Title: George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 9 August 1864
Date: August 9, 1864
Source: The transcription presented here is derived from George Washington Whitman, Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, ed. Jerome M. Loving (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 126-129. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
Whitman Archive ID: duk.00359
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Kathryn Kruger, Gillian Price, and April Lambert
In front of Petersburg Va
10 Oclock Tuesday night Aug 9th/641
I have just come in from the front, where we have been on picket for the last 48 hours, and as everything is quiet, and I dont care to turn in just yet, I will do as I promised the last time I wrote, (I see by Walts letter of Aug. 4th that you got mine all right,) and tell you something about our fight here on the 30th of last Month.
Well Mother, to begin at the begining, you must know that for 4 or 5 weeks before the great blow up came off, one of the Regts, of our Brigade (the 48th Penn.) had been at work digging a mine, starting about 100 feet in rear of the line that our Regt. occupies when on picket, and running under a rebel fort, just to the left and front of us, and about 175 yeards from where the mine started. This was quite a great undertaking and as I understand, pronounced by the regular Engineers of the Potomac Army as not at all likely to suceed, but the Regt. that had the work in charge are nearly all Coal Miners from Penn. and their Lieut. Col. (Pleasants) was a mining Engineer at home, so they just kept on at their work, and on the 29th of last month, the thing was all charged and ready to touch off. On the Evening of the 29th (our Regt being picket at the time) we were notified to be ready to leave the rifle pitts at moments notice, and somewhere about 4 Oclock on the morning of the 30th we were ordered to leave a small force in the pitts to keep up the usual amount of fireing (so that the enemy wouldent suspect anything) and to fall back, about a quarter of a mile with the rest of the Regt. and wait for orders. After going back as we were ordered, we waited for an hour, and had made up our minds that the thing was a failure (as the fuse had been lighted before we left the pitts and it was expected to take about 25 minutes to burn to the magazines) when we felt the earth tremble under our feet, and immidately a vast column of earth was thrown up in the air very much resembling (in shape) a hugh water spout, and as we hear since burying in its fall several guns and quite a number of Rebs. The Artillerynen all along our line were standing by their guns ready to fire, and the very second the explosion took place the fire from nearly a hundred peices of Artillery opened along our line, and take it all togather I think it was the most exciting sight I ever saw.
From what I have since learned, I think the programe was something like this. I think it was intended the instant the Fort was blown up, for the First Division of our Corps (who were formed close up to the front) to charge through the First line of the enemy, and push on to the second, which it was expected during the panic and surprise of the enemy they could easily take and hold. Our Division the 2d was then to charge on the right, and the Third on the left, while the Fourth Division (The Darkies) were to be thrown forward, passing through the First Division, and advancing on to Petersburg, the Fourth Division to be followed and suported by parts of the 5th 10th & 18th corps, who were massed just inside our lines. The plan I think was a good one and as yet, I cant see why, with proper management it couldent have been carried out, but it seems the First Division that should have been moved forward on the instant, did not (for some reason or another) advance for some time after the explosion, and then only as far as the enemys 1st line. About half an hour after the fight commenced our Division was brought up to the front and our Regt and the 2d N. Y. of our Brigade was put in our old rifle pitts, while the rest of the Division was sent on to where the rebel Fort had been. It seems that after the fort was blown up it still formed a sort of breastwork,2 as the earth thrown from the centre made quite a bank around the sides, and in this excavation and in the traverses or pitts surounding the fort our men crowded for protection from the rebel Artillery and the talk is that the men could not be got forward to the second line, but my own opinion is that if some of the men with stars on their shoulders, had led the way the men wouldent have been backward in following them.3 As it was our Division being sent there only made matters worse, for almost every place that would afford any protection was crowded already, and so much time had been lost, that the rebs had massed a heavy force on their second line, and it would have been pretty hard work to cary it by assault, Our Division made one or two feeble attempts but were driven back each time. It must have been horrible lying in that crowded place, as there was quite a large number of dead and wounded among them, and several peices of Artillery were throwing shot and shell in there constantly. The day was very hot indeed, and they could not get a drop of water, and many of the men were completely exhausted. In order to get back to our lines, they would have had to cross an open field about one hundred yards wide, which was completely swept by the enemy's Artillery and Infantry, some few of them tried it but the most of those that made the attempt were either killed or wounded.
About 9 Oclock the order was given for our Regt. to charge the rifle pitts in front of us. Major Wright4 was in command of the Regt. Capt Sims5 was acting Lieut Col. and had charge of the right wing, and I was acting Major and had charge of the left. As soon as the order was given to charge, I jumped up on the breastworks and sung out for the men to follow me, and the way they tumbled over them breastworks wasent Slow. Poor Cap Sims led the right wing in fine style, and just before we reached their works the Johnies skedaddled. (6Our orders were to take the works and hold them, but after we had held them for about two hours, the rebs massed a heavy force, in a ravine just in front of us, but out of our sight, and came down on us like a whirlwind, and we were forced to fall back to our old line of works. I tried my best, to keep the men from falling back, but Capt Sims was killed just at this time so it was no use trying to rally the men untill they got behind their old works. The rebel charge was one of the boldest and most desperate things I ever saw, but if our men had staid there and fought as they ought, we could have inflicted a heavy loss on the enemy, before they could have driven us away from there. The rebs did not attempt to follow us beyond their works but they kept up a sharp fire on us from behind their breastworks, but as far as our losses are concerned our Regt got off very lucky, I think about 40 killed and wounded.
Our troops in the fort held out till long after we were driven back, and several times the rebs charged right up to the bank, and some of them jumped over among our men, and went at it hand to hand, and before our men surrendered quite a good deal of fighting was done with the bayonet alone, but finaly they saw there was no help for them, and they were forced to surrender, and so the fight ended each side holding the same ground as at the commencement. One of the worst things of the whole affair was, that quite a number of our wounded lay between the rebel lines and ours, and there the poor creatures had to lay in the sun, untill the afternoon of the next day, when the rebs allowed us to send out a flag of truce to give them some water, but they wouldent allow any of them to be removed untill the second day after the fight when a ceecession of hostilities was agreed to for three or four hours, when what few were alive were brought off and the dead were burried.
During the ceesession of hostilities some of our boys went out and brought in the boddy of Capt. Sims and it is now on the way to Brooklyn.
Well Mother I think that is talk enough about fighting for this time. Things with us are going the same as ever, we have not been paid yet, but we expect the pay master in the course of a day or two. Mother I should like very much to have you send me a dozen of my pictures (those you sent to me at Annapolis you know I never received) as I have promised them to several Officers, and they keep bothering me about them all the while, I should like very much also for Walt to send me one of his new books as soon as it is published.7
Jeff asked me in a letter a short time ago, if there was any chance for a fellow (in case he was drafted) to get a substitute from the men of our who are discharged at the expiration of their term of service. None of the men who have been through this Campaign, will listen to Re-enlisting at present they all think they have had sogering enough and its no use talking to them untill they have been home a month or two, then probaly a good many of them will change their minds.
Mother dont neglect to let me know whenever you hear from Hannah. I commenced this letter last night (the 9th) but soon got sleepy and turned in, and I now begin to fell the same way so I will wind up and go to bed.
Give my love to Mattie and all.Good night
G. W. Whitman
when you send the pictures Mother please send them by Mail
1. George Whitman devotes much of this letter to describing the disastrous Union performance in the Battle of the Crater. Under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, the Forty-Eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers constructed a tunnel from the Union breastworks to beneath the Confederate work known as Elliot's Salient, a particularly strong point in the line near a ridge called Cemetery Hill. Explosives were planted beneath the lines there to be discharged on July 30, 1864. Following the blast the four divisions of the Ninth Army, assisted in various ways by other army corps, were supposed to charge the Confederate line. A series of unfortunate events followed, however. The immense explosion was so close to Union lines that it caused the troops to hesitate for ten or fifteen minutes before attacking, thereby giving the Confederate forces time to reorganize. Further, no one had thought to provide ladders for Burnside's troops to get out of their entrenchments. After using bayonets as makeshift ladders, all but General Potter's Second Division (in which George Whitman was fighting) eventually found themselves entrapped in a crater made by the explosion and then bombarded by Confederate artillery. The fighting here was soon reduced to hand-to-hand combat. The Second Division was the only military unit that ever came near its objective, the ridge of Cemetery Hill. This division was soon forced to retreat, however, with many of its men becoming enmeshed in the swarming mass of troops in the crater. The Federal loss for this fiasco was 4,400 killed, wounded, or missing. [back]
2. George is referring here to a crater. [back]
3. Both Generals James Ledlie and Edward Ferrero—commanding the First and Fourth divisions, respectively—were later censured by a military court of inquiry for remaining behind the Union breastowrks while their troops floundered in the crater. [back]
4. In a report to his superior officer after the battle, John G. Wright wrote: "The Command of the Regiment then devolved upon Captain George W. Whitman the next Senior Officer. I am happy to say he discharged the duties of the responsible position to my entire satisfaction, and it affords me great pleasure to speak of the gallant manner in which he has sustained himself during this entire campaign" (Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library). [back]
6. Parenthesis were added by another hand. [back]
7. George is referring here to Walt's Drum-Taps, published in 1865. George found the poem later titled "Song of Myself" unpleasant. According to Amy Haslam Dowe's "A Child's Memories of the Whitmans," George may have enjoyed Drum-Taps, however, for after the war his reading was confined mostly to accounts of the Civil War in the Century Magazine (see "Amy H. Dowe and Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Review 13 [September 1967], 73–79). [back]