The Battle of the Crater

July 30, 1864 – An ill-fated plan to detonate gunpowder under the Confederate trenches at Petersburg, Virginia resulted in a disastrous Federal defeat.

Shortly after the Federal Army of the Potomac encircled Petersburg in late June 1864, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania approached the Federal high command with a plan: Pleasants’s troops, mostly anthracite coal miners from Schuylkill County, would tunnel under the Confederate defenses and detonate four tons of gunpowder. Federal forces would then charge through the large hole caused by the blast, defeat the remaining Confederates, and capture Petersburg. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant approved the plan on June 25.[1]

Just five days after the Federals began digging, Confederate Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander warned General Robert E. Lee that the Federals were tunneling near Elliott’s Salient. But Confederate engineers disregarded the warning, asserting that building such a long tunnel was impossible. The Confederates finally began digging countermines two weeks later, but they could not find the Federals underground.[2]

By July 17, the Pennsylvanians had completed the tunnel shaft, which stretched 511 feet and placed them directly beneath the Confederate defenses. The next day, they began digging a lateral tunnel stretching 75 feet along the Confederate trench line where the gunpowder would be packed. Federals completed their work on July 23.[3]

On the 27th, Colonel Pleasants received orders to begin placing gunpowder in the tunnel. The Pennsylvanians used a total of four tons in 320 kegs weighing 25 pounds each. Troops placed the kegs in eight 1,000-pound powder magazines, which were sandbagged to direct the explosion up. The six-hour project was completed by 10 p.m.[4]

Built at a slight angle for drainage, the tunnel included air shafts for ventilation. The two lateral shafts at the tunnel’s end extended to two Confederate batteries. Federals placed four magazines of gunpowder in each shaft, all connected to one fuse. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, approved the plan to detonate the explosives at 3:30 a.m. on July 30.[5]

Major General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the operation with his IX Corps, planned to attack with four Federal divisions after the blast, with Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s division in the lead. However, Meade directed Burnside to select another division to lead because Ferrero commanded two brigades of black troops, and Meade feared northern criticism if their casualties were severe. The other three division commanders drew straws, with the lead falling to Brigadier General James H. Ledlie. Supporting Ledlie’s men would be Ferrero and Brigadier Generals Orlando Willcox and Robert B. Potter.[6]

When the fuse did not ignite as planned, two Federals discovered it had burned out. They re-lit the fuse, and the tremendous blast occurred at 4:45. A Confederate later wrote, “A fort and several hundred yards of earth work with men and cannon was literally hurled a hundred feet in the air… (it was) probably the most terrific explosion ever known in this country.” The blast instantly killed hundreds of Confederates and ripped a crater in the ground about 170 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 30 feet deep.[7]

The blast opened a path to Petersburg, but it was so horrifying that it even stunned the Federals, who hesitated before advancing. When they finally attacked, they rushed directly into the crater instead of moving around it. Once inside, thousands of Federals could not climb to steep slopes to get out, and no one provided ladders. The Federals became easy targets when the Confederates regrouped, lined the crater’s rim, and fired down upon them.[8]

The Battle of the Crater, Sketched by Alfred Waud | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Battle of the Crater, Sketched by Alfred Waud | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Around 9 a.m., Ferrero’s black soldiers moved up, but they soon became trapped with all the other Federals. The Confederates refused the surrender of many black troops and shot them instead. Meanwhile, General William Mahone’s Confederates counterattacked against Federals west of the crater and drove them back, ending any chance for a Federal drive on Petersburg.[9]

While Mahone’s artillery began pouring fire into the crater, the Federals lacked leadership because Ledlie and Ferrero were drinking in a bomb proof. Meade ordered Burnside to withdraw his troops at 9:30, but Burnside did not send the order until after noon. By that time, the Confederates had reformed their lines and swept any surviving Federals away with a bayonet charge. Robert E. Lee reported at 3:25 p.m.: “We have retaken the salient and driven the enemy back to his lines with loss… Every man in it has today made himself a hero.”[10]

The Federals suffered about 3,500 casualties while the Confederates lost some 1,500. Grant wired Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war… Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen, and do not expect again to have.”[11]

This disaster at the crater marked a new level of Federal incompetence. A court of inquiry later censured Ledlie and Ferrero for hiding during the fight, and Willcox was censured for lack of leadership. Burnside was relieved as commander of IX Corps for not providing an escape route and for disobeying orders from Meade. This fiasco, combined with the recent Confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, increased President Lincoln’s chances for defeat in the upcoming election.[12]

—–

[1] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11144-54; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 76

[2] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68

[3] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 72; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11154-64

[4] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11154-74; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 547-48

[5] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 72-73

[6] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11164-205; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 548-49

[7] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 548-49

[8] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 75-89; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 645-46; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 76

[9] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 79; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 645-46; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 76

[10] Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 472; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11268-78; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7857-69

[11] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 645-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 548-49

[12] Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 75-89 ; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11205-25; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 548-49

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