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Review: The Crater: Burnside’s Assault on the Confederate Trenches July 30, 1864

Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on my now defunct “Brett’s Civil War Books” page back in 2005.  I realized I had not “ported” the review over to The Siege of Petersburg Online. I’m doing so now just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater.  My “reviews” of that time were mostly summaries combined with some critiques, so keep that in mind as you read this one.  In a way, it almost serves as a less detailed “Siege of Petersburg Notes” post as well.


CraterBurnsidesAssaultCannan2002The following is a summary and review of The Crater: Burnside’s Assault On The Confederate Trenches June 30, 1864 (Da Capo Press, 2002) by John Cannan.  Notice the typo on the front cover of the book.  The Battle of the Crater was fought on JULY 30, not June 30 as the cover states.  Interestingly, this applies only to the cover.  The title page has the correct date of July 30 instead.  Cannan’s book is a decent volume, but has some flaws that preclude me from recommending it to interested readers.  He has 164 pages of text and three pages of index.  There are no notes, and his bibliography is a bit thin.  As this book is part of the “Battleground America Guides” series, Cannan probably isn’t to blame for the format and he probably was not given much leeway in terms of voicing any controversial opinions on the battle.  The closest he comes in that regard is voicing his belief that the Confederates may not have given quarter to a large number of African-American troops.  The maps are okay, but they do not have much topographical detail and they go down to Brigade level only.  I also did not think there were enough maps for my taste, with only 6 of these appearing.  I would probably look to one of several other books on the Crater currently available, with the book co-authored by William Marvel and Michael Cavanaugh as the best at this point.  [SOPO Editor’s Note: MANY other Crater books have been published since this review was first written, five more in fact, and almost all of them are better than or equal to either of these two books. See my Third Offensive Bibliography for the complete list of books on the Battle of the Crater.]

Cannan leads off with a brief overview of the situation on July 20, 1864, and the battles that led to that date.  He gives a fairly standard view of the Overland Campaign, although throwing out the “Grant as butcher” theme too heavily for my taste.  He also briefly mentions the Northern commanders (Grant, Meade, and Burnside) who would play a role in the coming Battle of the Crater.

Cannan goes on to mention Lee’s Army, and its casualties in the Overland Campaign.  I was a little disappointed that he hasn’t taken advantage of Gordon Rhea and Steven Newton’s groundbreaking work on Confederate strengths and strategies in Virginia in 1864.  But this book is part of the “Battleground America Guides” series, so I suspect that little to no opportunity existed to break any real new ground.  Cannan goes on to describe Col. Henry Pleasants and his 48th Pennsylvania’s mine-digging operation.  The 48th contained many miners from Pennsylvania coal country, and Pleasants put them to good use.  Despite the complete indifference of Grant and especially Meade, the Federals had the mine dug by July 23.  Burnside’s plan was to use Edward Ferrero’s African-American Division to lead the assault.  They were put through rigorous training so they knew exactly what to do.  The two brigades were to advance to the Crater, with one wheeling left and the other right to advance the shoulders of the breakthrough.  Meanwhile, Burnside’s three White Divisions would head straight for Cemetery Hill, a prominent height about ½ mile behind the Confederate lines.  Burnside’s USCT were anxious to prove they could fight, having been assigned to hard labor all summer digging trenches.  Cannan mentions Burnside had a sound plan, but that he failed to get it approved ahead of time.  This would not have been a problem if Meade and Grant approved his plans.

Meade went back and forth on the mine idea, and Grant wanted to go ahead with it.  Cannan includes Meade’s letter to Grant initially opposing the mine due to a high chance of failure.     Meade finally agreed to use the mine instead of an attack in V Corps’ area after an even closer personal reconnaissance.  Grant wanted to use the mine as he felt it offered a ready-made chance at success south of the Appomattox River.  To help the Union’s chances, Grant sent Hancock and his II Corps north over Bermuda Hundred and across the James River at Deep Bottom to try to draw some of Lee’s veterans to that area and away from any possible Union attacks on Petersburg itself.  Hancock crossed on July 26, and after several days of sporadic fighting, recrossed the James and returned to the Petersburg area on July 29.  Hancock’s diversion was partially successful, as large portions of Meade’s veterans had headed north to combat the perceived threat to Richmond.  Cannan mentions that only three divisions of the ANV remained around Petersburg facing three Union Corps.

Cannan opens the next chapter by mentioning, “Oftentimes, military disasters are so maddening for the apparent ease with which they could have been avoided”.  He goes on to explain the roles played in this coming disaster.  Unfortunately for Burnside, Meade objected to using Ferrero’s Division to spearhead the attack.  He was worried that if the plan failed, it would look like he was throwing away the lives of his Black soldiers to protect the lives of Whites.  Grant agreed and Burnside was forced, literally less than 24 hours before the blowing of the mine, to select one of his White Divisions to lead the charge.  Unfortunately, none of them had been trained as to what they needed to do, and there was no time to train the Division picked.  Even worse, by drawing straws, Burnside picked the least experienced commander possible, James H. Ledlie.  Cannan mentions that Ledlie was the worst possible choice, a man who had been unfairly promoted and whose faults, up until July 30 at least, had been hidden from view.  To make matters worse, Ledlie’s Division was also in the worst position to make the attack and had to move farther than the others just to get to the jump-off point. Grant, according to Cannan, was the only man then in a command position who knew Ledlie was a drunken incompetent, and yet he did nothing to stop this man from leading a key assault.  In fact, Grant did not complain about the choice until after the fact.  Clearly Cannan holds Grant at the very least partially responsible for the fiasco to follow.  Burnside’s plan was now changed.  The IX Corps, 9,000 men strong, was to assault the positions vacated by the explosion of the mine.  Ledlie would be front and center, with Wilcox supporting his right flank, and Potter his left.  The last Division, Ferrero’s, was to bring up the rear and exploit any gains.  Men from the V, X, and XVIII Corps were in supporting positions as well.

Cannan states that the Crater was two battles, one the battle of the soldiers, and one a battle of wills between Burnside and Meade.  Burnside ranked Meade and was only under his control because of Grant’s order to that effect.  Although Burnside accepted this graciously, Meade was affected by it and always sought to put Burnside in his place.  As a result, Meade sat behind the lines and consistently pestered Burnside all day about the state of affairs during the battle.  Burnside did not help matters.  His replies were few, and when he did reply, he gave nothing in the way of concrete information.  Also, the other Corps Commanders, especially Warren, did little to help.  Cannan implies that this dislike of each other by Meade and Burnside was a primary reason for the battle’s result.

Meade had decided around 9:30 A.M. that the assault was going nowhere, and called it off.  Burnside angrily went back to Meade’s headquarters to plead his case to no avail.  Grant finally decided matters when he sided with Meade, and the attack was called off.  Unfortunately, Meade left Burnside to his own devices to extract himself from a difficult situation.  The IX Corps, packed into the Crater and surrounding trenches, had to run a gauntlet of over 100 yards to make it back to their own lines.  Burnside tried to dig a trench to the Crater, but the Union troops were forced to withdraw long before it had been completed.  As a result, thousands of men were captured, killed, or wounded as they retreated back to their own lines.  The day had been a complete failure, and the misunderstanding between Meade and Burnside had reached the boiling point.

Cannan first described the entire day from the view of the commanders behind the front.  And then, in a slightly awkward segue, he starts to explain what happened at the front.  The mine was delayed because at one of the spliced fuses used the fire had burned out.  Two volunteers relit the fuse and the mine blew at 4:45 A.M. on the morning of July 30.  Elliot’s South Carolina Brigade, and the 18th SC in particular, bore the brunt of the explosion.  The Confederates were milling about in confusion and some also retreated for fear of other mines.  The Union troops were elated, and prepared to move out.

Ledlie’s First Division attacked soon after the mine exploded.  His men did not and could not march in formation, but instead advanced in a free for all, because troops trying to get out of the trenches in their front had trouble doing so in many places.  Sandbags were stacked in one spot to allow the men to climb up and over.  While Ledlie was incompetent, Cannan writes that his two brigade commanders, Brigadier General William F. Bartlett and Colonel Elisha Marshall, were both effective soldiers.  Bartlett had even given a leg for the cause earlier in the war.  When the Division reached the Crater, they were amazed at the damage done.  Cannan mentions that this caused a fatal delay.  Instead of advancing, Ledlie’s men were clustered in the Crater with no regards to formation.  In such a condition, the men could not and would not advance.  In addition, if anyone had been able to get them to advance, the ground in front was covered with traverses and other obstacles standing in the way.  Colonel Stephen Elliot, an artillery commander for most of the war who had been placed in charge of the Brigade of South Carolinians impacted by the mine, decided to counterattack with two of his regiments.  This was a failure and Elliot was wounded.  His successor wisely drew back to traverses and proceeded to hold the Federals right there in the Crater with covering fire.  Ledlie, sitting drunk behind the lines in a bombproof, provided no guiding hand.  Since his division was milling around and nothing was being accomplished, the divisions of Potter and Willcox were ordered forward.

Potter and Willcox’s men advanced next, some into the Crater itself and others into the works on either side.  However, Ledlie’s mass of men was for the most part in the way, and crowding even more soldiers to the front only confused the situation.  Some regiments tried to extend the breach so more troops could fit, but the Confederates on the shoulders of the breakthrough, combined with a lot of Southern Artillery that had been brought to bear, shattered all attempts to advance.  Fighting was now hand-to-hand in the trenches, covered ways, and traverses that filled the area behind the Rebel front lines.  The 2nd and 3rd Divisions had failed, and Ferrero’s Black soldiers were sent into a situation that was about to get much worse.

At this point in the narrative Cannan records one of the most criminal events in the war.  Generals Ledlie and Ferrero were in a bombproof about 50 yards behind the Union front lines, and did not visit the Crater.  Although aides repeatedly told Ledlie that his Division was stuck in the Crater and would not advance, he simply repeated Burnside’s orders to advance to Cemetery Hill.  Eventually Ferrero was ordered to put his USCT Division in, but they only managed to add to the already considerable confusion.  They plowed through the white troops in the Crater and advanced some yards beyond, but again the Confederate artillery and musket fire drove them back into the seething mass of troops already in the Crater.  At this point, J.W. Turner, one of Ord’s X Corps division commanders, visited the Crater in person to see how things were going and how best to put his Division in the fight.  Cannan points out that Turner was the only Division commander to do so that day, and this had a lot to do with why the troops were not moving forward.  They had no one willing or able to lead them.  Turner returned to his Division and sent them in to the right, or north of, the Crater.  They could not do much either on account of all the Confederate artillery, which had one of their finest days of the war that day.  To make matters worse, at this point the Confederates launched a counterattack.

After the breakthrough, Lee sent one of his staff officers to the position of William Mahone’s Division of Hill’s III Corps, facing Warren’s Union V Corps on the right flank of the Confederate line.  Mahone took two of his Brigades, Weisiger’s Virginian’s and Hall’s Georgians, and led them north on a circuitous route which kept them out of sight of the watching Federals.  He left Sanders’ Alabamians behind to watch Warren.  They moved north to Cemetery Hill, and then used a covered way and a ravine to move southeast into a position to attack.  As the Ferrero’s Division advanced just past the Crater, Weisiger attacked.  His men surged forward and drove the confused mass of Union men back towards the Crater.  Weisiger almost reached the Crater, but needed help to drive them completely away.  Accordingly, Mahone sent in Hall’s Georgia Brigade, but it too failed to drive the Yankees completely away.  The battle now hung in the balance, and Mahone had a trump card to play.

Mahone sent in the 600+ men of Sanders Alabama Brigade to attack and drive the Union troops away once and for all.  Sanders had left only a skirmish line to hold the works against Warren.  I personally feel Warren should have been cashiered long before Sheridan relived him at Five Forks.  His actions on July 30, 1864 were one good reason why.  Warren, when asked by Meade to provide a diversion, claimed it was impossible.  Had he assaulted in a determined way, the day may have ended differently.  Cannan goes on to say that Mahone told Sanders’ men that the Negro troops were giving no quarter, and he postulates that this may have caused the indiscriminate killing later of African-Americans who were trying to surrender.  At the time of Mahone’s speech, the Union high command had determined that the assault was a failure, and had passed along instructions for the troops at the front to retreat as best they could.  This was tragic, because Meade did not provide help in the way of artillery or diversionary attacks.  He simply left the IX Corps to get out of the mess by themselves.  The individual Brigade commanders decided to retreat at the same time Sanders launched his attack.  The result was a catastrophe for Union arms.  With no covering fire, many troops were surrounded and forced to surrender.  Of these, Cannan claims many of the Blacks were slaughtered while in the act of surrendering.  In a situation similar to the infamous Ft. Pillow massacre, the sight of the Black troops so enraged the Southerners that they failed to accept surrenders for quite some time.  Finally a Southern officer attempted to halt the killing, and was successful.  The Federals who could do so scampered back to their own lines.  Many wounded were left out in the hot sun to die agonizing deaths.  They were eventually collected under a flag of truce the next day.

In his conclusion, Cannan sums up the casualties lost, and makes a point that Ferrero’s Black Division suffered by far the most men killed of any Federal Division, lending some credence to the massacre theory.  The Battle ended up costing Burnside his job, and he never held another command position during the war.  Cannan mentions the famous Court held to investigate the reasons behind the failure.  It found Burnside and Ledlie the main culprits, although the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War later found Meade had a prominent role to play.  Cannan points out the various failings of the Generals involved in his own words after this, and seems to castigate Ledlie and Meade more so than Burnside, though he played a role in the disaster as well.  I have inferred from Cannan’s book that he believes that had Meade not changed Burnside’s plans at so late an hour, the IX Corps would have at least been more successful than they were, and might possibly have won the war.  Cannan points out July 30, 1864, as a day of great “might have beens” for the Union in the East.  Instead, through misunderstandings and petty bickering to outright incompetence, the day became a disaster for the North.

In an appendix of sorts, Cannan describes what one should look for when touring the battlefield today.  I liked this section and thought it provided the most new content in the entire book.  Cannan gives a general idea of what to expect and what to see once you get to the Battlefield.  Present-day pictures accompany the text, which was a nice touch.

All in all I thought Cannan’s book was a decent one, though I do have some complaints, which I briefly mentioned in the introduction.  First, the maps were all Brigade level, and no indication was ever given as to which Brigades belonged to which Divisions and Corps.  This wouldn’t be so bad if Cannan had included a standard Order of Battle, but none exists in this book.  While I have read many books on the Petersburg Campaign, am a fan of sorts, and didn’t have too much trouble with this, newcomers to the battle will be confused I’m sure.  This does not bode well for a book that is obviously aimed at a newcomer to the battle.  Also, as this book is in a standard series, it did not seem like Cannan was given much leeway as far as coming up with new ideas and interpretations of the battle, which is always a shame in my opinion.  The book contained 167 pages, and aside from a three-page index, everything else was text.  There were no footnotes.  This is a definite flaw, and reduces the value of a book tremendously.  I do not hold Cannan responsible for most of this, as again, he may have been straitjacketed into a certain format.  Instead of this book, I would recommend The Battle of the Crater “The Horrid Pit”: June 25-August 6, 1864 by William Marvel and Michael Cavanaugh.  That book has the added bonus of including the Federal II Corps actions at First Deep Bottom in some detail.  I noted with dismay that in his Suggested Reading section, Cannan called the book “THAT Horrid Pit” instead of “THE Horrid Pit”.  This is sloppy editing, but it also does not reflect well on the author or publisher.  If you simply must have all things related to this battle or to the Petersburg Campaign as a whole, by all means buy this book.  It will not disappoint too badly.  Otherwise, I would steer clear and look for Marvel’s volume.

© Copyright Brett Schulte 2005-2014. All rights reserved.

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