The July 30, 1864, Battle of the Crater is recorded in the history of the American Civil War as “a stupendous failure.” The Union Army suffered nearly 4,000 casualties and wasted a spectacular opportunity to capture the vital railroad junction at Petersburg, Va., and end the war before Christmas.

The Army of the Potomac had fought its way south at terrible cost, only to be stopped by Petersburg’s impregnable trench lines. A regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners in Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps created the opportunity for a breakthrough. Directed by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer in civilian life, they dug a 511-foot tunnel right up beneath a Confederate strongpoint and packed four tons of blasting powder into galleries at the tunnel’s end. Burnside planned to send infantry through the breach created by the exploding powder. To spearhead the assault, he chose the nine regiments of United States Colored Troops that comprised his 4th Division. Unlike Burnside’s white divisions, the 4th had not suffered heavy losses, and troop morale was high.

But on the eve of the battle, Maj. Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, forbade use of the “colored division” as the spearhead. He did not think blacks were good enough soldiers, and he feared political repercussions if he gave them so important and dangerous a task. Burnside went into a funk. Instead of making a new plan, he had the commanders of his other three divisions draw lots for the spearhead mission. Chance decreed that alcoholic Brig. Gen. James Ledlie’s exhausted 1st Division should lead the charge through the breach and attempt to take the high ground along Jerusalem Plank Road. If they succeeded, General Robert E. Lee’s army would be split, and Federal guns would command Petersburg. But Ledlie never passed along those orders to his brigade commanders. Instead he told them to hold the ground around the breach—and wait for the 4th Division to assault the heights. It is not clear whether Ledlie misunderstood his orders because he was drunk or deliberately falsified them to evade responsibility for leading the assault.

At 4:45 a.m. the earth below the Rebel strongpoint erupted. The explosion blasted a crater 130 feet long, 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep, with sheer clay walls. Yet the effect of the explosion was not what Burnside had hoped. The crater itself formed an impassable barrier, and debris-clogged trenches on either side hampered swift forward movement. While the blast destroyed a third of the South Carolina brigade defending the lines, Rebel infantry rallied behind the main line in a labyrinth of communication trenches. Well-placed Confederate artillery pinned Ledlie’s division in the breach, and advancing Federal troops compounded the logjam.

In a last attempt to avert disaster, Burnside ordered the 4th Division to carry out its original mission. The two leading regiments drove back the Rebel defenders, capturing 150 prisoners and a clutch of battle flags. Following black regiments also worked their way through the mob and sought to advance in conjunction with rallying white regiments. But Rebel reinforcements under Brig. Gen. William Mahone counterattacked, breaking up the attempted Union advance. Between 800 and 1,000 fleeing Federals gathered in and around the crater, unable to fight but vulnerable to mortar fire. A thin line of riflemen defended the crater berm and the trenches to either side. Officers who commanded in the crater later testified that black troops were the mainstay of this last-ditch defense.

The battle then degenerated into a combination massacre and race riot, as white troops—both Union and Confederate— turned against the black soldiers. Some white Federal soldiers killed their black comrades because they believed Rebel troops would execute armed blacks and any whites serving with them. In the aftermath of the Confederate victory, Rebel soldiers did shoot, bayonet or club to death black wounded and POWs under escort. In a letter home, Confederate Lt. Col. William Pegram termed it “perfectly right” that captured blacks be killed and commented that scarcely half the blacks who surrendered that day “ever reached the rear. You could see them lying dead all along the route.”

The National Park Service has largely preserved the Petersburg battlefields from suburban encroachment, but the gap between the original scene and what nature has reclaimed is greater here than at any other major battlefield park. In period photographs, Petersburg, crisscrossed with trenches, looks like a junkyard. Grass now covers that earthen jumble, and the crater has slumped into a sloping depression.

The Battle of the Crater was about more than the tunnel and the Union officers’ blunders. The flash of that explosion illuminated the depth of racial animosity that would shape American history over the next 100 years. What the battlefield most conspicuously lacks today is any monument to the U.S. Colored Troops who served their country there; men who, despite the hatred and contempt they faced from friend and foe alike, “fought like bulldogs,” as one Rebel soldier said, “and died like soldiers.”


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here