‘He Was Never Seen or Heard From After’: Dealing with Disappearance at the Battle of the Crater

In July 1865 the State Census came to the town of Westfield, Massachusetts. One of the community recorded there was Abby Sullivan, who was described as a 42 year-old Irish woman. Abby was also recorded as married, but in July 1865 she must have felt in limbo. For she was a wife without a husband; Abby had not heard from her spouse, Jerry, in almost 12 months. He had last been seen on 30th July 1864, when he had disappeared into the smoke and carnage of the infamous Crater at Petersburg. By 1865, Abby felt sure Jerry was dead- her problem was that in order to get a pension, she had to prove it. (1)

Alfred Waud's sketch of powder for the mine being carried down the covered way while under fire (Library of Congress)

Alfred Waud’s sketch of powder for the mine being carried down the covered way while under fire (Library of Congress)

At 4.44am on 30th July, 1864, 8,000 pounds of gunpowder buried in a mine below Rebel positions at Petersburg erupted into the sky- taking 352 Confederates with it. By all accounts, it was one of the most remarkable sights of the war. The detonation created a crater 130 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Lying nearby were the men of the 57th Massachusetts Infantry, part of the 1st Brigade of James Ledlie’s 1st Division of the IX Corps. They had been designated to participate in the attack that was to follow the explosion. Among the 100 or so men of the regiment who witnessed that awesome spectacle was Jerry Sullivan. With him was Second Lieutenant John Anderson, who described what they saw:

‘Suddenly there came a heavy rumble that made the ground tremble, followed by a deep boom; quickly jumping to our feet we saw a black mountain of earth and smoke rising, carrying cannon, caissons, camp equipage and human bodies in one confused mass, about two hundred feet in the air, where it poised for a second, and as it settled back, looked as if it would bury the troops which were formed for the charge.’ (2)

While Jerry and his comrades gazed on, Union artillery roared into life, and the men of the 57th surged forward. What they met at the edge of the Crater stunned them. Anderson continues:

‘Upon reaching the scene of the explosion the picture presented was one of death and confused destruction, which for the moment, seemed to paralyze our own men. There were mangled, human bodies scattered among the ruins; men partly buried, some with heads sticking out, still alive, and pleading to be extricated from their painful positions, arms and legs were seen protruding and wriggling in silent appeal for the release of the buried bodies to which they belonged.’ (3)

Jerry Sullivan and the other men of the 57th Massachusetts descended into the Crater. It had been intended that their division would push on to secure the crest beyond, but this never happened. Instead they remained where they were, and by the time they sought to push deeper into the Confederate lines the Rebels had recovered. The Crater now became a killing ground for the Federal troops. As more and more Union troops were thrown into the attack, the depression filled with additional troops, so that it was almost impossible to move:

‘The musketry fire, which at first was scattering, was constantly increasing, with deadly effect. The crest in our front was now occupied by a strong force, while the batteries stationed there were delivering a raking fire…Our own troops were so crowded that only those who stood in front could use their arms to advantage.’

As the day wore on there was little improvement in their circumstances:

‘Every attempt to move forward to the crest was repulsed and the troops driven back again to the crater...charge succeeded charge until the enemy effected a lodgement within a few feet of our men who still held the ruined fort, so near we could almost reach each other with the bayonet. We had no semblance of an organization. Whites and blacks [referring to the USCT Regiments who played a major role in the battle] were squeezed so tightly together that there was hardly standing room. Even many of those killed were held in a standing position until jostled to the ground. The dead were being trodden upon and the wounded trampled to death. No pen can accurately portray the awful horrors of that scene of carnage.’ (4)

The Battle of the Crater was a disastrous failure. When the 57th Massachusetts Infantry eventually staggered back to their own lines through a hail of Confederate fire, they had lost six of their seven officers and 45 out of 91 enlisted men. One of the ‘missing’ was Jerry Sullivan. (5)

Alfred Waud's sketch of the explosion of the Petersburg mine on 30th July 1864 (Library of Congress)

Alfred Waud’s sketch of the explosion of the Petersburg mine on 30th July 1864 (Library of Congress)

Jerry Sullivan and Abby Flynn were not young when they had married. Both had been in their late thirties when the Reverend Gallagher declared them man and wife in Springfield, Massachusetts on 24th July 1860. Jerry worked as a laborer, and the couple made their home in Westfield. The couple had no children, and it was likely simple economics that prompted Jerry to enlist, aged 44, on 22nd December 1863. He mustered into the 54th Massachusetts the following January. His short military career came to an end on 30th July 1864. After that date, it is simply stated that there is ‘no further record.’ (6)

The fact that there was no absolute confirmation of Jerry’s fate presented a major problem for Abby as she went in search of a widow’s pension. It was a difficulty that thousands of widow’s and dependents faced, particularly where men had disappeared during battle, or had been swallowed up as Prisoners of War. The pension bureau required that Abby provide some evidence as to Jerry’s fate, in order to guard against potential fraud. The best way that she could do this was by talking to former comrades of her husband, and ask them to provide statements. On 17th August 1866, Lieutenant-Colonel J.M. Tucker of the 57th Massachusetts gave the following affidavit:

I hereby certify on honor that I well knew Jerry Sullivan late a Private of Co ”B” 57th Regt. Mass. Vols. That he with other members of his Company and Regiment went in to the action at the blowing up of the mine at near Petersburg Va. July 30, 1864 and that to the best of my knowledge and belief he was then and there killed at that time and in that action.

I further certify that I have no interest in this case.

J.M. Tucker

Late Lieut. Col.

57th Regt. Mass. Vols. (7)

Abby was able to go one better on 11th October 1866, when Edmund Pyne, a friend of her husband’s in the regiment, gave a more detailed account of Jerry’s movements on the day of the Battle of the Crater. Pyne also recounted his efforts to locate him, and spoke of the Irishman’s character:

I Edmund Pine of Southwick Hampden County, Massachusetts, lately a private Co “F” 57 Regt. Mass. Vols. being duly sworn depose and say that I have been well acquainted with Jeremiah Sullivan, called frequently Jerry Sullivan formerly of Westfield in said County & a private in Co. “B” 57th Regt. Mass. Vols. and with Abigail Sullivan of said Westfield, his wife, for four or five years. That I was present & engaged in the action of July 30th 1864; that I saw said Jerry while the Regiment was under arms and awaiting orders for the attack at the “Crater” near Petersburgh, Va. on said July 30th 1864 & he was there in line under arms with his Co. & Regt.; that I made inquiries for said Jerry immediately after said Regiment came out of this said action, & I could not learn that he had been seen after he went into said action. I made inquiries frequently while I remained in service for said Jerry after that time among his acquaintances and friends in the said Co. & Regt. & I know that he was never seen or heard from after said action, & I know from what I heard said that it was the universal opinion among the officers & the men who knew him that said Jerry was killed in said action on July 30th 1864. I have no doubt that such was the fact- I have frequently seen said Abigail since my discharge I live within a few miles of said Jerry’s former place of residence, & I know that said Jerry has never been seen or heard of there by any one of his acquaintances or relations since July 30th 1864 to very best knowledge & belief- & I know that he was a good citizen & an industrious man & I know of no reason why, if living, he should not return to said Westfield to his family & friends. I have no interest whatever in this application for a pension.

Edmond Pyne (8)

Abby’s pension was approved in May 1867, backdated to the date of Jerry’s disappearance. She would continue to receive it for the next 35 years, until her own death in 1903. Her husband was one of many men who went off to war only to disappear forever into the smoke of battle. His ultimate fate that day will likely never be known. (9)

The Crater as it appeared in 1865 (Photographic History of the Civil War)

The Crater as it appeared in 1865 (Photographic History of the Civil War)

*None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Massachusetts State Census 1855, Jerry Sullivan Widow’s Pension File; (2) Civil War Trust Battle of the Crater, Anderson 1896: 176; (3) Anderson 1896: 177; (4) Ibid: 180-1; (5) Ibid: 187; (6) Jerry Sullivan Widow’s Pension File, Massachusetts AG 1932: 829; (7) Jerry Sullivan Widow’s Pension File; (8) Ibid.; (9) Ibid.;

References and Further Reading

Civil War Trust Battle of the Crater Page

Petersburg National Battlefield Park

Jerry Sullivan Widow’s Pension File WC94515

Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, State Census, 1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.

Anderson, John 1896. The Fifty-Seventh Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion.

Massachusetts Adjutant General 1932. Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War. Volume 4.

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Categories: Battle of The Crater, Massachusetts

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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10 Comments on “‘He Was Never Seen or Heard From After’: Dealing with Disappearance at the Battle of the Crater”

  1. February 4, 2015 at 11:08 pm #

    Quite a fascinating account. Just yesterday, I finally decided I needed a Fold3 subscription. Here’s hoping I find lots of great information like you have turned up here.

    My ancestor was missing for 6 months but it turned out he was a prisoner at Andersonville.

    • February 5, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      Hi Virginia,

      Fold3 is a magnificent resource for researchers- even if they don’t have your ancestors original file you will be able to get all the references you would need to track down things like his pension file, if he had one. I hope you enjoy the research!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. February 5, 2015 at 3:11 am #

    Excellent article as always Damian! I have a comment and a question. First, the comment. “Mother May You Never See The Sights I Have Seen by Warren Wilkinson is a modern regimental history of the 57th Massachusetts. It’s one of the top two or three regimental histories I’ve ever read. Second, the question. Since I assume you’ve been steadily going through the pension files at Fold3, and I know there is a gold mine of material for me in there too, what kind of system do you use to “mark off” the pension files you’ve already gone through?

    • February 5, 2015 at 9:23 am #

      Hi Brett,

      Many thanks! I came across reference to that book alright- it sounds like one to get based on your recommendation! Re the files on Fold3, I have been through thousands of them alright at this stage! The answer to your question is dependent on precisely what I am looking for. I have not started a systematic review to check if men were of Irish birth, as that would take years (though I think it should be done with what is there). What I have done so far is systematically go through all the available New York pension files in search of letters written by Irish and irish-American soldiers. I based this largely on surname evidence, but in cases of ethnic Irish regiments I looked at every file regardless of name. I can generally tell from a quick scan of the file if there are wartime letters in it, as they tend to look quite different from the other documents. Using that process (which took a number of months) I identified almost 150 sets of letters- I have confirmed over a third of them as of certain Irish origin based on a quick review of the file to see if there was locationary information. I have recorded all this on an excel spreadsheet, and have recently started the same process with the Pennsylvania pensions. Given that only 11% are online it demonstrates the gigantic amount of primary information that awaits discovery in the files. One of the other things I do to record when I do find confirmed Irish is tag them on the Fold3 system- so if I ever need to find a file from a specific county, e.g. Donegal, I can just run a search through Fold3 and it will bring them up for me. Unfortunately I didn’t start that right away when I was looking but do it religiously now. This also means that anyone using Fold3 can also avail of this. The third way I look at the files is general browsing- for example that is how I came across this file. I often do this around the anniversary of a major battle, where I will specifically target regiments that I know were heavily involved in a specific engagement- there was nearly always an Irishman in the unit and therefore the specific story of one family’s experience can be told. The way the NARA staff set up the files for scanning is ideal for research as they consistently order the documentation in the same fashion. So for example it would be very easy (though time consuming!) to systematically go through the files to examine those that died around Petersburg, as the brief sheet that contains that overview material is always at the front of the file. I hope this makes some sense!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • February 5, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

        Thanks Damian! That is exactly the type or detailed answer I knew you’d have, knowing the amount of work you’ve put in. I especially like the idea of Fold3 tagging these. Once I dive in after the sesquicentennial, I’ll be sure to do that too.

  3. Julia Steele
    February 5, 2015 at 3:55 am #

    Maybe Jerry Sullivan is buried with his comrades as an unknown soldier at Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg, where over 6,000 Union dead are buried. Soldiers were exhumed from the Crater Battlefield as late as the 1930s and re buried at Poplar Grove. I suspect others are still out there, or buried at Andersonville.

    I’m an archaeologist and the Cultural Resource Manager for Petersburg National Battlefield. We’re about to start a rehabilitation of the cemetery, a cultural landscape report of the Crater Battlefield and a study of the thousands of feet of countermines the Confederates dug to ward off another mine explosion.

    • February 5, 2015 at 9:13 am #

      Hi Julia,

      Many thanks for the comment- that sounds like a great job you have! The work for the cultural landscape report sounds fascinating, I am looking forward to hearing more about that as you progress it. I have never had the opportunity to visit the battlefield but that is something I hope to rectify in the not too distant future. I did wonder how many men were still ‘missing’ from the Crater- i.e. is it more probable he is an unknown in Poplar Grove than still somewhere on the field for example. Thanks for reading!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. John Murphy
    February 5, 2015 at 11:39 am #

    Another good story Damian. The references are also appreciated and might help me find information about my great grand uncle Michael Glynn from Galway that fought in the 6th Mass Light Artillery. John

  5. July 30, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

    Small World Dept: If I’m remembering correctly, the Pennsylvania Regts. that did the actual digging of the mine were from the same coal districts that were the hub of Molly Maguire activity, the following decade.

    • August 24, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

      I never realised that Peter, fascinating stuff!

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