Today in History, July 30th, 1864, —- The Battle of the Crater
In 1864, with the Union Army under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union went on the offensive in Northern Virginia in a attempt to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Despite fighting Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army to a standstill, Grant continued to press Lee’s left flank, keeping Lee on the defensive and pushing closer and closer to Richmond. Then in early June the offensive came to a screeching halt when the Union Army attempted to take the City of Petersburg, a mere 23 miles away from Richmond. The Confederates had turned Petersburg into a heavily armed fortress, with over ten miles of trenches complete with bunkers and anti infantry obstacles. Despite a number of heavy assaults by Union forces, the Confederates were able to hold their ground. Unable to decisively take Petersburg, Union forces dug their own trenches and built their own fortifications. Foreshadowing the bloody combat tactics of World War I, both sides settled into trench warfare and bloody attrition.
In mid June the commander of the 48th Pennsylvania infantry offered a novel solution to the stalemate. Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants was a mining engineer before he joined the army, and many of his men, recruited from Schuylkill County, PA were also coal miners. Pleasant’s idea was to dig a tunnel under the Confederate fortifications, load it with explosives, then blast the Confederates straight to Hell. The resulting break in Confederate lines would leave their defenses vulnerable to a Union assault, thus ending the siege.
Digging of the tunnel began in late June and was completed by late July. Once the tunnelers reached the Confederate lines, they dug another tunnel that ran parallel to the Confederate trenches above, thus making a “T” shape. The main approach shaft was 511 feet long and located 50 feet below the ground. Once the tunnel was completed, it was loaded with 320 kegs (8,000 lbs) of gunpowder. On July 30th, 1864 the fuse was lit at 3:45 AM. An hour later a massive explosion occurred amidst the Confederate lines. The resulting explosion instantly obliterated 278 Confederate defenders, and left thousands of other in state of shock from the massive blast. In the middle of the Confederate trenches was a large blast crater around 170 feet long and 30 feet deep.
To conduct the assault Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside chose the United States Colored Division and the US 1st Division. Burnside trained his Colored Division for weeks in preparation for the battle, choosing them to be at the head of the assault. The US Colored Division had by then gained a reputation as experienced and courageous veteran soldiers who could be counted upon to achieve the most daring and dangerous missions. However, at the last minute, Gen. George Meade, Burnside’s boss, ordered the US 1st Division to the front, a unit with little experience and training. Meade had little confidence in the plan, and didn’t want to waste the US Colored Division in a failed assault.
The plan was that when the two units approached the crater, one battalion was to go around the crater to the left, while the other was to go right. When the inexperienced 1st Division approached the crater, they quickly occupied it, believing it to be the ideal rifle pit. Meanwhile the men of the US Colored Division followed their orders and went around the massive pit. The blame for the failed plan rested on the shoulders of the 1st Division’s commander, Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, who failed to brief his men on the assault, and spent much of the battle well behind the lines and drunk in his bunker.
After an hour the stunned Confederates rallied their forces and organized a counterattack against the Union assault. Confederate troops surrounded the pit, which by then was a confused and panicked mass of men crowded shoulder to shoulder. In what Confederate Brig. Gen. William Mahone would term “a turkey shoot”, the Confederates rained the pit with musket fire, grenades, artillery, and mortars. The helpless soldiers trapped in the crowded pit could little defend themselves against the hail of Confederate lead. If the suffering of the men trapped in the pit was bad, the fate of the Colored Division was even worse. Without the support of the 1st Division, the Colored Division was quickly outnumbered and surrounded. Many of the men were able to break free and retreat, however a number of regiments were forced to surrender. Many Confederate officers, angered by the thought of former slaves fighting for the Union, gave orders to execute black soldiers and officers who surrendered. Most of the black soldiers who surrendered at the Battle of the Crater were executed by bayonet on the spot.
Eventually a Union relief force was able to free the men trapped in the crater. By the time battle had ended, Union forces suffered 3,798 casualties (504 killed 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured). Confederate losses were also high, with a total of 1,491 casualties (361 killed,727 wounded, 403 missing or captured). The Battle of the Crater turned out to be the Union most embarrassing defeat; an intricate and complex plan that was to bring about a surefire victory, failed because of bad leadership and a drunkard. After the battle, Gen. Ambrose Burnside would receive most of the blame for the defeat, and was censured and relieved of his command and spent the rest of the war in a desk job. He would later be cleared of fault by a war committee, who instead blamed Gen. Meade for the last minute substitution of the US Colored Division with the 1st Division. Gen. Ledlie “The Drunkard” was charged with dereliction of duty and his commission was revoked.
The Siege of Petersburg would last 9 months total, finally coming to an end on March 25th, 1865. The fall of Petersburg left Richmond vulnerable, leading to its capture of Richmond on April 2nd. Robert E. Lee then surrendered a week later.