The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission

by Alan Axelrod, Carroll & Graf, 2007, 284 pages, $26.95.

In a war marked by exceptional suffering and brutality, few scenes matched the destruction wrought in the infamous Petersburg Crater, which Union gunpowder carved in the middle of the Confederate lines on July 30, 1864. The Federals’ badly bungled effort to exploit the massive breach wasted hundreds of lives and left Yankee officers blaming each other.

Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit paints a vivid picture of this tragic affair, in which vacillating Union commanders turned a potential triumph into a debacle, especially for the misused black troops of Ambrose Burnside’s 4th Division (whose 1,327 casualties included some 200 killed in the fighting and scores more cut down in cold blood afterward). “No more potentially momentous military operation,” Axelrod writes, “has ever been born amid such drift, such abandonment of will and abrogation of command.”

Axelrod opens with a look at the contentious Union high command nominally responsible for the disaster; the campaign that brought each army to Petersburg that summer; and the failed Union assaults that led, finally, to siege. He then dives into the story of the mine, focusing on the struggles of the engineers (such as Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants) who planned the work and the soldiers who labored to construct it, handicapped all the while by the army command’s “peculiar indifference.” He manages to capably mix details of the tunnel’s construction, the subsequent detonation and the horrific fighting that followed the explosion with poignant—sometimes astonishing—testimony from the subsequent U.S. Army Court of Inquiry.

Featuring eyewitness accounts, terrific detail and numerous photos and drawings, The Horrid Pit examines the incident as a potentially historic gambit wasted by passive leaders.

 

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here