149 Years Ago Today

Battle of the Crater Painting

The battle of the Crater was fought 149 years ago today. Here is a letter written by Henry A. Minor, who served as a surgeon with the 9th Alabama Volunteers. The 9th Alabama took part in William Mahone’s counterattack, which proved to be decisive in achieving a Confederate victory that day. The letter is one among scores of Confederate accounts I have in my collection that didn’t make it into my book. It offers a great deal of detail as to what transpired on that day and how the battle was assessed.

H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864 [Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.]

We have been here over six weeks, have had several fights with the enemy but as I have written to Brother Lute concerning all up to the middle of July, I will only tell you of one we had the day before yesterday.  I send papers giving an account of the affair and will be very brief in my remarks.  Peter was not in the charge, he being a sharp shooter.  He with his comrades were left to hold the line on our right while the Division went to the center to retake our lost position.  It is said to have the most brilliant charge of the War, the charge of our brigade.  The line was kept properly, the men moved rapidly and quietly reserving the fire until close up and then delivering it with terrible effect.  Here for the first time our men fought negroes.  The Yankees put the negroes in the front and are said to have forced them forward.  The massacre was terrible.  The ditches were almost filled with dead.  Men had to walk on the dead, could not find room for their feet.  Such a sight was never seen before.

The loss of the enemy I do not know.  It is said by the men that today when a flag of truce came over from the enemy to bury their dead that 1400 Yankees were found dead.  We took a thousand or so prisoners.  The hole made by the explosion of the mine is about fifty yards across and nearly round.  In this lie many dead.  We have one general and his staff prisoners.  James Preston was badly wounded in the charge.  A ball struck him on the left temple and, glancing backward, made a gash about three inches long, exposing the skull, a bad wound.  As he was coming out to the rear, a piece of lead from a shell hit him in the left hip and was cut out near the hip joint, making a fearful wound.  His chance of getting well is precarious, but with good attention he has a fair chance.  I have done all I can to get him sent to Charlottesville, and once there, I know he will be cared for.  He is a good soldier.  Our regiment is very small, having little over one hundred guns in it.  The other regiments in our brigade lost, as an average, about what we did.

We are all very anxious about our army in Georgia.  If General Hood can only drive Sherman out of our country, we will have peace next year just as sure as that time flies.  Our army here is as usual, that is, quiet and confident, ready for anything that General Lee orders.  The men are well equipped.  They have suppli[e]d themselves with everything they want from the numerous battle fields.  Everybody used to be scarce of blankets, knives, oil clothes, shoes, hats, paper, pins, socks, shirts, pants, etc. etc., but now there is no lack.  They rob a Yankee so quick that they scarcely pause over him.  They are armed with the finest guns and have the best ammunition, all taken from the enemy.  Every man almost, has a watch and many have several.  It required all the efforts of the officers to keep them from killing every one of them that they could get to.  It is said that the negroes shouted “No Quarter” and it is little they got.  I think it right to kill every negro, formerly a slave, found in arms against us.  But the white men inveigled them to do so, are more worthy of death than they and I would sooner spare the negro than his white associate.

Even the enemy now admits (in their newspapers) that Grant’s campaign is a failure.

[At the end of the letter]: In the crater formed by the explosion of the 30th ult. which was somewhat larger than the sink hole on the east of Ma’s plantation, we killed and buried 167 Yankees, black and white, many more black than white.  This will give you some idea of the terrible nature of the fight.

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“I think it right to kill every negro, formerly a slave, found in arms against us.  But the white men inveigled them to do so, are more worthy of death than they and I would sooner spare the negro than his white associate.”

Echoes here of white southern hatred of the abolitionists who supposedly inspired slaves to revolt against their masters. Also, the assumption that blacks could not think for themselves.

Yeah, it’s all there and fits in perfectly with the majority of Confederate accounts that I’ve collected over the years. The other common reference that you will find is that black Union soldiers were drunk. The assumption being that they could only be made to fight their former masters and/or brave the battlefield under those conditions.

Confederates also justified the Fort Pillow killings by claiming that the black troops were drunk and taunting them over the fort’s walls–a claim repeated by some modern writers.

Hey, Kevin. In my obsession with studying my hometown, I dug up a Crater gem in a history of Norfolk. This account was written by a soldier in Mahone’s Old Brigade, published in The Norflk-Virginian newspaper and republished in “History of Norfolk, Virginia,” in 1877.

“Our men began ridiculing them for going to the rear, when one of them remarked, “Ah boys, you have hot work ahead — they are negroes, and show no quarter.” This was the first intimation we had to fight negro troops, and it seemed to infuse the little band with impetuous daring, as they pressed onward to the fray. I never felt more like fighting in my life. Our comrades had been slaughtered in a most inhuman and brutal maner, and slaves were trampling over their mangled and bleeding corpses. Revenge must have fired every heart and strung every arm with nerves of steel for the Herculean task of blood.”

Notice that “revenge” is confirmed as a motivation by Southern sources. The USCTs are “negroes,” never soldiers, and the idea of colored troops is ridiculed. If there were any Black Confederates, the writers at the Norfolk-Virginian were unaware of them.

The real proof of the pudding, for me, comes from Edward Porter Alexander’s autobiography. Alexander, general in charge of the Norfolk Blues (another connection to my hometown), described “unesscessary killing” of USCTs and said that they fought as well as any soldiers should. He was writing a private biography for his family to read, and didn’t include the biased nonsense that I found in the Norfolk-Virginian.

That account was likely published during the 1877 reunion of what was called “Mahone’s Old Brigade” in Norfolk. It’s a pretty standard account as was Alexander’s which was written much later.

Should there be complaint against the Confederates?

Lieber Code
Art. 62.
‘All troops of the enemy known or discovered to give no quarter in general, or to any portion of the army, receive none.’

Funny, none of the Confederate accounts that I’ve read site the Lieber Code. They are, however, very clear as to why many black soldiers were executed.

Not to mention that part of the Lieber Code was designed to counter act the Confederate act condemning black soldiers and their white officers to death. Which brings up another point, the Lieber Code was written and issued to the Union, not the Confederates.

I am always amazed at those ‘heritage’ types who site the law of war and the Constitution that should constrain Union war efforts, yet apply it nowhere to the Confederacy, who renounced the Constitution and its protection upon declaring secession.

Neil

“If General Hood can only drive Sherman out of our country, we will have peace next year just as sure as that time flies.”

For me, this is the most interesting thing said in Henry Minor’s letter. So much for the “High Water Mark” after Gettysburg thinking. I think Confederates STILL believed they had a chance to win the war in 1864… and maybe even 1865.

Absolutely. There is a clear spike in Confederate morale during the summer of 1864. Victory at the Crater reinforced the belief that any future advances by Grant could be dealt with successfully. The period between Sherman taking Atlanta and Lincoln’s re-election is where things begin to go sour.

Was the rule of the Lieber Code followed by Union forces to any significant extent? There don’t seem to be any reprisals for the frequent Confederate murders of POWs.
Something that seems quite surprising is the failure to punish Confederate war criminals after the war. SFAIK the only one to be executed was Heinrich Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville. While indifference to the murder of black prisoners might be put down to racism, there seems to have been an equal lack of punishment for the murder of their white officers and of white southern Union volunteers. I believe Pickett, for example, had large numbers of the latter hanged and of course he lived unmolested after the war. Is there any accepted explanation for this?

Just wondering with the 150th anniversary of the Crater coming next year if it wouldn’t be appropriate to consider some sort of monument to the USCT who were killed/executed there. Richard Slotkin’s 2009 book on the Crater, “No Quarter,” ends with the line “there is no monument to the memory of the African American troops who fought and died in the crater.” Seems to me this omission should be rectified.

There is a monument to USCTS along the park route leading to the Crater. It marks the initial assaults against the city of Petersburg.

I’d rather the men to be remembered for the gallantry of their charge and their bravery in battle. This as opposed to remembering the senseless murder of them by rebel soldiers after they’d surrendered. Some accounts mention that Union white men killed black troops around them so as to not be associated with them by the rebels when taken prisoner. Some accounts also mention that in the first charge of Halls Brigade of the USCT’s that some of his men, after driving off a couple SC regiments with hand to hand fighting, did kill a few rebel prisoners. Perhaps these accounts were the ones that made it to Mahone’s lines.

I could go with a monument to their bravery and gallantry as suggested, although I see nothing wrong with pointing out they were murdered as well. I’ve seen the monument to the USCT commemorating the initial assaults at Petersburg. I just think something should be placed at the Crater as well.

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