Civil War Battles
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The Battle of the Crater was a part of the Siege of Petersburg. During the siege, the armies were aligned along a series of fortified positions and trenches more than 20 miles long, extending from the old Cold Harbor battlefield all the way to areas south of Petersburg.
On June 15, after Gen. Robert E. Lee had checked Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to seize Petersburg, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was chafing at the inactivity to which Lee's trenches and forts had confined him. Finally, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps, offered a novel proposal to solve the problem.
Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania in civilian life, proposed digging a long mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines and planting explosive charges directly underneath a fort in the middle of the Confederate I Corps line. If successful, this would not only kill all the defenders in the area, it would also open a hole in the Confederate defenses. If enough Union troops filled the breach quickly enough and drove into the Confederate rear area, the Confederates would not be able to muster enough force to drive them out, and Petersburg might fall. Burnside, whose reputation had suffered from his 1862 defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and his poor performance earlier that year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, gave Pleasants the go-ahead, hoping to restore his reputation.
Digging began in late June, and progressed steadily. Earth was removed by hand, and the floor, wall, and ceiling of the mine were shored up with timbers from a local wood mill. The shaft elevated as it moved toward the Confederate lines and fresh air was pumped in via an ingenious air-exchange mechanism near the entrance. This precluded the need for ventilation shafts and served well in disguising the diggers' progress.
On June 19, Gen. Potter, a coal miner from Pennsylvania, developed the idea that with their lines so close, it would be possible to dig a tunnel and plant explosives under the Confederates. They could then blow a whole in the Confederate Line allowing the Union troops the advantage. The 48th Regiment began to dig a substantial tunnel using pick axes and shovels, carrying the dirt and rocks out in wooden buckets. The tunnel was supported with cut timber boards. Some felt that the undertaking was impossible. The Union miners dug 511 feet across the battlefield and under the Confederate lines. There they dug out 2 lateral chambers, 1 under each cannon. The Confederates suspected that digging was in progress and actually dug two listening galleries themselves but failed to detect the activity. One of these listening tunnels came close to striking the Union passageway, but the tunnel was deeper and soft earth absorbs sound readily.
Four tons of powder, 8000 rounds carried 1 by 1 in wooden containers were placed under the Confederate battery. Men of Capt. Richard Pegram's battery and the 25th South Carolina Regiment lay sleeping here, unaware what was happening in the ground beneath them.
On July 17, the main shaft reached under the Confederate position. Rumors of a mine construction reached the Confederates, but despite countermining attempts, they were unable to discover it. The mine was in a "T" shape. The approach shaft was 511 feet long. At its end, a perpendicular gallery of 75 feet extended in both directions. The Federals filled it with 320 kegs of gunpowder, totaling 8,000 pounds. The explosives were approximately 20 feet underneath the Confederate works.
On July 28, the mine was completed.
On July 30, after weeks of preparation, at 3:15 A.M., the fuse was lit. The quantity of gunpowder was far less than Pleasants had requested and the fuses were of poor quality. The Federals waited and waited but nothing happened. After no explosion occurred at the expected time, 2 volunteers from the 48th Regiment (Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese) crawled into the tunnel. After discovering the fuse had burned out at a splice, they spliced on a length of new fuse and relit it. At 4:30 A.M., re-ignited it. They scrambled out and waited once again. At 4:40 A.M, the ground shook and they felt a dull roar. The immense upward explosion blew the two 1,700-lb. cannon up into the air and out of their placements and instantly killed 278 Confederate defenders as they slept. A deep crater with nearly vertical sides was all that remained.
With the path to Petersburg finally wide open, some 15,000 Union attackers, including 4,300 black soldiers, rushed across the field. However, instead of pushing through immediately, the first wave of attackers stopped and simply stood at the edge of the crater, gawking at the incredible scene. The lack of Union alacrity was the beginning of failure for the their attack. This explosition killed and in some cases buried the men who were on post there. From this propitious beginning, everything deteriorated rapidly for the Union attackers. The Union Army suffered horrible casualties, when there men ran into the pit caused by explosion, but not being able to climb out on the other side.
Unit after unit charged into and around the crater, where soldiers milled in confusion. A thin line of Confederate survivors formed in the depression just beyond the deep crater and began to fight back.
The Federals seized 150 yards of works on either side of the crater but could advance no further. With all this effort and advantage, the Union never achieved the immediate objective to reach the top of Cemetery Hill. For several hours, soldiers huddled in and around "the horrid pit" in fierce battle. Once struck, men fell into the crater. Bodies, mostly of Union soldiers were described as piled two or three deep in the bloody mud. The firefight was so thick and heavy that bullets have been found which collided in mid-air, point-to-point. The break was sealed off, and the Federals were repulsed with severe casualties. Ferrarro's division of black soldiers was badly mauled. Reinforcements shot down into the pit relentlessly stopping the Union Army in its tracts. Meanwhile, Confederate reinforcements prepared to counterattack as "South Carolina troops under the command of Stephen Elliott turned dreadful disaster into victory".
By 9:00 A.M., Brig. Gen. William Mahone's division rushed into the wild melee with 800 Virginians to recapture the trenches against great odds. In the face of Confederate rage, the day turned away from the Federals and their losses mounted. The rage of the Confederates intensified in seeing black soldiers attacking them and especially when wounded by black soldiers. Some of the white Union soldiers actually turned their rifles on black soldiers, reportedly fearful of being taken prisoner with them. By mid afternoon, the crater and the surrounding works were again firmly in the hands of the Confederates.
So vicious were the Confederates in targeting the black soldiers that white Union soldiers in the crater began shooting their black comrades to diffuse the Confederate rage. Burnside was relieved of command. Although he was as responsible for the defeat as was Burnside, Meade escaped censure. As for Mahone, the victory, won largely due to his efforts in supporting Johnson's stunned men, earned him a lasting reputation as one of the best young generals of Lee's army in the war's last year. Despite the battle being a tactical Confederate victory, the strategic situation in the Eastern Theater remained unchanged. Both sides remained in their trenches and the siege continued.
This may have been Grant's best chance to end the Siege of Petersburg. Instead, the soldiers settled in for another 8 months of trench warfare. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was relieved of command for his role in the debacle. The Battle of the Crater resulted in about 5,300 casualties, mostly Union men.