At the Crater, poor leadership, race issues and last-minute tinkering combined for a spectacular Union disaster.
In a single instant, Petersburg’s quiet summer morning exploded into chaos. The ground shook and exploded, shooting flames, earth, men, cannons and wagons nearly 200 feet into the air. Debris rained down all along the Confederate front as the scent of gunpowder filled the air.
Out of the hazy mess, men who managed to survive reached from under the dirt for help amid the ruins of what was once a well-fortified position. Now it was nothing more than a massive hole in the ground, strewn with broken equipment, severed limbs and lifeless bodies. As thoroughly confused Confederates struggled to figure out what had happened, Union artillery unleashed a barrage more deafening than the initial explosion.
The Battle of the Crater had begun.
The Union Army achieved a rare total surprise—simply blowing up the Confederate line, obliterating its southern fortifications. With the Rebels in utter disarray, Union troops stood poised to penetrate Confederate defenses and destroy the Southern army. As it turned out, all that stood in their way was a series of bad decisions. And that was enough.
In mid-June 1864, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, began digging into the hilly, heavily forested and defensible landscape around Peters – burg, Va. “Lee’s whole army has now arrived, and the topography of the country about Petersburg has been well taken advantage of by the enemy in the location of strong works,” observed Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all the Union forces. Because assaults on the Con – federates’ strong defensive works would be practically suicidal, Grant decided to lay siege, an operation for which he had gained great experience at Vicks – burg in 1863. But sieges take time, and time was a luxury the Union did not have. Thousands of men sitting idle posed a problem. Officials in Washington didn’t want a siege, anyway; like the rest of the country, they were worn out by years of bloody fighting and wanted to end the war quickly.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, commander of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, hated the inactivity. He had to do something; even retreat in the sweltering Virginia summer was preferable to doing nothing. A coal miner by trade, Pleasants was more accustomed to working long hours in dangerous conditions underground than sitting idle. On June 23, he devised an ingenious plan to dig tunnels under the Rebel positions, plant explosives and detonate them. “We could blow that whole damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it,” Pleasants proposed to division commander Brig. Gen. Robert Potter.
The idea appealed to Potter, who recommended it to Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, chief of staff of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps. Potter explained that Pleasants’ regiment included many experienced Pennsylvania coal miners who could easily tunnel under the Confederate lines, just over 100 yards away. “I think, perhaps, we might do something, and in no event could we lose more men than we do every time we feel the enemy,” he concluded.
The next morning Pleasants and Captain David McKibben, one of Potter’s staff officers, went to the advance trenches to survey the Confederate lines. McKibben showed Pleas – ants which battery the 48th needed to tunnel under. After drafting preliminary plans, Pleasants met with Potter, who told him the plan would be forwarded to Burnside.
Pleasants waited a day for a reaction but heard nothing. Then, on his own authority, he brought his regiment together, explained his plan and started digging the tunnel. Finally, on June 26, Pleasants met with Burnside to explain his idea. Burnside endorsed the concept—“I am heartily in favor of the plan”—but passed the buck to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. Nevertheless, Burnside supported continued digging to keep the men occupied. Meade ultimately gave his approval to the project, but without having much faith in it. With Meade’s authorization, however, Pleasants’ men began to work in earnest to have the tunnel ready as soon as possible. Now the generals had to find units to exploit the Rebel confusion after the explosion and conduct the assault.
Grant shared Meade’s skepticism, but allowed the experiment to proceed—as long as Burnside had troops ready to make the most of the surprise such an unorthodox attack would surely create. Burnside then made an interesting choice in early July, picking an all-black division—the 4th Division of the U.S. Colored Troops, commanded by Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero—for the post-explosion assault. But Burnside’s decision was rescinded—not because of a lack of preparation on the part of the 4th, but because of the race-related concerns of ranking Union generals.
The 4th was one of four divisions making up Burnside’s IX Corps. The soldiers were new and fresh, unlike those in other divisions. Some had seen combat and performed well, but the troops had seen most of their action as rear guards. As historian Alan Axelrod notes, Burnside thought the 4th would be motivated—he “believed that the black men of Ferrero’s Fourth Division burned with a hunger to fight and were eager to learn to fight well. Where white soldiers craved a rest, the black troops wanted nothing more than to prove themselves.” Burnside’s choice to lead the assault now awaited Meade’s approval.
The plan was simple. Troops from the 4th would be ready to attack immediately after the explosion. They would march uphill in the pre-dawn light toward the ruins of the Confederate battery and fan out once they broke through the Rebel lines. Burnside’s other divisions would follow. After taking control of Cemetery Hill, the area’s strongest point, they would establish their positions. The Union would have effectively cracked the Confederate lines and, with any luck, broken the siege and hastened the end of the war. As the battle drew near, the men of the 4th trained vigorously, excited to finally show that they could fight with the best of them.
As Pleasants and his men put their finishing touches on the mine and prepared to load it with explosives, Meade decided against using the 4th to lead the assault. “I cannot approve of your placing the negro troops in the advance,” he advised Burnside. “I do not think they should be called upon to do as important a work as that which you propose to do, certainly not called upon to lead.” Burnside protested, but Meade stubbornly refused to reconsider.
Meade later testified before a court of inquiry that he did not intend to “insinuate that the colored troops were inferior to [Burnside’s] best troops, but that I understood that they had never been under fire; not that they should not be taken for such a critical operation as this, but that he should take such troops as from previous service could be depended upon as being perfectly reliable.” Meade’s reasoning, although sound, overlooked the fact that the 4th was trained and ready; its white counterparts were not.
In a hearing after the war, Burnside recalled urging Meade to put “the colored division in the advance, because I thought it would make a better charge at the time than either of the white divisions. I reminded him of the fact that the three white divisions had for forty days been in the trenches in the immediate presence of the enemy, and at no point of the line could a man raise his head above the parapet without being fired at by the enemy.”
Furthermore, the white troops “had been in the habit, during the whole of that time, of approaching the main line by covered ways, and using every possible means of protecting themselves from the fire of the enemy…their losses had been continuous…amounting to thirty to sixty men daily.” Burnside recognized his African-American soldiers were fresher than his gun-shy white forces and offered a greater chance of victory. Meade’s denials notwithstanding, his refusal to consider Burnside’s case reflected an irrational uncertainty, consistent with the racial mores of the time, about the fighting fitness of African-American troops.
Meade forwarded his decision to Grant, who agreed for reasons that had far more to do with racial politics than racial bigotry. Grant worried about the political repercussions of a failed attack. President Lincoln needed abolitionist support in his tough re-election campaign—support that might wane if black troops were slaughtered or blown up in an unsuccessful assault. In testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Grant made his thinking plain. If Union generals “put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.”
On July 29, Grant and Meade ordered Burnside to assign another division to the attack. Rather than picking the next best unit, Burnside had his division commanders draw straws. The 1st Division, under the command of Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie, “won” the contest. “If the Army of the Potomac had tried,” historian Bruce Catton has written, “it could not have made a more unfortunate choice.” Described by a subordinate as a drunk and a coward, Ledlie was one of the worst officers in the Union Army. With the attack set to start in the early hours of July 30— a day after Grant and Meade gave the go-ahead—Ledlie failed even to make simple battle plans. No one ever explained to his soldiers how they were supposed to attack after the mine blew.
Pleasants lit the fuse at 3:15 a.m. and waited. An hour later, the mine still had not exploded. Two of his men crawled into the dark mineshaft and discovered the fuse had gone out. They relit the fuse and scampered out. Shortly before 5 a.m., 8,000 pounds of powder exploded in one of the most spectacular moments of the war.
The blast created a crater that “was at least 200 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 25 feet deep,” Pleasants recalled. The Rebels were “completely paralyzed,” as the explosion left an opening that “was practically 400 or 500 yards in breadth.” The plan to mine under the Confederate lines had been a complete success. The Union had achieved its surprise.
Grant recalled that “Ledlie’s men marched into the crater immediately on the explosion, but most stopped there in the absence of anyone to give directions.” Many of the troops just took in the sight of the massive smoking pit rather than marching around the gigantic hole and fighting as planned. Some wandered forward aimlessly instead of attacking the remnants of the Rebel lines.
This was partially because the 1st was without its leader. Pleasants found Ledlie cowering in the rear and nursing a bottle of rum.
The disorganized Union assault gave the Confederates time to recover. The Rebels moved men and artillery to the edge of the crevice and opened fire at point-blank range.
As the attackers became the attacked, Union discipline dissolved into panic and some units fell back in disarray. But other Union units, including the 4th, pressed forward, desperately trying to regain the initiative. Despite the chaos, the men of the 4th fought well, and, as historian James M. McPherson notes, “suffered more casualties than any other division, but they too were driven back in confusion.” Many of their casualties resulted when Rebel troops, possibly enraged at the sight of black soldiers, bayoneted or shot troops who tried to surrender. With the Union’s surprise gone and its men being butchered as they stood helplessly in the crater, Grant called off the attack.
The Union had failed to exploit one of the greatest surprises in the history of warfare. Grant called the assault “a stupendous failure” and recognized the Union had squandered what was probably its biggest opportunity to destroy Lee’s army to date. In a letter to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, Grant called it “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war,” but argued the fault was not in the planning but in the execution. “I am constrained to believe that had instructions been promptly obeyed that Petersburg would have been carried with all the artillery and a large number of prisoners without a loss of 300 men.”
The Confederates realized how lucky they truly were. Confederate Maj. Gen. William Mahone, organizer of the Rebel counterattack that morning, wrote that “there was nothing to prevent the…cutting [of] the Confederate army in twain…opening wide the gates to the rear of the Confederate capital.” Whether the battle could have truly been that decisive will never be known, but Mahone’s fears were plausible—and could have been a reality if the 4th had led the assault. The now infamous Battle of the Crater was both a spectacular success and failure. A simple idea from a Pennsylvania coal miner led to one of the most amazing operations in the conflict, but race-related complications led to a complete fiasco for the Union—and probably prolonged the war.
Jeffrey Maciejewski is a 2009 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in military history. He is from Avon, Minn.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.