BATTLE OF THE CRATER: July 30th, 1864

Now that we’ve covered several of the principal characters that will feature in To Appomattox, we will now shift our focus to some of the key battles that will be featured in the series, including one that remains a controversial and disastrous event for the Union Army, which saw racism come out in a most horrendous fashion.

By mid-June of 1864, the war in Virginia had been fought to a stalemate outside of Petersburg. Despite heavy casualties, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had continued his drive south, forcing Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to maneuver to get ahead of the Army of the Potomac. Attacks against the Confederate defenses outside of Petersburg had ended in failure, and both armies settled in for what would be the longest siege in United States military history. By July, the fields around Petersburg more closely resembled the trench warfare of World War I than the Napoleonic Contest the war had started out as just three years prior.

As both sides settled in for the long siege, Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania, a mining engineer prior to the conflict, presented his commanders with a bold solution. Why not dig a mine shaft to directly underneath the Confederate defenses, place several tons of explosives underneath, and blow it up? This would create a gap in the Confederate line that could be exploited by the Union force, and possibly end the war sooner. Pleasants took the idea to his commanding officer, who then took it to General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the IX Corps. Burnside was excited by the prospect, as it could gain him some reputation lost after failures at Fredericksburg and Tennessee. Although his superiors were not as excited, work began on the mine in earnest. The mine was dug toward a position known as Elliott’s Salient, a portion of the line that stuck out closest to the Union trenches. After weeks of work, the miners reached their objective, and began to fill the mine with explosives.

While the miners were hard at work, interest in the plan for attack gained momentum, and Burnside was given the chance to plan it. For the main assault following the explosion, he chose Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, whose two infantry brigades consisted of all black troops, one of the first divisions of its kind in American History. In the weeks leading up to the battle, the black troops were put through a rigorous training. The goal of the division was to go around the Crater, laying enfilading fire on either side of the Confederate defenses, and push toward a position behind the Confederate troops, while the other divisions would assault positions to their left and right. The drill these men went through emphasized this plan. By the end of July, the division was ready. Burnside’s plan seemed destined to succeed.

But just when things were ready to go, Burnside’s plans had to be changed. And as the failure of Fredericksburg showed, he was a man not adept at handling changes to any plan. On July 29th, the day before the attack, George Gordon Meade, who retained command of the Army of the Potomac, ordered Burnside to not have Ferrero’s brigade attack first. He believed that, if the attack by the colored troops failed, it would have serious repercussions on the Lincoln administration, although he might have felt that black troops were inadequate to carry on such a task. Burnside argued with Meade, and asked Meade if he would take the issue to General Grant. Later on, during a discussion with his division commanders, Meade came in and stated that Grant had sided with him, and the black division would be sent in last. It was here that Burnside’s initiative completely broke down. Instead of choosing another division, he had his commanders draw lots from his hat to see whose division would lead the assault. The luck fell upon General James Ledlie and his First Division. Burnside then instructed Ledlie to order his men to go around the Crater, and not in. With the agreed plan, final preparations were made, and the men prepared for battle.

Explosion of the Mine, July 30th, 1864.

At 4:44 A.M. on July 30th, the mine underneath the Confederate line was exploded in what has been called the largest man-made explosion ever created. Hundreds of Confederates were killed instantly. However, the ensuing attack met with disaster. Ledlie gave orders to his commanders, then went off to have a drink. When the men finally moved forward, they were unsure of what to do, because Ledlie was not there to instruct them. So, instead of doing what Burnside had ordered them to do, the division went into the Crater, thinking the impression made by the blast would give them a good place to defend. Instead, they became trapped in the Crater, and Confederates opened fire into them, in what could be described as a “turkey shoot.” The other white troops sent into help also fared poorly. Finally, Ferrero’s division of black troops were sent in. But they were unable to follow the orders originally given to them, and they also went down into the Crater.

What happened next can only be described as racism at its absolute worst. William A. Day, a soldier in Company I of the 49th NC Troops, which was positioned just to the left of the Crater, wrote years later about how he felt about fighting against black troops, which represents the feelings of many of his comrades at the time: “We plainly saw the position we were in, to be captured by negro troops meant death. It meant the capture of Petersburg, and the slaughter of helpless women and children, we knew the negroes would spare neither sex” (Day 83). Although most Confederates in the army were not fighting for the preservation of slavery, it had been the main reason for the split between North and South, and the Confederate government had ordered that any man of color seen in uniform was to be put to death. And racism was rampant on both sides of the conflict. But it was here that racial tensions would boil over. When General William Mahone’s men counterattacked, they did so to the cry of “death to the ni**er!” Not only did Confederates mercilessly slaughter blacks, but even white Union troops, fearing reprisals from the rebels, bayoneted their black brothers in arms. It was one of the most barbarous acts of racial hatred and murder to take place on a battlefield.

Upon seeing the disaster before him, Burnside asked for reinforcements to come to his aide, but Meade ordered a cease to the attack. With that order, the battle would come to an end, and those able to retreat from the Crater did so. Ultimately, the gamble failed to pay off for Burnside and his corps. The Union suffered nearly 3,800 casualties, the Confederates less than 1500. Grant would call this attack the biggest mistake of his military career. Burnside never recovered from the defeat, and was never again assigned to military duty. The Confederates had hundreds of prisoners to contend with, many of whom blamed the black soldiers for the defeat. According to Day, a captured soldier from Rhode Island spoke to them for a while, saying that “their Generals made a mistake when they sent negro troops in to fight us. He said he was a prisoner, asked the way to Petersburg, and walked on in the direction of the city” (Day 85).

For the Confederates, they had successfully held off the Union attack, and reinforced the lines where the Crater stood. For Union forces, the disaster meant the war would continue on. It would be over eight months later, on April 2nd, 1865, before the defenses around Petersburg finally fell, and Confederate forces forced to retreat. Final victory finally came on April 9th, when Lee was forced to surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. After a siege of nearly ten months, and a week-long chase through Virginia, the war was finally coming to an end, and peace restored to the Union.

Works Cited and Consulted

Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops. Newton, N.C.: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.

Slotkin, Richard. No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. New York: Random House, 2009.

About Steven Hancock

I am an avid student of American and World History, with a particular interest in the American Civil War. I am currently a student at American Public University, working toward a Master's Degree in United States History. I am also a Civil War Reenactor, donning the uniform of the common Union and Confederate soldier at reenactments throughout the year.
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One Response to BATTLE OF THE CRATER: July 30th, 1864

  1. Fantastic article! The Crater has always fascinated me, but other than the explosion, I really did not know much. This really painted a picture of the horror of that day: racism and violence are a combustible combination, and there was hell to pay on both sides during the fight.

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