July 30, 1864 – An ill-fated plan to detonate gunpowder under the Confederate trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, resulted in a disastrous Federal defeat.
As Federals and Confederates faced each other from opposing fortifications east of Petersburg, the 48th Pennsylvania of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps had tunneled beneath the Confederate line in hopes of planting gunpowder and blasting a hole in the enemy works. After creating a gap, Federal forces would rush through, capture Petersburg, and then move north to Richmond.
The 511-foot tunnel ended beneath Elliott’s Salient. It included an incline for drainage and shafts for ventilation. Two shafts at the tunnel’s end each contained 4,000 pounds of gunpowder, and they were linked to a single fuse that ran back to the Federal lines. The explosives were set to detonate at 3:30 a.m. on the 30th.
The Confederates believed that the Federals were tunneling under them but could not find where. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, decided that a Federal raid toward Richmond was just a diversion for an attack on the Petersburg lines, and alerted the troops at 2 a.m. on the 30th to be ready.
When the fuse did not ignite as planned, two volunteers from the 48th entered the mine and 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.” Major General Bushrod R. Johnson, commanding Confederates in this sector, recalled:
“The astonishing effect of the explosion, bursting like a volcano at the feet of the men, and the upheaving of an immense column of more than 100,000 cubic feet of earth to fall around in heavy masses, wounding, crushing, or burying everything within its reach, prevented our men from moving promptly to the mouth of the crater and occupying that part of the trench cavalier which was not destroyed, and over which the debris was scattered.”
The blast instantly killed hundreds of Confederates, including nearly 300 from the 19th and 22nd South Carolina. The debris buried a regiment and an artillery battery, effectively putting an entire brigade out of action. When the dust settled, a crater had formed that was about 170 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. A gap was opened all the way to Petersburg.
Burnside’s plan called for Brigadier General James Ledlie’s division to lead the assault into the crater, supported by the divisions of Brigadier Generals Orlando Willcox and Robert Potter. Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s division of U.S. Colored Troops would follow the white divisions.
Ledlie’s men hesitated before advancing, as if shocked by the damage the explosion had caused. When they advanced, they marched straight into the crater instead of to either side, and the troops of Willcox and Potter followed them. Soon, thousands of Federals were in the crater with no way of scaling the steep slope to get back out. The Confederate survivors quickly regrouped, lined the crater’s rim, and fired down into the Federals below.
Around 9 a.m., Burnside ordered Ferrero’s black soldiers forward, but they soon became trapped with all the other Federals. The Confederates were enraged at the sight of uniformed black men and killed several, even after they surrendered. The Federals lacked leadership because Ledlie and Ferrero “passed a bottle of rum back and forth” in a bombproof during the battle.
Meanwhile, Major General William Mahone’s Confederates counterattacked against Federals west of the crater and drove them back, reestablishing the Confederate line and ending any chance for a Federal drive on Petersburg. Mahone’s artillerists then began pouring fire into the crater, turning it into a “cauldron of hell.” After three charges, the Federals were all either killed, wounded, captured, or driven back to their lines.
Meade ordered Burnside to withdraw his troops at 9:30, but Burnside did not forward the order to the front until after noon. By that time, the Confederates had reformed their lines and swept any surviving Federals away with a bayonet charge. 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.”
The Federals sustained 3,798 casualties (504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured), while the Confederates lost 1,491 (361 killed, 727 wounded, 403 missing or captured). Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts, hiding in a bombproof, recounted a harrowing tale about how the Confederates handled black prisoners:
“Pretty soon the rebels yelled, ‘Come out of there, you Yanks.’ I walked out, and the negro who had gone in there with me, and Captain Fay came out also. The negro was touching my side. The rebels were about eight feet from me. They yelled out, ‘Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man’; and the negro was promptly shot down by my side… I got over the embankment all right, and was walking to the rear, when I saw a negro soldier ahead of me. Three rebels rushed up to him in succession and shot him through the body. He dropped dead finally at the third shot. It was altogether the most miserable and meanest experience I ever had in my life.”
Colonel William Pegram, commanding a Confederate artillery battalion, wrote his sister after the battle:
“I think over 200 negroes got into our lines, by surrendering and running in, along with the whites, while the fighting was going on. I don’t believe that much over half of these ever reached the rear. You could see them lying dead all along the route to the rear. There were hardly less than 600 dead–400 of whom were negroes. As soon as we got upon them, they threw down their arms in surrender, but were not allowed to do so. Every bomb proof I saw, had one or two dead negroes in it, who had skulked out the fight and been found and killed by our men. This was perfectly right, as a matter of policy… It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so. I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army. I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men.”
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, 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.” Grant later called this battle “a stupendous failure… and all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.”
This disaster at the crater marked a new level of Federal incompetence. A court of inquiry later reported that “the first and great cause of the disaster was the employment of white instead of black troops to make the charge.” Ledlie was censured and later resigned from the army. Ferrero was also censured but later somehow promoted to major general. Burnside was relieved as commander of IX Corps for not providing an escape route.
The Federals lost a total of 6,367 men in July with no ground gained. The Confederates lost around 3,000. These losses, along with the crater fiasco and the recent Confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, demoralized the northern war effort and lessened President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for victory in the upcoming election.
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