The Confederate Mine Explosion in Front of Eighteenth Corps: August 5, 1864:
Attempted Payback for the Crater & A Famous Fort Receives Its Name
Odds are if you’ve heard of the Siege of Petersburg, you’ve also heard of the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864. But far fewer people know of the follow-up mine explosion a week later. This time it was the Confederates who were doing the digging, near the Hare House in front of the Eighteenth Corps near the Appomattox River. Like the Confederates at the Crater, the Union troops knew something was up.
At 9:45 P. M. on the night of August 4, 1864, Benjamin F. Butler, the commander of the Army of the James, warned 18th Corps commander Edward O. C. Ord to keep an eye out for a mine in the neighborhood of the Hare House:
A deserter, claiming to be a lieutenant recently serving on Clingman’s staff, reports that the rebels have a mine dug and nearly completed, and that it extends to the Hare house, and that it is, in fact, very close thereto.1
Ord dutifully passed on this information to Adelbert Ames, commander of his Second Division, via Assistant Adjutant General William Russell, Jr.:
General: The major-general commanding department telegraphs that a rebel deserter, claiming the rank of lieutenant, reports a mine nearly completed in the vicinity of the Hare house. Major-General Ord, commanding corps, directs me to say that he supposes the deserter referred to is the same who came in last night, but he wishes you to keep the men in the vicinity on the alert for three-quarters of an hour after daylight to-morrow morning, and to continue your operations in the way of counter-mining.2
So, like the Confederates at Pegram’s Salient a week earlier, the Union army knew their lines might be blown skyward at any moment. How would the Confederate attempt play out? The official answer came on August 5, 1864, in the always brief and matter of fact style of General Grant, courtesy of AAG Ely S. Parker:
Rebels exploded a small mine this evening about forty yards in front of Ord’s left. No damage done to our works. No assault. Loss reported trifling. Colonel Stedman dangerously wounded. Our lines intact.3
In response from a request from Benjamin Butler to explain the commotion on Ord’s front, George Meade sent the following:
There has not been anything done in my front to-day. At 6:30 p. m. there was heavy artillery firing on the right, which Major-General Ord, on my inquiring the cause, reported the enemy exploding a small mine about forty yards in front of his left. So soon as I received this information I put Hancock in motion to sustain Ord in case of an assault, but the enemy did not make any and Hancock has returned. Believing the enemy could not have made so great a mistake in distance as forty yards, I advised Ord that perhaps his object was to effect a lodgment under cover of the crater at night, and suggested his keeping a warm fire on the spot. Unfortunately, we have no fire balls to illuminate the ground. Perhaps the enemy may have feared our mining and exploded this mine to blow in our supposed galleries. I understand from Ord his casualties from the artillery firing was slight. There was some artillery firing on Burnside’s front, adjacent to Ord, at the same time. I presumed Ord would or had reported this to you, or I should have earlier advised you of the facts.4
Remember, Ord’s chain of command was through Butler rather than Meade, but his front was closer to Meade rather than Butler, hence Butler’s request for information. Meade speculated that the Confederates couldn’t have failed so badly as to miscalculate where the explosion would occur by forty yards, so he figured they were trying to destroy a suspected Union mine in the area. He also considered the possibility of the Confederates making a jumping off point prior to an attack.
Assuming Meade wasn’t correct and the Southerners made a mistake, Confederate revenge for the Crater a week later thus fell forty odd yards short of success, forty yards in front of a work that would become known as Fort Stedman. If you were wondering if there was any connection between the mine explosion, “Colonel Stedman” above, and Fort Stedman, you’d be correct. The “Colonel Stedman” mentioned above was Colonel Griffin A. Stedman of the 11th Connecticut, commanding the Second Brigade, Second Division, Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James. His wound proved fatal the next day, and he was given a brevet promotion to Brigadier General before he passed away. As so often happened at Petersburg that summer and fall, the Union named a fort after this fallen soldier, the fort which the Confederates were trying to blow up on August 5, 1864. The last offensive action of the Army of Northern Virginia would occur against Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865, making it nearly as famous as the Crater, but almost a full eight months later rather than just by a week.
If you can point me in the direction of any Southern first person accounts of this affair, please contact me.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 2 (Serial Number 88), page 50 ↩
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 2 (Serial Number 88), page 51 ↩
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 2 (Serial Number 88), page 52 ↩
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XLII, Part 2 (Serial Number 88), pages 52–53 ↩