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  • James Houser

July 30, 1864 - The Battle of the Crater

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 30, 1864. A massive explosion sends an entire Confederate brigade into the air, rupturing the Rebel lines outside Petersburg, Virginia. Within minutes, an assault force of Union troops hurdles forward into the newly formed crater. One of the most desperate and tragic events of the Civil War is about to unfold, known to history only as the Battle of the Crater.

After two months of near-constant battle from May to July 1864, the armies of Grant and Lee had finally come to a stalemate outside Petersburg, Virginia. These weeks had been some of the bloodiest of the Civil War, with battlefields like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor etched into American memory. Grant had failed to destroy Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but Lee had failed to stop Grant from grinding his way down towards Richmond. Both sides had suffered tremendous casualties, but the Union Army of the Potomac had suffered more.

In June, Grant had launched a surprise crossing of the James River in an attempt to take Petersburg, Virginia. Petersburg was one of the most important rail junctions in the Confederacy, where four railroad lines from the south converged before continuing to Richmond. Almost all supplies for Lee’s army and the Confederate government travelled through Petersburg; if it was lost, Richmond was virtually cut off from the rest of the Confederacy.

Grant, more than any other Union general, perceived how critical Petersburg was – he regarded it as the “back door” to Richmond, and devised a careful plan to capture it before Lee realized what was up. At first, he truly did give Lee the slip, and Union forces approached the almost undefended fortifications around the critical city. The quick reactions of Confederate General Beauregard, though, as well as fumbling by subordinate Union commanders that Grant subsequently fired cost the Union valuable time, and by June 18 Lee’s army was entrenched in front of Petersburg.

For the next nine months, from mid-June 1864 to the first days of April 1865, Grant and Lee would remain in a trench warfare deadlock in an arc stretching from south of Petersburg to east of Richmond. This was the long, grueling campaign that became known as the Siege of Petersburg. It was not a true siege, since Petersburg and Richmond were never actually cut off from outside help, but it acted like one. As the months wore on, Grant slowly pushed his lines farther west, trying to snap one railroad after another, like a dirty fighter breaking the fingers of his opponent in a grapple. Lee was able to clap back on most of these extensions, but Union weight of numbers and persistence soon told.

Nevertheless, the longer the Union spent in front of Petersburg, the more morale slumped both in the ranks and back home. Though in objective military terms, the Union was very clearly winning the war, the late summer of 1864 saw the North’s morale drop to its lowest point. Many people had had high hopes for Grant taking command, but it seemed like all he had brought was more slaughter and yet another stalemate. Of course, Grant was strangling the Confederacy and had placed Lee in an unwinnable position, but this was not clear to the people back home. With Lincoln’s reelection campaign coming up, there was political pressure for a quick end to the death struggle around Petersburg.

The trench warfare around Petersburg looks like a sneak peek of World War I, with men living for weeks and months in increasingly complex trench systems, dealing with snipers and constant bombardment and suffering increasingly lower morale. Just as in World War I, frontal attacks were virtually useless against concentrated rifle and artillery fire – though Civil War generals figured this out and tried to get around the flanks of their opponents, hence Grant’s pushing his lines west. Grant’s logic was that if he stretched Lee thin enough, he would eventually snap, but as June turned into July and constant battling on their western flank proved unproductive, some men began to look towards other solutions.

One of these men was Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, who commanded the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Pleasants had given up a career as a mining engineer back home to take up his commission, but still retained his knowledge and had general notions of siege warfare. Pleasants got the idea that the Union could dig a long mine shaft under the Confederate lines, pack it full of gunpowder, and blow it sky-high.

This tactic, unique in American history, had been done before and would be done again. Mining was a common siege tactic since the ancient era. Polybius described the Roman siege of Ambracia in 189 BC, including the first known use of poison gas against Roman tunnels, but in those days mining was usually just a way to get inside the enemy walls. The age of gunpowder saw the use of explosions to destroy enemy fortifications; for instance, the Russians of Ivan the Terrible took Kazan with the use of gunpowder explosions, and the great French siege expert Vauban discussed the tactic in his military manuals in the 1680s.

During World War I, too, the use of explosive mines was common. The most famous and devastating example was the assault on Messines Ridge in 1917, where the British 2nd Army literally blew apart an entire terrain feature in an attack on the German lines. The explosion in that case was heard 519 miles away in Dublin.

So this wasn’t an *original* tactic. The problem was Pleasants’ commander. The 48th Pennsylvania was part of the 9th Corps, commanded by Ambrose Burnside, one of the most blatantly incompetent generals to ever hold a commission in American service – and he knew it. The Army of the Potomac’s commander, George G. Meade, had never worked well with Burnside; the two men detested each other.

Pleasants began working on his mine in late June. Grant and Meade were aware of the work, but didn’t place a lot of value in it at first. They did view it as a welcome distraction for the men who would otherwise be bored to death, and if it did end up working so much the better. Pleasants’ work, though, was not officially supported, which meant he had to scrounge up his materials on his own. His men had to forage for wood to support the mineshaft, venturing into the Virginia countryside to tear down abandoned houses and bridges to find planks and supporting shafts. The 48th’s men were from a coal-mining district of Pennsylvania, and they had a wealth of expertise within the ranks.

The Petersburg mine eventually extended 511 feet, starting in a sunken area within the 9th Corps’ trench lines and ending below a Confederate redoubt held by Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina brigade. The tunnel entrance was only about 4 and a half feet high. The miners had to ventilate their shaft by building a fire below a vertical exit, which heated the air and pumped the stale atmosphere out, creating a vacuum that brought in fresh air from small ventilation shafts. This ingenious device kept the Union troops from having to dig more ventilation shafts closer to the Rebel lines where they could be spotted.

The Confederates began to hear rumors of the Union mine construction, and Lee agreed to countermining operations to find and stop the Pennsylvanians’ work. Their progress was unsuccessful; the Rebels never found out where the mine was until it was too late.

By July 17, the main shaft was under Elliott’s position. Grant and Meade decided that they might as well use it. They planned to launch an attack north of the James River a few days beforehand, in order to draw Lee’s reserves away from the site of the explosion – this would end up being the First Battle of Deep Bottom, along modern I-295 southeast of Richmond. The main attack was scheduled for July 30, and Burnside was placed in charge of its execution.

For the main attack, Burnside selected his largest unit, the two-brigade division of black troops under General Edward Ferrero. The United States Colored Troops (USCTs) had been attached to the Army of the Potomac throughout the summer, but had never taken a major part in the campaigning, usually being detailed to guard wagons and supplies as most Union generals were not convinced of their usefulness. Ferrero himself was a mediocre leader, an Italian dance teacher who had never commanded a major battle. So we just have a conga line of incompetence.

The division underwent extensive training, the most important element being that as soon as the explosion occurred, they were to go AROUND the crater and continue to penetrate the Confederate lines, rather than to go IN the crater and place themselves in a hole to be surrounded. The USCTs were trained for two weeks before, the day before the attack, Meade got wind of the fact.

Meade’s intervention in the decision to use black troops as the attacking force is extremely controversial. It is likely that he was concerned about the political effects of using black soldiers as cannon fodder in an attack that was unlikely to succeed; he also distrusted Ferrero. It is also possible that Meade, like many Union generals, did not have much confidence in the fighting ability of black troops – or, more charitably, that he didn’t have much confidence in Ferrero’s inexperienced division that had never seen combat. Either way, he ordered Burnside to pick a different unit for the attack.

Burnside did the worst thing imaginable: rather than choosing his commander and unit based on their qualifications and experience, he had the leaders of his three white divisions draw straws. The lucky boy was James Ledlie, possibly the worst choice imaginable, a well-known drunk and the worst division commander in the Union army.

At 3:30 am on July 30, 1864, Henry Pleasants lit the fuse to the Petersburg mine. Since they had made the fuse themselves from scratch, the assault troops of Ledlie’s division and the Pennsylvania miners sat waiting for the explosion. As the sun began to rise with no KABOOM (where’s the kaboom? There should be an earth-shattering kaboom? Looney Tunes reference, forgive me), two volunteers from the 48th crawled back into the tunnel to check on the fuse. They found the problem and relit the fuse, and sprinted out as fast as they had ever run in their lives. At 4:44 am, 320 kegs of gunpowder – 8,000 pounds – exploded, and the world went white.

The mine annihilated the Confederate redoubt, killing 278 South Carolina soldiers immediately and sending rifles, artillery, dirt and body parts soaring into the sky. The Crater (capital C), 170 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 30 feet deep, stood in its place. The Rebels to either side of the line were stunned into stupefaction, unable to move or shoot for almost an hour.

This was the point where the Union was supposed to surge forward in triumph, taking advantage of the huge hole in the Rebel lines and charging through towards Petersburg. Instead, as Ledlie lay in a bombproof shelter nursing a bottle of rum, his disorganized infantry rushed forward in a mass. Ledlie had neglected to give his officers instructions, or even to order footbridges to be placed over the friendly trenches, so the Union troops wasted valuable time climbing in and out of their own trenches before they began to venture in a huddled mob across no-man’s-land.

When they reached the Crater, instead of going around it like Ferrero’s black troops had been trained to do, Ledlie’s confused and ill-led soldiers mobbed into the pit itself. The officers made the somewhat reasonable decision that it would make good cover – not realizing that they were supposed to move on and exploit the attack, not just sit there and let the Confederates come to them. As Ledlie’s division thrashed around, gaping, in the enormous Crater, the Confederates were reacting.

The Rebel troops in the nearby trenches may have been stunned, but Robert E. Lee reacted quickly, ordering General William Mahone’s crack division to send reinforcements to the threatened point. As Mahone’s men approached the Crater, they began to form up around the lip of the massive hole and fire straight down into the luckless bluecoats. Soon they were rolling up cannon to join the ranks, creating what Mahone himself called a “turkey shoot.”

Burnside should have cut his losses at this point and ordered a retreat, but instead ordered Ferrero’s black troops in to reinforce Ledlie. Ferrero’s poor men rushed forward to join Ledlie’s troops in the slaughter at the bottom of the Crater, as their general joined Ledlie in the bombproof, sharing in the rum bottle. Despite desperate courage and sacrifice, the Union troops had no hope of escaping; in the words of a later diarist, they were “pinned like rats in a hole.” Some brave Union officers like William Bartlett tried to lead his men out of the Crater in a bayonet attack, but Bartlett was nearly shot to pieces though he somehow survived.

Soon the Union troops were streaming back in disarray. The USCTs soon discovered an unpleasant truth of fighting the Confederates: black Union soldiers could expect no quarter from the South Carolinians. Shouts of “Kill the n******” echoed up and down the Confederate lines as they bayoneted black soldiers trying to surrender, though Mahone himself soon put a stop to much of this and had wounded USCTs transported behind the lines to receive treatment. (You get the chance, look up Mahone’s postwar career, it’s SUPER weird, he built a multiracial coalition as Governor of Virginia.)

The enormous bravery and total disaster at the Crater was a haunting experience for everyone; it was the worst battle most of the men involved had ever seen. The Union lost 3800 men out of 8500 sent into the attack – almost half – and the Confederates lost 1500, one third lost in the initial explosion. The Union had lost their last chance to breach the Petersburg lines in one stroke, and had to settle in for the long, terrible siege.

Meade, furious with Burnside, had charges brought against almost every officer in the 9th Corps responsible for the useless slaughter – though Meade himself was not innocent in the poor decision-making. Burnside was relieved and never held a major command again; the drunkards Ledlie and Ferrero, who had sat in a bunker drinking rum as their divisions, headless, charged into a massacre, were both fired as well. Grant, who had no direct hand in the battle, was nevertheless shaken by the experience. In a letter to Washington, he called it “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.”

The Crater, sadly, changed nothing except to lengthen the casualty lists. The Siege of Petersburg would continue, and the next time Union armies would assault the lines would be April 2 – seven days before Appomattox.

The Crater and the Petersburg mine shaft can still be seen today at Petersburg National Battlefield Park.

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