American Civil War: Battle of the Crater

Fighting at the Battle of the Crater
Battle of the Crater. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Battle of the Crater occurred July 30, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and was an attempt by Union forces to break the siege of Petersburg. In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln elevated Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him overall command of Union forces. In this new role, Grant decided to turn over operational control of the western armies to Major General William T. Sherman and moved his headquarters east to travel with Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac.

The Overland Campaign

For the spring campaign, Grant intended to strike General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia from three directions. First, Meade was to ford the Rapidan River east of the Confederate position at Orange Court House, before turning west to engage the enemy. Further south, Major General Benjamin Butler was to move up the Peninsula from Fort Monroe and menace Richmond, while to the west Major General Franz Sigel destroyed the resources of the Shenandoah Valley.

Commencing operations in early May 1864, Grant and Meade encountered Lee south of the Rapidan and fought the bloody Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7). Stalemated after three days of fighting, Grant disengaged and moved around Lee's right. Pursuing, Lee's men renewed the fighting on May 8 at Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21). Two weeks of costly saw another stalemate emerge and Grant again slipped south. After a brief encounter at North Anna (May 23-26), Union forces were halted at Cold Harbor in early June.

To Petersburg

Rather than force the issue at Cold Harbor, Grant withdrew east then moved south towards the James River. Crossing over a large pontoon bridge, the Army of the Potomac targeted the vital city of Petersburg. Situated south of Richmond, Petersburg was a strategic crossroads and rail hub which supplied the Confederate capital and Lee's army. Its loss would make would Richmond indefensible (Map). Aware of Petersburg's significance, Butler, whose forces were at Bermuda Hundred, unsuccessfully attacked the city on June 9. These efforts were halted by Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard.

First Attacks

On June 14, with the Army of the Potomac nearing Petersburg, Grant ordered Butler to send Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps to attack the city. Crossing the river, Smith's assault was delayed through the day on the 15th, but finally moved forward that evening. Though he made some gains, he halted his men due to darkness. Across the lines, Beauregard, whose request for reinforcements had been ignored by Lee, stripped his defenses at Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Petersburg. Unaware of this, Butler remained in place rather than threatening Richmond.

Despite shifting troops, Beauregard was badly outnumbered as Grant's troops began arriving on the field. Attacking late in the day with the XVIII, II, and IX Corps, Grant's men gradually pushed the Confederates back. Fighting resumed on 17th with the Confederates doggedly defending and preventing a Union breakthrough. As the fighting continued, Beauregard's engineers commenced constructing a new line of fortifications closer the city and Lee began marching to the fighting. Union assaults on June 18 gained some ground but were halted at the new line with heavy losses. Unable to advance, Meade ordered his troops to dig in opposite the Confederates.

The Siege Begins

Having been halted by the Confederate defenses, Grant devised operations for severing the three open railroads leading into Petersburg. While he worked on these plans, 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 their own plan for breaking through the Confederate lines.

Armies & Commanders

Union

  • Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant
  • Major General Ambrose Burnside
  • IX Corps

Confederate

  • General Robert E. Lee
  • Major General William Mahone

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 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.

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 Burnside 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.

Last Minute Changes

Meade informed Burnside on July 29, the day before the attack, that he would not permit Ferrero'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.

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 Ferrero's division in to the fray. Joining the confusion in the crater, Ferrero'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 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

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.