The Battle of the Crater was a battle of the American Civil War, part of the Siege of Petersburg. It took place on July 30, 1864, between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade (under the direct supervision of the general-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant).
After weeks of preparation, on July 30 the Federals exploded a mine in Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps sector, blowing a gap in the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, Virginia. From this propitious beginning, everything deteriorated rapidly for the Union attackers. Unit after unit charged into and around the crater, where soldiers milled in confusion. The Confederates quickly recovered and launched several counterattacks led by Maj. Gen. William Mahone. The break was sealed off, and the Federals were repulsed with severe casualties. Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero's division of African-American soldiers was badly mauled. This may have been Grant’s best chance to end the Siege of Petersburg. Instead, the soldiers settled in for another eight months of trench warfare. Burnside was relieved of command for his role in the debacle.
During the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, the armies were aligned along a series of fortified positions and trenches more than long, extending from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond all the way to areas south of Petersburg.
After Lee had checked Grant in an attempt to seize Petersburg on June 15, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was chafing at the inactivity to which Lee's trenches and forts had confined him. Finally, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps, offered a novel proposal to solve the problem.
Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania in civilian life, proposed digging a long mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines and planting explosive charges directly underneath a fort (Elliott's Salient) in the middle of the Confederate First Corps line. If successful, this would not only kill all the defenders in the area, it would also open a hole in the Confederate defenses. If enough Union troops filled the breach quickly enough and drove into the Confederate rear area, the Confederates would not be able to muster enough force to drive them out, and Petersburg might fall. Burnside, whose reputation had suffered from his 1862 defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and his poor performance earlier that year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, gave Pleasants the go-ahead, hoping to restore his reputation.
Digging began in late June, but even Grant and Meade saw the operation as, "A mere way to keep the men occupied," and doubted it of any actual strategic value. They quickly lost interest and Pleasants soon found himself with few materials for his project, to the extent that his men had to forage for wood to support the structure. Work progressed steadily, however. Earth was removed by hand and packed into improvised sledges made from cracker boxes fitted with handles, and the floor, wall, and ceiling of the mine were shored up with timbers from an abandoned wood mill and even from tearing down an old bridge. The shaft was elevated as it moved toward the Confederate lines to make sure moisture did not clog up the mine, and fresh air was pumped in via an ingenious air-exchange mechanism near the entrance; the miners kept a fire continually burning at the bottom of a single ventilation shaft, which emerged behind the Union lines. Meanwhile, a wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel. The fire superheated stale air, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance, and carried it through the wooden duct to the location where the miners were working. This precluded the need for additional ventilation shafts and served well in disguising the diggers' progress. On July 17, the main shaft reached under the Confederate position. Rumors of a mine construction soon reached the Confederates, but Lee refused to believe or act upon it for two weeks before commencing countermining attempts, which were sluggish and uncoordinated, and they were unable to discover the mine. General John Pegram, whose batteries would be above the explosion, did, however, take the threat seriously enough to build a new line of trenches and artillery points behind his position as a precaution. The mine was in a "T" shape. The approach shaft was long, starting in a sunken area downhill and more than below the Confederate battery, making detection difficult. The tunnel entrance was narrow, about wide and high. At its end, a perpendicular gallery of extended in both directions. Grant and Meade suddenly decided to use the mine three days after it was complete after a failed attack known later as the First Battle of Deep Bottom. The Federals filled the mine with 320 kegs of gunpowder, totaling 8,000 pounds. The explosives were approximately underneath the Confederate works and the T gap was packed shut with of earth in the side galleries and a further of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine. On July 28, the powder charges were armed.
On the morning of July 30, Pleasants lit the fuse. But as with the rest of the mine, Pleasants had been given poor quality fuse, which his men had had to splice themselves. After no explosion occurred at the expected time, two volunteers from the 48th Regiment (Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese) crawled into the tunnel. After discovering the fuse had burned out at a splice, they spliced on a length of new fuse and relit it. Finally, at 4:44 a.m., the charges exploded in a massive shower of earth, men, and guns. A crater (still visible today) was created, long, 60 to wide, and deep. Between 250 and 350 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast.
The plan was doomed from the start, however, due to Meade's interference on the day before the battle. Burnside had trained a division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero to lead the assault. They were trained to move around the edges of the crater and then fan out to extend the breach in the Confederate line. Then, Burnside's two other divisions, made up of white troops, would move in, supporting Ferrero's flanks and race for Petersburg itself.
Meade, who lacked confidence in the operation, ordered Burnside not to use the black troops in the lead assault, thinking the attack would fail and the black soldiers would be killed needlessly, creating political repercussions in the North. Burnside protested to General Grant, who sided with Meade. Burnside selected a replacement white division by having the commanders draw lots. Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie's 1st Division was selected, but he failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk, well behind the lines, and providing no leadership. (Ledlie would be dismissed for his actions during the battle.)
Ledlie's untrained white division went across the field to the crater and, instead of moving around it, thought it would make an excellent rifle pit and it would be well to take cover and so they moved down into the crater itself, wasting valuable time while the Confederates, under Maj. Gen. William Mahone, gathered as many troops together as they could for a counterattack. In about an hour's time, they had formed up around the crater and began firing rifles and artillery down into it, in what Mahone later described as a "turkey shoot". The plan had failed, but Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, sent in Ferrero's men. They also went down into the crater, and for the next few hours, Mahone's soldiers, along with those of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson, and artillery slaughtered the IX Corps as it attempted to escape from the crater. Some Union troops eventually advanced and flanked to the right beyond the Crater to the earthworks and assaulted the Confederate lines, driving the Confederates back for several hours in hand-to-hand combat. Mahone's Confederates conducted a sweep out of a sunken gully area about from the right side of the Union advance. This charge reclaimed the earthworks and drove the Union force back towards the east.
The Confederates reported losses of 1,032 men in the battle, while Union losses were estimated at 5,300, about half of which were from Ferrero's division. Five hundred Union prisoners were taken, and 150 of these prisoners were USCT. Both the black and white wounded prisoners were taken to the Confederate hospital at Poplar Lawn in Petersburg. Burnside was relieved of command. Although he was as responsible for the defeat as Burnside, Meade escaped censure. As for Mahone, the victory, won largely due to his efforts in supporting Johnson's stunned men, earned him a lasting reputation as one of the best young generals of Lee's army in the war's last year.
Grant wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, "It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war. He also stated to Halleck that "Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have. Pleasants, who had no role in the battle itself, received praise for his idea and the execution thereof. When he was brevetted a brigadier general on March 13, 1865, the citation made explicit mention of his role.
Grant subsequently gave in his evidence before the Committee on the Conduct of the War:
Despite the battle being a tactical Confederate victory, the strategic situation in the Eastern Theater remained unchanged. Both sides remained in their trenches and the siege continued.