The Battle of the Crater fascinates me because it was filled with political intrigue, courage, and sorrow. It was a battle that culminated in a spectacular explosion resulting in death, destruction, and deep regret. Union General Ulysses S. Grant lamented that it was “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” When you consider all the atrocities Grant witnessed, that’s quite a statement.
In 1864, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, by act of Congress, elevated Grant to General-in-Chief of the entire Union Army. Lincoln praised Grant’s aggressiveness in pursuing Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s, Army of Northern Virginia, at all costs. As such, the human toll of Grant’s offensive strategy is mind boggling, at least to me. At the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant lost 7,000 men in half an hour! He eventually earned the moniker, “The Butcher.” Yet, Grant knew to win the war, he would need to continue this strategy of attrition.
However, Grant’s offensive, at least at this time, proved inadequate to win the war and by June 1864, the Union and Confederate Armies were holed up in Petersburg, VA waging trench warfare. Petersburg was a strategic location for the South. Four major railways converged there and supplied Richmond, the Confederate capital. Gaining control of these railroad lines would most certainly lead to the fall of Richmond. Still, capturing Petersburg would not be easy and the misery of trench warfare persisted.
By the end of June, public appetite for the incessant war waned on both sides. The Richmond Examiner, hostile to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, suggested Grant “plunge with his whole force into the crater of the volcano and make an end of it…” Such prophetic words the Union’s 48th Pennsylvania Infantry championed to fruition.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants commanded the 48th Pennsylvania of General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corp. Pleasants was a mining engineer and many of his men were coal miners. Observing the Confederate position on a warm summer day, one of them suggested, “we could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.” A novel, if not preposterous idea.
Nonetheless, Pleasants presented the idea to Burnside. Burnside endorsed the idea and shared it with General George Meade, Commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac. Unfortunately, Meade was less than enthusiastic (Burnside was a rival, of course) and Grant was indifferent. In fact, a review of the project by the Union’s engineers thought the plan impossible and dismissing it as “claptrap and nonsense.”
In spite of the naysayers, permission was granted and construction of the mine began at the end of June. Of course, the skepticism surrounding the plan resulted in a lack of support for building it. Pleasants and his men had to, at times, dig with their hands! When they ran out of wood, they had to search for more finding a stash at an abandoned wood mill and even tearing down an old bridge.
In the weeks that followed, the men designed a T-shape tunnel that was approximately 511 feet long, and 50 feet below the center of the Confederate battery.
To make sure the mine was properly ventilated, an exhaust shaft was built where a continuous fire burned heating stale air and drawing it out like a chimney. The ensuing suction would then pull in oxygen, giving the miners fresh air to breathe. It was an engineering feat at that time and once complete, it was filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder layered about 20 feet high. The mine was ready! Were the men?
General Burnside tasked two brigades of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) under the command of Brigadier General Edward Ferrero for this mission. They trained for two weeks and by all accounts were ready, eager, and willing. However, Meade (and Grant) had a change of heart the day before the battle and forbade the use of the Colored Division to spearhead the attack due to lack of confidence and political concerns. The USCT had rarely seen the front lines of combat, mainly limited to protecting the wagons and building breastworks. In addition, political fallout could be severe if they were massacred in combat. In fact, during congressional hearings after the war, Grant admitted, “it would then be said…that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them.” It was also a re-election year for Lincoln and the racial animus permeating the election cycle could not be ignored.
Of course, this last minute change angered Burnside and as defeat settled in so did indifference. Burnside, with no other option, carelessly cast lots for a replacement group. Brigadier General James Ledlie drew the shortest straw. The men in his 1st Division would now lead the assault, but Ledlie was hardly a leader. His reputation as an incompetent alcoholic preceded him and as such, his men were not trained nor given proper guidance.
The day of the blast, July 30th, was a hot and humid Saturday morning. I imagine many Confederates were still asleep completely unaware that the doldrums of trench warfare would be momentarily disrupted by a monumental explosion. Then, at 4:44AM, the ground trembled from somewhere deep as a rumbling noise found its way to the surface and the earth exploded with a violent ferocity creating a mushroom of flames, dismembered bodies, artillery, and debris hundreds of feet into the air before crashing back down to a forever changed landscape!
A crater was created 170 feet long, approximately 120 feet wide, and at least 30 feet deep! Immediately killed were over 250 sleeping Confederates of the 18th and 22nd South Carolina. Adding insult to injury, Union artillerymen opened fire with guns and mortars barraging the dazed and confused Confederate defenders.
After the initial shock, Ledlie’s 1st division exited their trenches, but rather than go around the crater’s perimeter, they went into it thinking it was a “safe” place to engage the Confederates and became trapped. The crater was too steep and the soil too slippery for any meaningful exit. In the chaos and confusion of the aftermath and the lack of leadership, more Union soldiers including the USCT marched into the crater until the men became a “mass of worms crawling over each other…” Ledlie remained absent from action. Instead he and Ferraro, both inebriated, isolated themselves from the battle by remaining in a bunker; sharing a bottle of rum!
On the other side, the Confederate divisions regained their wherewithal and began a counterattack under the lead of Brigadier General William Mahone. In time, the men of the South lined the rim of the crater and began firing down at the trapped Union soldiers. As more Confederate reinforcements arrived, the Union was in various forms of attack and retreat. It was utter pandemonium on the Union side as Burnside and Meade could not even agree on a retreat plan!
In that anarchy, the USCT suffered the worse fate. Not only did these brave black soldiers have to engage with Confederate defenders, they also had to battle their white comrades who began killing them haphazardly! When it was apparent the Union would lose this battle, the white Union soldiers fearfully believed fighting alongside their black counterparts would appall their Southern brothers and as such would guarantee “no quarter” for them if captured. It was a massacre!
In the end, the North suffered approximately 3,800 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured) while the Southern toll was held to about 1,500. In his memoirs, Grant characterized this battle as “a stupendous failure” for the Union. Considering the unnecessary loss of life and a siege that continued for another 8 months or so, I couldn’t agree more.
Without a doubt, this battle has offered me a different perspective of the Civil War. Perhaps the reasons for it are not as absolute as they are commonly portrayed. Perhaps symbolizing the North as purely magnanimous in their motives is too simplistic while characterizing the South as entirely nefarious is too convenient. I imagine the truth lies somewhere in between and as such, my curiosity continues.
Please note, I chose to focus on the crater explosion because it is what interests me the most. If you’d like a full account of this battle, click here. You could also do an internet search for more resources. The pictures above and below are a mix from my past visits as well as old photos I found online from sites like Wikipedia, here, here, here, here, and here.