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The Crater

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Petersburg, on the Appomattox, twenty miles south of Richmond, June went by in thunder, day and night, of artillery duels, with, for undersong, a perpetual, pattering rain of sharpshooters' bullets, torn across, at intervals, by a sharp and long sound of musketry. In the hot and sickly weather, under the hovering smoke, engineers of the Army of Northern Virginia, engineers of the Army of the Potomac worked like beavers. The grey line drawn by Beauregard early in the month was strengthened and pieced out. Over against it curved a great blue sickle of forts, with trenches and parapets between. Grey and blue alike had in the rear of their manned works a labyrinth and honeycomb of approaches, covered ways, pits, magazines, bomb-proofs, traverses. The blue had fearfully the advantage in artillery. ,Grey and blue, the lines, in part, were very close, so close that there would be little warning of assault. The Army of Northern Virginia, now, in numbers, not a great army, had to watch, day and night. It watched with an intensity which brought a further depth into men's eyes, deep enough now in all conscience, deep enough in the summer of 1864!

On the twenty-second, Grant attempted to extend his flank upon the left toward the Weldon Railroad. Lee sent A. P. Hill out against this movement. Hill, in his red battle shirt, strong fighter and prompt, swung through an opening left unaware between the two corps, the Second and Sixth, and, turning, struck the Second in the rear. After the fiercest fighting the blue, having lost four guns and several stands of colours, and seventeen hundred prisoners, drew back within their lines.

Grant dispatched two divisions of cavalry with orders to tear up the Lynchburg and Danville Railroad. They spread ruin south to the Staunton River, but here W. H. F. Lee, who had followed, attacked them at Blacks and Whites. Retiring they found them-selves between two fires. Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee, back from the fight at Trevillian's Station, fell upon the two divisions at Sapony Church. Infantry of Mahone's came up also and aided. After a running fight of a day and night, in which the blue lost, in killed and wounded and taken, fifteen hundred men, twelve guns, and a wagon train, they escaped over the Blackwater, burning the bridge between them and the grey, and so returned to Grant at Petersburg.

On the first of July, General Alexander, Longstreet's Chief of Artillery, wounded and furloughed home, was driven, before quitting the lines, to Violet Bank, where were Lee's headquarters. About the place were small, much the worse for wear, Confederate tents. The commanding general himself had a room within the house. The wounded officer found him standing, with several of the staff, upon the porch steps. He had his field-glasses open, and he was listening to the report of a scout. When at last the man saluted and fell back, Alexander stated the conviction that was in him. He felt a certainty that the enemy was engaged in driving a mine under the point known as Elliott's Salient.

"Why do you think so, General ?"

"Their sharpshooters keep up a perpetual, converging fire, sir, upon just that hand's-breadth of our line. On the other hand, they pay so little attention to the works to right and left that the men can show themselves with impunity. They are not clearing the ground for surface approaches — well, then, I think that they are working underground. If you were going from that side to explode a mine and assault immediately afterward, that would be the place you would choose, I think."

"That is true," said Lee. " But you would have to make a long tunnel to get under that salient, General."

"About five hundred feet, sir."

Mr. Francis Lawley, of the London Times, was of the group upon the steps. "In the siege of Delhi, sir, we drove what was, I believe, considered the longest possible gallery. It was four hundred feet. Beyond that it was found impossible to ventilate."

"The enemy," said Alexander, "have a number of Pennsylvania coal-miners, who may be trusted to find some means to ventilate. This war is doing a power of things that were not done at Delhi."

"I will act on your warning, General," said Lee.

The next day the grey began to drive two countermines. Later in the month they started two others. Pegram's battery occupied the threatened salient, with Elliott's troops in the rifle-pits. The grey miners drove as far and fast as they might, but they tunnelled out-ward from either flank of the salient, while the Pennsylvania coal-miners, twenty feet underground, dug straight toward the apex. The days passed — many days.

On the eighteenth was received the news of the removal of Joseph E. Johnston from the command of the Army of Tennessee. Wade Hampton, being at headquarters, heard Lee's expression of opinion and wrote it to General Johnston. . . . "He expressed great regret that you had been removed and said that he had done all in his power to prevent it. He had said to Mr. Seddon that if you could not command the army we had no one who could." Later came the tidings of Hood's lost battle of Atlanta and all its train of slow disaster. On the twenty-fifth, news of Jubal Early's victory at Winchester the day before was cheered to the echo. In the last days of the month came news of Stoneman and McCook's raiding in Georgia and of the scattered fighting in Arkansas.

North and South, away from the camps, there was flagging of spirit and sickness of soul. In the North the war was costing close upon four millions of dollars a day. Gold in July went to two hundred and eighty-five. The North gained now its fresh soldiers by bounties, and those heavy. All the northern tier of states, great as they were, untouched by invasion, and the ocean theirs all the North winced and staggered now under the burden of the war. But the South — the South was past wincing. Bent to her knees, bowed like a caryatid, she fought on in her fixed position.

At Petersburg, Grant meant to explode a great mine and to follow it, in the confusion, by a great and determined assault. More-over, in order to weaken the opposition here and the more to distract and appall, he detached Hancock with twenty thousand men for a feint against Richmond. Hancock marched to Deep Bottom, where Butler, having ironclads on the river and a considerable force encamped on the northern bank, guarded two pontoon bridges across the James. Between this place and Richmond was Conner's grey brigade and at Drewry's Bluff, Willcox's division. Moving with Hancock was Sheridan and six thousand horse.

Lee, watchful, sent Kershaw's division to join with Willcox and Conner and guard Richmond. Hancock crossed on the twenty-seventh, and that morning Kershaw came into collision with Sheridan, losing prisoners and two colours. Lee further detached W. H. F. Lee's cavalry and Heth's infantry. The alarm bell rang rapid and loud in Richmond and all the home defences went out to the lines. But Hancock, checked at Deep Bottom, only flourished before Richmond; on the twenty-ninth, indeed, drew back in part to the Petersburg lines, in order to take part in the great and general assault. When the thirtieth dawned, with Willcox, Kershaw, Heth, and the cavalry away, Lee was holding lines, ten miles from tip to tip, with not more than twenty thousand men.

It was a boding, still night, hot ,in the far-flung wild tangle of trenches, pits, and approaches, hot in the fields, hot in Poor Creek Valley where the blue were massing, hot amongst the guns of Elliott's Salient. The stars were a little dimmed by dust in the air and the yet undissipated smoke from the artillery firing that had ceased at dusk.

In the blue lines there was between generals a difference of opinion as to what division should lead in the now imminent assault. Burn-side advised the use of Ferrero's coloured division. Meade dissented, and the point was referred to Grant. He says: " General Burnside wanted to put his coloured division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the coloured troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front."

This settled it, and Ledlie's division was given the lead. It formed behind earthworks full in front of Elliott's Salient, in its rear two supporting divisions; its objective Cemetery Hill, commanding the town; its orders, as soon as the mine should explode, to pass over and through the grey's torn line, take the hill, and pass into Peters-burg. It was midnight when Ledlie's line was formed, the supporting divisions drawn up. The night was hot and exceedingly close; the men stood waiting, feverish, every sense alert. One o'clock — two o'clock — three o'clock. Ledlie moved forward, taking position immediately behind the breastworks. Again a wait, every eye upon where, in the darkness, should be Elliott's Salient.

On the grey side there was knowledge that a mine was digging, but ignorance of the day or night in which it would be fired. Lee slept, or waked, at Violet Bank; far and near in its trenches the Army of Northern Virginia lay, well-picketed, in a restless sleep. The nights were hot, and there was much misery and frequent night firing. All sleep now was restless, easily and often broken. There were South Carolina troops in and about Elliott's Salient. Reveille would sound and the sun would rise shortly before five o'clock.

The stars began to pale. Ledlie sent to General Burnside to ask the cause of delay. The men had been in ranks for four hours. Burn-side answered that the fuse had been lit at a quarter-past three but evidently had not burned the sufficient distance. A lieutenant and a sergeant had volunteered to enter the tunnel, find out what was the matter and relight the fuse. Ledlie's aide returned and reported, and the division stood tense, gazing with a strained intention. It was light enough now to see, beyond their own advanced works, the grey line they meant to send skyward. Beyond the line was Petersburg, that they meant to take; beyond Petersburg, a day's march, was Richmond.

The light strengthened, pallor in the north and south and west, in the east a cold, faint, upstreaming purple. Somewhere in the cavalry lines a bugle blew, remote, thin, of an elfin melancholy. As though it had been the signal, the mine exploded.

The morning light was darkened. The earth heaved so that many of the blue staggered and fell. A mass sprang into the air, mounted a hundred feet and spread out into an umbrella-shaped cloud. As it began to descend, it was seen that earth and rock might come upon the blue themselves. The troops gave back with shouts.

In that cloud of pulverized earth, smoke, and flame were mammoth clods of clay, one as large as a small cabin, timber of salient and breastworks, guns, carriages, caissons, sandbags, anything and everything that had been upon the mined ground, including some hundreds of human beings. The hole it left behind it was one hundred and seventy feet long, sixty wide, and thirty deep. Back into this now rained in part the lumps of earth, the logs of wood, the pieces of iron, the human clay. The trembling of the earth ceased, the sound of the detonation ceased. There came what seemed an instant of utter quiet, for after that rage of sound the cries of the yet living, the only partially buried in that pit, counted as nothing. The instant was shattered by the concerted voice of one hundred and fifty blue guns and mortars, prepared and stationed to add their great quota of death and terror. They brought into that morning of distraction one of the heaviest cannonades of all the war.

Through the rocking air, in the first slant beams of the sun the blue troops heard the order to advance. They moved. Before them were their own breastworks over which they must swarm, thus sharply breaking line. Beyond these, one hundred and fifty yards away, were curious heaps of earth, something like dunes. The air above was yet dust and smoke. On went the Second Brigade, leading. It came, yet without just alignment, to the crest of the dunes, and from these it saw the crater.... There was no,pausing, there could be none, for the First Brigade, immediately in the rear, was pressing on. The blue troops slid down the steep incline and came upon the floor of the crater, among the débris and the horribly caught and buried and smothered men.

There followed a moment's hesitation and gasp of astonishment; then the blue officers shouted the brigade forward. It overpassed the seamed floor and' reached the steep other side of the excavation. Behind it it heard, or might have heard if anything could have been heard in the roar of one hundred and fifty guns, the First Brigade slipping and stumbling in its turn down the almost perpendicular slope into the crater. The Second Brigade climbed somehow the thirty feet up to the level of the world at large. On this side the hole it was a grey world.

If the explosion had stunned the grey, they had now regained their senses. If the force of the appalling blue cannonade caused an end-of-the-world sensation, even in such a cataclysm there was room for action. The grey acted. Into the ruined trenches right and left of and behind the destroyed salient poured what was left of Elliott's brigade. Regiments of Wise and Ramseur came at a run. Lee, now with Beauregard at the threatened front, sent orders to Mahone to bring up two brigades with all speed. A gun of Davidson's battery in a salient to the right commanded at less than four hundred yards what had been Elliott's Salient and was now the crater. Wright's battery on the left, Haskell's Coehorn mortars fringing a gorge line in the rear, likewise could send death into that hollow. Infantry and artillery, the grey opened with a steady, rapid fire. And all the time, behind the blue Second Brigade, now forming for a rush on the greyward edge of the crater, came massing into that deep and wide and long bear-pit more blue troops, and yet more. And now the Second Brigade, checked and disconcerted by the unexpected strength of the resistance, wavered, could not be formed, fell back into the crater that was already too filled with men.

Here formation became impossible. An aide was sent in hot haste to General Ledlie, for his own fame somewhat too securely placed in the rear. Ledlie sent back word to Marshall and Bartlett, leading, that they must advance and assault at once; it was General Burnside's order. The aide says: "This message was delivered. But the firing on the crater now was incessant, and it was as heavy a fire of canister as was ever poured continuously upon a single objective point. It was as utterly impracticable to reform a brigade in that crater as it would be to marshal bees into line after upsetting the hive; and equally as impracticable to re-form outside of the crater, under the severe fire in front and rear, as it would be to hold a dress parade in front of a charging enemy."

So far from the pit being cleared, it received fresh accessions. Griffin's brigade, coming up, tried to pass by the right, but entangled in a maze of grey earthworks, trenches, traverses, and disordered by the searching fire, it too fell aside and sank into the hollow made by the mine. "Every organization melted away, as soon as it entered this hole in the ground, into a mass of human beings clinging by toes and heels to the almost perpendicular sides. If a man was shot on the crest he fell and rolled to the bottom of the pit."

The blue Third Division, arriving, attacked the manned works to the left, took and for a little held them, then was driven back. Haskell's grey battery of sixteen guns on the Jerusalem Plank Road came greatly into action. Lee and Beauregard were watching from the Gee house. Mahone, of A. P. Hill's Corps, was coming up with three brigades, coming fast.

The coloured division of the Ninth Army corps had a song, —
" We looks lak men er-marchin' on, We looks lak men ob war—"

They had sung it sitting on the ground around camp-fires the night before when they had been told that they would lead the charge — the great charge that was going to take Blandford Church and Cemetery, and then Petersburg, and then Richmond, and was going to end the war and make all coloured people free, and give to every one a cabin, forty acres, and a mule, and the deathless friendship of the Northern people.

" We looks lak men er-marchin' on,
We looks lak men ob war—"

They had not led that grotesquely halted charge, but now they,. too, were required for victims by the crater. Burnside sent an order,, "The coloured division to advance at all hazards."

It advanced, got somehow past the crater and came to a bloody,. hand-to-hand conflict with the grey. The fighting here was brutal, a maddening short war in which, black and white, the always animal struggle of war grew more animal yet. It was short. The coloured division broke and fell back into the crater. . . . All the grey batteries, all the grey infantry poured fire into this place where Burn-side's white and coloured troops were now inextricably mixed. At ten o'clock up came Mahone with three brigades and swept the place.

By two o'clock the Confederate lines were restored and the battle of the crater ended. This day the blue had been hoist by their own petard. The next day Grant sent a flag of truce asking a cessation of hostilities until he could gather his wounded and bury the dead. Lee gave four hours.

During this truce grey soldiers as well as blue pressed to the edge of the crater to observe and wonder. They were used to massacre and horror in great variety, but there was something faintly novel here. They came not ghoulishly, but good-naturedly — "just wanting to see what gunpowder could do!" They fraternized with the blue at work and the blue fraternized with them, for that was the way the grey and blue did between hostilities. They spoke the same language, they read the same Bible, they had behind them the same background of a far island home, and then of small sailing-ships at sea, and then of a new land, huge forests, Indians, wolves; at last towns and farms, roads, stages, packet-boats, and railway trains. They had to an extent the same tastes — to an extent like casts of countenance. The one used "I guess "and the other used "I reckon," and they differed somewhat in temperament, but the innermost meaning was not far from being the same. At the worst an observer from a far country might have said, "They are half brothers." So they fraternized during the truce, the grey this afternoon, the more triumphant, and the blue the more rueful. . . . "Hello, Yanks! You were going to send us to Heaven, were n't you? and instead you got sent yourselves!" — "Never mind! better luck next time! You certainly made a fuss in the world for once!" — "How many pounds of gunpowder? `Eight thousand.' Geewhilikins! That was a sizable charge!" — "If you'd been as flush of gunpowder as we are, you might have made it twenty, just as easy!" — "There's a man buried over there — see, where the boot is sticking up!" — "Yes, you blew some of us into Heaven — twenty-two gunners, they say, and about three hundred of Elliott's men— just enough to show your big crowd the way!" — "That junk-heap over there's Pegram's guns." — "Such a mess! White men and black men and caissons and limbers." — "I thought that body was moving; but no, it was something else." — "Got any tobacco?" — "We'd like first-rate to trade for coffee." —"There's a man crying for water. Got your canteen?—mine is n't any nearer than a spring a mile away. I'll take it to him—know what thirst means—been thirsty myself and it means Hell! " — "Well, it was a fine mine, if it did go a bit wrong, and you deserve a lot of credit — though I don't think some of your generals do!" — "Yes, that's so! People stay what they always were, even through war. Lee stays Lee and Grant stays Grant, and Meade stays Meade, and A. P. Hill stays A. P. Hill. And some others stay what they always were, too, — more's the pity!" — "Here, we'll help cover this row." — "Did you see little Billy Mahone charging? Pretty fine, was n't it?" — "Saw your Colonel Marshall and General Bartlett when they were taken prisoner. They seemed fine men. Yes, that's so! We ain't got a monopoly, and you ain't got a monopoly."

The truce would last until full dark. Now, as the sun went down in a copper sky, most of the work was done. In great numbers the wounded had been lifted from the floor and sides of the crater; in great numbers the dead had been lowered into trenches, shallow trenches, the earth just covering the escaped from life. There were yet blue working-parties, a faint movement of blue and grey watchers, but the crater was lonely to what it had been. Only the wild débris remained, and the mounds beneath which life had gone out and been buried. There seemed a silence, too, heavy with the approaching night. A grey pioneer detail that had been engaged in repairing a work that flanked the vast excavation rested on spade and pick and gazed into the place. An infantry company of A. P. Hill's, marching to some assigned post, was halted for five minutes and allowed to break ranks. Officers and men desired to look at the big hole in the ground.

In groups or singly they peered over the edge or scrambled half-way down the loose earth of the sides. The sun's rim had dipped; the west showed a forbidding hue, great level washes of a cold and sickly colour. Steadily this slope of the great earth wheeled under, leaving the quenchless hearth of the sun, facing the night without the house of light. It was all but dusk. One of the soldiers of this company was Maury Stafford. He stood alone, his back to a great projecting piece of timber and looked into the pit and across to the copper west. "Barring prison," he thought, "for simple horror I have never seen a worse place than this."

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