A Representative Crater Letter

I spent part of today organizing some digital files related to the battle of the Crater.  Included is the following letter written by H.A. Minor to his sister just after the battle.  I can’t remember if it made it into the book because I have so many rich letters written by soldiers in William Mahone’s division. For anyone familiar with these post-battle letters, what stands out are the patterns that emerge between the many soldiers who took pen to paper to share the highlights of the battle with loved ones back home.  I detail this in the first chapter of the book, but here is a little taste.

Papers of Henry Augustine Minor [manuscript] 1864-76
Minor, Henry Augustine, 1835-
Personal Author: Minor, Henry Augustine, 1835-
Title:Papers of Henry Augustine Minor [manuscript] 1864-76.
Collection: Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864
H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Minor was the surgeon of the 9th Alabama Volunteers.  Collection

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.

*   *   *

Confederate accounts written in the days following the battle tend to hit on the following points:

  • A decisive victory at the Crater suggested to many that Grant’s campaign was indeed a failure and that independence was still a real possibility.
  • Confederates openly acknowledged the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers during and after the battle.
  • Confederates believed that the execution of these men was justified given their status as slaves.
  • Confederates also assumed that blacks were pushed into battle against their will as opposed to their involvement as willing participants.  Such a view reinforced the antebellum South’s paternalistic view of slaves as loyal.

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8 comments… add one
  • Emmanuel Dabney Apr 23, 2012 @ 17:10

    This is a good one and I agree with your general assessment of the Confederate letters immediately after the Crater based on examinations of Willie Pegram’s, several Georgians letters, William McClellan also of 9th Alabama, etc.


    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2012 @ 17:12

      The Pegram letter is even more to the point when it comes to some of these themes. He applauds the use of black soldiers because they clarified what the war was about as well as the consequences of defeat.

  • Will Hickox Apr 23, 2012 @ 16:52

    As one of the many followers of this blog who has watched your project grow over several years, I’m really looking forward to reading the book. It’s interesting to read that you include many letters from Mahone’s soldiers. What is your policy on quotations in your writing? Is less more, or do you show rather than tell? Do you go by a certain limit of quotations, no matter how juicy, per paragraph? I remember a few readers criticizing Rhea’s books on the Overland Campaign for relying too heavily on quotes.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2012 @ 16:57

      Hi Will,

      I like to think that I hit the right balance between analysis and direct quotes. I quote what is necessary to make a specific interpretive point. What I don’t like is when historians quote long passages, which I tend to see as a distraction. We disagree re: Rhea’s approach. I find him very readable and appreciate his talent for integrating the voice of soldiers within his narrative.

      • Will Hickox Apr 23, 2012 @ 19:22

        I agree with you on Rhea’a approach; I was summarizing others’ reviews. And you’re right, nothing is worse than a long quote in an indented paragraph.

  • Virginia S. Wood Apr 23, 2012 @ 14:30

    Oops! My bad. He’d been promoted to 3rd Corporal by the time of The Crater. I have so danged many rebel ancestors to keep track of. . .

  • Virginia S. Wood Apr 23, 2012 @ 14:27

    This is fantastic stuff. I have a scene in my novel in which a character based on my 2nd great grand uncle (John T. Owen, Pvt., Co. I, Elliott’s Grays, Mahone’s Div.) discusses the battle with his sister. I envy you the experience of reading all these letters, first hand, and I continue to look forward to holding a copy of your book in my hands!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 23, 2012 @ 16:54

      Thanks for the kind words.

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