Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Battle of the Crater

The Federal high command knew it would be difficult to break the siege that had developed around Petersburg, Virginia. A frontal attack would be well-nigh impossible, as the Confederate works were just too strong to capture. Ambrose Burnside, once commander of the entire Army of the Potomac but now only of the XIV Corps, decided to go under the Confederate line. Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, a former mining engineer and now commander of the 48th PA submitted a plan to dig a mine which Burnside approved. When blown up under Elliott's Salient, it would destroy the Confederate works in the area and kill their defenders. Grant had made a similar attempt at the siege of Vicksburg, but it had not been completely successful in breaking the Confederate line. That did not stop Burnside from trying again. Even if it wasn't successful, at least it would keep the men in the area occupied.

Digging the mine
The Pennsylvanians, many of them former miners, dug the earth out by hand, and then packed it into boxes and pulled out on improvised sledges. The air was kept fresh inside the tunnel with a fire which heated the air and forced it out through a ventilation tube. The soldiers dug around the clock. They calculated that they were under the Confederate position on July 17th after 511 feet of digging. Twenty feet deep in the ground, they could hear the rebel soldiers marching above. By July 23rd they had finished digging powder chambers under the bastions. 8,000 pounds of powder were brought in and connected with 100 feet of fuzes. The workers replaced the first forty feet of earth to create a backstop. All was ready on July 28th.

Burnside planned for a division of United States Colored Troops under Edward Ferrero to make the attack. Burnside had the men meticulously trained on exactly what their role would be in the assault. There was reluctance on the part of many Union generals to lead the blacks in combat, as they thought that they would not make good soldiers. Meade and Grant decided to change out the black division for a white one, and James Ledlie's unprepared division was chosen to lead the assault. Many brigades of infantry and 144 cannon were prepared to support them.

The explosion
The fuse was lit at 3:30 am on the morning of July 30th. Time ticked by as the Yankees anxiously waited, but no there was no explosion. It seemed likely that the fuse had been a dud, but it would be very hazardous to go and check, as it was possible it would explode at any moment. Grant was considering ordering Burnside to attack without the mine when two soldiers volunteered to see what the problem was. Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese soon found the problem - there had been a faulty splice in the fuse. They spliced and relit it. At 4:44 am the powder exploded in the middle of the Confederate entrenchments, throwing men, earth and guns into the air. One Confederate wrote:
A slight tremor of the earth for a second, then the rocking as of an earthquake, and, with a tremendous blast which rent the sleeping hills beyond, a vast column of earth and smoke shoots upward to a great height, its dark sides flashing out sparks with a roaring sound, showers of stones, broken timbers and blackened human limbs, subsides - the gloomy pale of darkening smoke flushing to an angry crimson as it floats away to meet the morning sun.

A crater opened in the landscape 170 feet long, over 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep, that is still visible to this day. 278 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the explosion, and many more were badly stunned. However, the Federals of Ledlie's division were not prepared to make an assault. When they did finally make it to the crater they did not keep moving as the black division had been trained to. Wandering around, they decided to use the crater as a rifle pit instead of making use of their success. Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone gathered all the men he could find and moved them to the Crater. Federal troops continued to pour into the crater, including Ferrero's black division. The gap in the Confederate line had been closed and Mahone moved his men to the rim of the crater. They unleashed their fire on 10,000 disorganized Union soldiers who were gathered in the pit. The casualties mounted among the tightly packed Federals, and the ease of hitting the target reminded many rebels of a turkey shoot. At about 9:30 am, Grant ordered the attack halted and Burnside to pull back the troops, but Burnside, despairing, delayed to execute the order in the hope that something miraculous would redeem the attack. Finally, around midday, the battle ended. Mahone's men charged with bayonets into the crater, capturing or killing any who did not flee to the rear. The Confederates were angry at seeing black troops fighting against them, as they saw it as uprooting their social order and inciting a slave rebellion on their helpless families. There were reported instances of cruelty on the part of the Confederate troops, some of whom regrettably did not accept the surrender of a black soldier, and bayoneted them in cold blood.

The crater after the battle
In this battle the Federals lost almost 3,800, with 500 killed, 1,900 wounded and 1,400 captured. The Confederates lost about 1,500, 350 killed, 750 wounded and 400 missing. Blame was quickly spread for the failure. Burnside and Ledlie were effectively dismissed, and resigned from the army. Grant wrote to Henry Halleck in Washington:
It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have. ... I am constrained to believe that, had instructions been promptly obeyed, Petersburg would have been carried, with all the artillery and a large number of prisoners, without a loss of 300 men.
The crater today


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