John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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learned to fear more danger from minie balls than from
mortar-shells. There was little chance of a shell s falling
upon the men, for they could see it and get out of the
way. Unless it did actually strike some one in its descent,
the earth was so tunneled and pitted that it was apt to fall
into some depression, where its fragments would be stopped
and rendered harmless by the surrounding walls of dirt.
Iron was becoming scarce. As inducement to collecting
scrap-iron for our cannon foundries, furloughs were
offered, a day for so many pounds collected. Thus, gath
ering fragments of shell became an active industry among
the troops. So keen was their quest that sometimes they
would start towards the point where a mortar-shell fell,
even before it exploded.

Such was life in the trenches before Petersburg. Look
ing back at it now, one wonders that everybody was not
killed, or did not die from exposure. But, at the time, no
man there personally expected to be killed, and there was
something nobody can define what it was which made
the experience by no means so horrible as it now seems.
I doubt if all these little things made such deep impres
sions upon older men. I was very young, very much inter
ested, and, being without defined duties or command,
could come and go as I saw fit ; and so, I fancy, it was
not so irksome to me as it must have been to those more

All during the month of July, the fact that the enemy
was mining in our front was discussed and accepted by
the troops. How soldiers get their information is one of
the mysteries of the service, yet they are often in posses
sion of more accurate knowledge than those high in au
thority. For some time the reports about the mine were
exceedingly vague. More than one Union picket had


hinted at a purpose to " send you to Heaven soon," or
threatened that they were " going to blow you up next
week." For some time, no less than three salients were
discussed as the possible points. Our engineers had some
sort of information, for countermining was begun at all
these salients ; but, for some unknown reason, it was
abandoned. Their information must, however, have been
more or less definite concerning the Elliott salient, for,
while they abandoned countermining, they did erect a
gorge line, or retrenched cavalier, at this point, and planted
batteries of eight and ten inch Coehorn mortars bearing
upon the spot. The gorge line was a curved line of para
pet in rear of the salient, connecting with the main line
of our breastworks ; so that, if the salient should be blown
up, our troops could occupy the gorge line in rear, and
resist an assault at the breach. Placing the Coehorn mor
tars so as to command the salient showed that the explo
sion was apprehended. And these evidences of knowledge
made it all the more surprising that the men and guns
in this salient were not removed back to the gorge line in
time to save them. Whatever doubts the engineers may
have felt, the privates knew where the works were being
mined. Elliott s men told the fellows on the left of our
brigade all about it long before the explosion. Our men
would go down there, and, lying on the ground with
Elliott s men, would listen to the work going on below,
and come back and tell all about it.

About daybreak, July 30, the mine was exploded. We
were so accustomed to extraordinary explosions that no
thing short of an earthquake would have occasioned sur
prise. At our quarters, the sound was not extraordinary,
although we were only about two miles distant ; and I have
frequently heard General Mahone, whose headquarters
were along the lines about the same distance from the


mine as our own, say the same thing. It was fully half
past six o clock when a messenger from our own brigade
arrived announcing the explosion, the breach in the line
to the left of my father s brigade, and the very perilous
situation of our army.

This was the outcome of a long and patient series of
operations on the part of the Union forces. When Peters
burg was first attacked, our army had been driven from
certain positions on an outer or more extended line of
defenses. About one hundred yards in front of Elliott s
salient, the second division of Burnside s corps (Ninth)
occupied a heavy line of rifle-pits, from which we had
retired. Behind these rifle-pits, which originally faced to
the east, the ground dipped, so that operations at that
point were fairly well concealed. The troops located there
were the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment, recruited in the
Schuylkill mining districts, and commanded by Lieuten
ant-Colonel Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer. He it
was who conceived the idea of sinking the mine.

While he secured official sanction of his plan, he
seems never to have had official support. General Meade
and his chief of engineers spoke of it contemptuously ;
and Pleasants, in his testimony before the Committee on
the Conduct of the War, complained bitterly of lack of
assistance. Notwithstanding all obstacles, the mine was
complete by July 23. It consisted of a shaft 510 feet
long, with lateral galleries under our works 38 and 37
feet long respectively ; in these, 320 kegs of powder, con
taining 25 pounds each, in all 8000 pounds, were
placed, and preliminary to the explosion, 81 heavy guns
and mortars and over 80 light guns of the Union army
were brought to bear on the position to be mined and

General Grant was by this time fully aroused to the


dignity of the assault, and, in order to divert General
Lee, made a demonstration in force on the north side
of the James. General Sheridan with the cavalry and
General Hancock with a corps of infantry were sent
across the James, necessitating the withdrawal by Gen
eral Lee from in front of Petersburg of all his forces,
except the divisions of Bushrod Johnson and Hoke, and
two brigades of Mahone s division. General Lee, in fact,
had left to defend Petersburg, on the morning of the
mine explosion, but 13,000 men. It is proper I should
state that, in the many accounts from which I compiled
this narrative, none is so terse, and none so fortified by
historic data, as that of Captain Gordon McCabe, of
Petersburg ; and, while I have not that paper before me,
I am following it so closely that I should be liable to the
accusation of plagiarism if I did not make this acknow

Grant quietly recalled Hancock the night of July 29,
and had him in supporting distance of Burnside when
the mine was fired. The plan of attack was for Burn-
side to assault ; Ord on his right and Warren on his left
were to close in and sustain him. The preparations were
elaborate. The assaulting column numbered 15,000 men,
and the supports brought the aggregate Union forces em
ployed up to 65,000 men. Burnside s negro division was
at first considered for leading, but the final determina
tion was to let the white troops take the advance, and the
choice fell by lot to the division of Major-General Ledlie,
who has been so severely denounced by his own com
mander and comrades that I will not discuss his merits
or demerits. The columns were massed for the attack
overnight, and the fuse of the mine was lighted about
3.30 A. M.

The ragged remnant of the Confederate army still left


before Petersburg enjoyed unusual repose that night,
for the firing along the lines had almost ceased. A long
delay ensued. After waiting more than an hour for the
explosion, two Union soldiers, at the risk of their lives,
crawled into the gallery of the mine and found that the
fuse had failed ; they relit it and returned. Colonel
Pleasants and his friends stood watching with intense
solicitude the culmination of their five weeks labors;
fifteen thousand Union troops stood in hushed expect
ancy behind the Union parapets, under orders that the
moment after the explosion they should leap the breast
works and advance across ground upon which, for weeks,
certain death had awaited any man who trod it, and
mount into those lines whence their oft-tried foe had
so lono- hurled defiance. While this was the condition


of the Union troops, the Confederate infantrymen and
cannoneers at the doomed salient slept on, as the fuse
sparkled and sputtered inch by inch towards the four
tons of gunpowder which were to rend with the violence
of an earthquake the spot on which they were resting.

" There she goes ! " exclaimed one of the watchers.
The ground trembled for an instant ; an immense mass
of earth, cannon, timbers, human beings, and smoke shot
skyward, paused for an instant in mid-air, illumined by
the flash of the explosion ; and, bursting asunder, fell
back into and around the smoking pit. The dense cloud
of smoke drifted off, tinged by the first faint rays of sun
rise; a silence like that of death succeeded the tremen
dous report. Nearly three hundred Confederates were
buried in the debris of the crater ; their comrades on
either side adjacent to the fatal spot fled from a sight so
much resembling the day of judgment. To the south of
the crater, our lines were unmanned even as far as our
brigade, and a similar condition existed on its northern


side ; at least three hundred yards of our lines were de
serted by their defenders, and left at the mercy of the
assaulting columns. Beyond that breach not a Confed
erate infantryman stood to dispute their passage into the
heart of Petersburg. A prompt advance in force, a
gallant dash, not into the crater, but around it and
three hundred yards beyond it, would have crowned the
great explosion with a victory worthy of its grandeur.
From the eminence where Blandf ord church and cemetery
stood, in rear of the mine, Grant s forces might, within
ten minutes after the mine was sprung, have looked
backward upon the Confederates, stunned, paralyzed,
and separated ; and, looking forward, they might have
seen the coveted city undefended and at their mercy.

The imbecility which marked the commencement of
the assault, the folly which crowned its conduct, cannot
be explained save by the incompetency of General Burn-
side. What occurred led to a bitter controversy be
tween himself and General Meade ; and General Grant
is upon record as declaring that General Ledlie, who
commanded the leading division, was unfit for the task
assigned to him. Certain it is that General Meade,
the commander of the army ; ought not to have taken
personal charge of the advance ; and equally certain it
is that General Burnside, intrusted with the conduct
of a movement of such moment, ought to have super
intended and led it in person. A soldier like Picton,
or Ney, or Stonewall Jackson, or Phil Sheridan, would
never have frittered away an opportunity so glorious
by directing subordinates from a distant position of
safety. One can picture to himself the way in which
any one of a hundred great military lieutenants would
have seen and availed himself of this rare chance for
immortal fame. The very silence of the Confederates


after the explosion was in itself the loud-mouthed voice
of opportunity, calling in tones which military genius
would not have failed to recognize. One can almost see
the quick rush of the assaulting columns through the
uncleared smoke of the crater, as they would have come
under a real leader ; and can almost hear their cheering
as they mounted the abandoned trenches, paying no
attention to the pit of their own making, but pressing
on beyond it without pause until in full possession of the
position in our rear. The commanding generals knew
the importance of such a course. General Burnside had
explicit instructions to pursue it. If he had once shown
himself at the head of his command, whether it was
organized or disorganized, it might, could, and would
have followed him to his objective point, and could and
would have carried his advantage to its legitimate results.
Yet, in the whole history of war, no enterprise so auspi
ciously begun ever resulted in a conclusion more lame
and impotent.

The Union troops designated for the assault, instead
of drawing inspiration from the sight of the breach they
had effected, actually appeared to recoil from the havoc.
For some time no demonstration followed the explosion ;
when they finally advanced, it was not with the eager
ness of grenadiers or guardsmen, but with rushes and
pauses of uncertainty ; and when they reached our lines,
instead of treating the opening as a mere passageway to
their objective point beyond, they halted, peeped, and
gaped into the pit, and then, with the stupidity of sheep,
followed their bell-wethers into the crater itself, where,
huddled together, all semblance of organization vanished,
and company, regimental, and brigade commanders lost
all power to recognize, much less control, their respective
troops. Meade, from his position a mile away, was de-


manding of Burnside why he did not advance beyond the
crater to the Blandford cemetery. Burnside, safely in the
Union lines, and separated from his assaulting columns,
was replying that difficulties existed, difficulties which
he could not specify, for the double reason that he did not
know what they were, and that they did not in fact exist.

If he, the well-known corps commander, had but shown
himself and placed himself at the head of his troops,
there was no obstacle in the way of that advance for
fully three hours after his troops were in full possession
of our works. True, he might have been killed ; the
chance was, however, remote under the circumstances,
but that was a legitimate contingency connected with the
business he had undertaken. Whether killed or not,
his presence would have put his column in motion and
accomplished the object, instead of leaving his command
to headless and huddled disaster. Many a soldier would
have deemed it a privilege to risk his life in averting
the slaughter of that day, and in converting a threatened
rout into a brilliant victory.

But, if Burnside was deficient on the aggressive, the
Confederate officer in command of the division defending


the position was a Roland for his Oliver.

Bushrod Johnson held the rank of major-general.
How he gained it, or why he retained it, whether by
accident or favoritism, is unimportant ; he had under
him as gallant troops as ever fought. Elliott s South
Carolinians, Gracie s Alabamians, our own beloved bri
gade, were ready to do and die whenever called upon,
and to follow wherever dauntless leadership directed ; but
to their division commander they were almost strangers.
He selected headquarters at a house in rear of the lines.
It was tucked under the hill by the roadside, just north of
the Blandford cemetery, and there he had remained, vege-


tating, without any friendly intercourse with his command,
or communicating with it save through official channels.
Seldom, if ever, was the man seen in the trenches ; he
was barely known by sight to his men ; toward him they
felt no affection, of his prowess they had no evidence,
and in his ability they felt no confidence. So slight was
the dependence of his brigadiers upon him, so little their
habit of communication, so indifferent his own conduct,
that when General Lee, some hours after the mine had
been exploded, reached General Johnson s headquarters,
Johnson knew no details of the disaster, or of the dis
positions made to repair it, although it was his own
division that was involved, and the enemy over the hill
was not four hundred yards distant. If the enemy
had pressed forward at any time within two hours after
the explosion, they would in all probability have found
General Bushrod Johnson in bed. When General Lee
arrived about eight o clock, he found him actually igno
rant of the peril.

But the merciful Gods of War, if they permit such
people as Burnside and Johnson to masquerade as mili
tary men, atone for it by furnishing others whose bril
liant deeds divert us from pity for incompetents.

General Elliott promptly disposed the portion of his
brigade left to him in the traverses commanding the
crater ; Colonel Goode, commanding our brigade, concen
trated on his left flank, and with the fragment of Elliott s
brigade, which was driven into ours by the explosion,
opened a brisk fire upon the assailants. From our ten-
inch and eight-inch mortars in the rear of the line, a
most accurate fire was opened upon the troops in the
breach ; and our batteries to north and south began
to pour a deadly storm of shell and canister upon their
crowded masses. The situation looked desperate for us,


nevertheless, for it was all our infantry could do to hold
their lines, and not a man coidd be spared to meet an
advance upon Blandford cemetery heights, which lay
before the Union troops. At this juncture, heroic John
Haskell, of South Carolina, came dashing up the plank
road with two light batteries, and from a position near the
cemetery began the most effective work of the day.

Exposed to the batteries and sharpshooters of the
enemy, he and his men gave little heed to danger. Has
kell, in his impetuous and ubiquitous gallantry, dashed
and flashed about : first here, next there, like Ariel on
the sinking ship. Now he darted into the covered way
to seek Elliott, and implore an infantry support for his
exposed guns; Elliott, responding to his appeal, was
severely wounded as he attempted with a brave handful of
his Carolinians to cover Haskell s position ; now Haskell
cheered Lampkin, who had already opened with his eight-
inch mortars ; now he hurried back to Planner, where he
had left him, and found him under a fire so hot that in
mercy he resolved to retire all his guns but six, and call
for volunteers to man them, but that was not the temper
of Lee s army: every gun detachment volunteered to
remain. Hurrying to the right again, he found but one
group of cowards in his whole command, and these he
replaced by Hampton Gibbs, and Captain Sam Pres
ton of our brigade, whose conspicuous bravery more than
atoned for the first defection ; both fell desperately
wounded, and were replaced by peerless Hampden Cham-
berlayne, who left the hospital to hurry to the fight, and
won promotion by the brilliancy of his behavior ; again,
like Ariel, Haskell, almost superhuman in the energy
of his defense, " flamed amazement " upon the foe, and
staggered him with k the fire and crack of sulphurous
roaring" until help came. To whomsoever else honor


may be due for that day s work, the name of Haskell
should never be dissociated from it, for he was a born
and a resourceful artilleryman, and knew no such thing
as fear.

Where were the Confederate commanders during all
this time ? Bushrod Johnson was near by, but nobody
considered him ; Generals Lee and Beauregard had their
headquarters on the north side of the Appomattox. It
was fully six o clock before General Lee heard the news,
from Colonel Paul, of Beauregard s staff ! Colonel Paul
lived in Petersburg, and, being at home that night and
learning of the disaster, galloped out and informed Gen
eral Lee as he was sitting down to his breakfast. Before
Lee even knew of the occurrence, General Meade had had
time to converse with prisoners captured at the crater,
and to advise Burnside that Blandford cemetery was
unprotected ; that none of our troops had returned from
the James ; that his chance was now ; and to implore him
to move forward at all hazards, lose no time in making
formations, and rush for the crest.

General Lee immediately sent Colonel Venable, of his
staff, direct to Mahone, with instructions to come with
two brigades of his division to Blandford cemetery to
support the artillery. The urgency was so great that he
did not transmit the order through General Hill, the
corps commander. Mounting his horse, General Lee
proceeded to Bushrod Johnson s headquarters, which he
reached about seven A. M., but the information obtained
from him was valueless : he knew nothing of the extent
of the disaster, and had not even been to the front, he
probably learned more from General Lee than he knew
himself. Then General Lee was joined by General Hill,
and they passed into the lines at a traverse near the
Rives salient, where Colonel Venable found them sitting.


Meanwhile, Venable had communicated with Mahone,
and Mahone, always cunning, had retired his two brigades
from the lines so quietly that General Warren, opposite to
him, reported that no troops had been withdrawn from his
front. The Virginia and Georgia brigades of Mahone s
division were the troops selected. The message to Ma
hone was to send them, but he insisted that he should go
with them. They passed rapidly by way of a ravine from
Mahone s position on the lines covering the Jerusalem
plank road to a point in rear of the crater. The Vir
ginia brigade, commanded by Weisiger, led. It was now
eight o clock. One cannot but think of what might have
happened during all this time, if Burnside had acted upon
Meade s urgent appeals.

The appearance of this infantry was balm and solace
to the artillery blazing away upon the crest just above
them. For hours they had been fighting there, almost
decimated by the artillery concentrated upon them, and
the distant firing of sharpshooters. They could not have
withstood even a feeble assault of infantry, and had ex
pected it during every minute they had been engaged : the
coming of Mahone was their deliverance. With but an
instant s pause in the ravine to strip for battle, Mahone s
division, headed by their gallant little general, clambered
up the slope, crossed the Jerusalem road, and passed in
single file at double-quick into a covered way. There
was no cheering, and no gaudy flaunting of uniforms or
standards ; with them, war s work had become too grim
and too real for all that. In weather-worn and ragged
clothes, with hats whose brims could shade their eyes for
deadly aim, with bodies hardened down by march and
exposure to race-horse lines, they came, not with the
look or feelings of mercenaries, but like anxious, earnest
men whose souls were in their work, who knew what the


crisis was, and who were anxious to perform the task
which that crisis demanded. Agile as cats, they sprang
across the road and entered the covered way ; as they
skipped by, many a fellow kissed his hand to the artil
lerymen to right and left, or strained on tiptoe to catch
sight of the ground in front, before entering the sheltered
passage. For the first time during the day, a line of
infantry was between our guns and the enemy ; and the
boys at the guns, knowing what reliance could be placed
upon Mahone s veterans, took new heart and new cour
age, and pounded away with redoubled energy.

Venable parted with Mahone at the mouth of the cov
ered way, and, seeking General Lee, informed him that
Mahone was up, and proposed to lead his two brigades
in person. The general expressed his gratification, and
gave a sigh of relief. Soon leaving the Rives salient,
General Lee rode to the point in the covered way at
which Mahone had entered, and, dismounting, proceeded
on foot to a house at Lampkin s mortar battery, about
two hundred and fifty yards from the crater. The house
was riddled by shot and shell ; from a window in its base
ment Generals Lee and Beauregard observed the fight.
The ground from the crater sloped to the north and west
into a little ravine, into which the covered way, by which
Mahone had entered, debouched ; in this hollow Mahone
formed his troops for battle, the Virginia brigade on the

Springing quickly from the covered way, the eight hun
dred Virginians lay flat upon the ground. The Geor
gians were forming on their right. Before the Georgians
could come into position, the enemy, occupying our gorge
line, succeeded in forming an attacking column, and
advanced to the assault. Weisiger, commanding the Vir
ginians, was a grim, determined man. Our boys were


lying down within one hundred and sixty yards of the
works, and saw within them a vast throng of Union troops,
and counted eleven Union flags. A gallant Union officer,
seizing a stand of Union colors, leaped upon their breast
works and called upon his men to charge. Fully realizing
the paucity of his own numbers, and the danger of being
overwhelmed by the mass of the enemy if they poured
down upon him, Weisiger determined to anticipate the

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 26 of 35)