“I Thought the Whole Confederacy Had Fallen on Me:” A Story of the “Death Crater” at Vicksburg

On June 25, 1863, the 3rd Louisiana Redan disappeared in a choking cloud of flame, earth, and smoke as 2,200 pounds of black powder were detonated in a mine located beneath the earthwork fort. The blast gouged out a huge crater where the front face of the redan had been, and as the debris settled a Union assault force poured into the breach in the Confederate line, sparking a bloody fight that would last well into the night.

One of the soldiers who took part in the assault on the 3rd Louisiana Redan was John T.

The_Nebraska_State_Journal_Sun__Nov_11__1906_
Wartime photo of John T. Wiesman (The Nebraska State Journal, November 11, 1906)

Wiesman, a cannoneer with McAllister’s Battery, also known as Company D, 1st Illinois Light Artillery. In October 1906 Wiesman traveled from his home in Nebraska to Vicksburg for the dedication of the Illinois Monument at the National Military Park. The visit to the battlefield was a moving experience for Wiesman, and after he returned to Nebraska he wrote an article about the trip for his local paper, The Nebraska State Journal, which was published on November 11, 1906.

At the siege of Vicksburg two guns of the battery held positions on the Jackson wagon road near the now famous white house (Shirley house). The other two guns stood in front of the white house on the spot where the Illinois monument has been erected where Capt. Henry A. Rogers and four enlisted men were killed during the siege.

Explosion of a Mine

Sometime after the charge of the 22d of may, which was a failure, General Grant conceived the idea of tunneling under Ft. Hill, called by the confederates the Third Louisiana redoubt. A tunnel was started a short distance from the battery and was run so as to reach directly under the fort. After it was completed, 2,200 pounds of powder was placed in the mine and when all was ready, a fuse leading into the mine was lighted and a terrific explosion resulted, which hurled men and cannons up in the air.

Mine Explosion
Explosion of the mine under the 3rd Louisiana Redan (Harper’s Weekly Magazine, July 25, 1863)

It was a sight never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. One negro who was tossed up with the earth, came down on our side of the line unharmed. After the explosion, which formed a crater about the size of a half block, the Forty-Fifth Illinois was rushed into the crater to make a lodgment in the confederate line and tried to break through, but the explosion had not accomplished what was expected and the confederates immediately went to work trying to restore their shattered works.

Threw Shells by Hand

After a short time a squad of the battery under command of Lieut. Edgar H. Cooper, afterward promoted to captain, was detailed to enter the crater to throw shells over the enemies breastworks by hand, cutting the fuse at five seconds. While so engaged, David W. Ocker, of our squad, was blown to pieces by the premature discharge of a shell. A.D. Burr of this city and myself were in this squad. As we emerged from the tunnel into the crater, a hand grenade struck Lieutenant Colonel Reese of [the] Thirty-First Illinois which literally disemboweled him.

A Death Crater

We stood for some time on the edge of the crater waiting for orders, seeing sights which were well calculated to freeze the blood in one’s veins. Over on the confederate side of the crater men were grappling with each other, some clubbing with their muskets but at the same time they were gradually rebuilding their works. After awhile, General Logan, Major Stohlbrand, his chief of artillery, led our squad to the confederate side of the crater and we began to throw shells over in the midst of the confederates, who soon returned the compliment by throwing shells by hand into the crater.

Fighting in the Crater
Union soldiers charging into the crater at Vicksburg. (www.etc.usf.edu)

It was my duty to hold a lighted taper with which, when the fuse was cut, I lighted the shell when it would be thrown over the breastworks. I lay close to the enemy’s works, that seeming to me to be the safest place. During the fight in the crater the confederates rolled a cottonwood sapling over to our side, striking me square on the back of my neck. Although it was very light, I thought the whole confederacy had fallen on me, Jeff Davis along with the rest of them.

Battle in the crater
Fighting in the crater at Vicksburg (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 1, 1863)

After dark the assault in the crater was abandoned and the army settled down to a regular siege, and when “Johnnie Rebel” had eaten his last steak of mule meat, Vicksburg was surrendered.

Visit to Comrade’s Grave

I went to the national cemetery where over 16,000 of our boys in blue are buried, two-thirds of them in unknown graves and as I stood by the grave of James W. Ditto, an intimate comrade of mine, and thought of him as he looked just before he fell forty-three years ago, a fine, manly, young fellow, scarcely eighteen years old, the idol of the company, my eyes filled with tears. If the recording angel keeps a correct account, the men who were responsible for bringing on the war between the north and the south will be kept very busy explaining matters to Saint Peter when the big book is opened on the day of judgment.

If the old veterans who were at Vicksburg during the siege, should happen to go back there

Battery D Monument
Illustration Showing the Monument to Battery D, 1st Illinois Light Artillery at Vicksburg

now, they would be surprised. Vicksburg is not the sleepy city it was then. The government has established a national military park, dotted with fine monuments and markers laid out in beautiful driveways, at a cost of millions of dollars. The city is booming and has taken on a new life. The visitors attending the dedication of the Illinois state monument were royally entertained by the ex-confederate soldiers.

The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), November 11, 1906

I was intrigued by John Wiesman’s story, and thought I would see what else I could find out about him. My efforts were immediately successful, as I found a letter he wrote to the editor of the National Tribune concerning the battle of the crater at Vicksburg:

The Crater at Fort Hill

Editor National Tribune: I have been very much interested in your history of the Opening of the Mississippi, and take it for granted that you wish to be absolutely correct in your statements. Now, you give a minute description of what took place in the crater at Fort Hill, and only mention what the several infantry commands did. You say that shells were thrown by hand over the rebel breastworks by the tunnel diggers and the infantry. Now, as a matter of fact, not a single shell was thrown by any of them. 

Shortly after the explosion, McAllister’s Battery was detailed by sections to throw shells by hand, cutting the fuse at five seconds. Every shell thrown in the crater was thrown by artillery. Serg’t David W. Ocker was killed by a shell thrown from the rebel side, and, by the way he stands today, in the Illinois State Roster, branded as a deserter. How is it possible that this brave boy, who gave up his life for his country in that hellhole, could be marked as a deserter? I cannot imagine, unless it was done by some lunkhead clerk in the Adjutant’s office at the time the roster was printed. 

McAllister's_Battery_at_Fort_Donelson
Illustration Depicting McAllister’s Battery at the Battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee. (Battles & Leaders Volume 1, Page 449)

The artillery detail was in charge of Lieut. Edgar H. Cooper, who after the death of Capt. H.A. Rodgers, killed during the siege, was promoted to Captain and afterwards to Major for bravery displayed on the battlefield of Atlanta, July 22, 1864. Major Cooper is still living and resides in Chicago. 

As to who threw the shells in the crater it matters little, I suppose, at this late day, but credit should be given where credit is due. After the surrender the 45th Ill., was given the post of honor, being the first to enter Vicksburg. McAllister’s Battery came second, following immediately after the 45th, and was the first artillery to enter the city.

John T. Wiesman, Co. D, 1st Ill. Art., Lincoln, Neb. (The National Tribune, Washington, D.C.., December 27, 1906.)

I also found a letter, written by Charles Koch, a member of the Illinois Vicksburg Military Park Commission, to William T. Rigby, superintendent of the Vicksburg National Military Park, concerning the part played by Battery D, 1st Illinois Light Artillery, in the fighting at the crater:

June 25th came the day when Fort Hill was blown up. Immediately after the explosion, it having been discovered that the embrasure was not sufficient to permit our troops to march in to Vicksburg, Lt. Cooper was called upon by Gen. Logan and asked to furnish 12 volunteers for the purpose of throwing hand grenade over the works from the aperture made by the explosion into the enemies works. Volunteers failed to respond so Lt. Cooper asked how many would follow him and all responded, so that a choice had to be made of 12 men,…out of the 12 men who entered the crater, viz: E.H. Cooper was unhurt, C.L. Pratt was unhurt; Francis Meek, wounded and died December 1, 1863, at Vicksburg; David Ocker, killed June 25th; Eli Sprague lost a finger; Chauncey I. Cooper flesh wound in left thigh; Vincent Bowers wounded in right leg; John T. Wiesman, flesh wound in the left arm; B.D. Washington wounded in the right wrist; A.D. Burr not hurt; Richard Henderson not hurt; George A. Potter not hurt. (Always in the Middle of the Battle: Edward Kiniry and the 1st Illinois Light Artillery Battery D by David Edward Wall)

After the war, John Wiesman moved about the mid-west before finally settling in Nebraska and becoming a railroad conductor. In addition to visiting Vicksburg, he also attended a reunion at the Shiloh battlefield in 1895. (The Nebraska State Journal, April 10, 1895, and June 1, 1910.) The old veteran passed away in Lincoln, Nebraska, on May 31, 1910, and is buried in Wyuka Cemetery. (findagrave.com listing for John T. Wiesman).

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