“That Crater During That Day I Shall Never Forget”

General Bartlett

“We storm the works tomorrow at daylight. Our Division leads. I hardly dare hope to live through it. God have mercy. . . If I could only ride, or had two legs, so I could lead my brigade, I believe they would follow me anywhere. I will try as it is. God have pity on dear mother, Agnes, and all loved ones.”[i]

William Francis Bartlett penned those words in his diary on July 29, 1864. He had spent part of his afternoon at the division headquarters and knew what was planned for the following day. His journal entries and published letters from late July have a desperation and almost a belief that it will be impossible to survive.

He had returned to front about ten days previous, after recovering from injuries sustained at the Battle of The Wilderness. It was a typical pattern in Bartlett’s war service: wounded, recuperate, return. The 21-year-old had enlisted in 1861 in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. The slaughter and confusion at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861 forged his leadership and also left him as one of the few unscathed officers in the regiment. In the coming months, many of the men and other officers in the 20th Massachusetts credited Bartlett with holding the unit together and readying them the spring campaign, believing they would follow the young captain anywhere. On April 24, 1862, while waiting near Yorktown, Virginia, Bartlett went to a forward observation post; there, a Confederate sharpshooter’s bullet struck him while in crouched in a kneeling position. The bullet hit the knee and splintered the lower bones of the left leg. Doctors amputated the limb and sent Bartlett home where he spent the summer recovering and completing his degree from Harvard.

Fitted with a prosthetic leg, Bartlett returned to the army, readying the 49th Massachusetts for action. He became their colonel and took them to battle in Louisiana. At the Battle of Port Hudson on May 27, 1863, Bartlett decided to lead his regiment into combat on horseback since he could not run the attack distance. He left the field wounded again, this time in the left wrist and right foot. Against the odds, he kept his arm, lived through fever and infection, and decided to return to active military service.

As the Overland Campaign opened in May 1864, Bartlett rode at the head of the 57th Regiment. His time with the Army of Potomac ended quickly on May 6 in The Wilderness. A head wound and a bad fall that injured the left leg’s stump forced him from active campaigning until mid-July. Bartlett returned to the siege lines around Petersburg just in time to take command of a brigade and pleased with his promotion to brigadier general which he had received in June.

Arriving in Petersburg that July, the newly-promoted brigadier general walked into a scene that others had been staging for weeks. The previous month Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry had taken a look at the Confederate lines and at the Virginia soil, devising a scheme to dig a mine and blow up a portion of the enemy’s fortifications.[ii] Eventually, Generals Burnside and Meade gave their stamp of approval for the project, though the details of the detonation and any following attacks seemed unclear.

Vague rumors ran through the Federal corps, but very few soldiers actual knew the truth. By July 23, the mine’s chambers were completed, removing an estimated 18,000 cubic feet of dirt.[iii] The request for 12,000 pounds of black powder followed.[iv]

Meanwhile, in the Confederate lines, suspicions ran high. Some officers seriously believed that Union troops were digging mines. Others dismissively disregarded odd observations. Confederate dug counter shafts and tried various methods of locating the Yankee’s project, but without success. The listening poles, tooth pegs, and dozens of feet of explorative underground galleries produced no decisive proof that the there were enemy troops beneath their feet. Colonel Edward Porter Alexander had advised General Robert E. Lee that he believed Pegram’s Salient faced subterranean danger, but throughout July, the Confederates strengthened that position, little realizing that those reinforcements walked on powder kegs.

Bartlett’s return coincided with the Union’s high command considerations of what to do next to break the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Although he did not take part in the strategic planning, the results of those meetings would directly impact his command and his personal life. While waiting, Bartlett and his men lived under near-constant fire. He wrote about bullets regularly hitting the logs that surrounded his headquarters and his considerations if he would live through the nights or be killed by a stray bullet or shell fragment in his sleep.[v] From his correspondence and journaling, Bartlett did not evidence a fear of death by this point in the war; rather, he seemed to accept that he would not make it out alive. The constant fire played havoc on his mind and he worried how his mother and his fiancée—Agnes—would respond if he was killed or injured again.

General Grant directed his cavalry and the Union II Corps to march east and cross the James River to threaten that portion of the Confederate line and force them to shift troops. The unsuccessful movement resulted in fighting at Deep Bottom and no Union successes. Annoyed by the lack of progress, Grant and Meade turned their attention back to Burnside’s tunnel which was already lined with explosives.

General James Ledlie

The council of war resulted in arguments and literally drawing names out of a hat to determine who would lead the assault.[vi] Though regiments of African-American troops had wanted to lead the attack and had possibly even been doing some forms of training, they were moved from the first line into the support waves.[vii] Instead, General James H. Ledlie’s First Division of the IX Corps would spearhead the attack after the mine’s explosion; General William Francis Bartlett commanded the First Brigade in Ledlie’s Divison and Colonel Elisha Marshall led the Second. Supporting Ledlie, the other divisions of the IX Corps commanded by Potter, Wilcox, and Ferrero would follow. Divisions of the V Corps waited in support and parts of the II Corps could be called upon, if needed. The plans called for the explosives in the mine to detonate, followed by an artillery barrage from General Henry Hunt’s massed cannons. Then the infantry would move forward, pushing further into the Confederate lines and ideally breaking them.

Problems existed in the planning and continued as the generals returned to their divisions to explain things to their brigade commanders. Ledlie met with Bartlett and Marshall shortly before dark on July 29.[viii] Contradictions occurred that would later be identified, but that the brigade leaders could have no way of recognizing. Meade and Burnside’s orders—as they were supported to be relayed through Ledlie—were to secure the edges of the expected crater, but specifically to not enter the yawning hole. Four days after the attack, Ledlie would admit that he told his officers to “move through the breach to be made by the mine and then to press forward and occupy the hill beyond.”[ix]

Based on what he heard from Ledlie, Bartlett thought he should enter the crater, get to the other side, and secure the top of the deadly hole. He couldn’t ride in this type of attack, so he would have to lead on foot and prosthetic limb. The best he could promise was “to try.” At some point in the event, he wrote in his diary and then spent the rest of the dark hours getting his troops into position. His brigade would follow Marshall’s in the coming attack. The First Brigade had approximately 1,800 men total, the 21st, 29th, 56th, 57th, and 59th Massachusetts Infantry, the 100th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 35th Massachusetts Engineers.[x]

Bartlett and the others waiting to attack knew that the mine explosion was delayed, but they did not know at the time that the fuse had burned out and had to be relit. When it finally detonated, Pegram’s Salient exploded high into the air, killing and tearing apart the Confederate soldiers in the direct path of the upheaval. While others took time to marvel at the horrible destruction, Bartlett’s diary writings moved directly into his role and attack:

Mine sprung at 4.40. We rushed across the open field. I got up to the enemy’s works about as soon as any one. Got into the crater. Took the first and second lines of the enemy. Held them till after one, when we were driven back by repeated charges. I fought them for an hour after they held the whole line, excepting the crater where we were, their flag within seven feet of ours across the work. They threw bayonets and bottles on us, and we returned, for we got out of ammunition.[xi]

A sketch of Union troops heading toward The Crater on the morning of July 30. (Library of Congress)

Marshall and Bartlett’s brigades did what they thought they were supposed to do, moved into The Crater to cross it and push into the Confederate lines. However, that proved impossible. The Confederates rallied, and led by General William Mahone headed for the broken line. They found Union troops trapped in the debris pit.

Confederate General William Mahone

Back in the Union lines, Generals Ledlie and Ferrero both sought shelter in a “bomb-proof” and, according to some eye-witness accounts, spent the day drinking while their soldiers struggled to make sense of the orders they had received and adapt the fight as bullets rained down on their exposed position. Bartlett personally tried to keep the Fourth Division with its regiments of African American soldiers from entering The Crater, but eventually many of them joined their other comrades in blue in the death trap.[xii] Cries of “No Quarter” and “Remember Fort Pillow” echoed from the black soldiers as Union regiments struggled out of The Crater or tried to fire back from their current positions. As the Confederates counterattacked and regained their position around the large hole blown in their line, desperate fights, panicked retreats, and racial atrocities created a brutal conflict.

According to Bartlett, “At last, to save further slaughter, there being no hope of our being rescued, we gave it up. That crater during that day I shall never forget. A shell knocked down a bowlder of clay on to my wood leg and crushed it to pieces, killing the man next me. I surrendered to General Mahone.”[xiii]

Bartlett had lived through the day, but nearly 3,800 Union soldiers had fallen while Confederate losses totaled around 1,500. The young general did not return to headquarters, and for many weeks, he did not discuss the near-senseless debacle at The Crater with other officers. Still, it weighed on his mind during his imprisonment. In a letter to his mother written from prison at Danville, Virginia, Bartlett confessed, “I hope no blame is given me for the failure of Saturday. I certainly did all in my power. I held the pit with hardly any force after the rest of the line had been retaken. The rebel flag was within six feet of mine, just the ridge of dirt between, for nearly an hour. It was impossible to withdraw without sacrificing all the men, so I held on as long as possible in hope of reinforcements. The negroes were crowded into the same pit with us when they retreated in such confusion….”[xiv]

Bartlett believed that he received exceptionally bad treatment from his Confederate captors because he was taken prisoner with Black soldiers. Though he did not command African American regiments, the Confederates did not particularly differentiate at that point and carried out their harsh treatment of Black men in Union uniform and those white officers who were with them. Immobile without his prosthetic or crutches, Bartlett “slept in a field of stones,” was robbed, deprived of food and water, and treated worse than cattle.[xv] Shipped by train to Danville, Virginia, he was placed in an open tent for medical care and nearly died of disease before he was transported to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. In the autumn of 1864, Bartlett was exchanged and sent north, but the effects of his prison illnesses and mistreatment lingered for the rest of his life and contributed to his death in 1876 at age 36.

The Battle of The Crater on July 30, 1864, was Bartlett’s last military combat. Positioned second in line for attack and given faulty orders, he and his men paid the price for the strategists’ errors and miscommunications. Clearly perceiving the tactical problems as the morning’s battle unfolded, he tried to keep other troops from entering The Crater, but eventually had to surrender in an attempt to save the soldiers still alive.

Bartlett tried, and his hopes for Divine pity were granted. He lived to see his mother and his fiancée again, but ultimately the effects of his imprisonment and harsh treatment from being captured at The Crater would kill him twelve years later. But on that that July day, he led his brigade…and they followed anywhere, even into The Crater.

Sources:

[i] Francis W. Palfrey, Memoir of William Francis Bartlett, (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1879), 118.

[ii] A. Wilson Greene, A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume One, From The Crossing of the James to the Crater, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 373.

[iii] Ibid., 390.

[iv] Ibid., 390.

[v] Francis W. Palfrey, Memoir of William Francis Bartlett, (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1879), 116.

[vi] A. Wilson Greene, A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume One, From The Crossing of the James to the Crater, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 422.

[vii] Ibid., 398.

[viii] Ibid., 425.

[ix] Ibid., 426.

[x] Ibid., 427.

[xi] Francis W. Palfrey, Memoir of William Francis Bartlett, (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1879), 118-119.

[xii] A. Wilson Greene, A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume One, From The Crossing of the James to the Crater, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 461.

[xiii] Francis W. Palfrey, Memoir of William Francis Bartlett, (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1879), 121-123.

[xiv] Ibid., 121-123.

[xv] Ibid., 120.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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6 Responses to “That Crater During That Day I Shall Never Forget”

  1. Henry Flemming says:

    ” But on that that July day, he led his brigade…and they followed anywhere, even into The Crater.” WOW! WOW WOW WOW. That is my kind of writing.

    • Henry Flemming says:

      This harkens to me of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the English king’s St Crispian’s Day Speech the morning of the battle of Agincourt against the French, “He that outlives this day and comes safe home will stand a tiptoe when this day is named…” Apologies in advance to the great bard for “what if he had written for the Battle of the Crater instead of Agincourt,”… “He that shall live this day and see old age will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors and say, ‘Tomorrow is The Crater Day.’ Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars and say, ‘These wounds I had at The Crater.’ Old men forget and all shall be forgot, but he’ll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day.”

  2. Bob Lapolla says:

    This was really interesting. I was not familiar with general Bartlett . Such a dapper looking fellow. The rakish hat . How did he cinch his belt that tight???

  3. grandadpookers says:

    SKB always does a great job with “human interest ” stories. The Crater defies reasoning, no doubt borne out of frustration and extreme exhaustion after a horrendous Overland Campaign.

  4. Katy Berman says:

    Great story, powerfully told.

  5. Todd Berkoff says:

    Very well written. Thank you for stating that his time in prison and the lingering effects of his wounds would eventually kill him by age 36. Incredibly, despite his harsh treatment in Libby Prison, Bartlett was a voice of reconciliation after the war and his speeches to southern audiences are worth reading. He was a remarkable man.

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