Monday, July 30, 2007

The Battle of the Crater

In 1983 I made a trip down to Virginia to visit a girlfriend serving in the Army JAG Corp. We took a tour of the Petersburg civil war battlefield, where Lee held Grant off for the better part of a year by digging in and fortifying his position.

The preserved battlefield, a national park, was in some respects ahead of its time. At various sites it had a push button recording which told you what had gone on at the spot upon which you were standing. One of these recordings stood out for me.

There was a depression in the ground there, completely covered with grass, as was most of the whole battlefield. Not all that deep or wide or long, it was, nevertheless, distinctive from the ground around it. It does not photograph well, as it just looks like a dip in the land you might see on someone’s large property. But the taped story told me of the Battle of the Crater, which I have never forgotten, and which, in no small part, inspired my interest in the Civil War for the next quarter century.

There is a moral here too, one you already know, possibly best stated by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, who often wrote about, and was, a soldier, this way:

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.” (often go awry)

Petersburg, in 1864, was no newcomer to battles. There had been one near the end of the Revolutionary War. With Grant slowly and painfully pressing Lee back towards the capital, the two sides settled in to a long siege there which lasted from June, 1864 until April, 1865. When Petersburg eventually fell at the beginning of that fateful month, effective resistance by the South crumbled. The War ended (and Lincoln’s life) soon thereafter.

The importance of Petersburg was in its five railroad lines and the fact that it was also the key to taking Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital. In fact, although called the siege of Petersburg, the lines ran for some 20 miles, from Cold Harbor on one side, practically all the way to Richmond on the other.

The city itself was highly integrated with a very high percentage of free blacks as well as slaves. Many of them participated in defending the city against the initial Union attack.

The enemy lines were quite close in spots. At one point known as Elliot’s Salient they were camped a mere gunshot away from each other, each army behind their own fortified lines, and every soldier wary to keep his head down. A couple of South Carolinian regiments and some gunners manned the little fort at the salient for the Confederacy.

Despite his reputation for simply throwing his men into battle, Grant had learned a severe lesson at Cold Harbor when he had his men attack Lee’s fortified position. That brutal battle and casualties, as well as the early days of the Petersburg siege itself caused him to take stock, attack here and there, engage in trench warfare, and patiently waited for his chance to take the city.

A lieutenant colonel by the name of Henry Pleasants, a Pennsylvania engineer originally born in Argentina, was leading the 48th Pennsylvanians, made up to some degree by coal miners like himself. One day, while out walking, he apparently overheard one or more of his men describing how easy it would be to mine beneath the salient and blow the Southerners up. He thought it was a great idea, and reported it to his commander, General Ambrose Burnside (the very one for whom sideburns are named – apparently not a myth, although it sure seems like it would be).

Burnside was not a great general, but then again, his performance was fairly in line with that of other Northern generals in the East in the first years of the war. Because of his military failures his overall life is often overlooked, and is fairly impressive. Among other things, he was a successful soldier, including an officer in the Mexican American War, a commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac for a while, an Indian fighter in the West, a gun manufacturer, both a governor and Senator of Rhode Island, and a railroad executive. He was also the National Rifle Association’s first president.

At the time of the siege, he had suffered some terrific and important defeats. Athe commander of IX Corp under the Army of the Potomac, he reported Pleasants’ idea to General George Meade, who reported it to his superior, General Grant. They decided to go ahead with the project, but, in truth, neither Meade nor Grant gave it much chance of success.

The plan was actually quite good and, if executed correctly, could have meant a quick victory and saved eight months or more of war. Barely a quarter mile away from where the explosion would occur was the road leading to Cemetery Hill, which overlooked Petersburg itself. Had the North broken through and captured those heights it all would have been over very quickly.

Pleasants and his team of miners went ahead with gusto although they were starved of supplies. They dug straight ahead underneath the Southern lines for over 500 feet, improvising the whole way in order to support the tunnel and provide ventilation while trying to hide what they were doing.

When they had proceeded far enough they dug a perpendicular line at the end so that the tunnels formed a T. The sounds of digging underground did not go unnoticed by the Southerners. At first General Lee refused to believe it and waited a couple of weeks before countermines were ordered to be dug to find the Northern tunnels. The Southerners, not miners by trade, were unable to do so. After a while, however, they stopped trying, believing that there was no way in which the Union miners could ventilate such a long shaft. By some novel and ingenious methods, the miners had managed to do it.

However, one intelligent Southern officer had his men build a second line behind the first, just in case the tunnel was successful. Although not with any great effect, it was not the first time that a plan like this had been tried in the war (in fact, Grant had tried, without any luck).

Finally, the mine was completed. A few days later General Meade gave the go ahead to pack it with gun powder. In all four tons of explosives contained in 320 barrels were packed in about 20 feet beneath the South’s lines. The main line was tamped with over ten feet of sand and dirt to prevent the explosion from escaping out the main shaft into the North’s position, and to direct it straight up.

On July 28th, the mine was ready. Two days later, July 30th, which happens to be 143 years ago today, Pleasants gave the order to light the fuse. He went to a prepared location to watch, much as the physicists would do at Los Alamos some 4 score years later. Unlike Los Alamos, nothing happened. It became obvious that the fuse must have sputtered out. It was not surprising, as most of the fuse they were given was of very poor quality and was actually spliced together by the miners.

Undoubtedly with lumps in their throats two of the miners volunteered for the mission of going into the tunnel and seeing what went wrong. They found a spot where the 98 foot long fuse made from old rope was broken and spliced it together again. Then they lit the fuse again and vamoosed out of the tunnel.

A little before 5 in the morning a horrific explosion rocked the Southern lines. Approximately 360,000 cubic feet of dirt flew into the air along with 200 foot high flames, white smoke, wood, red clay and the body parts of the South Carolinians who had the misfortune to be stationed there, nearly 300 who instantly died in what was probably the biggest man made explosion ever known to that time.

Here’s where the best laid plans of men went awry. Hand picked for the honor of rushing in and taking advantage of the calamitous explosion was a division of black troops under the direction of Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. The men were extremely excited about their mission and had been trained to run along the edges of the mine and then to extend the lines further into the camp, eventually securing Cemetary Hill. White troops were to rush into support and flank them.

Meade, who had been made nervous by the scrutiny of congress since his failure to quickly follow up after the victory at Gettysburg the year before, inserted himself into the drama just before the attack by calling off the black troops. Foreseeing something bad happening, he didn’t want a frontal assault by black troops going wrong, with him getting accused of sacrificing them, and ordered Burnside the day before the assault to send in different troops. Although Burnside tried to get Grant to change the order, he agreed with Meade.

Burnside must have been rather disgruntled. He should get some credit for earlier stepping aside his precedence in rank to let Meade be his commander, although he initially resisted it and had to be convinced by Grant. He was not unaware of his lack of military greatness and had several times turned down the post as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac before accepting it. In response to Meade, Burnside ordered the commanders of the white troops to draw lots to see who would lead the troops after the explosion. The winner or loser, depending how you look at it, was Brigadier General James Ledlie. Unfortunately, there could not have been a worse choice. Ledlie neglected to mention to his troops what was expected of them, and then proceeded (reputedly) to drink himself into a stupor and leave the scene of the battle before it occurred.

Consequently, after the explosion, and a strange delay by stunned and overawed troops on both sides, the untrained first division went pouring into the gap. In a scene which could only be prophetic of “F” Troop, the division, rather than run around the edges of the crater, ran straight into the smoking mess, thinking they would find good hiding places from which to shoot.

It was easy for the troops to get into the pit, but hard to get out of it. In some places the men had to turn their backs to the wall in order to get footing by digging their heels in. However, the first Southern troops to attack were not prepared and were actually mowed down by the Federal troops.

When word reached Lee of what had occurred, he sent for one of his best leaders, Major General William Mahone, who arrived at the scene with two brigades, while Lee set off on his famous horse “Traveler” (whose touching grave you can visit near Lee’s in Lexington, Virginia, on the Washington & Lee campus) to watch the battle from a distance.

Unable to advance much beyond the crater many thousands of Union troops were crushed together in and around it. This resulted in what was called a “turkey shoot” by General Mahone, who gathered his men around the pit hours after the explosion, and watched them happily pick off the Northerners with rifles and blast them with cannon.

However, not all of the killing was done by bullets and cannon balls. "This day was the jubilee of fiends in human shape, and without souls" said one surviving Southerner describing the bayoneting and clubbing that went on.

To make the disaster even worse, Burnside, probably smoldering that his advice wasn’t listened to, sent in the black troops to the rescue last, but instead of following their plan, they were fairly trapped into following the white troops into the pit. More Southern troops surrounded the hapless Northerners and simply massacred them. Although the Northern troops fought back, they killed few more Southerners than had died in the blast itself.

So certain of victory had been Burnside, that his orderlies had already packed his bags for him so that they could proceed to Petersburg quickly after victory. When he was ordered to have his men retreat, he delayed giving the order for at least three hours. By then, tragedy had occurred.

Eventually a truce was called (I have read anywhere from 1 p.m. on July 31st to 5 a.m. on August 1) so that both sides could bury their dead. Despite the miserable fighting, men mingled from both sides in collecting their wounded and burying the dead. Both sides set up their bands near the crater to alternate playing music for the surviving soldiers. Many Northern prisoners had already been taken behind Southern lines, including many anxious black Union soldiers who were supposed to have been the heroes of the day.

After the battle, Burnside was sacked (and about time) as was Ledlie, who had hidden in a shelter for the entire battle. Grant referred to it as the saddest thing he had seen in the war. Pleasants, however, was not blamed (not an unlikely situation in this war – one general had been jailed after a friend of Lincoln’s under his command had died after making an error in battle). He was made a brevet (as opposed to permanent) brigadier general for the duration.

There were about 360 Southerners dead with still more wounded or missing, totaling roughly 1500 casualties. There were well over 500 Northerners dead with far more wounded and missing, totaling over well 4000. In all, Northern losses were roughly two and a half times that of the South.

The Battle of the Crater happened near the beginning of the siege, but it could have been the end of it, if politics and poor execution did not get in the way. War rarely goes as planned, and this battle is one of the prime examples of the phenomena. It’s also, despite the tragedy and suffering, another fascinating civil war story too infrequently told.


  1. Anonymous8:11 AM

    Was this the event depicted in the beginning of "Cold Mountain"?

  2. Yes, it was.

    There is also a book which just came out by someone named Alan Axelrod just last month, which I have not read.

    It is not an unknown event in popular fiction, but also not very well known. Someone even wrote a novel about it (couldn't finish it). Given the drama of the whole event (the mining, the great explosion, the training and then non-use of the black troops, the broken fuse, the reversal and slaughter, the colorful characters, etc.) I just think we should know about it (learn about it in grade school perhaps) as well as we know, say, Gettysburg or the Battles of Bull Run.

  3. Anonymous9:51 AM

    I think you are right: this kind of story coulsd spur an interest that might not otherwise occur.

  4. Shame. Poor and mediocre would have opened the door for me.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .