Union soldiers in trench before the battle.
During the Civil War, Petersburg, Virginia, was an important railhead, where four railroad lines from the south met before continuing to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Most of the supplies to Lee's army and to the city of Richmond funneled through this point. Consequently, the Union regarded it as the "back door" to Richmond, without which defending the Confederate capital would be impossible. The result was the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in which the armies were aligned along a series of fortified positions and trenches more than 20 miles (32 km) long, extending from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond to areas south of Petersburg.
After Lee had checked Grant in an attempt to seize Petersburg on June 15, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was chafing at the inactivity to which Lee's trenches and forts had confined him. Finally, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps, offered a novel proposal to solve the problem.
Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania in civilian life, proposed digging a long mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines and planting explosive charges directly underneath a fort (Elliott's Salient) in the middle of the Confederate First Corps line. If successful, this would not only kill all the defenders in the area, it would also open a hole in the Confederate defenses. If enough Union troops filled the breach quickly enough and drove into the Confederate rear area, the Confederates would not be able to muster enough force to drive them out, and Petersburg might fall. Burnside, whose reputation had suffered from his 1862 defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and his poor performance earlier that year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, gave Pleasants the go-ahead.
Contemporary sketch of Col. Pleasants supervising powder in the mine.
Digging began in late June, but even Grant and Meade saw the operation as, "A mere way to keep the men occupied," and doubted it of any actual strategic value. They quickly lost interest and Pleasants soon found himself with few materials for his project, to the extent that his men had to forage for wood to support the structure. Work progressed steadily, however. Earth was removed by hand and packed into improvised sledges made from cracker boxes fitted with handles, and the floor, wall, and ceiling of the mine were shored up with timbers from an abandoned wood mill and even from tearing down an old bridge. The shaft was elevated as it moved toward the Confederate lines to make sure moisture did not clog up the mine, and fresh air was pumped in via an ingenious air-exchange mechanism near the entrance; the miners kept a fire continually burning at the bottom of a single ventilation shaft located behind Union lines, near the entrance of the mine but behind a bulkhead isolating it from the outside air. Meanwhile, a wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel. The fire superheated stale air, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance, and carried it through the wooden duct to the location where the miners were working. This precluded the need for additional ventilation shafts and served well in disguising the diggers' progress. On July 17, the main shaft reached under the Confederate position. Rumors of a mine construction soon reached the Confederates, but Lee refused to believe or act upon it for two weeks before commencing countermining attempts, which were sluggish and uncoordinated, and they were unable to discover the mine. General John Pegram, whose batteries would be above the explosion, did, however, take the threat seriously enough to build a new line of trenches and artillery points behind his position as a precaution.
The mine was in a "T" shape. The approach shaft was 511 feet (156 m) long, starting in a sunken area downhill and more than 50 feet (15 m) below the Confederate battery, making detection difficult. The tunnel entrance was narrow, about 3 feet (0.91 m) wide and 4.5 feet (1.4 m) high. At its end, a perpendicular gallery of 75 feet (23 m) extended in both directions. Grant and Meade suddenly decided to use the mine three days after it was complete after a failed attack known later as the First Battle of Deep Bottom. The Federals filled the mine with 320 kegs of gunpowder, totaling 8,000 pounds. The explosives were approximately 20 feet (6.1 m) underneath the Confederate works and the T gap was packed shut with 11 feet (3.4 m) of earth in the side galleries and a further 32 feet (9.8 m) of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine. On July 28, the powder charges were armed.
Burnside had trained a division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero to lead the assault. The division consisted of two brigades, one designated to go to the left of the crater and the other to the right. A regiment from each brigade was to leave the attack column and extend the breach by rushing perpendicular to the crater, while the remaining regiments were to rush through, seizing the Jerusalem Plank Road just 1,600 feet (490 m) beyond, followed by the churchyard and, if possible, Petersburg itself. Burnside's two other divisions, made up of white troops, would then move in, supporting Ferrero's flanks and race for Petersburg itself. Two miles behind the front lines, out of sight of the Confederates, the men of the USCT division were trained for two weeks on the plan.
Despite this careful planning and intensive training (by Civil War standards), the day before the attack, Meade, who lacked confidence in the operation, ordered Burnside not to use the black troops in the lead assault, claiming that if the attack failed black soldiers would be killed needlessly, creating political repercussions in the North. Burnside protested to General Grant, who sided with Meade. When volunteers were not forthcoming Burnside selected a replacement white division by having the three commanders draw lots. Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie's 1st Division was selected, but he failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk, well behind the lines, and providing no leadership. (Ledlie would be dismissed for his actions during the battle.)
Sketch of the explosion seen from the Union line.
The plan called for the mine to be detonated between 3:30 and 3:45am on the morning of July 30. Pleasants lit the fuse accordingly, but as with the rest of the mine's provisions, they had been given poor quality fuse, which his men had had to splice themselves. After more and more time passed and no explosion occurred (the growing light presenting an escalating threat to the men at the staging points, who were in view of the Confederate lines), two volunteers from the 48th Regiment (Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese) crawled into the tunnel. After discovering the fuse had burned out at a splice, they spliced on a length of new fuse and relit it. Finally, at 4:44 a.m., the charges exploded in a massive shower of earth, men, and guns. A crater (still visible today) was created, 170 feet (52 m) long, 60 to 80 feet (24 m) wide, and 30 feet (9.1 m) deep. Between 250 and 350 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast.
Ledlie's untrained white division was not prepared for the explosion, and reports indicate they waited ten minutes before leaving their own entrenchments. Footbridges were supposed to have been placed to allow them to quickly cross their own trenches, but these were missing, meaning the men had to climb in and out of their own trenches just to reach no-man's land. Once they had wandered to the crater, instead of moving around it as the black troops had been trained to do, they thought it would make an excellent rifle pit and it would be well to take cover. Therefore, they moved down into the crater itself, wasting valuable time while the Confederates, under Brig. Gen. William Mahone, gathered as many troops together as they could for a counterattack. In about an hour's time, they had formed up around the crater and began firing rifles and artillery down into it, in what Mahone later described as a "turkey shoot". The plan had failed, but Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, sent in Ferrero's men. Now faced with considerable flanking fire, they also went down into the crater, and for the next few hours, Mahone's soldiers, along with those of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson and artillery, slaughtered the IX Corps as it attempted to escape from the crater. Some Union troops eventually advanced and flanked to the right beyond the Crater to the earthworks and assaulted the Confederate lines, driving the Confederates back for several hours in hand-to-hand combat. Mahone's Confederates conducted a sweep out of a sunken gully area about 200 yards (180 m) from the right side of the Union advance. This charge reclaimed the earthworks and drove the Union force back towards the east.
Crater with Union soldier in 1865.
Union casualties were 3,798 (504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured), Confederate 1,491 (361 killed, 727 wounded, 403 missing or captured). Many of the Union losses were suffered by Ferrero's division of the USCT. Both the black and white wounded prisoners were taken to the Confederate hospital at Poplar Lawn in Petersburg. Meade brought charges against Burnside, and a subsequent court of inquiry censured Burnside along with Brig. Gens. Ledlie, Ferrero, and Orlando B. Willcox, and Col. Zenas R. Bliss. Burnside was never again assigned to duty. Although he was as responsible for the defeat as Burnside, Meade escaped immediate censure. However, in early 1865, the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War exonerated Burnside and condemned Meade for changing the plan of attack (which did little good for Burnside, whose reputation was ruined). As for Mahone, the victory, won largely due to his efforts in supporting Johnson's stunned men, earned him a lasting reputation as one of the best young generals of Lee's army in the war's last year.
Grant wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, "It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war." He also stated to Halleck that "Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have."
Pleasants, who had no role in the battle itself, received praise for his idea and the execution thereof. When he was appointed a brevet brigadier general on March 13, 1865, the citation made explicit mention of his role.
Grant subsequently gave in his evidence before the Committee on the Conduct of the War:
General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front."
Despite the battle being a tactical Confederate victory, the strategic situation in the Eastern Theater remained unchanged. Both sides remained in their trenches and the siege continued.
The Crater in 2004.
The area of the Battle of the Crater is a frequently visited portion of Petersburg National Battlefield Park. The mine entrance is open for inspection annually on the anniversary of the battle. There are sunken areas where air shafts and cave-ins extend up to the "T" shape near the end. The park includes many other sites, primarily those that were a portion of the Union lines around Petersburg.
In popular media
The 2003 film Cold Mountain, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, contains a recreation of the Battle of the Crater.
In Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel The Guns of the South, Pleasants proposes and enacts his plan for a similar battle when the South engages in war with their time-traveling benefactors.
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