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American Civil War: Battle of the Crater

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American Civil War: Battle of the Crater

Sketch of the Battle of the Crater

Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

Battle of the Crater - Conflict:

The Battle of the Crater occurred during the American Civil War.

Battle of the Crater - Date:

The mine was detonated on July 30, 1864.

Armies & Commanders:

Battle of the Crater - Background:

By mid-June 1864, after more than a month of campaigning, Union and Confederate forces had become engaged in the siege of Petersburg. While Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued to push the Union line around the city, other elements of the Army of the Potomac manned the earthworks that had sprung up around Petersburg's east side. Among these was the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a member of Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps. Composed largely of former coal miners, the men of the 48th devised a plan for breaking through the Confederate lines.

Battle of the Crater - A Bold Idea:

Observing that the closest Confederate fortification, Elliott's Salient, was a mere 400 feet from their position, the men of the 48th conjectured that a mine could be run from their lines under the enemy earthworks. Once complete, this mine could be packed with enough explosives to open a hole in the Confederate lines. This idea was seized upon by their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants. A mining engineer by trade, Pleasants approached Burnside with the plan arguing that the explosion would take the Confederates by surprise and would allow Union troops to rush in to take the city.

Eager to restore his reputation after his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside agreed to present it to Grant and Major General George G. Meade. Though both men were skeptical about its chances for success, they approved it with the thought that it would keep the men busy during the siege. On June 25, Pleasants' men, working with improvised tools, began digging the mine shaft. Digging continuously, the shaft reached 511 feet by July 17. During this time, the Confederates became suspicious when they heard the faint sound of digging. Sinking countermines, they came close to locating the 48th's shaft.

Battle of the Crater - The Union Plan:

Having stretched the shaft under Elliott's Salient, the miners began digging a 75-foot lateral tunnel that paralleled the earthworks above. Completed on July 23, the mine was filled with 8,000 pounds of black powder four days later. As the miners were working, Burnside had been developing his attack plan. Selecting Brigadier General Edward Ferrero's division of United States Colored Troops to lead the assault, Burnside had them drilled in the use of ladders and instructed them to move along the sides of the crater to secure the breach in the Confederate lines.

With Ferraro's men holding the gap, Burnside's other divisions would cross to exploit the opening and take the city. To support the assault, Union guns along the line were ordered to open fire following the explosion and a large demonstration was made against Richmond to draw off enemy troops. This latter action worked particularly well as there were only 18,000 Confederate troops in Petersburg when the attack began. Upon learning that Meade intended to lead with his black troops, Meade intervened fearing that if the attack failed he would be blamed for the needless death of these soldiers.

Battle of the Crater - Last Minute Changes:

Meade informed Burnside on July 29, the day before the attack, that he would not permit Ferraro's men to spearhead the assault. With little time remaining, Burnside had his remaining division commanders draw straws. As a result, the ill-prepared division of Brigadier General James H. Ledlie was given the task. At 3:15 AM on July 30, Pleasants lit the fuse to the mine. After an hour of waiting without any explosion, two volunteers entered the mine to find problem. Finding that the fuse had gone out, they re-lit it and fled the mine.

Battle of the Crater - A Union Failure:

At 4:45 AM, the charge detonated killing at least 278 Confederate soldiers and creating a crater 170 feet long, 60-80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. As the dust settled, Ledlie's attack was delayed by the need to remove obstructions and debris. Finally moving forward, Ledlie's men, who had not been briefed on the plan, charged down into the crater rather than around it. Initially using the crater for cover, they soon found themselves trapped and unable advance. Rallying, Confederate forces in the area moved along the rim of the crater and opened fire on the Union troops below.

Seeing the attack failing, Burnside pushed Ferraro's division in to the fray. Joining the confusion in the crater, Ferraro's men endured heavy fire from the Confederates above. Despite the disaster in the crater, some Union troops succeeded in moving along the right edge of the crater and entered the Confederate works. Ordered by General Robert E. Lee to contain the situation, the division of Major General William Mahone launched a counterattack around 8:00 AM. Moving forward, they drove Union forces back to the crater after bitter fighting. Gaining the slopes of crater, Mahone's men compelled the Union troops below to flee back to their own lines. By 1:00 PM, most of the fighting had concluded.

Aftermath of the Battle of the Crater

The disaster at the Battle of the Crater cost the Union around 3,793 killed, wounded, and captured, while the Confederates incurred around 1,500. While Pleasants was commended for his idea, the resulting attack had failed and the armies remained stalemated at Petersburg for another eight months. In the wake of the attack, Ledlie (who may have been drunk at the time) was removed from command and dismissed from the service. On August 14, Grant also relieved Burnside and sent him on leave. He would not receive another command during the war. Grant later testified that though he supported Meade's decision to withdraw Ferrero's division, he believed that if the black troops had been permitted to lead the attack, the battle would have resulted in a victory.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1800s
  6. Civil War
  7. Civil War in the East
  8. Battle of the Crater - American Civil War

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