On This Day: The Civil War’s Horrific ‘Battle of the Crater’

In the summer of 1864, the powerful Union Army of the Potomac was bearing down on the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. The Federal plan of attack was to seize Petersburg first, capturing its main railroad line that kept Richmond supplied. Petersburg was heavily fortified, and to avoid a long siege, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant agreed to a strange and unusual plan: tunnel a long mine shaft under the center of the Confederate lines beneath a fort, blow it and its defenders sky high, then rush through the breach and swarm into Petersburg.

Illustration: charcoal sketch depicting Union Col. Pleasants supervising the placing of the gunpowder in the mine at Petersburg in preparation for the Battle of the Crater, by Alfred Waud, 29 July 1864
Illustration: charcoal sketch depicting Union Col. Pleasants supervising the placing of the gunpowder in the mine at Petersburg in preparation for the Battle of the Crater, by Alfred Waud, 29 July 1864. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

On 30 July 1864, a massive explosion was detonated as planned, but in the resulting confusion the attacking Union troops were trapped in the explosion’s huge hole and slaughtered by angry Confederates. This carnage is called the Battle of the Crater.

The plan was proposed by Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Pleasants, serving in General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps. Pleasants led a regiment of Pennsylvania miners, and he and his men knew how to dig. They began their mineshaft on June 25, and in less than a month they had tunneled over 500 feet, ending directly beneath the Confederate fort, about 20 feet under its floor. The miners packed the tunnel’s terminus with 320 kegs of gunpowder – more than 8,000 pounds of explosives.

Illustration: “Carrying Powder to the Mine, from a Sketch Made at the Time.”
Illustration: “Carrying Powder to the Mine, from a Sketch Made at the Time.” Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While the digging was going on, Burnside trained a division of United States Colored Troops, led by General Edward Ferrero, to lead the assault. They were instructed to sweep around the crater and storm the Confederate position. However, right before the battle the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George G. Meade – who was supervised by Grant – objected to having the charge led by black troops. He feared that if the plan failed, which he thought likely, then the Northern press and politicians would say he deliberately sacrificed “colored” troops because he did not care for them.

Grant sustained Meade’s objections, and a division of wholly unprepared white soldiers under the command of General James H. Ledlie was chosen. Ledlie was a drunk who failed to instruct his men what to expect, and cowered well behind the lines drinking rum when his men attacked. Thus the disaster was set.

At 4:44 on the morning of July 30, the sleeping Confederates were blasted awake. One observer said flames shot up 200 feet into the air! The earth gaped open, the force of the explosion creating a crater more than 30 feet deep, 170 feet long and 60 feet wide. The Confederate fortification was destroyed and around 300 of its defenders torn to pieces.

Illustration: “The Crater, as Seen from the Union Side, from a Sketch Made at the Time.”
Illustration: “The Crater, as Seen from the Union Side, from a Sketch Made at the Time.” Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

However, instead of following up this surprise with a well-coordinated assault, Ledlie’s unprepared troops rushed into the crater, thinking to find safety in its depths. In the smoke, noise and confusion, the black troops followed Ledlie’s men into the hole – and they were all trapped. The slippery red clay sides of the crater made it impossible to climb out, and there were too many of them packed into one area to make an orderly exit possible. The Confederates regrouped, gathered on the lip of the crater and poured a continuous fire down on the panicked enemy below, with both rifles and cannons. The slaughter was tremendous.

The Union suffered 3,798 casualties in the Battle of the Crater; the Confederates 1,491. With the failure of the explosion plan, Grant accepted the necessity of a prolonged siege against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia – one that dragged on for another eight long, bloody months. President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern press, politicians and public were dismayed when news of the disastrous Battle of the Crater reached them.

This Northern editorial acknowledges the Union’s dismay, but nonetheless urges its readers to remain confident that Grant will ultimately prevail.

An article about the Battle of the Crater during the Civil War, Trenton State Gazette newspaper article 4 August 1864
Trenton State Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey), 4 August 1864, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

THE FAILURE AT PETERSBURG.

It is useless to deny that the friends of the Union cause are sorely disappointed at the failure of the assault on the rebel works at Petersburg, on Saturday last. The exaggerated accounts telegraphed by sanguine and ill-informed correspondents for Monday’s papers, had stimulated our hopes to a high point; and although the dispatches when carefully analyzed, stated nothing beyond the fact that a mine had been successfully exploded, a rebel fort blown up, and an assault made, the predictions of the correspondents were generally taken as “accomplished facts.” All that was stated as fact was fact – but all the predictions were falsified by the event.

Though disappointed, we ought not to be despondent. Through some of those accidents that seem to be inevitable in all wars, the attempt has failed; but so did the explosion of mines and assaults fail on Vicksburg. The rebel lines around Vicksburg were assaulted more than once, and each time the assault failed – but it was followed up by a close investment, until at length the stronghold fell. So in the war of France and England against Russia. The allies were never able to completely invest Sebastopol; the road to Moscow was open, and the Russian communications were undisturbed to the least. The garrison made numerous sorties, and compelled the allies to fight desperate battles in which they lost many men, and although the Russians were never successful in raising the siege, they seriously reduced their enemy’s strength. The allies made many desperate assaults, and were bloodily repulsed. But they did not abandon their purpose. On the contrary, they pressed closer and closer their lines of investment, and finally the city and its fortifications fell, after a siege of a duration not paralleled in modern times. Grant has failed in this assault, but he still maintains the same attitude, animated by the same relentless purpose to take the position. The army is still strong and full of courage and confidence. We at home, sharing none of the immediate dangers, ought not to despond, but sustain our brethren in the field, not only by our constancy, but by sending forward, as rapidly as possible, reinforcements. If the army of Gen. Grant is sustained, the fall of Petersburg and of Richmond can only be a question of time – and of no very long time.

Many explanations of the causes of the failure by the newspaper correspondents [are] more or less inconsistent with each other. After reading all these explanations, we come to the conclusion that the primary mistake was in not selecting for the assault the very best troops. Instead of this, the corps that happened to be placed in that part of the line was ordered to be prepared – immediately on the explosion of the mine – to charge through the breach, and assault and carry Cemetery Hill beyond, which was the key to the rebel position. This corps was the ninth, which is believed to be inferior in material to either the second, the fifth, or sixth. The old ninth corps was inferior to none in the army, but the discharge of regiments whose term of service had expired, and long and hard service had reduced the veterans to a mere handful, and the numbers once brought up to the standard by new troops, colored regiments and drafted men, who had not served together to gain that confidence and esprit de corps which gives to the soldier so much of his dash and endurance. The colored regiments had proved their courage in several hard fights, but they had not the experience gained in repeated battles and assaults, which was possessed by other divisions – as Mott’s or Barlow’s, for example. The selection of the division to lead the charge was made, it is said, by lot, and the lot fell upon Gen. Ledlie’s. They led the charge, with what result is known.

The division was formed, ready for the charge as soon as the mine exploded. This was delayed for a long time by reason of the fuse failing, and the effect of waiting under such circumstances was not calculated to steady the nerves of the men. At length the mine was fired, but the shock seemed to terrify the men, and the report prevailed that it was one of our own forts blown up by the enemy. An hour was lost in reforming the line and preparing anew for the assault. During this time the enemy recovered from the first panic and prepared to meet and repel the assaulting column.

Gen. Ledlie’s column advanced, but on reaching the crater formed by the explosion, the men were thrown into confusion, and huddled together in this hole in the earth for protection. A few regiments charged and carried a part of the first line of rebel works on the hill, but being unsupported, were obliged to fall back. When all were crowded together in the crater of the fort, [they were] exposed to a furious shelling from the rebel guns that had the range of the position perfectly.

If the assault had been made by picked men in sufficient numbers, there is every reason to believe that the hill could have been carried – and with it Petersburg and the control of the river – with much less loss of life than was actually experienced in this unsuccessful attempt.

The loss of life is the most painful part of the affair, but while we give honor and glory to the brave dead, we should not give way to a weak despondency. Aside from this, nothing has been lost. The siege will be pressed closer and closer, and Gen. Grant will yet exact a severe retribution for all his losses. Let the loyal people of the North show the same constancy and persistence that is displayed by the rebels, and the result cannot be doubtful.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors serve in the Civil War? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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