By WALTER C. NEWBERRY.
[Read November 13, 1890.]
THE Battle of the Crater, or, as it is more commonly called, the Burnside Mine Explosion, which occurred in front of Petersburg, Virginia, July 30, 1864, is, notwithstanding the great extent to which it has been discussed and criticized, perhaps less generally understood than any important engagement that was fought during the late Civil War.
It was the subject of an investigation by the Committee on the Conduct of the War, by a Military Court of Inquiry, and, later on, by a special Congressional Committee appointed for the purpose; and yet, such was the character of the testimony adduced and the conflicting opinions expressed by the witnesses summoned, biased as many of them were by a desire to escape personal responsibility in the matter, that no satisfactory solution of the problem has yet been reached, and the public is left to judge as it may the causes which led to the great disaster to the Union arms at a time when a decisive victory should have been gained.
The general misunderstanding which prevails concerning this important battle has prompted the writer to present in this paper some facts concerning it which came within his personal knowledge, and which, coming from an eye-witness and participant, may be of service to our companions.
A brief summary of the events leading up to the Battle of the Crater will enable us to judge better of the circumstances under which it was fought.
On the 15th of June, 1864, the Army of the Potomac, under the immediate command of Major-General George G. Meade, was crossing the James River, en route from Cold Harbor to
City Point, which became the headquarters of the armies operating against Richmond. The Eighteenth corps, under command of General William F. Smith, was advanced toward Petersburg, nine miles distant, and it was expected that that city, together with the important railroad communications centreing there, would be easily taken possession of, as the main portion of the Confederate army was still on the north side of the James River. General Smith found the works in front of Petersburg stronger than he expected and occupied by an apparently considerable force of the enemy. The works consisted of a strong line of rifle-pits connecting well-placed and formidable redans extending irregularly from the Appomatox River on the right, along the crest of several hills, while a broad plateau, favorable to the sweep of artillery, lay between the fortifications and the city, two miles distant. Similar breastworks extended in the form of a crescent around the city to its right, and were several miles in length.
General Smith, though an officer of high standing in the army and justly esteemed for successes in several well-fought battles, on this occasion made the unfortunate mistake, one not uncommon to men especially trained as military engineers, of delaying his attack in order to make elaborate preparations; he also, it would seem, overestimated the number of the enemy in his front, and, waiting for reinforcements, lost the supreme opportunity to capture the city which his early arrival, in advance of the enemy’s main force, had afforded him. He, however, made a successful attack upon the enemy’s outer works and captured a long line of defensive earthworks, fifteen pieces of artillery, and a number of prisoners. Darkness prevented him from following up his success, and before daylight the next morning the veteran Confederate army was in his front and in position to maintain the memorable defense which followed.
On the 16th, Hancock with the Second corps, which had arrived during the night, took position on Smith’s left. The Second corps made several persistent attacks upon the enemy’s
position and Lee’s lines were forced back toward Petersburg, but no further permanent advantage was gained. The Ninth corps under General Burnside was now coming up, and, after severe fighting at every point, made good a position on the left of Hancock.
The Fifth corps under General Warren formed on the left of the Ninth, and a portion of the Sixth corps occupied the extreme left of the Union army.
On the arrival of the Ninth corps into the line before described, on the afternoon of the 16th, a part of the Eighteenth corps was withdrawn and the right of the Ninth rested near the Appomattox River, and a considerable portion of the Second, Hancock’s, was placed in reserve.
All had been taken on the right along the Appomattox that had been hoped for; Warren on the left found little resistance, while the enemy directly in front of the Ninth corps obstinately resisted an advance which would bring the line within a short distance of Petersburg, already in sight.
Early on the morning of the 17th the Ninth corps was ordered forward in charge, and was repulsed with great loss at the centre but gained some advantage on the left. Repeated charges were made during the day, but were mainly unsuccessful, except on the left flank, which had been so advanced as to compel the withdrawal of the enemy on the 17th and on the early morning of the 18th to a point commanding the city, beyond the Norfolk Railroad line and across a deep ravine on to the heights beyond.
The railroad cut was taken after a vigorous charge by Wilcox’s and Potter’s divisions, and the line was formed for still further advances. There was no halting place except on and up the slope whose summit commanded the city. The impetus of the charge carried small bodies of Wilcox’s division over the creek and up the table-land to the, as yet, imperfect works of the enemy near the crest where later stood Eliot’s salient, the Confederate name for that redoubt which was afterwards known
to us as the Crater. The writer held that position for forty minutes on the afternoon of the 18th with three hundred men, but was compelled to fall back under the protection of the bluffs until, during the night of the 18th, earthworks were thrown up within one hundred yards, and in some places less than eighty yards, of the Confederate line.
The right of the corps rested in the ravine under the tableland and over and along the slope to the south until it touched elbows with Warren’s corps, running along the curve of the formation of the bluff, in a southwesterly direction.
The position was held from the 18th to the 30th of July, under great disadvantage, as it suffered from an enfilading fire from the projecting heights along the Appomatox, and also from the watchfulness of the line along the front, much of it being within pistol range. The records of the command show a daily loss in the Ninth corps during the siege of thirty per day, the larger proportion being killed. We had really penetrated to the interior line of the Confederate defenses and were occupying an untenable position.
During these movements the Army of the Potomac was under the immediate command of General Meade, General Grant for the most part remaining at City Point, whence he was engaged in watching the operations of the forces under General Butler at Bermuda Hundred and the armies on other fields of activity.
The fighting seemed to be directed by corps and division commanders, independently, and without that effective cooperation which was necessary to success at this important juncture. The troops fought gallantly enough on all occasions, but it was now manifest that a feeling of disappointment pervaded the army. The prodigious exertions that had been required of them throughout the Wilderness campaign, marching and fighting day and night, week after week in the hot month of June, and now continued day and night in front of Petersburg, were beginning to tell on the energies of the men, and it was ad-
mitted that the troops did not attack with the same spirit as had been exhibited in the Wilderness; further assaults were impracticable, and the army settled down to the routine of a protracted siege.
In the mean time the Confederate army had not been idle, they had strengthened the defenses along the crest before referred to, developing a formidable redoubt holding a full battery, and reinforcing the line with smaller redoubts holding two guns each on either flank. It was early seen that an assault upon their position would fail, and many were the devices considered and declared impracticable to force the enemy from their position.
At the right was a deep ravine or hollow in which work could be carried on unobserved by the enemy. The Forty-eighth Regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers occupied the line at this point. This regiment was composed almost entirely of miners from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, and it was among the enlisted men of this regiment that the idea was started that it was practicable to run a mine from this hollow under the Confederate battery in front and blow it up.
Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants of that regiment, himself a practical miner, approved of the project and it was submitted to General Burnside for his approval. It was subsequently mentioned to General Meade and then to General Grant. By none of these officers was the project deemed feasible. The engineers reported the position faulty, science would have nothing to do with so wild a project, and West Point pooh-poohed the whole business as visionary and impracticable. Nevertheless, Colonel Pleasants and his miners were persistent in their desire to make the trial and finally permission was obtained to proceed with the work. It was never supposed, however, outside of the Ninth corps, that anything would come of it and the whole affair was reluctantly consented to by the commander.
The miners, however, set to work with a will. They encountered difficulties not only from quicksands, heavy marl, and
other natural causes, but also from want of proper tools to work with, as they had only the ordinary intrenching pick and spade. Full of ingenuity and pluck, however, the miners succeeded, and on the 23d of July they had completed the mine. The main gallery was one hundred and ten feet long and twenty feet below the surface. It inclined downward for a short distance from the opening, beyond which point it was nearly horizontal. The height was four and one-half feet and the width about the same. The main security relied upon to support the walls was the tenacity of the earth, and only occasionally it was found necessary to brace with cracker boxes, sticks, etc. Ventilation, such as they had, was secured by a vertical shaft constructed near the entrance. Directly under the parapet of the enemy were two lateral chambers, each about thirty feet long, and these being completed, the mine was ready for the charge. On the 27th of July 8,000 pounds of powder was placed in the chambers, a fuse was attached, and the mine was ready for the explosion.
Meanwhile some change had taken place in the formation of the Union lines. General Wright with the Sixth corps had been dispatched to Washington on account of a scare created among the authorities there lest the capital should be captured by Confederates under Early, who were reported as already down the Shenandoah Valley; Hancock with the Second corps was stationed in the rear of Warren, while the Union front was held by Warren on the left, Burnside in the centre, and Ord (who had succeeded Smith in the command of the Eighteenth corps) on the right.
The attention of the Union commanders was occupied with the operations being carried on against Richmond on the north side of the James River. This movement not proving successful, however, and it being considered necessary to occupy the attention of Lee to prevent him from reinforcing the army opposing Sherman, it was finally determined to try the mine explosion.
The assault was fixed for the 30th. Burnside was ordered to prepare his front for the advance of the troops. The abatis was to be removed from the front during the night, columns formed for the attack, and the explosion was to take place at 3 A. M. Ord was to form one division of the Eighteenth corps in the rear of Burnside, Warren was to be in readiness to support the movement from the left, while Hancock was to remain in reserve ready to follow up the success if Burnside should effect a lodgment in the enemy’s front. Siege guns and all the reserve artillery had been placed in position along the heights in the rear. Immediately upon the explosion of the mine all the artillery within range was to open fire at once upon the points of the enemy’s works whose fire covered the ground over which the troops were to pass.
On the morning of the 30th every condition seemed favorable to the complete success of the movement, and it was reasonably expected that the Union army would occupy Petersburg. The fuse was lighted a few minutes after four o’clock, but, owing to a defect in it, the mine was not sprung. A lieutenant and a sergeant of the Forty-eighth, who volunteered to go into the mine and ascertain the cause of the delay, re-lighted the fuse and came out of the mine in safety.
At thirty minutes past four o’clock the mine exploded, and those who witnessed the sight of that wonderful spectacle will never forget it. A shock like that of an earthquake was felt along the lines and all eyes were centred on the crater. The whole side of the earth seemed to be in the air; guns, caissons, men, and heaps of earth were thrown an incredible distance into the air, and the whole descended with a sullen thud, burying beneath, in a mass of ruins, all that had been before a confident stronghold deemed sufficient to resist the hardiest attacking force that could be brought against it. When the smoke cleared away a chasm thirty feet deep by one hundred in length, with some mutilated men and fragments of woodwork and camp equipage, was all that stood in the place of the fort.
One hundred cannon and fifty mortars opened fire at once upon the Confederate lines, the fire being chiefly concentrated near the crater. The scene of destruction and the noise of cannon were for a moment appalling, and the Confederates were for the time completely stunned into apathy and silence; but on the Federal side no movement took place. After an unaccountable delay of nearly half an hour Ledlie’s division was seen slowly debouching from behind the abatis, which had not been moved from the front of the earthworks, and, after forming in irregular columns, moved up the slope to the crater and occupied it and the earthworks a little to its right and left. This movement was made without opposition on the part of the enemy. For quite half an hour the troops lay in this position, and still no enemy appeared, the Confederates having been completely paralyzed by the explosion. They made no resistance except a scattering fire from distant points.
After still further delay, a portion of the divisions of Wilcox and Potter moved slowly out of their places and advanced irregularly up the line occupied by Ledlie. These troops moved out to the right and left, some into the crater where they were massed with troops of Ledlie’s command, who had preceded them, in such a manner as to be practically disorganized. The troops were gallant enough, and ready to advance if only they had been told what to do. There were no generals in sight, and, save brigade and regimental officers, no one seemed to be in command; in fact, it would seem that the Union commanders in high rank were as much surprised by the explosion as the Confederates were, and as if it were an unexpected event which had not been provided for in their routine of duty.
There had, however, advanced with the troops those gallant brigade commanders, General Bartlett, who had lost a leg in the Wilderness and had thus early returned to his command as a full brigadier; General McLaughlin, and Colonel O. M. Marshall, an officer of experience. They, by their aids, promptly informed General Burnside and other superior officers
that even stronger lines of defense had been constructed in the rear, and were likely to prove as strong and serious obstacles to a further advance as did the salient just destroyed. Prisoners had reported from time to time during the progress of the tunnel that counter-mining had been going on and means taken to destroy the effects of the explosion, but no heed seems to have been taken of it, and the enemy had been quietly at work constructing interior lines of defense to meet just such an emergency. It would seem that all of this knowledge should have come to the ears of the commanding officers, yet no provision had been made for it and the troops already at the crater were without orders to proceed further.
This information was conveyed to General Meade, at the headquarters of the Ninth corps two miles away, and six o’clock had arrived before orders were issued to make further attack. Owing to the fact that the abatis in front of Burnside’s line had not been removed, and that along the line of the Confederate entrenchment, except where it had been destroyed by the explosion, it was still intact and only sufficient for the passage of columns of fours, all movements of troops were necessarily en masse and subject to the enfilading fire from the right of the line, which at this point projected like the heel of a horse’s shoe well past Burnside’s right flank. Six o’clock had arrived, and still no general advance was made; Potter was then ordered to attack the crest in the rear of the crater, Wilcox received the same order, and Ord had made an advance with the colored division. The space thus became congested, and over and through this narrow aperture crowded the wounded from the front and the reinforcements from the rear until general confusion was created.
Meanwhile, as the enemy was recovering from the shock and began forming troops for a counter-attack, artillery was placed so as to sweep the crater and the adjoining fields. Burnside determined to advance Ferrero’s division of colored troops, and this black corps was hurled en masse upon the other troops
already huddled in confusion around the crater. The colored troops even attempted to take the summit which lay behind the crater in the Confederate lines, but were met in a countercharge by Mahone’s division of Confederates and were driven pell-mell upon the disordered mass in the rear. Thence they fled in great confusion, many of them passing through the troops of Potter and Wilcox, and many taking refuge in the chasm of the crater, where they were slaughtered unmercifully by the Confederates, who were doubly enraged at seeing their former slaves in arms against them in battle.
The remaining portion of the troops fought gallantly, and brigade and regimental commanders held their forces in stubborn resistance to repeated attacks that were made under a murderous and concentrated fire of artillery from the crest, in front and from the flanks, where the Confederates, now fully aroused and prepared for battle, continued the onslaught for hours. The heat was intense, and no water was to be had. The fire was terrific and yet no panic occurred, and the Union troops, without orders and without direction, continued the conflict until ammunition was exhausted, and finally both sides ceased fighting from sheer exhaustion and fatigue. At twelve o’clock the order was given to withdraw the troops from the most advanced positions, and at two o’clock the whole was over. The Union loss was approximately four thousand men.
No battle fought during the war was so discreditable to the Union arms as this, and yet in none were the troops actually engaged less deserving of censure. The men advanced cheerfully and confident of success. They halted at the crater because they were not ordered to advance beyond it, and they remained there simply because they had no orders to do anything else. In the report great stress was put upon the absence or incapacity of General Ledlie, who commanded the first division, and who, it must be said, did not lead his command with that gallantry which was to be expected upon such an occasion. It is unjust, however, to make a scapegoat of Ledlie in this case;
the fault lies with other and higher officers as well as with him. First, with the engineer officers, men of scientific attainments and military education, and unwilling from the beginning to recognize the feasibility of the mine as a means of opening the way for a successful assault; hence there was no expectation of success in the enterprise on the part of the commanders high in rank and no hearty support given it at any stage of its progress. Neither of the division commanders accompanied their troops in the assault, a fault not only of theirs but of the corps commanders, who should have been present to compel the performance of duty or to relieve those recreant from command at once. Neither General Meade nor General Grant was present on the immediate field of action, as the importance of the occasion seemed to require. General Burnside, whose unselfish loyalty was conspicuous on so many occasions during the war, and whose superior personal courage in battle was never questioned, seemed on this occasion to lose command of himself as well as of his troops. He did not, in his preparation for the battle, seem to appreciate the importance of making the way clear for his advance by the removal of the obstructions, and the advance was greatly delayed on this account as well as by his failure to compel his division commanders to do their duty and to head their troops.
Officers and men who participated in and witnessed this disastrous engagement, and were familiar with the conception and progress of the work, were impressed with the apparent lack of harmony between the officers commanding the army corps and the divisions. It was known throughout the entire Ninth corps, and by all officers of considerable rank in the Army of the Potomac, that General Burnside’s commission ante-dated that of General Meade, and that he had submitted his services to the commanding general to serve under command of his junior in rank. It was conceived, and was no doubt true, that General Meade would at any time hesitate to advise against or decide against any proposal favored by General Burnside for that reason.
It is the writer’s opinion that through kindness of heart and official courtesy General Meade was induced to permit a movement of this character against his own judgment. If this be true it betrays a weakness that the admirers of this great officer regret; and, whether it be true or not, the lesson it teaches to the student of military science is very clear,— that no sentiment or official courtesy should be permitted to bias the judgment of the commanding officer in the performance of his duty.
It is unquestionably true that, had any other of the corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac established a line beyond the general conformation, it would have been corrected by the commandant of the army, and that because General Burnside, on account of his anomalous position, was permitted so long to occupy an untenable position, subjecting his troops to such heavy losses as were consequent, it should not have followed that the movement for his extrication, a movement that violated every scientific rule of military conduct, should have been permitted by the commanding general of the army who was cognizant of the situation. The suffering of the troops on that day, subjected as they were to a more terrific fire than perhaps was ever concentrated upon one small field, was ultimately fatal to almost the entire force engaged.
The writer well remembers the presence of the son of that great reformer, Garrett Smith, who arrived as field commander’s aid to General Ferrero on the morning of the explosion and who received his baptism of fire on that memorable day. He bore up under the excitement and performed his duty with courage and coolness, but the shock to the nervous system was such that his life was ruined from that day, and long ago he passed to his grave, a trembling, broken, prematurely aged man.
If it be true that this battle was permitted without the intent or purpose of being fully supported, and without any well-conceived aim, it was a crime that ought not to go unpunished. The investigation committee completely failed of its purpose; the high esteem in which the lovers of the Union held General
Burnside and General Meade probably prevented a complete recital of the event. The writer knows from his own observation, first, that no preparation was made for the removal of the obstructions which interfered with the movements of the troops in line of battle; second, that such movements as were made were not guided by skilled officers of rank with authority to execute any design that may have been in the mind of their superior officers; third, that the officer detailed to lead this advance was selected from at least three skilful general officers by the unmilitary system of drawing lot by straws; that no observation had been made of the field beyond, which could have been easily taken, and plans for pushing on and capturing and occupying the city made known to the advancing troops; that no officer higher than a brigade commander at any time during the engagement advanced beyond the lines occupied by the Ninth corps; that the brigade commanders, none of whom returned to the line, all being wounded or captured, were not informed of any design further than the occupation of the exploded salient; and, as far as the writer can judge, there is to-day no statement from authentic sources whether the commanding general proposed to push on and occupy the city or simply to occupy the fortified crest. If such a design existed, it could only have been accomplished by the advance of Warren’s line on the left of Burnside, a movement certainly never ordered and probably never suggested to General Warren.
The question then is: For what was the Battle of the Crater fought? What compensation existed, or was hoped to exist, for this loss of four thousand brave men and the shock and wear of this terrible engagement upon those who survived?
It was frequently evidenced in the many engagements of the Army of the Potomac that the troops of that command fought valiantly wherever ordered; the writer, therefore, has always felt that criticism on the behavior of Ledlie’s division, and on the conduct of General Ledlie himself, was unfair and unauthorized when taken in connection with the fact that they were
fighting an engagement without a plan, and without any apparent purpose; and he would be glad, even at this distant day, if the soldiers and minor officers engaged were to be relieved of the responsibility of the disaster, and criticism were to fall on the commanding officers as they deserve.
General Burnside was an intensely loyal, patriotic soldier; his services were faithful and untiring, both as a soldier and a citizen, and the writer would not impair that character in the least; indeed, no single error of heart or hand which were rather errors of judgment than those of intention should detract from reputation doubly earned in other fields.
Fortunate is he who, during four years of active service in the face of deadly and almost fatal danger, has not erred in judgment, and fortunate will be the succeeding generations that can turn to these same histories of minor engagements and cull from them lessons for guidance under similar circumstances.
The coming generation will have great advantage over the men that fought the great War of the Rebellion. Few, if any, practical illustrations were within their reach. No officer of any rank lived in ’61, engaged on the Union side, who had ever commanded a regiment in battle; few had ever been engaged with the enemy in any capacity, and practical experience was unknown to that great body of soldiers who went out in ’61 to do battle for their country.
When these facts are taken into consideration, the inquirer in coming generations must wonder at the great success achieved in so short an experience, and become convinced that the American soldier of 1861—1865 was actuated by a spirit of loyalty to the cause that he undertook far beyond that of any other body of men in the wars of history.
- Military Essays and Recollections. Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Volume 3, pages 111-124 ↩