January 23, 2018
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Maine soldiers charge into ‘The Crater’ at Petersburg – Part 1

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

The massive explosion that shook James J. Chase awake at Petersburg followed him home to Maine.

Hailing from Turner, the 16-year-old Chase joined the war effort in August 1863. Showing talent and leadership capabilities, he received a commission and a transfer to the 32nd Maine Infantry in late winter as a lieutenant assigned to Co. D.

Chase missed the regiment’s decimating combat at Spotsylvania Courthouse that May. In late July he arrived in the Petersburg trenches and reported to the 32nd’s commander, Col. Mark Wentworth. Chase was on leave until Aug. 2; Wentworth told him to find someplace to relax until then, but the young officer decided to rejoin his men on the front line.

Guided by a soldier named Peare, Chase navigated the trenches, ran across an open ravine as Confederate bullets whizzed past, and “at about three P.M. we reached the regiment.”

The stunned Chase could not believe the “surprise [that] met my eyes as I gazed upon what was once the Thirty-second Maine Regiment. Instead of a full regiment of one thousand men, dressed in new uniforms, as I had last seen them, scarcely three months before, I beheld but 270 men.

“Their cloths were tattered and torn,” he saw. “Some had no coats and some no blankets; some wore one boot and one shoe, while others had none.”

Chase felt conspicuous in his clean uniform and shoulder straps because “officers, by their dress, could hardly be distinguished from the men, save by the sword they carried in place of a musket.”

He found Capt. H.R. Sargent, who commanded the companies deployed in these trenches perhaps 60 yards from similar Confederate positions. Sargent ordered Chase “to assume command” of Co. D, “then under command of Lieut. Dorman.”

Chase “found thirteen privates and three non-commissioned officers, of the full company of one hundred I left scarcely three months before.” His arrival not fortuitous.

“Seated beside a hard-bread box, a blanket over his shoulders,” Dorman was pinching lice in “an old shirt spread out on the box,” Chase noticed. The lieutenants exchanged formal orders; a cannon shell suddenly exploded “but a few feet above our heads.”

Left uninjured “but stunned by the concussion,” Chase checked his men: Dorman “was severely wounded in face and arm,” a corporal lay dying, and “two privates were groaning and tossing about in agony, from wounds they had received.”

Chase “now had but two sergeants and ten privates” in Co. D.

Another regiment relieved the 32nd Maine in the evening on Tuesday, July 26; the Maine boys returned “to our retreat in the pine woods” behind the Union lines, according to Chase. Off to the right he saw Union “sappers and miners carrying powder to the mine (tunnel)” dug from the Federal lines to a point beneath the Confederate fort atop Cemetery Hill.

Excavated by coal miners from the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, the tunnel ran 511 feet to a gallery excavated about 50 feet beneath the Confederate fort. The miners packed the gallery with four tons of gunpowder.

Plans called for the mine to blow up at 3:30 a.m., Saturday, July 30, to create a gaping hole in Southern lines. Charging Union brigades would plunge through the gap, with some units moving to capture the Confederates’ secondary line and other units spreading right and left to seize additional entrenchments along the primary line.

“Near midnight [on Friday] I lay down to sleep,” but Chase restlessly tossed and turned before finally nodding off. At 2:30 a.m., Saturday, he “was aroused by the Orderly Sergeant telling me the hour had come.”

The 32nd Maine Infantry would charge after the mine exploded.

“Grasping my sword at my side, I hurriedly took my place in the line now being formed,” Chase joined his men. “The necessary orders were given in a low tone, and silently we marched out of the woods and along the covered way,” a trench dug sufficiently deep that Confederate snipers could not see men traveling through it.

The Maine boys waited. “By the light of the full moon we could distinctly see the outlines of the enemy’s fort on Cemetery Hill, not 300 yards distant,” according to Chase. At 3:15 a.m. “our troops were in position.”

The 32nd Maine belonged to the 1st Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. William Francis Bartlett. The brigade was “designated to lead the charge,” Chase noted.

At 3:30 a.m. “there was a deathly silence among the men,” and “every eye was turned toward the doomed fort, but contrary to our expectations no explosion took place,” Chase expressed his surprise.

The fuse lit to detonate the gunpowder-packed gallery beneath Cemetery Hill had gone out; two 48th Pennsylvania volunteers, Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese, scurried into the tunnel, spliced and lit a new fuse, and scrambled to safety.

Chase and his comrades wondered about the delay. With the early midsummer sunrise not far off, “we were ordered to lie down, as a precaution from being seen by the enemy,” Chase noted.

“I was soon wrapped in slumber, forgetful of what was going on around me, when suddenly I was awakened” by the mine’s explosion at 4:44 a.m.

The detonation “seemed to occur in slow motion,” wrote Bruce Catton in his epic “Stillness at Appomattox.” Soldiers experienced “first a long, deep rumble, like summer thunder rolling along a faraway horizon, then a swaying and swelling of the ground up ahead, with the solid earth rising to form a rounded hill,” which “then … broke apart, and a prodigious spout of flame and black smoke went up toward the sky …”

“O horrors! was I in the midst of an earthquake?” Chase exclaimed. “Was the ground around me about to part and let me into the bowels of the earth?” Stunned by “this terrible thunder” and “the upheaving and rocking of the ground,” he leaped to his feet and “recovered my senses enough to understand that the explosion had taken place.”

Looking at Cemetery Hill, “I beheld a huge mass of earth being thrown up, followed by a dark lurid cloud of smoke.”

Wentworth yelled, “Forward!”

“With a fierce yell which could but be faintly heard” as Union artillery opened fire, the Maine boys charged “over the [Union] earthworks” and rushed toward the shattered Confederate fort.

Chase tripped and fell going over the earthworks; “with but a moment’s delay, I was with my comrades charging over the open ground.” The Maine boys had covered perhaps 25 yards when a Confederate volley struck their right flank; a separate volley struck their right flank. Wentworth screamed at his men to lie down; then “a perfect shower of bullets passed over us, many striking among us,” according to Chase.

The 32nd Maine boys could not stay where they were; Chase saw a bullet strike a prone Sgt. Charles Cole in the forehead. Rising to his feet, Wentworth shouted, “Quick to the fort for your lives, men!”

Enemy bullets followed the Maine boys to “the ruins of the fort,” where they “found a large hole or crater made by the explosion, shaped like a tunnel, forty feet deep and seventy feet in diameter,” Chase had moments to calculate the dimensions.

Next week: Part II — Confederate sharpshooter targets a 17-year-old lieutenant.

Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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