‘How the Negroe’s Skulls Cracked’ – the Battle of the Crater

July 30, 1864 (Saturday)

Scene of the explosion Saturday July 30th. Drawn by Alfred Waud.
Scene of the explosion Saturday July 30th. Drawn by Alfred Waud.

“We are tunneling and Grant is also,” wrote James Albright in his diary entry for July 20th, “and some mines may be sprung any day, and many souls blown into eternity.” The battery to which James Albright belonged was planted near the center of the main Petersburg line. The line itself was manned by a division under the command of Bushrod Johnson. General Lee had shifted most of the rest of his army across the James River to the north, expecting an assault to come in that direction. But two divisions under P.G.T. Beauregard remained, with a third, under William Mahone on their right.

“Just at sunrise as I had stepped up on the step of the breastwork I heard a tremendous dull report and at the same time felt the earth shake beneath me,” wrote William Russell, a sergeant in the 26th Virginia of Johnson’s Division. “I immediately looked down to our left and to my sorrow I saw an awful scene, which I never witnessed before.”

“The astonishing effect of the explosion, bursting like a volcano at the feet of the men, and the upheaving of an immense column of more than 100,000 cubic feet of earth to fall around in heavy masses, wounding, crushing, or burying everything within its reach, prevented our men from moving promptly to the mouth of the crater and occupying that part of the trench cavalier which was not destroyed, and over which the debris was scattered.” – General Bushrod Johnson

Scene of the explosion Saturday July 30th. Drawn by Alfred Waud.
Scene of the explosion Saturday July 30th. Drawn by Alfred Waud.

The blast obliterated two regiments from Stephen Elliot’s Brigade and a battery, effectively disabling an entire brigade. From the explosion itself, no less than 278 men were killed or wounded.

“In less than five minutes’ time,” wrote Col. Fitz McMaster of the 17th South Carolina, “our men recovered from their panic.” In the chaos of the explosion, time seemed to come loose. By Union accounts, the attacking divisions wasted many precious minutes, failing to attack immediately after the blast. But to the Southerners, it seemed to happen almost instantly.

“When the torrents of dust had subsided,” continued General Johnson, “the enemy was found in the breach.”

General Beauregard was woken from his sleep by the blast, and after sending a message to Lee to meet him at Johnson’s headquarters. Something terrible had happened. By the time Beauregard arrived on the scene, the battle would already be churning.

General Elliott, whose brigade caught the brunt of the blast, struggled to gather his men for the coming assault. He, with Col. Alexander Smith of the 26th South Carolina, and Col. Fitz McMaster of the 17th, formed a line on the brow of the crater created by the explosion. He wanted to, according to McMaster, “charge the enemy out of the mine.” When Elliot stood, he was immediately shot, and the command of the brigade dissolved to McMaster.

Not a very good map.
Not a very good map.

Where Elliot had attempted to form his brigade was about fifty yard behind the crater. Union troops had already filled it and were now occupying it like a new set of trenches, though with nothing of the order and neatness. “I observed at this time,” wrote McMaster, “the crater full of men, and at least fourteen regimental flags … I was in a rock’s throw of them.”

Knowing that if the Federals were able to climb out of the crater, they could exploit the breach and roll up the Confederate lines. “As I believed the fate of Petersburg depended on filling up this gap,” continued McMaster, “I spread the remainder of the 17th and the part of the 18th that remained along the time until it struck Ransom’s brigade, and fought the enemy from behind the traverses as well as I could.”

july30postcard

But already the Federals were pouring over the lip of the crater and flowing into the Confederate trenches held by McMaster’s Rebels. “Nearly all of my two right companies were killed, wounded, and captured in the successive hand-to-hand fighting we had there.”

“I found the men of Elliott’s brigade bravely manning the works up to the borders of the crater,” wrote Major J. C. Coit of Beauregard’s artillery, “leaving no front for the entrance of the enemy except such as had been made vacant by the up-heaval of the earth. […] The crater itself could not contain the masses that had already been hurled into the breach, so that thousands were crowded over its interior rim, and stood in its rear without apparent organization in one immense crowd.”

In this way, the battle raged for hours, as the Rebels tried to pull reinforcements from other parts of the line to fill the gap. These would have to come from William Mahone’s Division, and by 9am or 10am, he was meeting with Beauregard and Johnson.

july30aftermath

In this way, the battle raged until around 10am, when Confederate reinforcements arrived. From across the field, General Grant was furious. “There entire opportunity has been lost,” he said to General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the assault, “There is now no chance of success. These troops must be immediately withdrawn. It is slaughter to leave them here.” But Burnside refused to heed Grant’s word.

It was then that Mahone’s reinforcements charged forward. The Federals, by Johnson’s account, were “driven from three-quarters of the trench cavalier and most of the works on the left of the crater, with moderate loss to our forces and heavy losses to the enemy, especially in prisoners.”

The Crater after the war.
The Crater after the war.

The Federal troops inside the crater were a mix of black and white. This was the first time many of the Confederates had seen black troops in battle.

“An enfilading fire was opened upon us by a division of drunken negroes and we were pushed back to another ditch 100 feet to the rear,” wrote Captain John Floyd of the 18th South Carolina, “and though the negroes were drunk and charged as though they were going to eat us up alive, yelling ‘no quarters, remember Fort Pillow,’ we gave them such a volley they were glad to seek shelter in the Crater. […] One more attempt was made to cross the hill towards Petersburg, this time by about 500 negroes led by a white officer, but before they got hardly out of the Crater the officer was killed and the negroes threw down their arms, holding up their hands as a sign of surrender, dashed across the hill towards Petersburg.”

During Mahone’s charge, “a large number of the enemy’s troops, black and white, abandoned the breach and fled precipitately to the rear.” But many did not, and an hour or so later, Mahone would try a second and finally a third time.

With Mahone’s final charge, the crater was cleared, “and resulted in the complete re-establishment of our lines and the capture of many additional prisoners.”

july30explosion

For the prisoners, white and black, it was a frightful scene. Stephen Weld, Lt. Col. of the 56th Massachusetts wrote of his ordeal:

“Pretty soon the rebels yelled, ‘Come out of there, you Yanks.’ I walked out, and the negro who had gone in there with me, and Captain Fay came out also. The negro was touching my side. The rebels were about eight feet from me. They yelled out, ‘Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man’; and the negro was promptly shot down by my side. […] I got over the embankment all right, and was walking to the rear, when I saw a negro soldier ahead of me. Three rebels rushed up to him in succession and shot him through the body. He dropped dead finally at the third shot. It was altogether the most miserable and meanest experience I ever had in my life.”

That black prisoners of war were killed by their Confederate captors was attested to, and even bragged about, by the Confederates themselves. All of the following accounts were written by Confederates who fought in the battle:

“When we got to the works it was filled with negroes and they were crying out ‘no quarter’ when a hand to hand conflict ensued with the breach of our guns and bayonets and you may depend on it we did not show much quarter but slayed them. Some few negoes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.” – Pvt. Dorsey Binion, 48th Georgia.

july30charge

“Such slaughter I have not witnessed upon any battle field any where. Their men were principally Negroes and we shot them down until we got near enough and then run them through with the bayonet. …we was not very particular whether we captured or killed them they only thing we did not like to be pestered berrying the Heathens.” – Matthew N. Love, Confederate, letter to his mother, August 6, 1864.

“Just about the outer end of the ditch by which I had entered stood a negro soldier, a noncommissioned officer (I noticed distinctly his chevrons) begging for his life of two Confederate soldiers who stood by him, one of them striking the poor wretch with a steel ramrod, the other holding a gun in his hand, with which he seemed to be trying to get a shot at the negro. The man with the gun fired at the negro, but did not seem to seriously injure him, as he only clapped his hand to his hip, when he appeared to have been shot, and continued to beg for his life. The man with the ramrod continued to strike the negro therewith, whilst the fellow with the gun deliberately reloaded it, and, placing its muzzle close against the stomach of the poor negro, fired, at which the latter fell limp and lifeless at the feet of the two Confederates.” – George Bernard, 12th Virginia.

“I think over two hundred negroes got into our lines, by surrendering and running in, along with the whites, while the fighting was going on. I don’t believe that much over half of these ever reached the rear. You could see them lying dead all along the route to the rear. There were hardly less than six hundred dead – four hundred of whom were negroes. As soon as we got upon them, they threw down their arms in surrender, but were not allowed to do so. Every bomb proof I saw, had one or two dead negroes in it, who had skulked out the fight and been found and killed by our men. This was perfectly right, as a matter of policy. […] It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so. I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army. I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men.” – Col. William Pegram, commander of the Third Corps Artillery Battalion, letter to his sister, August 1, 1864.

“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 among them. How the negroe’s skulls cracked under the blows.” – William Day, 49th North Carolina.

General William Mahone
General William Mahone

“Negro troops were in the fray, they threw away their guns and attempted to surrender, but our men replied that they had arms and must fight, and continued to shoot them down.” – A.B. Simms, letter to his sister, August 1, 1864.

“[Confederates] were persisting in the final destruction of the quarter undeserving captives, when Gen. Mahone with drawn sabre and awful threats caused them to desist from their barbaroud work. […] Oh! the horrors of war. Oh! the depravity of the human heart; that would cause men to cry out ‘no quarters’ in battle, or not to show any when asked for.” – Pvt. Noble John Brooks, Cobb’s Legion.

“We captured 250 Negroes, all of whom were wounded in some way: Bayoneted, knocked on the head by the butts of muskets. all would have been killed had it not ben for Gen. Mahone, who would beg our men to spare them. one fellow in our Brigade killed several. The Gen. told him for gods sake stop. Well, Gen. let me kill one more, he deliberately took out his pocket knife and cut ones throat. Great many of the yankees officers, even Negroes, were killed on the spot.” – William Cowan McClellan, 9th Alabama.

And so the Battle of the Crater ended. “The effort was a stupendous failure,” wrote Grant in his memoirs. “It cost us about four thousand men, mostly, however, captured; and all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.”

The Federal attackers suffered 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured, while the Confederates sustained 361 killed, 727 wounded, 403 missing or captured.1



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 40, Part 1, p787-788; Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 10; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; Wandering to Glory: Confederate Veterans Remember Evans’ Brigade edited by Dewitt Boyd Stone; War Diary and Letters by Stephen Weld; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; various other sources as cited in the writing. []
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2 thoughts on “‘How the Negroe’s Skulls Cracked’ – the Battle of the Crater

  1. Congratulations on a fine job of research. I’d heard of black troops being killed while trying to surrender at the Crater, but never encountered any details before.

    Also worth noting on this date: the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, after Jubal Early’s “indemnity” of $500,000 in greenbacks or $100,000 in gold was not met.

    1. Thanks. I remember feeling physically ill after writing this post.

      I’ll be covering the aftermath of Chambersburg tomorrow, I think.

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