When the Union mine dug beneath a Confederate fort atop Cemetery Hill at Petersburg failed to explode on schedule on July 30, 1864, 17-year-old 2nd Lt. James J. Chase of Turner fell asleep.
“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.”
Col. Mark Wentworth of the 32nd Maine 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.
“We at once took shelter in the deep crater … some jumped in, some tumbled in, others rolled in.” He jumped into the crater, where “beneath our feet were the torn fragments of men, while upon every side could be seen some portion of a man protruding from the sand.”
Chase and his comrades sheltered within the crater’s depths; the Maine boys, like too many other Union troops participating in the attack, went to ground rather than advance beyond the crater. If the soldiers had kept moving, they could have sliced through the gap and taken the war into Petersburg itself.
Sensing inactivity’s danger — Confederate gunners already hurled shells into the crater — Wentworth yelled, “Forward, Thirty-second Maine!” He pointed to where the crater protruded into Confederate territory; get up and get going, he urged his men.
They went, even as Chase saw “the sand constantly dropping before the enemy’s bullets” along the crater’s lip. Chase “hesitatingly … took a step forward to ascend the steep side … climbing over the fallen victims before me.”
Other 32nd Maine boys swarming around him, he crossed the lip; a Confederate bullet wounded Wentworth and then struck a Maine sergeant, leaving him with a wounded arm. “We now took shelter in a trench just outside of the fort, and returned the enemy’s fire, being our first shot during the battle,” Chase noticed.
Confederates suddenly “ceased firing”; Chase vividly remembered “the prolonged silence.” For a few minutes the battle’s outcome hung in the balance; Confederate reinforcements rushed to plug the shattered line, and if the Union boys could just move one more time, they could break the siege of Petersburg for good.
But terrible high-level Federal leadership — Generals Ambrose Burnside and George Meade deigned to direct the attack from the actual battlefield — doomed the assault.
Chase soon “climbed up a pile of earth … thrown up by the explosion.” He immediately spotted “a large body of the enemy forming in a deep ravine at the foot of the hill.”
Chase slid into the trench to warn Sargent, who had started crawling up “a pile of earth similar to the one I had climbed.” Chase stood still too long watching the captain. A Confederate “sharpshooter from the pine grove on our left” placed the young lieutenant in his rifle’s crosshairs.
“The bullet struck me near the left temple and came out through the nose at the inner corner of the right eye, throwing out the left eye in its course,” Chase reeled in agony. “Staggering and reeling I walked across the trench, the blood spurting before me from my wound.”
Next: A monster comes home to Maine
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.