The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade

In September 2011, I posted a reminiscence written by Frank H. Foote, who served in the “Claiborne Volunteers,” Company F, 48th Mississippi Infantry. If you have not read that previous article, I suggest you start there, as it contains a detailed biography of Foote: http://mississippiconfederates.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/the-rebel-yell-at-its-best-private-frank-h-foote-48th-mississippi-infantry/.

At the time I posted the article I noted that Foote was a prolific author, and there were probably other manuscripts of his waiting to be found. Well, I was correct. The following reminiscence about the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, was written by Foote and published in The Clarion (Jackson, Mississippi), on September 10, 1884:

The Death Grapple at Petersburg! Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade

July and August were dry and sultry; water was scarce, and hard to get at. The picket post suffered the most this way, until we sank several wells in our trenches, and then we had pretty fair water. On out post duty we were not allowed the little shelter tents so common to both armies; as when erected they might impede our efforts to resist a surprise of the post. So we had to sweat it out the best we could. One day a commotion amongst our neighbors in blue across the way attracted our attention; and we saw a Federal soldier speeding across the fields toward Fort Sedgewick with a

Fort Sedgwick at Petersburg - Library of Congress

Fort Sedgwick at Petersburg – Library of Congress

number of canteens on. He was after water, and braved our shots for the precious liquid. Fire was opened on him, more on the impulse of the moment than anything else, and my messmate upset him; he made several attempts to rise, but could not, and finally fell back, and lay quiet. A few minutes afterwards we noticed a stretcher, such as used to carry off the wounded, raised from behind a pit; we knew that they wanted to go out and bring in the wounded man. We yelled to ‘go ahead, we won’t shoot,’ and taking us at our word, four of them made their way out and carried the man into the pine timber around Sedgewick. While this was going on, both picket lines watched the act of humanity; and neither attempted fire upon the other, though both were greatly exposed.

Life on the picket line was the same every day, varied by such incidents as these. Life in the trenches proper was burdensome; none were allowed to be idle for a long time. Huge traverses forty feet high, twelve feet thick, and one

Interior of one of the Confederate fortifications at Petersburg - LOC

Interior of one of the Confederate fortifications at Petersburg – LOC

hundred feet long, were reared to destroy the enfilade fire of the enemy’s batteries. Day and night we labored until the huge crib of earth was completed; and then feeling safe we became careless and idle. The rear of our works were dug out and widened. Three steps or platforms carried you up to the level of the works when necessary. In this wide trench we lived; our little shelters were erected; they being so much lower than the breastworks, we felt less danger than common. Before the traverses were finished, we were greatly disturbed by a Rodman gun which had an enfilade fire upon us. The gun was about one mile distant and the gunners were wonderfully accurate in their shots. We called it the ‘greased lightning gun,’ because the ball would come whistling be before we heard the sound. That gun has often made us scatter pell-mell as its shell came bounding in amongst our tents, camp kettles and trunks of trees. It would strike a stump, glance off at right and left angles for a piece; strike something else, and go the contrary course, causing everything to get out of its way. Yells, whoops, cat-calls, dog-barks and cheers, greeted the erratic course of these contrivances of death. It would force a hasty exit of some lazy, slumbering soldier from its path, which in itself caused merriment. One round shot came bounding down the line scattering everything; it was ricocheting with consummate freaks of waywardness and meant business. As it struck in the 12th regiment they sounded the alarm, and we cleared the way. A German of our regiment remained in its path to look after a pot of coffee; and in attempting to dodge it ran plump against it; and his leg was taken off for his foolishness. The ball stopped near us, and spun around until it was as bright as a dollar. One Mike Hart put out his foot, to see if it still had much strength or devilment in it and found out to his sorrow that it did, for it had force enough to snap his ankle; and to-day he stumps along on a wooden leg. Such was life those days in the trenches. Something of this kind was frequently happening. ‘Chuck-your-luck’ was indulged in while bombs were bursting in the air, and the minnie would brush your hair as it whizzed by.

Editor’s Note: The Mike Hart mentioned above was a private in Company E, 48th Mississippi Infantry. According to his compiled service record, he was wounded at Petersburg, and admitted to the General Hospital on June 20, 1864. He was retired to the Invalid Corps on November 17, 1864, and assigned to duty at Columbus, Mississippi, the next month.

Five years of active service had care-hardened the men; and for a time they were indifferent to aught else but personal comforts. Heavy details finally completed the works, and we felt then well nigh impregnable. We never left the lines, only for a market trip to Petersburg. Provisions were too high for us to buy; but it did seem good to see them, even if we could not buy.

Illustration of Petersburg, Virginia, from Harper's Weekly, December 13, 1862

Illustration of Petersburg, Virginia, from Harper’s Weekly, December 13, 1862

A common meal cost ten dollars. We fought for eleven dollars. One month’s hard fighting for a mess of potatoes, and rancid meat made into a stew, and covered with swarms of flies. Our wells furnished plenty of water, sweeps drew it out; an ammunition box made the bucket; a strap on a sapling made the rope; thus, we managed. We washed our clothes in the trenches; dried them there; ironed them there, by rubbing them around a smooth pole; and got our fuel from the slashings in front of the works, with which to boil the clothes, to kill the vermin, and then when boiled enough the kettle would be rinsed out. And beef – poor, stringy and onion flavored – would be boiled for rations. One vessel answered for many purposes. We rested secure. The works and traverses warded off the bullets and shells to some extent. Utter indifference stole over us; and we awaited the storm of battle to burst upon us. In time all fuel about us was consumed; and then details were made who hauled wood some five miles to us. It was allowanced out to squads. We dug a counter-mine toward Fort Sedgewick; but soon abandoned it; too much work for nothing so we thought. Shells flew overhead pretty thick, and afforded a source of revenue to the poor Confederate soldier, which in those hard times was indeed a God send; and that was gathering of iron fragments of bursted shells and the leaden balls that fell behind our lines in vast quantities and selling them to the junk dealers at Petersburg, who bought them up for the C.S. Government. It was no unwonted sight to see dozens of ragged Confederates digging, gouging, and gathering to themselves the precious fragments in heaps from the fields to our rear. Thousands of pounds of each were thus gotten, and disposed of at good figures; and the iron showers that bursted over-head proved a blessing in this respect; and brought sustenance to man, where it was intended to wreak destruction. The government had it worked over into shell and bullets which would be sent to us; and thus it returned to our foe to make death or be lost in the pines. The soldiers finally became so reckless that frequently orders had to be issued forbidding the men to gather the iron. I have seen dozens of soldiers racing after a huge mortar shell; they knew about where it would drop, and recklessly exposed themselves to secure the shell or its pieces. These shells would frequently not burst, and this was a prize eagerly striven for, as it realized about thirty dollars.

Between our lines and Petersburg was a pond in which we had some delightful baths; but the mortar guns got the range, and broke up the fun. None cared about being struck while in bathing, as he would drown before help would reach him. It was enjoyable to see dozens of the boys hurrying out of the water, as the dull explosion told the warning to look out for shells; and they would flatten themselves naked to the ground to escape the shell.

Mortars of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery Preparing to Fire at Petersburg - Library of Congress

Mortars of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery Preparing to Fire at Petersburg – Library of Congress

The ingenuity of many of the soldiers was wonderful in providing personal comforts. Two usually bunked together, one man’s rations furnished the morning meal; the other the evening one. Blacking was made out of fine charcoal dust, set with sorgum syrup. It answered well enough; but drew myriads of flies. Shoes were patched and soled with the flap of cartridge boxes taken from some field of victory. The shoes furnished by the C.S. Government were utterly worthless. In many instances the leather would be green; and shoes of this make in wet weather showed a disposition to reverse _____ for the sole would certainly get on top; and the heel be opposite the ankle. The English shoes had a thin leather sole; and the filling was of paper; they answered well enough in camp and for cavalry; but for marches they were worthless. Our clothes were of every grade, copperas-hued pants would be patched behind with a large heart-shape patch of ‘Yankee blue,’ and contrasting oddly. No full uniform was to be seen amongst the soldiers of the line. A store shirt was a luxury, and one I owned was frequently borrowed by the gallants of the regiment when they called on the fair citizens of Petersburg. It was of course cotton with a pink plaitee or ruffled bosom. That was a shirt in those times. A blue half cotton shirt sent from home was sold in Petersburg for thirty-five dollars. Our uniforms, or what was intended for such, were of every description of material and cut. We used flannel nearly altogether, as it saved washing.

"Prisoners from the Front," by Winslow Homer, depicting Confederates Captured at Petersburg - Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Prisoners from the Front,” by Winslow Homer, depicting Confederates Captured at Petersburg – Metropolitan Museum of Art

We could not get soap, handy, and generally traded on the picket post with the Federals. We drew an abundance of the best tobacco, and this being scarce and dear with our Northern friends, we could drive a bargain easy enough. If one-half the ways and means adopted by the Southern soldier for his personal comfort were known it would instruct and amuse. It showed how he adapted himself to circumstances; and this very fact is one of the leading reasons why the Southerner was naturally a better soldier than the Northerner. Inspections seldom occurred during the siege; but a glance was all that was necessary to see that the arms were clean, bright, and ever ready. Much trouble was had with the soldiers of Lee’s army about the bayonet. The most stringent laws and punishments failed to force him to carry one. Finally each soldier was charged up with a bayonet on the roll and if he did not have one on pay day, it had to be paid for out of his hard earned eleven dollars. These men paid more attention to the rifle, than to a cumbersome, useless weapon, hence their repugnance.

On several occasions, Mississippi statesmen came out to camp, and addressed the brigade. Amongst them came one Colonel —–, a man of fertile brain and vivid imagination, otherwise a ‘crank.’ He addressed us on a pet hobby of his, that of making a wonderful arid monster in which to soar aloft, and with bombshells, and Greek fire, rain destruction on the Federal lines below. He claimed the scheme as practicable and grand; and presented recommendations from parties high in official circles. Two names I saw appended to this document encouraging it, would, if written here, be pronounced false. The Colonel only wanted one hundred thousand dollars to contrive and equip this wonder which he called ‘Artis Avis,’ or ‘The Bird of Art.’ We of the  line ‘could not see’ the project in this view, that he wanted us to – that is, give something towards building the machine out of eleven dollars per month, promises to pay.

The latter days of July were characterized by intense and sultry heats. For comfort many of the boys would brave the deadly crack of the sharpshooter’s rifle in order to breathe the pure, fresh air. In spite of every day precedents they would insist upon erecting their little tents, in the open ground to our rear. Not unfrequently would it happen at roll call that some one was found beyond the reach of duty, pierced unto death while sleeping sweetly.

Such was the condition of affairs when the monotony of life in the trenches was broken by orders, the evening before July 29th, to man the entire length of the lines in our front by 4 o’clock in the morning. Having been quiet for some time before, all were of course more or less enervated, so when the hour rolled by on July 30th, the most obedient only obeyed the order. Some slowly and reluctantly fell into line, and with a yawn answered ‘here.’ Others, slept oblivious of duty, while friends answered for them, or a drowsy response came from their bunks. Weeks of inactivity had partly relaxed discipline. Besides they felt a consciousness that for a direct attack they had nothing to fear. The same state of affairs as regarded our strength of position prevailed with our commanders, and to the last days the judgement was sustained, as the line was never taken, but turned at Five Forks. Daylight of July 30th dawned upon a scene of activity, and bustle in the trenches. In vain we peered into the glimmering of daylight toward our enemy for signs; all was still. Even the picket line was unwontedly quiet; and gradually all sought easy positions and awaited. Another false alarm, we thought, to try the men, and see if they were prepared for a sudden irruption of the Federals on our works. To our left lay a portion of Beauregard’s army; beyond him, to Appomattox River, was a part of Gordon’s command, I believe. The country in front of our lines there was broken and rugged; ravines, washes and gullies afforded a front incapable of being assaulted with any certainty of success. While we lay nodding for a few minutes against the breast-works, catching cat-naps and indulging in reveries of loved ones in sunny Mississippi, some one cried out, ‘Look yonder!’ As we did so we saw a dark, heavy mass of matter; smoke and flame ascending high into the air, and accompanied with a rumbling noise; in an instant more it began falling. A mine had been sprung under a fort; and the order to man the lines, emanating the evening before, showed that our commander knew before hand, and had used the precaution to have his troops prepared for action. The debris had scarcely settled before every Federal gun that could be brought to bear upon the ruptured lines opened a terrific bombardment. We crouched close to our works to escape the fury of the storm of projectiles, and feeling secure we grinned defiance. The earth shook and trembled. The air was full of racing projectiles seething, hissing and bursting overhead flinging their splinters in every direction. The din that pierced the charge of Pickett at Gettysburg was nearly equalled here, gun for gun and shot for shell and showers of iron hail every where. The bulk of it fell upon the exploded lines, half a mile distant to our left. But we got a good share, to prevent our taking part in the recapture of the lines. We, as old soldiers, knew that an assault would shortly take place, for a heavy cannonade generally preceded an attack. We wished it to occur in our front, for a view was opened and fully a mile wide, and we knew that the whole Federal army could not drive us. The mortar guns in the pines around Fort Sedgewick soon joined in, and began dropping their shells lively, and most too accurately; some inside the works, some behind, and one fell right on top of the slope, tearing a deep hole, and filling everyone around with dirt. These mortar shells always created more demoralization than any other projectile. They could not be dodged. In front of the works was just as safe as the rear, or any place save distance. In fact for awhile the front seemed the safest place.

Artist Alfred Waud sketched this illustration of the fighting on July 30th after the detonation of the mine under the Confederate lines - Library of Congress

Artist Alfred Waud sketched this illustration of the fighting on July 30th after the detonation of the mine under the Confederate lines – Library of Congress

In the midst of the combat Gen. Mahone came down the lines and viewed with anxiety the surroundings; and gave some general orders. The General was in his fighting weight that day, ninety-seven pounds; and was clothed in a linen uniform of jacket and pants cut after a boy’s pattern, and made out of the material that composed the little shelter tents provided by Uncle Sam for the comfort of the ‘boys in blue and grey.’ He had scarcely left before orders put the division into line; and as the Alabamians moved off, we opened our ranks and covered their space, and so on until the entire length of the division was covered; and thus Harris’ Brigade occupied a mile or more front, and each individual

General William Mahone - National Archives & Records Administration

General William Mahone – National Archives & Records Administration

stood about forty feet apart, on the day of the battle of the Crater, July 30th. Our batteries were not idle, but kept the enemy employed. We awaited the denouement to our left, and when the shrill cries of the attacking force came above the din, we began to feel anxious; for what could we do, one man to defend forty feet; but we relied on our batteries to break the column if it came; but fully expecting at any time the order, to ‘about face,’ and engage the enemy, as he swept up the lines. The conflict at the Crater was raging now with fury. Cheers and yells alternately told of advantage. We knew exactly when Mahone got down to work; steady work of regular volleys of musketry, for his men always fought well under discipline. Our line to our rear was swarming with fugitives, many of whom we induced to remain with us and help defend the works if necessary. Others too badly demoralized to listen to duty, moved off in disregard of our taunts. Many of them presented a pitiable sight as dazed, and uncertain of what had occcured, they recounted the improbabilities of the explosion. No doubt wonderful escapes were had; bordering on exaggeration, and improbable. A tall, slabsided son of Carolina, in a woeful voice described to us, as he rested within our lines, of the effect of the ‘blow up.’ He said ‘he was cooking coffee, having arisen early according to orders; when all at once the ground all around him heaved up, and he saw and felt the fire and heat as it rushed by him, scorching him badly; he was thrown into the air, and fell into a pile of debris, but had sense enough to keep kicking, thus warding off much of the falling earth. Beside him lay a soldier with the upper part of his body buried, his legs sticking out, and working in vain efforts to get out; his sufferings soon ended, as death by suffocation ensued.’ Many poor wretches presented sickening sights, as flame scorched or powder-burnt, or crippled by heavy falls, they filed by us. Some were wild in their sufferings, and recklessly exposed themselves to the sharp-shooters now doubly venomous. We did what lay in our power for their relief and wondered at this new phase of warfare.

Illustration of Union Sharpshooters at Petersburg by Alfred Waud - LIbrary of Congress

Illustration of Union Sharpshooters at Petersburg by Alfred Waud – LIbrary of Congress

The battle, by 7 o’clock, was going all right, and Mahone’s men had the advantage; they were driving the blacks and whites pell-mell; and as they crossed the open field we saw the rush and fury of the battle A friend in Weiseiger’s brigade – Mahone’s old command – told us of the fight, and what he saw. ‘We understood through our officers,’ said he, ‘that no quarter was to be shown the nigger soldiers. That they had shown no mercy to the fallen Confederates; and none should be shown them – all must be lost – no prisoners must be reported.’ Continuing, he said: ‘We formed in several columns, and then advanced to the charge; as we crossed the rise of the ridge a furious fire was poured into us from all sides, which worked us up to a high pitch of desperation and frenzy.’ The idea of having to fight niggers, and perhaps our own, and seeing our comrades falling by their fire, was maddening; thus excited we swept irresistably forward. Their line was easily broken, and they were driven headlong back to the main line in and around the crater.

Fighting in the Crater at Petersburg - www.petersburg-va.org

Fighting in the Crater at Petersburg – http://www.petersburg-va.org

Amongst these they plunged and sought safety in the depths of the mine; and to hundreds of them proving their sepulture. The resistance offered, did not check the assault; the cry of ‘no quarter to the dam rebels!’ rang out at intervals, ‘and was answered by a shot or a stab with the bayonet at some poor devil of a negro who fell into our hands. Gradually we approached the very edge of the gap, and saw it seething with frenzied human beings; some fighting; some crying for mercy, for help; and others, ‘no quarter!’ Thus they struggled for room or shelter, while a shower of pittiless minnie balls was pouring in on them; the living dying by the hands of the dead, as it were, as they fell so thick and fast, crushing and suffocating those around them. The white Federal troops acted very cowardly, and their bullets destroyed as many negro lives as of the Confederates. Thus between two fires the poor black soldiers soon fell to the last man; and the pit became a vast burial vault. The scene was one of demoniac conception, one never to be forgotten. We lay down on the brink, loaded and fired our rifles into the dense mass, where every ball found a mark. One man that seemed inbued with devilish impulse would gather rifles from around him, and throw them into the pit, where the dull thud told that the bayonet was driven to very shank. A Confederate gun secure from Federal attack got the range of the mine, and threw shell and shot with frightful precision. I got tired and surfeited with blood, and was glad to hear orders to retire given; and the dying were left with the dead.

The record of that day’s work shows a dreadful one; full twenty-two hundred Federals were ‘hors du combat,’ of whom more than eighteen hundred were negroes. The attack was badly managed; wretchedly led; and from the first start an ignominious failure; and met a barrier indeed in Mahone’s veterans, when they were thrown into the breach. A portion of this fight we could see if we chose to risk butting our heads against minnie balls, and it was frequently risked. The artillery fire upon us had not ceased; the ground around us was ploughed and torn by the cannon balls. And as [a]  sheet of minnie balls, as it were, constantly swept just over the breast-works, singing deceptive tunes as if to lure one on to meet the danger, guised in sounds of harmony.

In the height of the melee, while Mahone and Beauregard were charging, Gen. Lee along and on foot, came into our lines and adjusting his glass swept the field in front for some time with some anxiety. Apparently not satisfied with the survey and to our consternation he left the protection of the works, and advanced to our open rear, and then carefully and calmly surveyed the battle-field. Point after point was carefully scanned. Picture to yourself the tumult of battle; men frenzied by passions contending in death grapple; the very air dark with exploding material; the ringing cheers or yells of combatants; the death shriek; the wail of agony; the appeals for mercy from some poor stricken wretch, as he knows his days are numbered. The ground around torn and great furrows of dirt continually being thrown up as shot

General Robert E. Lee - Library of Congress

General Robert E. Lee – Library of Congress

and shell strike, and in the midst of this scene stands our peerless commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, bare headed, erect, proud and magnificent. Gracefully he sweeps the field and takes into consideration the most trivial matter. We looked on with bated breath and trembled for his safety. A shell rushing by strikes our well sweep, and hurls the fragments far to the rear. Unonscious of danger, there he stood until satisfied. Great uneasiness prevailed for fear some sharp shooter might spy him, with a fatal aim and several of the 48th regiment went to him and kindly remonstrated with him for thus exposing himself. An Irishman, who exposed himself a few steps from Gen. Lee, who shot through the head. Thus no wonder we trembled for the life of our great captain. Gen. Lee kindly noticed this demonstration of affection, and soon after came back into the lines. He was attracted by the many little conveniences the men had contrived for comfort, and drank a cup of water from our wells. A fireplace cut out of the bank of earth seemed to please him. With a salute peculiar only to himself, he retired; and then all felt a sense of relief, while prayers of thankfulness arose from grateful hearts for his preservation. The battle ended; quiet was again supreme, a few shells only coursing the heavens more out of practice than with intent to harm. The day after the ‘mine fiasco,’ I obtained permission to see the battle field. It was hot as blazes, both overhead from old Sol; and the more dangerous ones contrived by man for man’s destruction – bomb-shells. Taking a round-about way, I found myself in Blanford cemetery, where a look could be had generally of the field and of the opposing lines. Near the monument erected to the ‘Cockade City’s,’ heroes of the war of 1812, I sheltered myself and took in the sights. Marks of cruel war and havoc abounded even here in the ‘silent city of the dead.’

Blanford Church & Cemetery - www.civilwarphotos.net

Blanford Church & Cemetery – http://www.civilwarphotos.net

Great holes in the ground, deep and yawning, told that mortar shells had fallen there. Shafts and monuments rendered into many fragments spoke of the sharp rush of cannon balls; while blue spattered marks on almost every stone in the yard, many of them split and chipped, showed where the minnie ball had struck. Of the effect of these latter messengers of death I had occular demonstration a few minutes later, as one came humming by and struck a simple slab, making a bluish splash and cracking the stone. As a bomb-shell came rushing down, and exploded just overhead, wreathed in a beautiful coil of dark, dense smoke, with rattling fragments falling in every direction, I came to the conclusion that it would appear queer to be killed behind a sheltering tombstone, so I ‘changed my base,’ and flanked my way out as quietly as if I was leaving a dead friend.

This ends the first part of Foote’s reminiscence about the siege of Petersburg, but the story will continue in future posts. During the period covered in this article, Harris’ Mississippi brigade (of which the 48th Mississippi was part), suffered heavy losses: in May and June, 37 men were killed, 76 wounded, and 14 missing; and the siege of Petersburg had many bloody months left to run.

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3 thoughts on “The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade

  1. Namuni Young

    Another excellent and informative post! Thank you so very much! Is Gordon still living?

    • Thanks very much, and yes, Gordon is still alive and doing well. He is retired, but still volunteers a few days a week at the Old Court House.

  2. Reblogged this on Poore Boys In Gray and commented:
    Brigadier General Nathaniel H. Harris’ Brigade included William B. Poore and his 16th Mississippi comrades…

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