Grant vs. Lee at the Battle of the Crater


Special to the Tribune Chronicle

Civil War July 28, 1864 – Aug. 2, 1864

Several significant events occurred this week during the Civil War.

The Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia was July 30th. Gen. Phil Sheridan was assigned to command the Middle Military District. With reorganized Cavalry, including the 2nd and 6th Ohio V.C. on August 2, he began the Shenandoah Campaign to check Gen. Jubal Early. And the 125th Ohio V.I. was approximately 3 miles away from Atlanta, Georgia.

General Grant’s Army was opposite General Lee’s at Petersburg, Virginia. Both armies had entrenched, resulting in a siege operations. The 48th Pennsylvania Vol. Inf., many who were coal miners from the upper Schuylkill region of PA had a plan. Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer heard the men say that if they could run a mine shaft under the Confederate fort known as Elliott’s Salient, which had 4 cannon nearby and a veteran 2nd South Carolina unit, they would blow the fort out of existence. Pleasant presented the plan up the chain of command and it was finally approved. June 25 the digging started. They got no help or supplies, having to put the dirt in cracker boxes and by July 17th they were under the Confederate salient. Pleasant lite the fuse himself at 3:30am on July 30th but by 4:30 there was no explosion. Sgt. Henry Rees and Lt. Jacob Douty volunteered to crawl in, they found that the fuse had died out at the first splice. Relighting the fuse and quickly exiting the explosion occurred at 4:45am. A Crater formed from the explosion and the Confederates shot down at the Union soldiers trying to scale the walls. July 30th the 2nd Ohio Vol. Cav. was on picket duty at Petersburg. Isaac Gause relates in his memoirs that they could see the dirt, detritus and human bodies flying up in the air. Also during this picket duty Isaac exchanged a quart of coffee for about 5 lbs. of tobacco from a Confederate picket. The 6th Ohio Vol. Cav. was also on picket duty. The cavalry was reorganized and August 1st Gen. Phil Sheridan was assigned to command the Middle Military District. They were transported by train to Washington. The men couldn’t cook so all they had to eat was raw bacon and hardtack. The horses had no water or forage and it was hot. August 2nd, Sheridan began his Shenandoah Valley Campaign to chase after Gen. Jubal Early. Grant said to chase the enemy south and leave nothing for them to return to.

Sherman’s army faced Atlanta, Ga. July 22nd one of Sherman’s generals was killed. With only one aide, Gen. James McPherson rode upon a line of Confederate soldiers. McPherson had just left Sherman’s headquarters, Sherman later said that McPherson still had on his boots and gauntlets when his body was brought back to the Howard House. The fierce fighting from the Confederates came from Gen. Hood who replaced Gen. Joseph Johnston because Confederate President Jefferson Davis thought Hood’s aggressiveness would stop the Union army in Georgia. July 22 is considered the Battle of Atlanta. McPherson and Hood had been class mates together at West Point.

The troops of the 105th Ohio V.I. thought that Sherman was the reason for the success in taking Atlanta. Sherman seemed to forget nothing, neglect nothing and foresaw everything. The 125th O.V.I. also had confidence in Sherman. Sgt. Ralsa Rice noted as they passed around Kennesaw Mountain that the familiar locomotive whistle was heard with little interruption. This meant the men were getting supplies. Keeping the railroad running in spite of Confederate raids from such formidable foes as General Nathan Bedford Forrest, was very important. Gen. Cox mentioned that the country was difficult to travel for soldiers and artillery but Sherman kept this supply line running. The railroad workers faced hazardous conditions and they were paid well. The railroad most important to Gen. Thomas and Sherman was the L&N, Louisville & Nashville. From the Ohio River to Nashville supplies traveled south in box cars from such railroads as the B&O, Pittsburgh & Fort Wayne, and the Delaware & Lackawanna.

Rice also commented that Sherman’s flankers and abolitionist sharp-shooters as the Rebels called the 20th and 4th Corp, were too much and the Confederates retreated. General Howard commanded McPherson’s army and on July 28th they were attacked by Hood’s army. The Confederates were beaten back. Only a week had passed since Johnston was replaced by Hood and the Confederate soldiers, who admired and loved Gen. Johnston refused to continue the assaults. Confederate officers waved their swords shouting for the men to follow, but the soldiers remained motionless and quiet. It is estimated that the Confederate losses were over 8,000 men.

July 23, 1864, Col. Emerson Opdycke wrote a letter to his wife, from under the shade of a poplar tree, a tulip poplar. He reflected that 3 years ago he had enlisted. Opdycke first enlisted with the 41st O.V.I., before he recruited for the 125th O.V.I. Reflecting that the fate of the country had been dark during those years, he felt prospects were bright for the overthrow of treason. Also mentioning that a branch of the shade tree had been hit by an enemy shell, exploding and falling beside him, but no one was hurt. He also said that blood from the finest citizens had hallowed this soil.

July 31st another letter was written, under the shade of the same Georgia polar tree. Lamenting that they were no closer to Atlanta, he related to his wife the dinner or tea that he had with friends. They had steak, ham, new potatoes, blackberries, green apple sauce, biscuits, ginger cakes, tea, coffee and bread pudding. Greatly alleviating any fears she would have of her husband having a poor diet. This meal may have been a result of the opened supply line Sherman maintained. In a letter of August 1st he wrote that Major Gen. John Newton who commanded 2nd Division, IV Corps, with 21 regiments, including the 125th OVI, had ordered Opdycke to defend the redoubt, or the fort the men had built on a hill, calling it Fort Opdycke. Gen. David Stanley who moved up as a result of Gen. McPherson’s death, wanted Opdycke to remain there, no matter that if attacked they would receive no help from the main army. Opdycke said it was an exposed position and dangerous, Maj. Gen. Newton agreed and Opdycke returned to help strengthen the main army lines.

Carole Babyak, CW 150 committee Sutliff Museum. Sources: Yankee Tigers, Through the Civil War with the 125th Ohio, Ralsa Rice, edited by R. Baumgartner & L. Strayer, Blue Acorn Press, Huntington, WV, 1992. Yankee Tigers II, Civil War Field Correspondence from the Tiger Regiment of Ohio, ed. By Richard Baumgartner, Blue Acorn Press WV, 2004 and ” To Battle for God and the Right, the Civil War Letterbooks of Emerson Opdycke,” ed. By Glenn Longacre and John Haas, U. of Illinois Press, 2003