That was the glass-half-full perspective anyway. As it was, the political pressure on United States president Abraham Lincoln was enormous. His reelection chances were not bright, William T. Sherman's armies were stalled near Atlanta, Georgia, and the Confederate Army of the Valley under Jubal A. Early had threatened Washington, D.C., leading a member of the 58th Virginia Infantry to leave behind a note: "Now Uncle Abe, you had better be quiet the balance of your Administration, as we came near your town this time to show you what we could do. But if you go on in your mad career, we will come again soon … "
Indeed, Grant was open to suggestions, and a truly strange one worked its way up the chain of command. Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, in Burnside's corps, commanded a regiment of anthracite miners from Schuylkill County. One of his men looked out at the Confederate position from his trench and declared, "We could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it." The army's professional engineers thought this to be "claptrap and nonsense," largely because the tunnel would need to be longer than four hundred feet, a distance that would preclude proper ventilation. As such, they refused to lend any assistance or expertise to the project. Pleasants got the go-ahead anyway, and on June 25 his men started digging, using improvised tools.
Once they saw the tunnel idea was actually going to work, Burnside and Meade set about creating a battle plan. The two didn't like each other, in part because Burnside had once commanded the Army of the Potomac but was now subordinate to Meade. (Burnside had seniority, however, and Grant issued them separate orders, lest Burnside be offended by receiving direct commands from Meade.) Now Meade, having consulted with Grant, overruled Burnside's plan to send in first his freshest men—the Fourth Division, consisting of 4,300 United States Colored Troops under the command of the white general Edward Ferrero. (Ferrero was a ballroom dance instructor who, like Meade, had been born in Spain.) Meade said the black troops were untested, which they were, but there was another, more political, reason. Grant later told Congress that if there were a massacre, and the black troops went in first, "it would then be said … that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them."
At precisely 4:44 there was, according to a soldier from the 20th Michigan, a heaving and lifting of the fort and the hill on which it stood; then a monstrous tongue of flame shot fully two hundred feet in the air, followed by a vast column of white smoke … then a great spout or fountain of red earth rose to a great height, mingled with men and guns, timbers and planks, and every other kind of debris, all ascending, spreading, whirling, scattering.
At the same time, 110 Union guns and 54 mortars all opened fire. (The delay had actually been to the artillerymen's benefit; by now it was light out and they could see what they were shooting at.) This is the moment when Ledlie's men were supposed to advance, but like everyone else, they were briefly paralyzed by the force of the blast. At least 278 Confederates—South Carolinians and Virginians mostly—were killed instantly, and a giant crater—what has come to be known as the Crater—was opened up in the ground where moments earlier they had been sleeping. It was more than 170 feet long, 60 feet across, and 30 feet deep. When Ledlie's troops reached it, rather than march around it they marched into it. There, they discovered that the earth that had fallen back into the Crater had become a mash that trapped the struggling men.
The historian William Marvel has offered two explanations for this crucial mistake. First, he has noted that that the Union men stopped to help dig Confederate survivors from the wreckage, a humane act that nevertheless "proved their undoing, for had they instead swept up and down the trenches and pushed ahead to the heights beyond"—per the battle plan—"they might have captured Petersburg that day." Marvel has also noted that soldiers were accustomed to seeking shelter, and the Crater was like the biggest and safest foxhole anyone had ever seen—except that it was not. Its steep thirty-foot walls and slippery red clay made it nearly impossible for the men to escape once they had entered, and when Burnside's remaining divisions followed Ledlie's men into the fray, pretty much everyone just piled in, making for a perfect mess. Once the Confederates shook off their initial shock, they wheeled their cannons up to the edge of the hole, pointed them down, and let loose.
With all of this action was taking place, Ledlie and Ferrero's remaining in the rear drinking rum rather than going in with their troops underlines their gross lack of leadership. Marvel, to his credit, has been more dispassionate than most scholars: "The principal reason for the failure of Ledlie's division to capture Cemetery Hill"—the heights that served as the goal of the morning's action—"may be that Ledlie never told his brigade commanders they were expected to do so." This hardly lets Ledlie off the hook, but when congressmen later investigated the fiasco, they focused on Meade's refusal to send the trained and rested black soldiers in first. In other words, perhaps Ledlie's men did not have the time to prepare for their new role, thrust upon them just hours before the battle. And perhaps Ledlie did not have the time properly to instruct them, to which some historians have replied, Perhaps. But when he should have been up front barking orders and inspiring his increasingly desperate men, Ledlie was nowhere to be seen. Other historians (and Marvel in particular) point out that more-competent generals than Ledlie were nearer the action; in fact, it is possible that the inebriated general, if he had been up at the front, would have hurt the Union cause more than he helped it.
In the Crater
Robert E. Lee had ordered up two infantry brigades under William Mahone to fill the gap in the lines. "Small and lean as a starvation year," in the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, "Little Billy" Mahone was a Virginia Military Institute graduate and a veteran of all the major Army of Northern Virginia campaigns since the Seven Days' Battles (1862). His Virginians, who were busy firing down into the Crater and in some instances even hurling bayonet-fixed muskets in the manner of spears, saw the black troops as an ugly provocation. Said one Virginia officer: "Boys, you have hot work ahead; they are negroes and show no quarter."
William Pegram, a Confederate colonel whose cousin's battery was blown up by the initial explosion, wrote in a letter to his sister that "it seems cruel to murder [the black soldiers] in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so." From Pegram's point of view, part of that cause included his own troops' morale. "I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army," he wrote. "I am convinced, since Saturday's fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men."
A similar incident, on a much smaller scale, would occur just a few months later, at Saltville, Virginia.
There was plenty of blame to go around. The Union general Orlando B. Willcox accused the black troops of having "acted badly," and it is true that many of them had run—or, in the cramped confusion of the Crater, had tried to run—when confronted with Mahone's point-blank counterattack. Burnside, however, was more magnanimous, describing the Fourth Division as having marched "gallantly under the first fire and until their ranks were broken."
When members of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated, however, they pointed a finger at Meade. (With his sister-in-law married to former Virginia governor Henry A. Wise, Meade was no friend of the Radical Republicans who dominated the committee.) He should never have reversed Burnside's plan to send Ferrero's men in first, they said. But he did, of course, and the Petersburg siege lasted another eight months, the longest siege on U.S. soil to date.
June 25, 1864 - Members of the 48th Pennsylvania, miners led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, begin digging a long tunnel to the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg.
July 17, 1864 - Members of the 48th Pennsylvania finish digging the main shaft of a long tunnel to the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg.
July 18–29, 1864 - Having already completed the main shaft of a long tunnel to the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg, members of the 48th Pennsylvania dig a T-shaped explosives chamber. They pack it with four tons of gunpowder.
July 28–29, 1864 - Union general George G. Meade and general Ambrose E. Burnside discuss their plans ahead of the Battle of the Crater. Meade overrules Burnside's intention to send in first his fresh black troops. Burnside asks his remaining commanders to draw straws.
July 30, 1864, 3:15 a.m. - Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania lights a fuse designed to ignite four tons of explosives at the end of a 511-foot tunnel to the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg.
July 30, 1864, 4:44 a.m. - After problems with the fuse, four tons of explosives finally ignite under the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg. At least 278 men—mostly South Carolinians and Virginians—are killed instantly. The explosion digs a crater more than 170 feet long, 60 feet across, and 30 feet deep.
July 30, 1864, 5 a.m. - Union troops pour into the Crater created by their explosives, becoming trapped and easy targets for Confederates. During the next seven hours, they will lose nearly 4,000 casualties compared with the Confederates' 1,500. Union general Ambrose E. Burnside will lose his command as a result.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Battle of the Crater. (2012, June 26). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Crater_Battle_of_the.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Battle of the Crater." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 26 Jun. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 22, 2009 | Last modified: June 26, 2012
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia from 2008 to 2019.