Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Grant Focuses on Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed Major General George G. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals roughly 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. Besides the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy’s last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points westward. If Grant could cut the rail lines, it would force Lee to abandon Richmond.
By early June 1864, Grant’s forces were digging in around the east side of Petersburg. The Union entrenchments roughly paralleled the Confederate defenses and were often very close. At a bulge in the Rebel fortifications known as Elliott’s Salient, the lines were less than four hundred feet apart.
The Union position opposite Elliott’s Salient was manned by Major General Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps, which included the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Pleasants. Many members of the 48th Pennsylvania were coal miners from Schuylkill County. Pleasants reportedly overheard some of his men declare that “We could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it” and proposed the idea to his superiors. Army engineers ridiculed the idea because they believed that the length of the tunnel would be too long to supply oxygen to the miners as they dug. Despite the reservations of their engineers, Burnside and Grant approved the idea, and the tunneling began.
The miners started digging on June 25, using improvised tools. Three weeks later, they had tunneled nearly 511 feet to a position directly beneath the Confederate battery manning Elliot’s Salient. On July 18, the miners began extending the main shaft to the left and right, creating branches that paralleled the Rebel lines above them. When they completed the digging on July 23, the Pennsylvania miners had excavated a tunnel 586 feet long, twenty feet below the enemy fortifications. By July 27, engineers charged the mine with 8,000 pounds of black powder.
As the Union tunneling proceeded, the Rebels manning the Salient became suspicious when they detected the sounds of digging below them. Confederate engineers, however, shared the belief of their Union counterparts that it was not possible to excavate a mine shaft over 400 feet long without ventilation shafts. Despite reassurances from their engineers, the Rebel officers who commanded the Salient, Stephen Elliott and Richard Pegram, ordered their men to dig vertical shafts armed with counter-mines, in case the Yankees were mining down below. Fortunately for the Pennsylvanians, the enemy shafts missed their marks. When the Federals completed the tunnel on July 23, the Rebels also quit digging after hearing no more sounds below them.
Burnside’s Battle Plan
Meanwhile, as the tunneling proceeded, Burnside created a battle plan that featured a large-scale assault by the 9th Corps after the detonation of the explosives. Burnside ordered General Edward Ferrero commanding the 4th Division—which included 4,300 United States Colored Troops—to lead the attack. Although Burnside trained the men of the 4th well enough to carry out their orders, Meade and Grant countermanded the assignment the day before the assault. They reasoned that if the attack failed, critics would accuse the Lincoln administration of sending large numbers of black soldiers to their deaths. Forced to comply with the orders of his superiors, even though the white soldiers had not trained for the operation, Burnside required his three other divisional commanders to draw straws to determine who would lead the assault.
At 3:15 on the morning of July 30, Henry Pleasants lit the fuse to detonate the explosives. When the blast failed to materialize after a long wait, two volunteers went into the shaft to discover that the flame had gone out. After relighting the fuse, the volunteers scrambled to safety before the detonation occurred at 4:44. Simultaneous to the explosion, 110 Union guns and fifty-four mortars began a barrage of the Rebel position.
On the Confederate side of the line, the blast created a gaping chasm over 170 feet long, sixty feet across, and thirty feet deep. At least 278 Rebel soldiers died instantly, some being blown as high as 100 feet in the air.
While Ledlie remained in the rear, allegedly drinking rum, his untrained troops poured into the breach. They unwisely rushed into the crater rather than skirting around it. Upon realizing that they could not scale the soft earth on the opposite wall, the federal soldiers discovered there was no escape. The Confederate defenders who survived the initial shock of the blast gathered at the edge of the hole and began target practice on the unfortunate Yankees.
Burnside continued to drive reinforcements into the gap, but many of them made the mistake of joining their comrades in the crater. By 8:30 a.m., the Rebels pinned down over 15,000 Union troops in what became a pit of horror.
Lee Sends Reinforcements
Meanwhile, when Robert E. Lee learned of the breach in the Confederate defenses, he quickly dispatched two infantry brigades commanded by Brigadier General William Mahone to fill the void. Mahone’s soldiers arrived at the scene and immediately began driving the few Yankees who had escaped the crater back into the chasm of death. Throughout the morning and midday, the Confederates rained a hail of lead on the living, wounded, and dead federal soldiers baking under the blazing sun. Shortly after 1 p.m., Mahone ordered a charge into the crater that resulted in a bloody struggle, featuring fixed bayonets and rifle butts before the Bluecoats submitted.
Aftermath of the Battle
By the end of the battle, Burnside’s Corps suffered nearly 4,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured), compared with roughly 1,500 losses for the Confederates. The United States Colored Troops lost 1,327 soldiers. The Rebels murdered some after taking them prisoner or as they attempted to surrender.
Following the battle, Grant and Meade shifted the blame to Burnside and Ledlie. Grant relieved Burnside from his command and he never led troops in battle again. Meade, however, did not escape the wrath of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which criticized Meade for his decision to replace Edward Ferraro’s colored troops with the incompetent Ledlie’s white soldiers. In their 1865 report on the Battle of the Crater, the committee concluded that it could not “avoid the conclusion that the first and great cause of the disaster was the change made on the afternoon preceding the attack, in the arrangement of general Burnside to place the division of colored troops in the advance.”
The outcome of the Battle of the Crater was a tactical Confederate victory, but it did not reverse the eventual outcome of the Petersburg Campaign. Although the Yankees could not take advantage of their temporary breach of the Rebel fortifications, Grant’s forces remained positioned to tighten his stranglehold on the vital Confederate supply center. Lee held on for another eight months before evacuating Petersburg and Richmond. A few weeks after Union troops occupied Petersburg, Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.