September 1864

LETTER 32

Describes William Phillips capture at the Battle of the Crater and confinement as a prisoner of war. This letter was written by David Phillips.

Bermuda Hundred, Virginia
September 14, 1864

Dear Friend,

14Sept1864Having little time at present, I thought I would comply with your wishes in reference to William B. Phillips. The last I saw of William was at the Battle of Petersburg early on the morning of the battle. ♠ The assault was made by the 2nd Provisional Artillery and one of our New York regiments. ♣ He was in the charge, but I am happy to inform you that he is safe. He received no wounds in action whatever but was taken as prisoner of war. He wrote a letter to one of the boys in our “Battery” stating that he was well and in good spirits. I hope he will soon be exchanged and that he will have the pleasure of meeting his friends at Hyde Park before many months has elapsed.

I received the box that was sent from home. I am very proud of the box you sent me. Receive my thanks for it.

I have no news of importance at present. Receive my best wishes for your welfare and I remain your friend, — D. W. Phillips ♥

LETTER 32 NOTES

Sketch of Battlefield; Federal troops advanced from left to right through the Crater

Sketch of Battlefield; Federal troops advanced from left to right through the Crater

♠ The Battle of the Crater began at 4:45 in the morning (30 July 1864) with the detonation of an explosive charge placed in a tunnel constructed underneath the Rebel earthworks defending the eastern perimeter of Petersburg. A huge crater resulted into which Union forces under the command of Burnside’s IX Corps charged and attempted to break through the Rebel lines. The assault failed when large masses of Union troops got tangled up in the crater and were murderously assailed by a patchwork defense that saved Petersburg and turned back the Federal assault. The 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery was one of the first and few units to pass through the temporary breach in the Confederate lines at the western edge of the crater but were cut off and surrounded when troops that followed could not keep up.

♣ The N.Y. Regiment was undoubtedly the 14th New York Heavy Artillery. This regiment, like the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, saw no action from the time that it was formed in the fall of 1862 until it was placed under Burnside’s IX Corps command in April 1864. A member of the New York regiment, Charles H. Houghton, recalled years later that on the evening of July 29th, 1864, the members of the IX Corp’s Provisional Brigade knew that an important movement was to take place. He wrote, “We were ordered out for inspection and dress parade, and soon after returning to our place in the trenches, orders came to prepare three days’ cooked rations, and distribute ammunition. Soon we were relieved by troops from the XVIII Corps and marched back to the open ground several rods in rear of our works and halted, lying down in the sand till about 3 o’clock in the morning of the 30th. We now marched toward the left, and passing out through covered ways advanced to the front line of works. The men were cautioned to prevent the rattling of tin cups and bayonets, because we were so near the enemy that they would discover our movements. We marched with the stillness of death; not a word was said above a whisper. We knew, of course, that something very important was to be done and that we were to play a prominent part. We formed our lines of battle in the trenches of General Potter’s division. Our brigade, commanded by Colonel E. G. Marshall…, was first in line and formed three lines of battle, the 2d Pennsylvania Provisional Artillery in the first line, the 14th New York Artillery in the second line, and the 179th New York and 3d Maryland, in the third line. Our regiment, originally composed of three battalions, had been consolidated into two of six companies each, the 1st Battalion commanded by Captain L. J. Jones, and the 2d Battalion by myself. Each battalion was acting as an independent regiment. While waiting quietly and anxiously for the explosion, men had been allowed to lie down in line.”

Artist's rendering of the Mine Explosion in the early morning hours of 30 June 1864

Artist’s rendering of the Mine Explosion in the early morning hours of 30 June 1864

Charles Houghton’s recollection of the detonation of the mine was vivid. He wrote, “I was lying on the ground resting my head on my hand and thinking of the probable result, when the denouement came. I shall never forget the terrible and magnificent sight. The earth around us trembled and heaved-so violently that I was lifted to my feet. Then the earth along the enemy’s lines opened, and fire and smoke shot upward seventy-five or one hundred feet. The air was filled with earth, cannon, caissons, sand-bags and living men, and with everything else within the exploded fort. One large lump of clay as large as a hay-stack or small cottage was thrown out and left on top of the ground toward our own works. Our orders were to charge immediately after the explosion, but the effect produced by the falling of earth and the fragments sent heavenward that appeared to be coming right down upon us, caused the first line to waver and fall back, and the situation was one to demoralize most troops.”

♥ Pvt. David W. Phillips joined Battery M at the same time as William Phillips. It is unknown if they are related, though both were born in Wales. David, age 30 in 1860, and his wife Elizabeth, came from Wales sometime before 1858 when their son David was born. Like many of the Welsh emigrants, David worked as a miner and lived in Pittston, Pennsylvania. David did not join the “Provisional” 2nd PA Heavy Artillery and so did not make the charge with Burnside’s IX Corps at the Battle of the Crater. Instead, David remained with Battery M which was held in reserve as part of the XVIII Corps.

One thought on “September 1864

  1. No matter how many times I read Charles Houghton’s account of the explosion and initial charge at the Crater the hairs on the back of my neck give rise and a shiver goes down my spine! The fact that my great-great grandfather was in the charge makes the story even more hair raising!

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