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Artillery shell fragment from Battle of Crater, black troops (SOLD)

$75.00 $55.00
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Product Description

Offered here is a somewhat historical piece of Civil War history – it is a large section of a spherical artillery shell. It measures approximately 4” x 1 ½” with the wall being 1” thick; the fuse hole is present on the top. It weighs 2 pounds, 6 ounces and is probably part of a mortar shell. It was recovered at the “Crater” and was probably used against the black troops who were sent in to attack the Confederates – read story below:

In Petersburg, Virginia at 4:45 a.m. on July 30, the earth below the rebel strongpoint bulged and broke, and an enormous mushroom cloud, “full of red flames, and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, mounted towards heaven with a detonation of thunder,” one witness recalled. The explosion blasted a crater 130 feet long, 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep, with nearly sheer walls of jagged clay, “filled with dust, great blocks of clay, guns, broken carriages, projecting timbers, and men buried in various ways.” This would be known as “The Battle of the Crater”.

The explosion of 8000 pounds of black powder had killed one-third of the South Carolina brigade defending the strongpoint, but behind it was a labyrinth of communication trenches where rebel infantry rallied. Confederate engineers, anticipating an attack, had planted a ring of artillery batteries on the high ground. They laid down a crossfire of canister shot that pinned down the Union invaders. As more federal troops advanced, a terrible logjam formed in and around the crater.

In a last attempt to redeem this disaster, General Burnside ordered the United States Colored Troops to attack. The black soldiers “promised they’re not going to take any Confederate prisoners. They’re going to do as the Confederate troops did at Fort Pillow.

After four hours of fighting, the advantages of surprise and shock were lost, and the black soldiers would have to force their way forward through the mass of demoralized whites around the crater. Nevertheless, they accomplished far more than could have been expected: The commanders of the two leading regiments, utilizing their units’ training, improvised a pincer attack that captured 150 prisoners and a clutch of battle flags. Other regiments also worked their way through the mob and (with some rallied white regiments) tried to charge the high ground.

But by now rebel reinforcements had arrived. A brilliantly timed counterattack by General William Mahone routed the attempted federal advance, and most of the federals fled. About a thousand gathered in and around the crater, but their position was untenable: Under crossfire by rifles and artillery, and vulnerable to mortar shells dropped among the helpless, they packed the crater bottom like fish in a barrel. Officers who commanded in the crater testified that black troops were the mainstay of its last-ditch defense, a thin line of riflemen defending the crater berm.

When Mahone’s Confederates finally closed in, the battle degenerated into a combination massacre and race riot. Rebels killed wounded blacks as they retreated to the crater. “The cry was raised that we would all be killed if we were captured among the negroes,” recalled one white soldier; some desperate whites killed their black comrades-in-arms to show they shared the Confederates’ abhorrence of race-mixing.

By noon, the Union soldiers lost all the ground they’d gained, aside from the soldiers stuck in the crater. The Confederates threw bayonets and lit and threw artillery shells into the hole, creating more carnage.

Finally a call went up: “The Yanks have surrendered.” Confederate troops clambered into the crater and the first men down, one soldier wrote, “plunged their bayonets into the colored wounded lying there.” Colonel John Haskell of Virginia observed, “Our men, who were always made wild by having negroes sent against them … were utterly frenzied with rage. Nothing in the war could have exceeded the horrors that followed. No quarter was given, and for what seemed a long time, fearful butchery was carried on.”

Confederate officers eventually stopped the killing, but many black prisoners were murdered as they passed, under guard, through the Confederate reserves. Pvt. Dorsey Binyon of the 48th Georgia regretted that “some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.” Capt. William Pegram of Virginia took satisfaction in the belief that fewer than half of the blacks who surrendered on the field “ever reached the rear … You could see them lying dead all along the route.” He thought it “perfectly” proper that all captured blacks be killed “as a matter of policy”.

As I mentioned, there is a lot of history surrounding this artillery shell. Being it exploded in a somewhat “confined” area, it no doubt was responsible for some casualties. It remains in nice condition with no chipping or flaking; there is a thin coat of varnish which was applied for preservation. (SOLD)


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