery played but feebly.  Very few minutes elapsed before the rebel lines were entirely shut from view by banks of smoke, and our gunners could only be guided in their work by having obtained a proper range before.  Many of the shells from the front of the 18th Corps must have struck far in the streets of Petersburg.  From that direction a heavy black smoke across soon after the opening of our fire, evidently from burning buildings.  After the rebel lines were pierced they made a hurried movement to their left and suffered heavily from an enfilading fire.

Gen. Ledlie’s division [James H. Ledlie] of Burnside’s corps led the attack, the 14th heavy artillery having the advance.  About 100 prisoners so far have been brought into Burnside’s Headquarters.  The cannonading is still hot and the rebels hold their position obstinately.

The World’s special says :

The mine was to have been sprung at 3 o’clock this morning, and the Lieutenant General, accompanied by his staff, reached Headquarters about that hour.  Gen. Meade [George G. Meade] and staff also assembled at the same same [sic] place at the time appointed for the explosion of the mine, but for some reason it did not take place.  Everything movable in the way of troops had been placed in position to move at the first signal.  The entire 2d corps were held in readiness, but up to the hour of writing this dispatch they had not been called into action.

At 4 o’clock a cloud of dust was seen rising from the rebel entrenchments.  This was followed by a general upheaving of earthworks, reaching, probably, fifty feet.  The whole mass looked like a huge fountain of earth and dust, and formed a most imposing spectacle.  Simultaneously with this explosion, our batteries along the entire line opened a most murderous fire on the rebel breastworks, and the infantry, with deafening cheers, rushed into the embankment of the enemy.  Constant cannonading, lasting now one hour and twenty minutes, has been going on.

At 6 o’clock our valiant troops had captured and occupied the first line of rebel entrenchments.  Prisoners are constantly arriving from the front.  Several of our wounded are also coming in.  They report the slaughter inflicted upon the enemy by the explosion and accurate ranges of our shells as terrible in the extreme.

Petersburg Mine Explosion, Plate 78, Map 5

Petersburg Mine Explosion, Plate 78, Map 5¹


After the explosion at an early hour yesterday morning, everything betokened a brilliant victory ;  but soon after matters assumed a different aspect, a part of the attacking force having given way, exposing the balance to an enfilading fire from both artillery and infantry.

The programme was as follows :  The mine to be exploded at 3 A. M. ;  the batteries to open at once along the entire line, immediately after the explosion, and the 9th Corps to make the charge, supported by the 18th Corps, Ayer’s² [sic] division of the 5th Corps, and the 3d Division of the 2d Corps.

The greater part of the arrangement was carried out as ordered, although the commencement was later than the hour designated, on account of the fuse going out twice.  The explosion took place at precisely 40 minutes past 4 o’clock.  The roar of artillery that followed was almost deafening.

At 5 o’clock the charge was made and the fort with a part of the line and on each side was carried in a most brilliant manner.  The 2d division, which was in the centre, advanced and carried the second line, a short distance beyond the fort, and rested, holding their ground with the utmost determination.  At this time the colored division under Gen. Julius White, was pushed forward and ordered to charge and carry the crest of the hill, which would have decided the contest.  The troops advanced in good order as far as the first line, where they received a galling fire, which checked them, and although quite a number kept advancing, the greater portion seemed to become utterly demoralized, part of them taking refuge in the fort, and the balance running to the rear as fast as possible.  They were rallied and again pushed forward, but without success.  The greater part of their officers being killed or wounded during this time they seemed to be without any one to manage them and finally fell back to the rear, out of the range of the volleys of cannister [sic] and musketry that were ploughing through the ranks.

Their losses are very heavy, particularly in officers, as will be seen by the following figures :

Twenty-Third U. S. colored, 150 [sic: 15] officers killed and wounded and 400 men lost including missing.

Twenty-Eighth U. S. colored, 11 officers and about 150 men killed, wounded and missing.

Twenty-Seventh U. S. colored, 6 officers and about 150 men killed, wounded and missing.

Twenty-Ninth U. S. colored, 8 officers and about 200 men killed, wounded and missing.

Forty-Third U. S. colored, 6 officers and a large number of men killed, wounded and missing.

Thirty-Ninth U. S. colored, several officers and about 250 men killed, wounded and missing.

The loss in the 2d division of the 9th army corps, Gen. Leslie commanding, was very severe.  It is estimated at from 1,000 to 1,2000, while many make the figures larger.  Among the missing I regret to announce the name of Gen. Bartlett [William F. Bartlett].  He succeeded in reaching the fort with his command, but having accidently broken his cork leg, he was unable to get off the field.  He however held possession of the ground for several hours, and only surrendering when all hope of escape was gone.  Some two hundred men, both black and white, were with him at the time.  Nearly all of Gen. Bartlett’s staff were captured at the same time.  Col. Marshall,³ who was commanding the 2d brigade of this division was also taken prisoner with several of his staff ;  also Col. Wild4 [sic], of the 56th Massachusetts, is reported to be taken prisoner ;  Col. Gould,5 of the 59th Massachusetts lost a leg ;  Major Buxton6 [sic] of the 179th New York also lost a leg ;  Lt. Col. Barney7 of the 2d Pennsylvania was wounded ;  Maj. Prescott,8 of the 57th Massachusetts was killed ;  Major Ross9 of the 31st U. S. (colored) lost a leg.  This division, having been a great distance in advance of the rest of the line, held its position for several hours, but was finally compelled to fall back, suffering severely while doing so.

The loss in the first division was also severe.  The latter has 400 in the hospital.

The 18th corps occupied part of the line on the right, but their loss was not very great.

We took about 250 prisoners, mostly South Carolinians, and five battle flags.

1.  From the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published under the direction of Redfield Proctor, Stephen B. Elkins, and Daniel S. Lamont, Secretaries of War, by George B. Davis, Leslie J. Perry, Joseph W. Kirkley, Board of Publication ; compiled by Calvin D. Cowles (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891-1895). Available in Special Collections, UWRF University Archives & Area Research Center (E 464 .U6), or digitally at Ohio State University’s eHistory.
2.  Romeyn Beck Ayres (1825-1888) graduated from West Point in 1847, but saw no active service in the Mexican War. When the Civil War started he was promoted to captain in command of a battery in the 5th U.S. Artillery and was heavily involved in the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford. In October 1861 he was appointed chief of artillery for William F. “Baldy” Smith’s division in the Army of the Potomac and fought in the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days Battles, and the Battle of Antietam. Just before the Battle of Fredericksburg he was promoted to brigadier general and chief of artillery of the VI Corps. In April 1863 he became commander of a division in the V Corps, leading it in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Ayres arrived late at the Battle of Gettysburg and did not participate much. His division was then sent to New York City to suppress draft rioters. In 1864 he led the 4th Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps in Grant’s Overland Campaign and commanded the 2nd Division, V Corps in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. he received particular commendations and brevet promotions for the Battle of Globe Tavern (Second Weldon Railroad) and the Battle of Five Forks. Ayres continued to lead his division through the Appomattox Campaign and the Confederate surrender.
3.  Elisha Gaylord Marshall (1829-1883) graduated from West Point in 1850. He became lieutenant colonel of of the 13th New York Infantry in April 1862; participated in the Peninsular Campaign, Siege of Yorktown, and was seriously wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg; promoted to colonel of the 13th New york in December 1862, was a brigade commander at the Battle of the Wilderness, and was captured at the Battle of the Crater and held as a prisoner until April 1865. Upon his release from prison in April 1865, he assumed command of the 1st Brigade defending Washington, D.C. for the remainder of the War.
4.  Stephen Minot Weld, Jr. (1842-1920), colonel of the 56th Massachusetts Infantry. After beginning law school at Harvard University in 1861, Weld was appointed a 2nd lieutenant in the 18th Massachusetts Infantry on 27 January 1862. He reached the rank of Captain and participated in the battles of Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg before being honorably discharged on 25 December 1863. He was twice captured by Confederate forces, and twice exchanged. On 2 June 1864 he was commissioned as lieutenant colonel of the 56th Massachusetts Regiment, and was promoted to colonel in command of the regiment on 31 May 1864. He was mustered out of the Army a second time on 12 July 1865. In 1866, he received a brevet promotion to brigadier general to rank from March 13, 1865. After the War, Weld became a cotton broker.
5.  Jacob Parker Gould (1822-1864), colonel of the 59th Massachusetts Infantry. At the beginning of the Civil War he organized a company, the Stoneham Grey Eagles, which became Company G, 13th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, however, he did not command that company as he was commissioned the Major of that regiment in July 1861. His regiment knew hims as the “Fighting Major.” On April 24, 1864, he was discharged, to accept a commission of colonel, 59th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was mustered the following day as such. On July 30, 1864, he was mortally wounded by a gunshot wound in his left knee, at the mine explosion at Petersburg, Virginia. He was brought to City Point and had his left leg amputated and was then transferred to the Officers’ Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, arriving on August 20. He had suffered severely from the effects of the amputation and died August 21, 1864, in Philadelphia.
6.  John Barton, major in the 179th New York Infantry; previously captain of Company C.
7.  Benjamin G. Barney, lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery; previously captain of Company H.
8.  Albert Prescott (1830-1864), major in the 57th Massachusetts Infantry. He was a Spar Maker from Charlestown before enlisting on April 16, 1861, at the age of 31. He served as 1st Sergeant in Company K, 5th Massachusetts Infantry and mustered out on July 31, 1861. He then enlisted on July 30, 2862, in Company B, 36th Massachusetts Infantry and was promoted to full 1st Sergeant, and then to captain of Company B on August 28, 1862. On Marcy 2, 1864, he became captain of Company I, 57th Massachusetts Infantry, and was promoted to major on June 15, 1864. He was killed July 30, 1864, at Petersburg, Va.
9.  William E. W. Ross was lieutenant Colonel of the 31st U.S. Colored Troops; the major was Thomas Wright. Prior to that he had been lieutenant colonel of the 10th Maryland Infantry (3 months, 1863-64).

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