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NP: July 30, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 22: The Battle Of The Crater

The Battle Of The Crater

(Today is the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Crater. The following is the twenty-second in a series of articles published in observance of the 1864-65 siege of Petersburg.)


The Battle of the Crater is a topic better suited to a book than to a newspaper article. Because the story is full of “if’s” as well as of drama, no two accounts or analyses of it ever would be exactly alike.

Beginning on June 25 [1864], in a time of stalemate, Pennsylvania miners under Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants had dug a tunnel of 510.8 feet from a small depression behind the Union line to a point under Elliott’s Salient on the Petersburg defensive line. At the terminus 8,000 pounds of powder in eight open-top wooden boxes had been placed to blow up the work above and to create an opening through which Grant’s army could move into the city.


To contribute to the success of the blow, he ordered a feint against Richmond. As a result Lee concentrated his forces in the area of expected attack and had only 18,000 troops at Petersburg. In all, 50,000 Union troops would be available for the attack.

While these preparations were being completed, the times seemed so quiet in Petersburg that some residents expressed the opinion that Grant was lifting the siege. To the glory of its reputation for prophecy, The Express ventured to disagree with them.

The plan prepared by Burnside provided that the attack following the explosion should be spearheaded by Ferrero’s Negro division. Meade vetoed the arrangement on the ground that, if it failed, the army would be criticized for choosing Negro soldiers for sacrifice. Whether Meade lacked confidence in them or was fearful of the abolitionist press, or both, is a debatable point. In any case, the change of plan was an upsetting factor in itself. Burnside then decided to select the leading division by lots, and luck gave him Ledlie’s division. Neither the division nor its commander enjoyed great repute.

*     *     *

In essence the plan was simple. The explosion would blast a gap in the Confederate line, and the attacker would pour through the gap and into the city. There were no works between the break and the city, and except for some possible fighting in the streets there should be no difficulty.

The parapets were to be leveled and the abatis removed to expedite the passage of troops. The explosion itself would be the signal for all the additional batteries which had been put into position to open upon the Confederate works covering the ground. The troops were to plunge ahead to effect a lodgment on the crest of the hill, without stopping to widen the breach in the Confederate line. They were to seize Cemetery Hill to the right and then take the city.

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The fuse was lighted at 3:15 on the morning of July 30 [1864], with the explosion expected 15 minutes later. Forty-five minutes later no explosion had occurred. When it was discovered that the fuse had gone out at a point where it was spliced, the task of relighting it was undertaken by Lieutenant Jacob Douty and Sergeant Harry Reese. The explosion occurred at 4:44 o’clock.

Masses of earth, men, guns, carriages, and timber were hurled into the air. Subjectively, men saw and heard different things. At a distance the noise was not especially impressive, but when the Union batteries went into action seldom had such a crashing roar of guns been heard. It seemed to surpass Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Malvern Hill, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor.

Except for the delayed explosion the mine had been a total success. The explosion killed or wounded 278 Confederates, including two officers and 20 enlisted men from the city they were defending. It destroyed two of the four guns of Pegram’s battery.

Thereafter circumstances conspired to produce a different result. Parapets and abatis had not been leveled or removed. The effect seems to have been as startling to the Union troops as to the intended victims. Even when they went forward into the crater, men stopped to inspect it, to pick up souvenirs, or to pull partly buried Confederates out of the earth.

Without great delay nearby Confederates appraised the situation and acted accordingly. However, Union forces captured about 250 yards of the line, and some reached distances considerably behind the lines.

The Confederates were not taken wholly by surprise. At 2 o’clock in the morning, Lee, fearing an attack on the Petersburg end of the long line, had ordered the troops to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. At 6:10, after being notified by Beauregard of the explosion, he sent orders to General William Mahone, at the Willcox farm south of the city, to send two brigades to the point. Time did not permit sending instructions through the corps commander, General A. P. Hill. Later Mahone sent for a third brigade.

Mahone withdrew his forces so adroitly that the moment was not observed. Quickly they passed through the valley of Lieutenant Run to a covered way leading in the front.  There Mahone found the enemy present in large force but greatly disorganized.

It was a fair statement of the situation. Union troops continued to pour into the crater until 15,000 had been thrown into battle, but, failing to reach the crest of the hill, they degenerated into confusion. General Ledlie was drinking rum in a bombproof behind the lines and issuing repeated orders to advance, and General Ferrero joined him there.

While Lee and Beauregard went to the Gee house, near the Jerusalem Plank Road, Burnside stayed at headquarters, and Meade and Grant did not make it their business to be on the scene. Harsh messages between Meade and Burnside enlivened the occasion.

*     *     *

From the Confederate point of view, the situation did not carry its own cure. Successive attacks by Mahone’s, Wright’s, and Sanders’s brigades were required to eliminate what was described as a forest of glittering bayonets in the crater and to recover the flanks.

The battle was one of much hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets and musket butts. It was commonplace for participants to say that no one who was not present could appreciate its horrors. Confederate fury was stimulated when a foolish Union officer cried, “No quarter”, and it was intensified when Negro troops were thrown into battle.

After the lines north and south of the crater were retaken, a charge of 40 volunteers was organized to take the crater itself. Just then a white cloth was raised on a ramrod over the edge, and the Battle of the Crater was over except for Union soldiers killed by shells from their own batteries as they came out to surrender. According to General Bushrod Johnson’s report, the crater and adjacent lines were recaptured before 2 o’clock in the afternoon. At 3:25 Lee notified the War Department: “We have retaken the salient and driven the enemy back to his lines with loss.”

The Union had suffered a loss of almost 4,000 compared with a Confederate loss of 1,500. Grant called it the saddest affair he had witnessed during the war. It is unlikely that the hell of war ever had been more fully demonstrated.

Burnside filled the Union need of a scapegoat. In later years there would be acrid controversy over the apportionment of Confederate glory, but at the moment there seemed to be quite enough to go around—for Mahone, Weisiger, Girardey, and some thousands of others.

Whether or not the Battle of the Crater made a special contributor of post-war bitterness, as some have claimed, the business of digging a tunnel and blowing up men was described in Confederate circles as a “peculiar kind of strategy” for an enemy commander who had often proclaimed his desire for open-field fighting.

But chivalry had taken its departure by that time. Whether or not the extraordinary battle should be ranked among the world’s decisive engagements, it decided that the siege of Petersburg would endure for eight more months.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “The Battle Of The Crater.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  July 30, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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