At 4:44 in the morning of July 30, 1864, a low rumble emanated from the ground under Elliot’s Salient, a fortified bump in the Confederate defensive lines around Petersburg, Virginia. Moments later, the earth seemed to heave up, up, up. The sky over the Confederate line was filled with dirt, smoke, splintered wood and bodies. As the shower of debris fell back to the ground after its ascent of hundreds of feet, it buried alive many men who had just moments before been sleeping within their lines. The explosion of the mine dug by Pennsylvania coal miners of the 48th Pennsylvania was just the beginning of the short and pitched battle that General Ulysses S. Grant would later call “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.” What may be even sadder than the death and destruction that the battle wrought was that the entire enterprise--the digging and springing of a mine under the Confederate position and the attack that followed--was an attempt to shorten the war and minimize further bloodshed. Done right, it may have worked.
As General Ambrose Burnside originally planned, the men of the Fourth Division of his IX Corps, under the command of General Edward Ferrero were to move toward the breach in the Confederate lines caused by the explosion. Two units, one on each side of the assaulting column, were to wheel to their right and left as they reached the line, covering the flanks of the attack and widening the breach for the second and third wave of troops to enter. The movement was intricate and the men were inexperienced, but they spent two weeks training and on the eve of the explosion, they were ready.
There was only one problem…the units of the Fourth Division were all regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT). Where the upper brass—Generals Grant and George Meade—had acted with apathy toward the plan since its inception, on the very eve of the planned detonation of the mine, they now took an active role that would severely damage the plan’s chances of success. Fearing that a failure of the mission spearheaded with African American troops would create a political backlash and charges of intentionally squandering African American lives, they denied Burnside the troops he needed most to be successful. He had deliberately chosen the Fourth Division because his other units had been fought out. They had had nearly 40 days of constant contact with the Confederates--some of the most violent days of the war--and now were suffering from both physical and emotional fatigue. The USCT, however, had been used mostly on fatigue duty, out of contact with the enemy. They were anxious for the chance to prove themselves capable fighters. Now, Burnside was forced to choose between his three worn down and worn out divisions who had not been trained for the intricate maneuvers and the confusion that would reign after the explosion of the mine. And to choose this very important role? He chose to draw straws.
The winner (or perhaps more accurately, the loser) was General James Ledlie, a habitual drunk. Either he did not or could not convey Burnside’s orders for the plan of attack, the most important part of which was the objective: Cemetery Hill (or Cemetery Ridge) directly behind the Confederate line. They were to go around the crater resulting from the mine explosion. The lack of orders prior to the attack may have been mitigated had Ledlie been with his men to lead them in their attack, but Ledlie spent the majority of the day behind the Union lines, safe in a bomb-proof (bomb shelter), drinking “stimulants” (rum).
When the men of Ledlie’s First Division stepped off minutes after the explosion, they headed straight into the hole. There they were caught like fish in a barrel and as the supporting divisions came in behind, including the final division in line, the Fourth Division of USCT, they continued to crowd into the deep depression with steep and crumbling sides. As the Confederates shook off the shock and rushed troops to the breech, the crater became a roiling mass of panicking men who became easy targets.
Some of Burnside’s troops, and others from a Division of General OC Ord’s XVIII Corps were able to skirt the crater, but they then entered a labyrinth of defensive trenches that curtailed their movement and made them vulnerable to enfilading fire on their flanks. The fighting here and in the crater devolved into hand to hand combat, with rifles being wielded as clubs and bayonets thrust into soft bellies of the enemy.
Even within this chaos, the Union still had an opportunity to succeed. The constant flow of Confederate support to the crater had seriously weakened Confederate lines in front of General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps. Warren asked General Meade, his commanding officer, if he should proceed to attack what he perceived as a weak spot in the Confederate line in front of him. Meade, out of touch with the actual chaos happening on the battlefield, misinterpreted Burnside’s tepid observation that an attack on Warren’s front could achieve a breakthrough and rout the enemy. Instead of ordering Warren’s Corps to attack, Meade stayed Warren and told Burnside to withdraw his troops.
Burnside was unable to withdraw his troops without exposing them to deadly crossfire, but they were equally unable to stay in the pit and the trenches. Burnside hedged his bets and commanded his troops to stay put until they could retreat under cover of night. It was only early afternoon.
As it turns out, the engaged troops decided when to withdraw or surrender. And many of the USCT troops who chose the latter were murdered in the attempt.
When the Union troops finally withdrew, the Confederates reclaimed the crater, reestablishing the line they held prior to the explosion. In their attempts to shore up the new line, their excavations uncovered comrades who had been buried alive by the debris of the blast.
The Battle of the Crater, as the engagement became known, had nearly 15,000 Union troops either committed to the attack itself or deployed along the Union lines near the crater. 504 were killed or mortally wounded; 1,881 wounded; 1,413 captured. Of the four divisions engaged in the attack, the Fourth Division—the USCT troops who had been specially trained and later pulled from their position at the point of attack for fear of a public relations nightmare—suffered the highest casualty count anyway: 1,327.
One final victim of the Battle of the Crater was General Ambrose Burnside, who was found by the US Army Court of Inquiry (convened at the behest of General Meade) to be largely culpable for the debacle. He was later removed from command of the Ninth Army Corps. Though an investigation by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War largely vindicated him when it published its findings in February 1865, he would never hold command again.
References and Further Reading
The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.