Civil War: Battle of the Crater called 'Saddest affair I have witnessed'

Probably in every war ever fought, there comes a situation or occurrence that takes the award for ineptness and stupidity.  Photo: The crater in the aftermath of the explosion, 1864

VIENNA, Va., July 31, 2012Every once in awhile, probably in every war ever fought, there comes a situation or occurrence that takes the award for ineptness and stupidity.  While hindsight is always 20-20, that still would be an apt description for the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va. And since it was the brainchild of an engineer, it seems even an more egregious loss of life on both sides.

One of General Ulysses S. Grant’s talented men in the siege of Petersburg was Gen. Ambrose Burnside. It was Burnside who listened to a Col. Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer who was in charge of a Pennsylvania regiment composed of coal miners. It was Pleasants’ brilliant scheme to dig a tunnel underneath the Confederate fortifications to enable the Union troops to break through the Rebel line and literally blow it to smithereens. 

It was summer of 1864, hot and humid in Virginia, and Burnside finally agreed on the plan. The coal miner soldiers began digging on June 25 and by July 27, they had completed their task. The tunnel was 510.8 feet and ended behind the Confederate lines and directly under a Confederate strong point known as Pegram’s Salient. It was the longest military tunnel ever dug, done by 400 men at the amazing rate of 40-50 feet per day. 

The Digging Is Started

Entrance to tunnel for visitors

They moved some 18,000 cubic feet of earth, a monumental task in any day, particular in summer. The removed earth was replaced by four tons of highly explosive black powder at the end of the tunnel, went back to their Union lines, and then plugged the Union end of the tunnel, which would then keep the explosion from backfiring.

The black powder was the equivalent of 320 kegs of the volatile explosive.  A 98-foot fuse ran from the explosives, which Pleasants himself lighted at approximately 2:15 a.m., on July 30, 1864, 148 years ago this week, and then he ran back to safety.

In addition to the basic tunnel, there were numerous side smaller areas going off so that a type of ventilation system could be put into play. With as many men working all day, some air supply was a must, and when the explosion went off, it would give side spaces so the dirt could move over a wider area.

After almost an hour, there had been no explosion, no fire, nothing. As with everything else provided as supplies, it had been a poor quality fuse, and several times the men themselves had to splice sections together. As more time elapsed without an explosion, it started to become a threat as dawn rose, making the men working at the staging points visible to the Confederate lines. 

Fuse Has To Be Relit 

Two volunteers from the 48th Regiment, Lt. Jacob Douly and Sgt. Harry Reese, went back into the five-foot high tunnel to re-light the fuse, and within a few minutes literally all hell broke loose. Approximately 175 feet of Rebel entrenchments created a spectacular explosion, which sent men and debris several hundred feet into the air, destroying the artillery battery there.  What goes up must come down, and the resulting downfall buried almost an entire regiment of men. But that was not the end of the debacle. 

Col. Henry Pleasants

As one historian termed it, even despite the explosion, Union commanders managed to snatch defeat from the joys of victory as the aftermath would make clear. 

It had been Ambrose’s idea to use a “colored” division as they were called then, to start the beginning of the Union attack through the gap created by the blast, and these soldiers had been specifically trained for their mission. When the day arrived, however, Maj. Gen. George Meade began to question this idea. What would happen if the mission failed? Would they be criticized for sacrificing black lives as though they were worth less than white ones?

At the last minute, Meade prevailed and Burnside was told to find a white group instead to be the first to enter, then followed by two black units.

The Fatal Entry Begins 

Apparently the division leaders literally drew straws for the job, and the short end went to a unit led by James J. Ledlie, a man termed a “political general” because he excelled only in his great capacity for liquor. The men they put in front were totally untrained troops, and Burnside had failed to make passages through the fortification to allow the troops to go in without being cut down by Confederate sharpshooters. 

After a delay of an hour, they dutifully charged into the blasted pit, which was 175 feet across and 34 feet deep and over 100 ft. wide, rather than going around it. Today, the “crater” is barely visible, having been filled in during the ensuing years as it became part of the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. It is hard to visualize the way it must have looked on that horrific day. A tunnel entrance has been maintained for a glimpse into the tunnel area.

Supposedly there were to be footbridges to allow the soldiers to cross over their own trenches, but as the stunned Yanks wandered over into the crater, instead of moving around it, they decided to use it as a rifle pit, and took cover down inside it. 

Crater today

Like “A Turkey Shoot” 

Lee had set up three brigades of infantry under Gen. William Mahone, and as the infantrymen pointed their rifles down into the thirty-foot deep pit that now existed, they found a group of U. S. Colored Troops stuck there. Mahone’s men gathered as many troops as they could, formed up around the crater, and began firing rifles and artillery down into it, in what Gen. Mahone later described as a “turkey shoot.” 

Some of Mahone’s Virginians screamed “no quarter” and a massacre ensued, with the result that many surrendered black troops were hastily murdered behind Confederate lines.  At the same time, no one escaped criticism as black soldiers were also bayoneted by white Union soldiers. The latter claimed to fear reprisals from the victorious Confederate troops. Regardless of who did the killing, many black soldiers were killed, and the rules of war extant at that time were totally ignored, by both sides.

No one had thought of ladders, and three Union divisions were completely trapped, much like the proverbial fish in a barrel – ready targets for the Confederate guns.  The body count was astounding. For the Union, 3,798 (504 dead, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured.) The Confederate losses were 1,491 (361 killed, 727 wounded, and 403 missing or captured.)

And the Union’s glorious leader, James Ledle, according to noted historian Bruce Catton, “was snugly tucked away in a bomb-proof [shelter] 400 yards behind the line, plying himself with rum borrowed from a brigade surgeon.”

As Grant said later, it was “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” 

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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