battle-of-the-crater

Female Civil War Soldier’s Body Found At The Battle Of The Crater

Unearthed from a mass grave at the Crater,  gravediggers discovered the body of a female soldier in Sept 1866, and noted she had been shot through the head, just like another female body found at Resaca Georgia, the workmen noted the body was in a “remarkable state of preservation”, and described as having a “delicate face”. She was buried along with her fellow soldiers with whom she fought and died. Her identity lost to history.

-They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War By DeAnne Blanton, Lauren M. Cook

The Battle of the Crater was a battle of the part of the Siege of Petersburg. It took place on July 30, 1864.

After weeks of preparation, on July 30, Union forces exploded a mine in Maj. Gen.Burnside’s IX Corps sector, blowing a gap in the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, Virginia. From this propitious beginning, everything deteriorated rapidly for the Union attackers. Unit after unit charged into and around the crater, where soldiers milled in confusion. Grant considered the assault “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” The Confederates quickly recovered and launched several counterattacks led by Brig. Gen Mahone. The breach was sealed off, and Union forces were repulsed with severe casualties. Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division of black soldiers was badly mauled. This may have been Grant’s best chance to end the Siege of Petersburg. Instead, the soldiers settled in for another eight months of trench warfare. Burnside was relieved of command for the last time for his role in the debacle, and he was never again returned to command

3

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 in small pieces.  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.

Reunion At The Crater

In a photograph of reconciliation taken in 1887, former Confederate general William Mahone, at bottom center with long white beard, stands amid ex-Union soldiers from the 57th Massachusetts Regiment on the site where the Battle of the Crater had taken place on July 30, 1864, near Petersburg, Virginia. That day, a massive explosion set off by Union soldiers in a tunnel beneath Confederate lines created a giant bowl-like depression in the ground. The 57th was one of the first regiments to enter the Crater during the ensuing battle. The attacking Union soldiers were then trapped, leaving them easy targets for Confederate soldiers.

Mahone successfully led the Confederate counterattack, and in the process captured members of the 57th Regiment. Survivors of the regiment are shown here sporting badges on their lapels. Mahone’s actions at the Crater made him a hero of the Confederacy and he was promoted to the rank of major general within a matter of days. When this photograph was taken in 1887, some twenty-three years after the battle, Mahone was nearing the end of his distinguished post-war political career. The previous year Mahone had lost his seat in the United States Senate as a member of the short-lived Readjuster Party; in 1889 he ran for governor of Virginia under the banner of the Republican Party and was defeated.

Original Author: Unknown

Created: May 3, 1887

Medium: Photographic print

Virginia Historical Society

3

July 30th, 1864

Union forces explode a mine in the Confederate defences of Petersburg, Virginia, during the 9-month siege of the city. Federal units charge into the crater created by the blast but the Confederates press counter-attacks by firing down into it, causing severe numbers of casualties. The Union troops were defeated in what General Grant called “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war”. (x) (x) (x

A group of tourists posing on earthworks along the rim of the crater which was exploded at the start of the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg near Petersburg, Virginia, c. 1860′s. By David H. Anderson.

Black troops are sent forward during the Battle of the Crater. In the original battle plan, the African-American troops were to be the first unit to charge the Confederate lines following the blowing of the mine underneath. They had been well briefed, and knew to go around the outskirts of the crater. At the last minute however, it was decided white troops were to be the first into the breech with their black compatriots to follow after, and during the ensuing battle, the unprepared forces charged straight into the depression, only to find it turned into a killing field. 

(Collection of Mark Lardas)

So I’m going to put this out there and say the most awesome battle of the Civil War was the Battle of the Crater.

Basically, the Union dug a tunnel under the Confederate trenches, put a bunch of dynamite at the end of the tunnel, and then blew up the trenches. 

The Union soldiers subsequently got distracted by the awesomeness of the crater while they were advancing on Confederate lines and then a bunch of them got killed.

I have to admit, I would have been distracted too.

Tintype portrait of an unidentified man posing with a pickaxe who is said to be a Union veteran who helped dig the Union mine exploded under Confederate positions at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg.

Source.

Caused by the British, the crater resulted when the 19 mines they dug and placed underneath the German positions near Messines in West Flanders was detonated on 7 June 1917. A total of 10,000 soldiers were killed in the blast, amongst those casualties was nearly the entire 3rd Royal Bavarian Division. 

In the history of man, the blast is considered to be the biggest non-nuclear explosion, and was heard in both Dublin and London.

youtube

Cold Mountain (1/12) Movie CLIP - The Siege of Petersburg (2003) HD

The movie begins with a powerful scene illustrating the disastrous Mine Attack during the Siege of Petersburg. Early in the morning, Union troops stack barrels of gunpowder and lay the fuse in a mine as the Confederate soldiers, entrenched hundreds of feet away.

History’s Version

From June 26th until about July 26th, 400 Union troops secretly built the 510ft mine that ended 20ft under the Confederate trenches. Eight thousand pounds of gun powder were placed in the mine and the fuse was lit at 3:15am on July 29th. Nothing happened. After an hour of waiting, they checked the fuse and discovered it had burned for only forty feet. Once the fuse was fixed and relit, the now anxious Union troops awaited the explosion. At 4:44am, the ground began to shake and tremble, then suddenly fire and smoke burst out of the earth. Bodies and cannons flew into the air as Union troops watched in awe. Before troops charged in, the Confederate lines were bombarded with gunfire and mortars for over an hour. The artillery fire created an intense haze of smoke. Troops rushed in, but many became confused and disoriented standing in the crater with no guidance on where to go next. By 6am, two thousand men stood in the crater with the outer lines fighting the Confederates.

http://coldmountain.umwblogs.org/the-film/battle-of-petersburg/

Recent Acquisition - Photograph Collection

Original caption: “The Battle of the Crater. Petersburg, VA. - The interested spectators are viewing the explosion of a mine in the distance beneath a Confederate Battery during a dress rehearsal of the Battle of the Crater, famous and spectacular episode of the War Between the States, reenacted in the National Military Park here April 30, under the auspices of the National Park Service. A sham battle, with all of the excitement but none of the horror of the original, featured the dedication of the battlefield as part of the Petersburg Park.  April 30, 1937.”