Monday, August 19, 2019

'Where'll I find the Crater?': A visit to Petersburg in 1881

In 1887, six years after reporter George Morgan's Petersburg visit, 57th Massachusetts veterans
pose at The Crater.  William Mahone, the Confederate brigadier general who led counterattacks 
at The Crater on July 30, 1864 is the man with the cane and long, white beard
 in the front row. (William Tipton | Library of Congress)

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On a tour of Southern battlefields in 1881. Philadelphia Times correspondent George Morgan stopped in Petersburg, Va., where citizens weren't especially eager to talk about momentous Civil War events that occurred there. At least one of them, however, profited from the war: The farmer who owned land where the Federals famously exploded a mine under the Confederates' salient on July 30, 1864, charged visitors a quarter apiece to visit the "historic hole" created by the blast.

Correspondent George Morgan toured Civil War
battlefields in 1881-1882 and wrote about the
experiences for the Philadelphia Times.
His Petersburg story was published in the
 Times on Sept. 5, 1881.
"...he was obliged to charge a fee," Morgan wrote about Timothy R. Griffith, who owned The Crater, "as otherwise his visitors, after the reckless manner of Sunday sight-seers, would trample down his cotton and kill his corn."

The Crater was the feature Civil War attraction in Petersburg, and Morgan unsurprisingly made it one of his first stops. It looked "like an abandoned reservoir," he wrote, "of uneven banks and irregular bottom, overgrown with clumps of briars and bushes. It is one hundred and sixty feet long, sixty feet wide and twenty-five feet deep."

Morgan made no mention of soldier remains at The Crater, where a photograph taken a little more than a decade earlier showed human skulls gruesomely perched on the rim of the giant hole. In visits to forts Damnation, Davis and Rice and elsewhere in the immediate area, the 27-year-old reporter also found plentiful evidence of civil war.

"...every rain," he wrote, "washes out Minie balls and grape [shot] on all the farms between the lines."

Here's Morgan's colorful account -- which includes a caustic assessment of the Union attack at The Crater -- that was published on Page 1 of the Times on Sept. 5, 1881:

Special Correspondence of The Times

Petersburg, September 3

America's Sevastopol, which I make bold to call this place of prolonged siege, seems to me to be a sort of Richmond on a small scale. The streets and stores of this pretty little city on the Appomattox are much like those of the proud beauty on the James: the nooks and crannies of the one suggest those of the other, and there is that in the air here whereby the stranger recognizes the Virginia capital in miniature. In Richmond, however, there may be felt the snap and dash of a lively now South, while at this ancient point of trade there is a hint of Dixie, not altogether unadulterated, but still pleasantly suggestive of the land of "cinnamon seed and sandy bottom."

Though the town is surrounded by the ruins of numerous forts and though many of the people served in the trenches, I find them averse to talking about the siege. Furthermore, those of whom I asked questions apparently fail to appreciate what a big thing they have in the matter of battle-fields. Very likely it is because they have them at their doors and it is the old story of the weather prophet who is not without success save in his own country. It wouldn't be at all wonderful if St. Peter has ceased to admire the golden hinges of his big gate, and no doubt the devil fails to appreciate the interesting section over which he presides.

On the Jerusalem Plank

"Where'll I find the Crater?'' I asked, coming out from the built-up part of the town and emerging upon Jerusalem plank-road.

"Feth, an' am thinkin' yo'll be afther gettin' yer nuff av the crathur beyant there in Jimmy O'Nail's saloon," replied my interlocutor, pointing to a sign whereon "Old Rye," "XX Ale" and things of that kind blazingly figured.

"He don't mean that crater; some other crater," chimed in a small boy; "he moans the big C-r-a-t-e-r, where the Yanks busted a hole in old man Griffith's field."

"Och, bejasus, tho't yo was manin' the livin' liquid herself;" and as I drove on I left the boy telling the citizen how Burnside had wasted his tons of powder. Passing along the Jerusalem road for more than a mile I came to a road that branched off into a field of peanut plants. At the side of the gateway was the sign:


At the end of the field road, a few hundred yards from the sign, I saw a large, roundish bank of red earth topped by shrubs and small trees. Near by is a two-story frame house in which lives T. R. Griffith, the owner of the farm and the guardian of the historic hole. Mr. Griffith led me up the side of the Crater, explaining as he brushed the weeds from the path that for self-protection he was obliged to charge a fee, as otherwise his visitors, after the reckless manner of Sunday sight-seers, would trample down his cotton and kill his corn.

What the Crater looks like

Present-day view of The Crater, on outskirts of Petersburg. (Photo:Shelly Liebler | Visit her Instagram page)
Tunnel dug by 48th Pennsylvania soldiers for a mine placed under Confederate salient nearby.
(Photo: Shelly Liebler)
The land within a half mile in every direction is clear of woods and at this time is checkered by fields of corn, cotton and peanuts and patches of ground that are fallow. Looking to the north the fields slope downward, and so with the strip to the east, but passing a ravine the slope is upward to the Federal line. To the west and south is rising ground, with the city cemetery on the ridge and the city itself beyond. The crater now looks like an abandoned reservoir, of uneven banks and irregular bottom, overgrown with clumps of briars and bushes. It is one hundred and sixty feet long, sixty feet wide and twenty- five feet deep. The earth is brown, with red blotches, being clay sub-soil.

The parapet of the fort remains and serves as the rim and border of the pit. Pine, peach, apple and atlanthus trees, together with grapevines, blackberry bushes and fruitless briars, grow thickly in the hollows, which look as if a herd of wild boars with hundred-horse-power snouts had rooted them out a dozen years ago. Extending from the northeastern corner of the crater in a straight line down hill to the ravine, two hundred yards away, is a sunken, narrow, ditch-like sink in the earth. This is the surface line of the tunnel dug by Schuylkill county soldiers, who had been brought up in mines and who wormed their way from the ravine until they stored thousands of pounds of powder just under this spot. As I sit in the crotch of a peach tree and look at the points of the field, now little changed from the day when it was the scene of a wonderful episode in war, the picture comes vividly up.

How ten tons of powder spoke

Marker denoting 48th Pennsylania soldiers' role in The Crater explosion.
(Photo: Shelly Liebler)
It is not yet sunrise and the defenders are asleep among the traverses and under the guns of the fort. A match, a touch, a hissing fuse and what a thing of mould and force infernal is now let loose. It is as though a young volcano, held in nature's mystery underground, has burst its bonds. The crust is rent by the up-coming bolt and fire flashes through broken clods of earth that fly to mid-air two hundred feet above. Sand, stones, guns, men, everything within reach of the blast, are blown skyward. A brass piece that weighs a ton is sent whirling over the parapet for a hundred yards.

Young Chandler, who an instant before slept beneath the gun, is hurled so high and so far that his bruised body falls within the Union lines. Men die in the air, never knowing in what unwonted and in what sulphurous guise death has unwrapped itself. Answering to the quake that is felt as far as Richmond and that shakes the steeples at Norfolk, a hundred miles away, come the roll and roar of [Ulysses] Grant's artillery. In redan and redoubt [Robert E.] Lee's men are benumbed and shrink lest the old mole has toothed his blind path under other forts and lest instantly now other death-bolts shall start up from the depths. Lee's batteries to the right and left are deserted; the outburst has broken his line and into it a wedge that may end the war in a week can now be driven. The mine itself is a wonder. It does its work with the swift flight of an electric streak that zig-zags across a bank of clouds in summer time, rendering the thunderous acclaim of its own success.

In the death trap

Granite marker near The Crater. The Federals suffered 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing 
or captured  in the battle. Many of the casualties were U.S. Colored Troops. (Photo: Shelly Liebler)
But it is in the driving of the wedge that the gain becomes loss. What thus far has been an immense success now turns to that which is worse than a failure. What is needed is that the wedge shall be driven with Grant's best sledge hammer promptly home. A mass of boasting black men, whose battle-cry of "No quarter!" comes as an echo from Fort Pillow, are sent under a leader unworthy of his uniform to accomplish what only the pick of the army could hope to do. A whole hour is given [Confederate General William] Mahone in which to throw himself into the breech. Lee's artillery is again manned and hotly begins to work.

Union troops advance toward The Crater after the explosion
of the mine. (Alfred Waud | Library of Congress)
Poor devils of black men from shouting "No quarter" now shriek wild prayers for pity. Boasting becomes beseeching. The miserable wretches are bayoneted by friends and shot down by the foe. Without head or order the entrapped victims huddle close about the gap in the ground, seeking shelter behind heaps of upturn earth and even shielding themselves vainly with the bodies of dead comrades. The crater is a death-trap. From many batteries, where lurid gleams come through shrouds of smoke, shot and shell are hailed incessantly, and what was a spot of triumph is now a slaughter-pen a place of torn earth, soaked in the blood of four thousand men.

[Read historian Kevin Levin's detailed account of the Battle of the Crater. Levin's book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, may be purchased here.] 

Forts Hell and Damnation

Monument denoting the role of Fort Stedman, a Union fortification at Petersburg. 
(Photo: Shelly Liebler)
The Crater is the main object of interest on the lines of fortifications and it is more frequently visited than Forts Steadman, Haskell and Sedgwick, which lie within sight to the north and cast. There are traces of Fort McGilver far beyond Fort Steadman and the outlines of the latter are just as distinctly marked. All the traverses have been removed and all the covered ways destroyed, for Fort Hell, as the armies nicknamed the Steadman redoubt, is now a garden wherein truck is raised for the Petersburg market. A farm house has been erected in the enclosure and O.P. Hare now peacefully dwells where Gordon and havoc once swept along. [Note: Fort Sedgwick was nicknamed "Fort Hell," not Fort Stedman.]

Fort Haskell is in better preservation than any other of the Federal redoubts. Pine trees grow in and around the enclosure and both the inner and outer works with a little use of the shovel could be made as formidable as in the days of death. Many of the oaks in the vicinity contain bullets. nor is it unusual to pick up rusty reminders of battle anywhere along the line from that point southward to Fort Sedgwick. Only half of that famous place of strength now remains. It was built across the Jerusalem road on two plantations.

The part on Mr. Griger's farm was long ago leveled and is now in corn, but the half on the east side still stands. Mahone's Fort Damnation shows many remnants. Fort Davis is in good condition, and Fort Rice has suffered little from the wear and tear of time. In this way the curious visitor might follow the lines of defense and contravallation down to Hatcher's Run and the Five Forks field. Wherever the land was cultivated before the war the works have been levolod, but where the lines passed through woods the works are very much as they were when abandoned. In the high and rolling lands the woods contain white oak, red oak, poplar and hickory, but in the light, sandy soil grow pines, ash, elm and buttonwood. At points where a link in the chain of fortifications is missing the line may be traced by the color of the sub-soil. Where the land is tilled most of the shells and bits of lead have been picked up, yet every rain washes out Minie balls and grape on all the farms between the lines.

Present-day view of Fort Stedman, better known as Fort Hell. (Photo: Shelly Liebler)

Pink blossoms and white

There is a delightful thing about Petersburg that never before has been mentioned in print. The city is bordered in its suburbs by a long bolt of peach trees which, in the spring, turn myriad white blossoms out to the sun and thus give a beautiful girdle to the place once trussed with bands of iron and cordons of steel. In that long and weary year of watchfulness the Southern soldiers were glad to get fruit and the best things that came to them from the Carolinas were peaches, whereof the pink flesh was sweeter than honey-dew. The kernels were dropped upon the battle-ground; the army tramped sorely on to Appomattox; winter came again, and then from the trenches sprang fruit trees that have flourished to this day. Down in the sunny South there is a kind of peach that shows a white bud; elsewhere the blossom is touched with pink. All other peach trees around Petersburg have the pink flower, and the battle-field peach thus keeps its mark and proud distinction. So now, starting from the river at the north, Lee's line may be traced for six miles or more by the far-reaching orchard planted in blood.


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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating accounts. Was there a few years back.