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"So Ends The Great Rebel Army…”
To Union Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, Lincoln was a weak President, Grant an uninspired commander, Lee a slippery foe. His outspoken diary, never published before, memorably describes the Civil War’s final year
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
But to particulars, and first as to the ground. The rebel lines in this part are tolerably near straight, running north and south from the foot of Cemetery Hill to the great salient. Behind them the ground rises in a gentle slope to considerable height; along the top of which, and parallel to their works, is the Jerusalem Plank Road. I should say it might be an average of three or four hundred yards between the lines and the road. All this ground is open, without wood save detached trees, until you get near the cemetery, where there is a small copse in a little ravine. The battery under which the mine was placed was about a hundred and fifty yards in front and to their right of this copse.
At three o’clock we were all up. Day was hardly dawning; breakfast did not take long. I planted my flag where I had indicated that headquarters would be during the affair, immediately in rear of the great mortar battery. From a mound of dirt here I could see the whole rebel line from Cemetery Hill south, and all my own batteries from Fitzhugh to Phillips.
When I reached my post our lines were all alive. No fires had been allowed, but the men had made a cold breakfast and were ready for work; every piece was loaded and pointed, while the officers of each battery could be seen looking earnestly for the signal.
Half-past three, the hour fixed, passed with no explosion. The match had gone out, but Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants went up the gallery and lit it again. This caused so much of a delay that it was a quarter past four when it went off.
Not sixty seconds elapsed from the moment the doomed work rose in the air before every one of our batteries opened. It was a grand and most impressive sight and sound; in some respects the finest I have seen. The roar was not greater if equal to that at Gettysburg, but there was more variety of notes in it from the number of siege guns and mortars here. Very quickly the whole of our front was covered with a dense cloud of white smoke, so that all objects were obscured from my view save a dim view of the men handling their immense ten-inch shells immediately at my feet, and the rise of a great black ball, with a fiery tail, rolling over and over high up into the air until it was lost in the smoke.
To my view the explosion itself presented nothing but a column of black and white smoke rising perhaps a hundred yards into the air. I presume the guns of the battery and most of the men in it were carried up too, but they were so enveloped in the smoke and dust that I at least could not see them. Our fire was splendid. It was not ten minutes, I think, before the enemy were completely silenced; then I was delighted with the promptness with which nearly all my batteries slackened off their fire to one in which they could take deliberate aim, and watch the course of each shot. The infantry, too, ceased after a time, and I was again able to see something of what was going on. All I could make out was that our men were in possession of the mined battery, as I could discern a number of flags there.
I looked in vain, however, for the prompt movement along the inside of their lines, to right and left; nor was any such move made at any time during the day, or so far as I can learn even attempted. Another thing I noticed, which struck me at the time: I could not see any large bodies of troops passing from our lines across into the rebel works, but a continuous stream of single men or little squads.
So completely did we subdue the enemy fire from their line of works that after the first spurt, they did not throw over a score of shells into our lines. They, however, at times opened briskly from the two batteries on the crest, and from one in the redoubt, on the mass of our men in the crater of the mine; especially after ten o’clock.
My loss today has been almost nothing. Nor can the loss of the infantry in this corps amount to anything much. In Burnside’s, I fear, though, it has been heavy. It always is in badly managed affairs, and his men were evidently so crowded in the crater that a single shell exploding among them—and I saw three go off at once in their very midst—must have hurt a great many.
Since returning to camp I learn that the brigade, which was to have charged first, would not go, and another had to be substituted, by which much time was lost after the explosion. Where was the “forlorn hope” of volunteers, supported by the picked regiments of the corps?
A third trouble was that after the first charge the men were not moved over in order, but were directed “to make a run for it” and reform their companies after they got over. Consequently all was confusion in the crowded crater; the good men trying to find their own command and the cowards to hide from it. This alone was sufficient to cause a failure, and it is about the most disgracefully unmilitary thing I have heard of. The general officer who gave such an order, or allowed it to be given, ought to be shot.
All was quiet last night and has been today, though Meade fully expected a counterattack on our left and rear from Lee. Today there has been a truce about the mine for the burial of our dead, and the removal of the remaining wounded. The crater was evacuated soon after dark last night.