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150 Years Ago Today: The Battle of the Crater: July 30, 1864

The Battle of the Crater: July 30, 1864:

Mahone Saves the Confederate Day…But is That The Whole Story?

Note: Click to see maps of the Battle of the Crater, which should help you follow along with the action.

Brief Summary: July 30, 1864 had a very real chance to be the day that Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army abandoned Petersburg, and with it Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.  The conditions produced when Henry Pleasant’s mine was sprung at 4:45 A. M. offered the Union army a glorious chance to pour through and around the Crater produced by the massive explosion, seizing the high ground on Cemetery Hill and making continued Confederate occupation of Petersburg impossible.  Instead, mass confusion produced by a constantly changing plan, drunken division commanders, and the false protection of the crater combined with the timely Confederate reinforcements  from Mahone’s Third Corps division resulted in a disgraceful defeat for the Union army which ultimately cost Ninth Corps commander Ambrose Burnside and division commander James Ledlie their jobs after a lengthy Court of Inquiry.

Another aspect of this battle which has gained more attention in recent years is the massacre of Black Union soldiers in USCT regiments, not only by attacking Confederates, but by White Union soldiers as well.  Efforts by Confederates in the post-war years to downplay the role of Blacks in the war in order to facilitate reconciliation with the North were generally accepted by White Northerners.

The story of the Battle of the Crater really starts in late June 1864, not long after the Siege of Petersburg began.  Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania was sure he could tunnel under the nearby salient sticking out from the Confederate lines east of Petersburg.  Professional engineers in the Army of the Potomac were skeptical, and Meade provided almost no logistical help to Pleasants.  Despite these obstacles, and utilizing an ingenious method for pumping fresh air deep underground, the 48th Pennsylvania was able to successfully complete the tunnel and dig galleries left and right under the Confederate works by late July 1864.

Pleasants’ tunnel offered Grant an opportunity in front of Petersburg, but first he worked to increase the chances of success.  Winfield Scott Hancock was sent with his Second Corps and two cavalry divisions north of the James River at Deep Bottom, ultimately pulling the majority of Lee’s troops north to face them.  The stage was set for a weakened Confederate front at Petersburg to be overwhelmed.

Much ink has been spent of the question of which of the four Ninth Corps divisions should lead the assault once the mine was sprung.  Evidence is contradictory on the oft-repeated tale of Ferrero’s Fourth Division, composed of Black soldiers and their White officers, training specifically for the situation presented on the morning of July 30.  When Meade learned that Ferrero’s USCTs would lead the attack, he discussed with Grant the possible political ramifications if the result was a failure.  It would look like they were throwing Black soldiers out to get massacred, Meade reasoned, and Grant agreed.  The night before the assault, Burnside was forced to choose between his three White divisions.  Rather than selecting based on the leadership abilities of the division commanders or the morale and rested status of his divisions, Burnside had his commanders draw straws.  The man tabbed to lead the assault, James Ledlie, would prove to be a poor choice.  He spent the day getting drunk in a bombproof behind the lines while his division moved into the maelstrom in a leaderless condition.


The mine was sprung at 4:45 A. M. after a false start, producing a massive explosion.  The resulting Crater measured approximately 170 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 35 feet deep. Pegram’s Petersburg Virginia Battery and portions of two South Carolina regiments in Elliott’s Brigade, Bushrod Johnson’s Division were blown to eternity.  Rather than immediately sprinting the distance between the two lines and taking advantage of the situation, Union soldiers were at first as confused as their Confederate counterparts. Once the Union attack started, it bogged down in the Crater itself, as well as the intricate line of trenches the Confederates had produced in the area.  Bushrod Johnson’s Division was defending the area.  Ransom’s North Carolinians under Col. McAfee were to the left of the Crater, Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade had been defending the area in and around the Crater itself, and Wise’s Virginians, under Col. John T. Goode, held the right.  Could these units hold out until reinforcements arrived? All four divisions of the Ninth Corps were sent in, Ferrero’s USCT Division heading in last rather than leading the initial assault.  All four were unable to penetrate any meaningful distance beyond the Crater and the surrounding trenches.

Once Robert E. Lee learned of the explosion and the situation existing east of Petersburg, he issued orders to William Mahone’s division, manning the far right of the Confederate lines, to help out.  Mahone ordered three of his brigades, his own Virginians under David Weisiger, Alabamians under John C. C. Sanders (often misspelled as Saunders, trust me), and Wright’s Georgians under Colonel Hall, to march immediately to the vicinity of the Crater. As the Federals sent more and more men over no man’s land to the Crater and the surrounding trenches, they tried to mount assaults on Cemetery Hill, with little success.  The standard story of the battle gives credit to the Confederate artillery in the area, especially the coehorns mortars, with keeping the Federals’ head’s down until the situation could be rectified.  But keep in mind the three brigades of Bushrod Johnson.  They played a role too, one for which they often get too little credit in the Virginia-centric story of the battle which was created in the decades following the Civil War.


As the Confederate artillery and Johnson’s Division desperately tried to hold on, a good portion of Mahone’s Division was rushing to the Crater.  Around 9 A. M., Mahone’s Virginians, along with a portion of Wright’s Georgia Brigade, moved on the Crater and points north but were unable to drive the Yankees back.  Mahone’s men shot at the Federals packed in the Crater, and the Northern troops fought back.  This attacked convinced Grant and Meade that the day was a failure.  They ordered Burnside to retreat back to Union lines.  The problem was, there was no way to do so at the moment without losing an inordinate number of men.  It was a bloody stalemate, but Mahone had more cards to play.  He sent in the rest of Wright’s Georgians around 11 A. M., but their attack was also unable to break the stalemate.

As some Federals took the chance to run across the distance between the lines under heavy fire, others tried to hold the Crater until nightfall, but it was not to be.  The last Confederate attack occurred around in the early afternoon.  While Mahone’s Virginians and Georgians kept the confused mass of Union soldiers, Black and White alike, occupied in the Crater, John C. C. Sanders’ Alabamians were sent in to end the stalemate, and end it they did.  At this point, controversy ensued.  Based on work by Bryce Suderow in an article for Civil War History pointing to an exceptionally large number of Black Union troops killed versus number engaged and an unusual distribution of killed to wounded in the USCT units, it is almost certain Black troops were massacred in the Crater as the battle ended.  There are even Union accounts of White Union soldiers joining in. Confederate accounts almost universally pointed to Black soldiers yelling “No Quarter! Remember Fort Pillow!” as they initially assaulted as justification for the massacre.

After the battle, Mahone and Weisiger’s Brigade of Virginians were lauded for saving the day.  This narrative overlooked the contributions of other Confederate units, and produced no small amount of letters and articles from aggrieved Confederates angry about this version of events. The controversy was more immediate on the Union side.  A court of inquiry held in the weeks after the battle ended up blaming Burnside and division commander Ledlie while exonerating Meade.  A subsequent investigation by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War placed more blame on Meade, but Burnside (perhaps unfairly) and Ledlie (fairly) were sent packing, never to return to a meaningful command.

The Union plan to take Petersburg by frontal assault again failed miserably, and another serious attempt to attack in this manner would not occur again until April 2, 1865, the day Petersburg ultimately fell.  Instead, Grant would approach Richmond and Petersburg from the flanks, always seeking to cut more Confederate supply lines and extending the miles of trenches Lee needed to cover, eventually stretching the Confederates to the breaking point.

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