Union forces outside of Petersburg dig a tunnel under the Confederate trenches and blow a huge hole in the defenses, starting the bloody Battle of the Crater
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Union Army of the Potomac had been fighting it out for almost two months straight by the time the two foes had settled into their earthworks around Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia in late June of 1864. Frightful losses had been suffered on both sides as the two armies fought battles at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North Anna, and Cold Harbor. After sliding around the Confederate army’s right flank after being defeated at Cold Harbor, Ulysses Grant’s army made its way across the James River and nearly captured Petersburg, the important rail hub south of Richmond, before Lee’s Confederates managed to arrive with enough force to stop them.
By the latter half of June, after fighting around Petersburg settled into a stalemate, Grant was looking for an opportunity to break free from the lack of maneuvering that trench warfare entails. An idea came to him from members of the 48th Pennsylvania, who were stationed along the front lines very close to a Confederate redoubt east of Petersburg. The Pennsylvanians, many of them miners by trade, proposed to dig a tunnel under the Confederate trenches and load it with gunpowder in an attempt to blow up the redoubt. Grant gave his consent to this idea and planning began for a full scale assault to support the operation.
After weeks of digging by the Pennsylvanians and preparations by the 15,000 assaulting troops, which included United States Colored Troops (USCT) and even a company of American Indian sharpshooters from Michigan, the attack was set for July 30.
The mine was in a “T” shape, and ran 511 feet from the Union lines to under the Confederate redoubt, known as Elliot’s Salient. The gallery ran 75 feet long and was packed with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. According to plan, Colonel Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania lit the fuse between 3:30 and 3:45 am on July 30. Thanks to the poor quality of the fuses, the fire had extinguished, forcing two brave volunteers to venture into the tunnel to splice the fuse and reignite it. Finally, at 4:44 am the mine exploded. The massive explosion stunned soldiers on both sides. 278 Confederates, mostly South Carolinians who were stationed in Elliot’s Salient, died instantly. Soldiers to the left and right were stunned and unable to organize a noticeable defense for more than 15 minutes after the explosion. The spectacular event also froze the Union troops of General Burnside’s IX Corps in their trenches for a time though, causing a delay that no doubt aided the Confederates.
As the Union troops finally moved forward, the attack angled directly for the huge 170 foot long and 30 foot deep crater. Upon reaching this huge hole, many units paused in or near the Crater, unable to mount an effective advance beyond. The plan had been for the attacking units to branch to the left and right of the hole and capture the trenches, and to possibly move beyond the defenses to capture the Jerusalem Plank Road and maybe even Petersburg itself. The lack of initiative on the Union side gave the Confederates in the area time to re-organize. General William Mahone gathered as many Confederate units together as he could and began to counter-attack the Union forces milling about near the Crater. Soon Mahone’s forces had formed around the area of the Crater and poured murderous musket and artillery fire down on the Federal troops there.
Fighting went on throughout the morning, with some further attempts by the Union forces to get out of the Crater. Hand to hand combat ensued in many areas near the Crater, and there were some slight advances made by the Federals, but Mahone’s troops flung back all attempts at a breakthrough. There were terrible losses by both sides, but the troops of the Union IX Corps suffered the most.
It can be argued that Burnside should have pulled back his troops after the initial attack stalled out in the Crater, but instead he sent in the remaining troops of his Corps. These included the USCT division, which had been trained to be the spearhead of the attack but had been removed from that task at the last moment for political fears if the attack had failed. Ironically these troops had been specifically trained to move beyond whatever damage the explosion was to cause, unlike the troops who did end up spearheading the attack. The USCT units were unable to move beyond the Crater upon reaching it though as the other troops were crowding the area, and by that time Confederate resistance had stiffened. The USCT and the other units in the Crater were severely mauled in the trap that the Crater became. Trying to escape back to their own lines was just as dangerous.
By early afternoon the battle ended. Union losses amounted to about 3,800, of which around 1,400 were captured or missing. Confederate losses added up to about 1,500, with most of the 361 deaths being from the initial explosion. Around 400 Confederates were reported missing or captured.
After the battle, both sides returned to their respective trenches and the siege continued. This battle was a Confederate tactical victory, but the overall situation around Petersburg did not change. The battle, what Grant called “the saddest event I have witnessed in this war”, was a slaughter that wasted so many lives in spectacular fashion, but did not affect the course of the Civil War.