This was a presentation by Ranger John Hoptak as part of the 2014 Winter Lecture Series at Gettysburg National Military Park. John is extremely knowledgeable and is a terrific resource. I highly recommend going on one of his battle walks if you have the opportunity. If you’d like to read John’s blog about the 48th Pennsylvania, you can see it here.
This presentation covered the Battle of the Crater, part of the Siege of Petersburg.
Saturday morning, July 30, 1864 was, by most accounts, an exceptionally dark morning. It was so dark that about 3:30 that morning George Meade sent a note to Ambrose Burnside that said because of the darkness they might want to consider canceling the attack. The exact message was: [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, July 30, 1864-3.20 a.m.
As it is still so dark, the commanding general says you can postpone firing the mine if you think proper.
A. A. HUMPHREYS,
Major-General and Chief of Staff. [end quote] [OR Series I, Vol 40, Part 1, p. 139]
It was already too late, because deep underground, Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania had already lit the fuse, and it was burning down the tunnel carved out by the men of the 48th Pennsylvania and toward the confederate battle line. At 4:44 that morning, as most of the confederates slept, underneath them, 25 feet down, the earth began to shake and rumble. One Massachusetts soldier said it began as a low rumble followed by a tremble not unlike an earthquake. Lt. J. J. Chase of the 32nd Maine asked rhetorically, “Was the ground around me about to part and let me into the bowels of earth? Hardly realizing where I was or what it all meant, this terrible thunder accompanied by the upheaving and rocking of the ground. Springing to my feet I recovered my senses enough to understand that an explosion had taken place.” Looking to the west, Lt. Chase saw a huge mass of earth being thrown up, followed by a dark, lurid cloud of smoke.
The men of the Union lines could hardly believe what they were seeing. Out to their front the ground exploded. Byron Cutcheon of the 20th Michigan recalled that after the first deep shock and tremor of the earth there followed “a heaving and lifting” of the confederate fort just about a hundred yards away. “Then a monstrous tongue of flame shot fully two hundred feet into the air, followed by a vast column of white smoke resembling the discharge of an enormous cannon. A great spout or fountain of red earth rose to a great height, mingled with men and guns, timbers and planks, and every kind of debris, all ascending, spreading, whirling, scattering and falling with great concussion to the earth once more.” Those who witnessed the blast would describe it as a terrible, magnificent sight. Some Union troops who were lying on their stomachs ready to rush forward were literally lifted up off the ground by the blast. Others were hit by falling debris as it came down onto them, creating a momentary panic within the Union lines. In an instant, a tremendous hole was blasted in the confederate line outside Petersburg. After more than a month of digging underground, the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania had presented the Union authorities with a tremendous opportunity. They created a hole nearly 30 feet deep, 125 feet long, and 60 feet wide. Long before most confederates realized what had happened, 110 Union cannon and 54 mortars opened fire along the length of the line. Within 5 or 10 minutes of the explosion soldiers of the IX Corps crawled out of their trenches and charged with a yell toward the hole in the confederate line. As a soldier of the 58th Massachusetts wrote, “Everything looked propitious for a grand success.”
The story of the Crater, the digging of the mine, the explosion of those 8,000 pounds of powder, and the resulting battle has been capturing attention for the past 150 years, from the remarkable feat of engineering performed by the 48th Pennsylvania to the intensity of the blast to what it did to the confederate lines, and also it was a battle that witnessed for the first time large-scale involvement of African-American troops. Despite the great promise of success, and despite the great opportunity that had been handed to Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade, the battle of the Crater resulted in a complete fiasco. We might make the argument this was the last major victory for Robert E. Lee’s confederate forces in the war.
Veterans of the battle, Union and confederate, left many accounts of what they saw and what they heard, and what they experienced. For the past 20 years, this story has really captured a lot of historical attention. Most of these books have come out in the last 15-20 years, all focusing on this event.
In early May of 1864, US Grant had ordered George Meade’s Army of the Potomac to make its way south across the Rappahannock River and engage confederate forces under Robert E. Lee. Within the first few days, the two armies had confronted one another, first at the Wilderness and then at Spotsylvania. Grant had continually tried to get the Army of the Potomac between Lee and Richmond. Every time he tried to sidestep to the south he was blocked and thwarted by a swiftly moving confederate army that had the inside track. Those engagements were incredibly bloody.
Within about five weeks, the two armies had combined for over 80,000 casualties. Most of those casualties belonged to the Union army, just over 50,000. But Lee was suffering, too. During those five weeks, Lee lost no fewer than twenty general officers, including James Longstreet, shot through the neck and severely wounded at the Wilderness and JEB Stuart, mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern. But despite the casualties, Grant wasn’t going to give up. Instead of trying to pummel away at Lee, Grant set his focus further south to Petersburg.
Eighteen thousand people called Petersburg their home, situated alongside the Appomattox River. It was one of the more strategically important cities left in the confederacy. Its factories, its network of roads, and its railroads helped to keep Robert E. Lee’s army supplied and fed. Grant believed if he captured Petersburg, the back door to Richmond, the confederate capital must fall, and Robert E. Lee’s army would follow along with it.
After the blood bath of Cold Harbor in June of 1864, Grant began to think about ways to get his army toward Petersburg. Grant pulls one over on Lee. He moves some of his army across the Chickahominy, forcing Lee to shift his own force to confront it. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Union Army was sidestepping around, crossing the James River, and arriving on the outskirts of Petersburg on June 15 of 1864. At that point, Petersburg was very lightly defended. Only about 2400 men occupied a strong position behind the Dimmick Line, which had been constructed in 1862 when George McClellan was threatening Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. Pierre Beauregard’s forces occupied these trenches for the Union army attacks on June 15 and 16. It would be a few days before Robert E. Lee realized what was going on and before he began to shuffle his own forces south of the river to meet this threat.
On June 15-18, the Union Army attacked. They drove the confederate forces from the outer trenches all the way to within a mile of the city of Petersburg. Every time the confederate forces fell back they were digging into the earth, creating more entrenchments, creating a great labyrinth of earthworks. The Union army fumbled a great opportunity. Their attacks were haphazard, uncoordinated, and uninspired.
June 18, George Meade ordered his army to attack, but he couldn’t get his subordinates to attack in unison. Out of frustration, Meade told his corps commanders to attack on their own initiative, with predictable results, thousands more killed or wounded. George Meade was frustrated. He wrote that, “Had these assaults been made on the 5th and 6th of May, we should have succeeded with half the loss we met.” The soldiers were simply not up to attacking entrenchments anymore. On June 18, four entire brigades of the II Corps refused to attack. Charles Wainwright, in his diary, wrote of June 18, “The attack this afternoon was a fiasco of the worst kind; I trust it will be the last attempt at this most absurd way of attacking entrenchments by a general advance. It has been tried so often now and with such fearful losses that even the stupidest private now knows that it cannot succeed, … and the natural consequence follows. The men will simply not try it. The very sight of a bank of fresh earth now brings them to a dead halt.” By June 18, seeing the casualties and the status of his men in demoralization, US Grant gave up any more hope of a frontal assault at Petersburg and decided to dig in himself. As Grant wrote, “I will make no more assaults on that portion of the line, but will give the men a rest, and then look to extensions toward our left, with a view to destroying Lee’s communications on the south and confining him to a close siege.” [Actually, Grant didn’t write this. According to Horace Porter, this is what Grant verbally told Porter the evening of the 18th.]
The soldiers on both sides began to dig into the earth, carving a veritable maze of earthworks, trenches, redoubts, traverses, bombproofs, and covered ways. One soldier of the IX Corps wrote, “It appeared as though these trenches arrived by magic.” Soldiers in the ranks were looking no more toward life in the trenches than they were looking forward to attacking trenches. It was hot, and every day men had to fear being shot. Along the IX Corps line, Burnside lost from 36 to 48 men per day to sniper fire. Closest to the confederate line of battle, due to their June 18 attacks, would be the soldiers of the IX Corps. About 120 yards from the confederate line was the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry.
The 48th Pennsylvania was recruited in the summer of 1861 from Schuylkill County. There were farmers, students, and clerks in the ranks from towns such as Port Clinton, Schuylkill Haven, and Pottsville, but a good number of the men were coal miners who had made their life underground. They had a long history, serving first in North Carolina, along the North Carolina coast, then in Virginia at Second Manassas. They fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg, then were sent west with the IX Corps, being engaged in Kentucky and Tennessee before returning east in 1864. They engaged in the Overland Campaign and during the previous five weeks had lost over 300 men at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor.
Their commander was Henry Pleasants, 31 years old. Henry Pleasants was born in 1833 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His father was a merchant from Philadelphia doing business in Argentina when he met and fell in love with the daughter of a Spanish nobleman. For the first 13 years of his life, Henry Pleasants lived in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t until his father died in 1846 that his mother sent him to Philadelphia. He arrived not speaking a word of English. He went to school and became a civil engineer. In the 1850s he went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In the mid-1850s he helped to blast a sand-packed tunnel of the Pennsylvania railroad, digging into the mountains more than 4,000 feet and making sure the men were properly ventilated while they were doing this. After that, he moved to Schuylkill County and took up residence in Pottsville. There he met and fell in love with the daughter of the newspaper editor, Frances Bannan. He got married in 1860, but just a few months later his wife died and he fell into a deep, deep despair. His family would later say he enlisted to fight for the purpose of getting killed. During the first three years of the war he led the men of Company C, always at the forefront of his men. In Kentucky, in 1863, he met and fell in love with a young lady named Anne Shaw. When the regiment returned home for a furlough in early 1864, he went back to Kentucky to marry her. Pleasants was a tough guy to get along with. He had a bad temper and would oftentimes lash out to some who didn’t agree with him.
One day he overheard one of his men in the 48th Pennsylvania looking across the no-man’s land between the two lines saying they could “blow that fort out of existence” if they could just run a mine under it. With that, an idea was born. Pleasants returned to his headquarters tent, summoned his company officers, and had them make a list of all the miners left in the regiment. He proposed to dig a tunnel from behind the Union lines, about 500 feet toward the nearest confederate position, a salient called Elliott’s Salient, pack the gallery with tons of powder, blow it up, and then after the explosion send men through to exploit it. He thought it could break the deadlock at Petersburg, and that it could possibly end the war. On June 24, he met with his divisional commander, Robert Potter.
Potter loved the idea. Potter then took Pleasants to talk with the IX Corps commander, Ambrose Burnside, who loved the idea also. Pleasants explained all the details. Burnside told Pleasants to get to work, and on June 25, the 48th Pennsylvania began the tunnel toward the confederate line. Ambrose Burnside next wrote to George Meade. [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS NINTH ARMY CORPS, June 25, 1864-2.45 p.m.
Major-General HUMPHREYS, Chief of Staff:
We have commenced a mine that will reach the batteries of the enemy in our front by a reach of 115 yards. I have given orders for all the necessary changes of the line to make the work ordinarily secure. We want about 7,000 sand-bags or more. I think we can break the line of the enemy in due time if we can have the necessary facilities. We want heavy guns very much. Can we have the sand-bags?
A. E. BURNSIDE, Major-General.[end quote] [OR Series I, Vol 40, Part 2, p. 417]
Initially Meade liked the idea. Meade wrote back, [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, June 25, 1864-3 p.m.
Major-General BURNSIDE, Ninth Corps:
I have directed Duane to send you an engineer officer and a company of sappers, and Hunt to send you sand-bags and siege guns. I am delighted to hear you can do anything against the enemy’s line, and will furnish you everything you want, and earnest wishes for your success besides. I would have been over to see you to-day, but certain movements of the enemy on the left have kept me here.
GEO. G. MEADE, Major-General.[end quote] [Ibid.]
Meade sent to Burnside the Chief Engineer of the Union Army, Major James Duane, West Point Class of 1848. When Duane arrived at the front and met with Pleasants, Duane’s response was, “it is all clap-trap and nonsense.” Most of the army’s engineers will agree with Duane–it was not a workable project. There is no way they will successfully be able to tunnel more than 500 feet. Prior to this, the longest tunnel in military history had been just short of 400 feet. Duane, Meade, and the rest of the army didn’t give the 48th Pennsylvania any support. James Duane literally wrote a book, the Manual for Engineering, and on pages 208 and 209 he provided a list of 40 items that were needed for a mining operation. He and the army did not provide Pleasants with a single one. Not a single pick, not a single wheel barrow, nothing. So the 48th were on their own. The equipment was available but kept being denied by Duane.
Instead, Pleasants and the men of his regiment turned their regular picks into mining picks. They turned cracker boxes into boxes to haul away the dirt. They made steady progress. During the first three days, they dug in 40 feet each day. So they were 120 feet toward the confederate lines by late June. There the digging got a little harder. They encountered a layer of thick, putty-like clay. Pleasants had them dig up and over it. Henry “Snapper” Reese was put in charge of the men who dug in that tunnel, about 5 feet high and tapered. These men would work in there in shifts of two or three. Their way was lit by candles put into the side of the tunnel. They had no timber to support the operation. Pleasants had his men go back to a saw mill they found 2 miles behind the lines to create boards to support the tunnel on the inside. The framing was completed outside and carried in. As the tunnel got deeper and deeper, and longer and longer, the work got slower and slower. At first it was only 103 men working, the trained miners in the regiment. Then they needed the unskilled labor–to carry the dirt out. What do you do with tens of thousands of feet of earth? They carried it two miles behind the lines to dump it and cover it with brush to keep the confederates from being aware of what was happening.
The confederates got suspicious and began to countermine. As the 48th Pennsylvania continued to dig toward the confederate lines confederate engineers were also digging, heading east trying to find the mine. The two armies are going toward one another underground. The 48th’s mine was deeper than the confederates thought. They were about 25 feet underground. The confederate countermines only went about 18 feet deep. The men continued to dig away, and every time they cut into the clay, filled it up in the cracker box, hickory hauls attached, and the boxes were drug out. Pleasants found a way to keep the men ventilated. A hundred feet in, his men created a chimney. He had other men light fires up and down the line to throw the confederates off. He had a fire going continuously in the mine to draw the fresh air in and the dirty air out so his men didn’t suffer while they were digging the tunnel. By July 17 they were 511 feet in. They had made it all the way under the confederate lines.
Pleasants had to make sure his mine ended directly under the confederate line. So he asked for a theodolite, but Duane said nothing was available, so Burnside had Pleasants write to a friend in Washington, who provided his own. Pleasants covered himself with a burlap bag and go to the front with two holes cut out in the bag. He’d pop his head above the trenches. At the same time he had men on either side lift their kepis on ramrods to draw the confederate sniper fire. The project was completed. The tunnel ran 511 feet directly under the confederate line. By July 23 they began to bring in the powder. They had dug under Elliott’s Salient. From there, they dug two parallel galleries. Pleasants wanted 12,000 pounds of powder. The army gave him 8,000 pounds. On July 23, soldiers began carrying powder into the tunnel [with candles burning on either side of the tunnel]. At the end, Pleasants and his officers were there to pull off the top of the powder kegs to pour into the magazines. Pleasants told Burnside, who told Meade, that something needed to be done. The confederates would eventually find them, and they can’t keep the powder underground. It began to rain and some of that rainwater got into the tunnel. Every day, Pleasants could hear the confederates trying to mine above him.
US Grant didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the project. He thought it was a good way to keep the men occupied, and that was it. Now he heard the mine was completed. Grant was hoping to renew the offensive, to prevent the confederates from shifting troops to reinforce other theaters of the war. Grant’s plan was to divert Lee’s attention. He wanted to send a portion of his army north to threaten Richmond [under Hancock and Sheridan}. If they were able to punch through, that would be the main effort. If nothing else, it would force Lee to weaken his Petersburg defenses. If that happened, the mine would be the focal point of the assault. Hancock and Sheridan sidestep to the North, and that is the First Battle of Deep Bottom.
Burnside had been thinking of a follow-up assault for some time. By July 4 he had made up his mind which of his divisions would lead the attack. The first three divisions had suffered heavily in the Overland Campaign. The fourth division, under Ferraro, was Burnside’s largest division. It was composed entirely of United States Colored Troops. Burnside told Ferraro his men would lead the attack. When the mine exploded they were to go forward and secure the approach to Petersburg.
The time had come for these troops. Ever since they were organized into that division, they were used to guard railroads and wagons. They were sent away to all the other corps in the army to dig trenches. Now they would get a shot at battle. Burnside selected them because they were his largest and freshest division, and they had not yet attacked entrenched positions.
Henry Thomas, who would command one of the two brigades, wrote “We were all pleased with the compliment of being chosen to lead the assault. Both officers and men were eager to show the white troops what the colored division could do. We had acquired confidence in our men, and they believed us, the officers, were infallible. We had drilled certain movements to be executed in gaining and occupying the crest, and although they were not yet battle tested, there are times when the ardor, hopefulness and enthusiasm of new troops, not yet rendered doubtful by reverses or chilled by defeat, more than compensate, in a dash, for training and experience.”
Burnside very carefully selected the Fourth Division to lead the assault. As soon as the mine exploded they would go charging forward. Not only that, but Burnside had trained them specifically in what to do when they got there. Elliott’s Salient was not the objective. The objective was back behind them, Cemetery Hill and the Jerusalem Plank Road. Get possession of that ground and they could control the confederate defenses. It would break the confederate line in two and hopefully lead to the evacuation of Petersburg. Burnside had Ferraro’s brigade practice what they would do for two weeks. They were to move forward in column. Once they got to the site of the blast, the leading regiment in the front line would secure the trenches to the south. The leading regiment on the right would secure the trenches to the north. Other regiments would secure the area around the crater, opening the way for other troops to go forward and secure the high ground. It was a complicated maneuver, but they had practiced.
Despite all this, literally at the 11th hour, the rug was about to be pulled from under Burnside’s feet. As the men of the 48th were packing the tunnel with powder, Grant and Meade didn’t like Burnside’s idea. The mine was scheduled to explode on the 30th. On July 28, George Meade, for the first time, asked Burnside to submit his plan. Burnside did and Meade objected to two things–securing the trench line. Meade wanted to just charge forward and not try to secure lines. He also objected to use of black troops. He didn’t want Burnside leading with black soldiers. They weren’t experienced. Also, imagine the fallout. What would happen if those men were sent forward and were defeated? How would it look for Lincoln, up for re-election, and the administration? It would look bad, as if they were sending the men forward to be cannon fodder. Burnside objected. He protested and asked Meade to reconsider. Meade rode back to City Point and Burnside didn’t hear from Meade again until the afternoon before the scheduled blast. Burnside, not hearing from Meade, assumed his plan could go forward, that Grant and Meade had changed their minds. So his men were preparing behind the trenches. At 2 o’clock on Friday, July 29, George Meade arrived at Burnside’s headquarters and told him he had to change the plan. Meade said the decision was final. Choose someone else to lead the attack. Burnside had the other three division commanders draw pieces of paper to see who would lead the attack. James Ledlie, the worst division commander in the army, drew the shortest piece of paper. Burnside told him his objective was to go forward and gain the high ground behind the crater, as soon as possible. Ledlie summoned his two brigade commanders and somehow interpreted Burnside’s orders to be to go into the crater and secure it. The two brigades leading the attack were under instructions by Ledlie to go into the crater and occupy it. The 11th hour changes would unravel what the 48th had been doing for the past month.
Early Saturday morning Henry Pleasants went into the tunnel and lit the fuse. The fuse was another thing the army didn’t provide him. It came in bits and pieces, and he had to splice it all together. He ran three fuses to try to ensure one of them would reach the powder. He lit the fuse at 3:15. Meanwhile, Ledlie’s men, who had taken up their spot at 11:00 PM the night before right behind the lines, prepared to charge forward. The blast was supposed to occur at 3:30, but 3:30 came and went. By 4:15, Pleasants finally believed the fuse had gone out. He turned to Henry Reese to go into the tunnel and relight the fuse. Reese followed the fuse and discovered it had gone out. He and Lt. Jacob Dowdy respliced the fuse and relit it and got out of the tunnel. At 4:44 AM the powder went off. The earth trembled. Men, equipment, and debris were hurled into the air. In an instant, 278 confederates, at least, were killed or wounded in the blast, most of them South Carolina troops belonging to Stephen Elliott’s brigade. It fell to the 17th and 18th South Carolina to guard Pegram’s Battery. Pegram’s Battery, too, was thrown in the air. One of his guns landed 40 feet in front of the lines. There were two confederates working in one of the countermines at that moment.
After a few minutes delay after the explosion finally broke a hole in the confederate line, Ledlie’s men charged forward directly toward the crater. At 5AM the first wave went forward. Ledlie’s two brigades charged directly for the hole in the earth. As Ledlie’s two brigades moved forward and occupied the crater, another brigade secured some of the trench lines to the north. Another brigade secured some of the trench lines to the south. For about 15 minutes the Union Army held 500 yards, give or take, of the confederate lines, but there they stayed. Ledlie’s men charged forward not in any kind of formation or battle line. It was, said one man, “a helter-skelter charge,” each man for himself to get there first. Who could cover the ground quickest. When they reached the crater they climbed up and over it, jumping, sliding and tumbling into the hole, over the debris, the dead and dying men, and huge blocks of solid clay. The men were stunned by what they saw. “Everyone,” said one Union officer, “was struck dumb with astonishment.” The hole in the ground, the wreckage, the devastation was profound. Many Union troops began to rescue confederates who were buried in the earth. Ledlie’s men got into the crater, and there they stayed. Despite the efforts of some officers, they couldn’t get them moving out. “It was altogether the most miserable and meanest experience I have ever had in my life. You couldn’t fight, you could not give an order, you could not get anything done. It was simply chaos in that hole. Simon Griffin, who led his brigade, looked around and saw Ledlie’s men had stalled. Simon Griffin said the first half hour lost, the whole battle was lost. Ledlie was back in a bombproof. He had been “hit by a spent bullet,” he told the surgeon, and he needed some whiskey. No IX Corps division commanders would make their way forward. Ledlie would stay in that bombproof and continue drinking.
It was remarkable how quickly the confederates reacted. Within 15-20 minutes they were rallying. They’re taking advantage of the traverses that ran behind the lines. What was left of Elliott’s men rallied to the north. Other men sent from the north, North Carolina men, will form up in the ravine. Other troops from Virginia were sent forward. Bit by bit, company by company, the confederates began to establish a new defensive line behind the crater itself. Every time a Union officer would get a handful of his men to go forward, they were met by a barrage of bullets fired by these quickly rallying confederate troops. Confederate artillery then began to blast. Especially destructive were the guns to the north, which began to fire into the hole.
At 5:45 Meade learned Burnside’s men were not moving forward. He told Burnside, “Our time is now. This is your moment. Send in all of your men. Don’t lose time in making formation, but rush instantly for the crest beyond.” That is actually a misquote in the presentation. Here is the actual message: [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, July 30, 1864-6 a.m.
Prisoners taken say there is no line in their rear, and that their men were falling back when ours advanced; that none of their troops have returned from the James. Our chance is now; push your men forward at all hazards (white and black), and don’t lose time in making formations, but rush for the crest.
GEO. G. MEADE, Major-General.[end quote] [OR Series I, Vol 40, Part 1, p. 141]
When Burnside got those instructions he ordered in the rest of his IX Corps. By 7:45 the first wave is still holding their position. The second wave would then come sweeping forward, including Ferraro’s two brigades of USCT soldiers. As they were preparing to go into action, the officers and many of the men talked about Fort Pillow in Tennessee, and they were determined to get revenge. As the USCT went forward, “they showed on their face a determination to do or to die,” said one USCT officer. Another wrote that his men went into battle “not expecting any quarter nor intending to give any as well.” The second wave went forward and into the crater. One brigade tried to go forward to the south but were repulsed by confederate fire.
The two brigades of the USCT went forward. Many went into the crater, but many others worked their way north. The two brigades of the USCT secured a good portion of the trench line, sending more than 200 confederates back to the rear, but along some portions of the line the black troops began to bayonet and club confederate soldiers who were trying to surrender. Things were so bad that one USCT officer had to kill one of his own soldiers for refusing to obey the order to stop. Things were getting ugly in the trenches.
By 9:00 that morning there were 39 regiments–10,000 Union troops–within 500 yards. Burnside was hoping the V Corps would advance on his left and other troops would advance on his right, including troops of the XVIII Corps.
[Brigadier General John Turner said to Major General Edward O. C. Ord:] “General, unless a movement is made out of the crater and towards Cemetery Hill, it is murder to send more men in there.”
The men were stacking up in the crater itself. Nonetheless, to the right, one division of the X Corps began to creep its way toward the confederate position. As they made their way forward, they were met by an avalanche of Union troops running back to their lines. It was about 9:30 that morning, and William Mahone had counterattacked.
William Mahone’s division was the only division still in the Petersburg trenches. Lee’s other divisions had been sent north to deal with Hancock and the diversionary attack toward Deep Bottom. Mahone’s division was 2 miles away from the blast when it occurred, but they felt it. A. P. Hill, Mahone’s corps commander, called him to send men into the breech. Mahone gathered his troops and they made their way north. Mahone himself was very familiar with the Petersburg area. An 1847 VMI graduate and civil engineer, he had been doing work on the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad when the war began. A tough soldier, he was elevated to division command when his superior, Richard Anderson, took the place of the wounded Longstreet. Mahone’s men began to move out of the trenches on the far right of the confederate line. They had two miles to go. As Mahone began to evacuate his trenches to go north, he weakens that section of the confederate line. This was the moment for Gouverneur Warren to attack, for the V Corps to go in and secure the confederate lines to the south. Meade actually told Warren to prepare to attack. Warren went forward to conduct a reconnaissance. Samuel Crawford, one of his division commanders, did the same thing. They didn’t like what they saw. They told General Meade it would not do to attack those trenches. They are too strongly held, they would have too far to go. Meade would ultimately relent, and the attack would not occur. Essentially, the IX Corps was left on their own.
As Mahone’s men made their way toward the fight, the word began to trickle among them that they would be engaged with black soldiers. “They are negroes, and show no quarter.” The word began to make its way through his Virginia and Georgia, and later his Alabama brigades. William Stewart of the 61st Virginia wrote, “I never felt more like fighting in all of my life. Our comrades had been slaughtered in a most inhuman and brutal manner, and slaves were trampling over their mangled and bleeding corpses. Revenge must have fired every heart and strung every arm with nerves of steel for the Herculean task of blood.” Mahone formed his men in a series of ravines behind the crater. First in was Weisinger’s Brigade, which was Mahone’s own brigade before his elevation to division command. Mahone himself walked up and down in front of his troops preparing to attack, “Show them no quarter, boys. They raised the black flag on us and showed us none.” He also told his men, “I want this brigade to save the city of Petersburg.” Many of Mahone’s men were from the Petersburg/Richmond area.
As Mahone’s men were forming to counterattack, they saw Union troops beginning to make their way forward. A number of officers began to organize enough troops, and they began to creep their way forward from the captured trenches. When they saw that happen, Mahone’s men swept forward.
At 9:30 that morning, Mahone led his counterattack toward the breech. When they saw that happening, most of the Union troops took off for the rear. “As far as they eye could reach, it was one fleeing & retreating mass … rushing pell mell away from us,” said one of Mahone’s men. For those troops who stayed in the trenches, one of the most violent and deadliest hand-to-hand battles of the war ensued. The soldiers on both sides, white and black, were kicking and punching and clubbing, bayoneting and shooting away at point-blank range. Both sides were shouting “No Quarter.” It wasn’t long before this turned into bloody murder. Captain John West of the 61st Virginia said, “The soldiers pierced each other’s hearts and crushed each other’s skulls until the entire place was a veritable hell.” A soldier of the 48th Georgia boasted that “The bayonets were plunged through the black men’s hearts and the muzzle of our guns were put on their temples and their brains were blowed out.” Captain [he was actually a lieutenant at the time of the battle] Frank Kenfield of the 17th Vermont was captured. He said, “I often think of this scene and a cold shudder goes through me as I think of how those poor colored men were butchered in cold blood.” Within 20 minutes, Weisinger’s brigade had reclaimed the trenches to the north of the crater.
In the hole, the Union army still held. Mahone wanted them out. He called his third brigade forward. By noon that day, the temperature was 100 degrees. The sun was baking these men. Blood was everywhere. It came trickling down the sides of the crater in streams. In many places there were ponds of it as large as an ordinary wash basin. “It was a sickening sight,” said Charles Houghton of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery. “Men were dead and dying all around us. Blood was streaming down the sides of the crater to the bottom where it gathered in pools for a time before being absorbed in the red, hot clay.” At the top, confederate troops were forcing black prisoners to establish new lines of entrenchments. New fortifications, new earthworks that were made in some places literally by the corpses of the dead stacked high.
While this was going on behind the lines there was another battle brewing, a battle between Ambrose Burnside and George Meade. Meade all along had lukewarm support at best for Burnside’s idea and the tunnelling. Meade was simply not a fan of Burnside’s going all the way back to the Battle of Fredericksburg. As noted, at 6:30 that morning [it was actually 6:50 that morning] he had already written to Burnside and told him to send in all his men and rush to the crest. The crest is the key. The message is here: [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, July 30, 1864-6.50 a. m.
Warren’s force has been concentrated and ready to move since 3.20 a. m. My object in inquiring was to ascertain if you could judge of the practicability of his advancing without awaiting for your column. What is the delay in your column moving? Every minute is most precious, as the enemy undoubtedly are concentrating to meet you on the crest, and if you give them time enough you cannot expect to succeed. There is no object to be gained in occupying the enemy’s line; it cannot be held under their artillery fire without much labor in turning it. The great point is to secure the crest at once, and at all hazards.
GEO. G. MEADE, Major-General.[end quote] [OR Series I, Vol 40, Part 3, p. 659]
In response to that message, Burnside wired back, [begin quote] HEADQUARTERS NINTH ARMY CORPS, July 30, 1864.
I am doing all in my power to push the troops forward, and, if possible, we will carry the crest. It is hard work, but we hope to accomplish it. I am fully alive to the importance of it.
A. E. BURNSIDE, Major-General.[end quote][Ibid., p. 660]
Meade wrote back: [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, July 30, 1864-7.30 a. m.
What do you mean by hard work to take the crest? I understand not a man has advanced beyond the enemy’s line which you occupied immediately after exploding the mine. Do you mean to say your officers and men will not obey your orders to advance? If not, what is the obstacle? I wish to know the truth, and desire an immediate answer.
GEO. G. MEADE, Major-General.[end quote][Ibid.]
George Meade was calling Burnside a liar. Burnside wired back, [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS NINTH ARMY CORPS, Battery Morton, July 30, 1864.
Your dispatch by Captain Jay received. The main body of General Potter’s division is beyond the crater. I do not mean to say that my officers and men will not obey my orders to advance. I mean to say that it is very hard to advance to the crest. I have never in any report said anything different from what I conceived to be the truth. Were it not insubordinate I would say that the latter remark of your note was unofficerlike and ungentlemanly.
A. E. BURNSIDE, Major-General.[end quote][Ibid.]
When Meade got that note he made sure a copy of it was kept because he fully intended to go forward with charges against Burnside. [begin quote]JULY 30, 1864-7.40 a. m.
Will you do me the favor to send me a copy of my note to your per Captain Jay? I did not keep any copy of it, intending it to be confidential. Your reply requires I should have a copy.
GEO. G. MEADE, Major-General.[end quote] [Ibid.]
Meanwhile, at the front, things weren’t going well. Gouverneur Warren had already reported his men could do nothing. Winfield Hancock to the north said his men could do nothing. At 9:30 that morning, George Meade telegraphed Burnside the battle was over, to get his men out and back toward the line.[begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, July 30, 1864-9.30 a. m.
Major-General BURNSIDE, Commanding Ninth Corps:
The major-general commanding has heard that the result of your attack has been a repulse, and directs that, if in your judgment nothing further can be effected, you withdraw to your own line, taking every precaution to get the men back safely.
A. A. HUMPHREYS, Major-General and Chief of Staff.
General Ord will do the same.
A. A. HUMPHREYS,
Major-General and Chief of Staff.[end quote][Ibid., p. 662]
[begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, July 30, 1864-9.45 a. m.
Major-General BURNSIDE, Commanding Ninth Corps:
The major-general commanding directs that you withdraw to your own intrenchments.
A. A. HUMPHREYS, Major-General and Chief of Staff.[end quote][Ibid.]
Burnside rode to Meade’s headquarters and in insubordinate language told Meade that simply not enough had been done yet to follow on. He begged Meade to reconsider and asked for more support. Meade was adamant and the Battle of the Crater was done. Meade packed up his headquarters and returned. A resigned Burnside went back to his own headquarters and sent word to his men in the crater to get out the best they could. Burnside asked Meade to advance some troops to cover the withdrawal. Meade told Burnside to have his men stay there until nightfall. [begin quote]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, July 30, 1864-10 a. m.
You can exercise your discretion in withdrawing your troops now or at a later period, say to-night. It is not intended to hold the enemy’s line which you now occupy any longer than is required to withdraw safely your men.
GEO. G. MEADE,
(Same to General Ord.)[end quote][Ibid., p. 663]
Nightfall was still 7-8 hours away. Things were getting so desperate in that hot, baking hole in the ground some of the IX Corps started to dig a tunnel back toward the Union lines to get out. William Mahone is not about to let the Union Army withdraw on their own terms. He ordered in his Alabama men. John Calhoun Saunders led 500 men toward the crater, and by this point the Union soldiers who were left in the crater were fought out and exhausted. Saunders’ men arrived. They made it to within 100 feet and there was a weird stalemate. Confederate troops were at the top, Union troops are huddled inside. Confederates began to pick up rifles with bayonets on the end and throw them like spears into the hole. Confederate mortars are lobbing shells into the soldiers packed at the bottom of the crater. Finally, somebody yelled out, “Why in the hell won’t you damn Yankees surrender?” The response: “Why in the hell won’t you let us?” Saunders’ men went into the crater itself. In some cases, troops were allowed to surrender and for others it was a perfect massacre. One confederate wrote that they were killing the black soldiers in the hole as if they were killing hogs. The aftermath of the battle was a horrid spectacle, especially in the crater itself. There was so much blood and slaughter confined to so small a space, with the hundred degree heat, with the sounds and stench, men began to vomit and faint. The battle was done by 2:00 that afternoon.
Burnside went into the fight with his entire IX Corps of about 15,000 men. They lost 3800 of them. Of the 504 killed, 209 were from the USCT, 41% even though they represented less than 20% of the attacking force. Twenty-three regimental commanders out of fifty were dead or wounded. The IX Corps lost twenty-two flags. Afterward, the United States government issued twenty-four Medals of Honor to the troops in this fight, only one of them to a black soldier. Of the confederate losses, about half came from Elliott’s brigade, the soldiers who held the trench. About 300 of those men were killed instantly in the blast. In addition to the dead and wounded, hundreds of Union troops were being led to the rear as prisoners of war, and the black prisoners were especially terrified. Many of them, as they made their way back, were simply killed. William Hengler, confederate artillerist, wrote to his wife that “less than half the prisoners taken during the battle ever made it back to the rear alive. They were gunned down or bayoneted along the way.” Few of the white officers leading black troops admitted that they were commanding them because the confederate government had threatened execution. Many white officers began to remove their green-colored corps badge indicating they were commanders of the Fourth Division. Behind the lines, no one was stepping up, so the confederates had the black soldiers point out who their commanders were.
The confederate troops began to reclaim the crater. It was not long before they were turning it back into a solid position.
They reestablished a firing line and turned the crater itself into a series of bombproofs. They began to bury the dead. It was amazing how quickly they responded to the explosion and plugged the gap in the line, but there was widespread paranoia for quite some time. A confederate wrote “This new kind of war was something terrible. What a profound impression it made and nothing else was talked about. Every man in the trench was sure there was a hundred kegs of powder underneath him ready to be blown at any moment.” Confederate troops would continue to dig mines into the ground looking for other places where the line was going to be exploded. Ambrose Burnside wrote to Meade that the tunnel was still intact up to the tamping. Maybe they can use it for another explosion. Meade ignored him.
Grant’s chief engineer, John Bernard, met with Henry Pleasants and wondered if Pleasants would be willing to travel the lines with him to look for other places to tunnel. Pleasants said, “I will see you in Hell, first.” Henry Pleasants began to drink, and in early August he was on top the trenches yelling at the men of the 6th New Hampshire to charge the enemy lines with knives and bayonets. They were about to bring him up on charges, but they just let him go home on leave.
Everybody blamed everybody else. For the men of the IX Corps it was George Meade. George Meade and the Army of the Potomac for the most part blamed Burnside. Meade wanted a court of inquiry to investigate. He appointed Hancock, Nelson Miles, and others friendly to him. Burnside protested all the way to Lincoln. Lincoln said to let the court go forward. The court met and in September ruled Burnside was to blame. By that point, Burnside was gone. In late August he requested a leave of absence, went to his home in Rhode Island, and that leave of absence became permanent. Same thing with James Ledlie.
In Washington, the JCCW didn’t like the court of inquiry’s results. They had another opportunity to go after Meade. In December they had their own hearing. Henry Pleasants and Burnside testified. The JCCW placed the blame entirely on Meade.
No matter who was to blame, the Battle of the Crater was certainly one of the more tragic episodes of the war. Because of poor leadership, interference, and other factors, the whole fight, said Byron Cutcheon of the 20th Michigan, was botched and bungled and bedeviled from the beginning. It’s easy to see why US Grant would say later that the Crater was a stupendous failure and the saddest affair he had witnessed in the war.
This was an excellent presentation, though it did go long. Some judicious editing of material at the beginning of the presentation would have kept it within the time limit. As it was, the presentation was packed with information and shed a great deal of light on this battle. John is very knowledgeable, and like all the rangers he did a fantastic job of researching this topic and bringing it to us.