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NP: July 31, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 23: Aftermath Of The Crater

Aftermath Of The Crater

(The following is the twenty-third in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 siege of Petersburg.)


This morning, a hundred years ago [July 31, 1864], four hours were set aside for removing the dead and wounded of the Battle of the Crater. A Union diarist noted that the ground was thickly strewn with the fallen. The more vivid accounts of the sights, sounds, and odors of the scene would make antidotes to any ideas about the drama and the glory.

Poplar Lawn, which had been used for hospital purposes, was crowded with wounded prisoners from the engagement. Complaints of persons living in the vicinity that wounded Negro soldiers there were suffering needlessly brought an investigation which revealed that they were being ignored by captured surgeons from their own army. The surgeons were stirred to action by threats of of being sent to the prison at Andersonville if they did not minister to their own wounded.

Throughout the North the effect of the Crater disaster was depressing. Some newspapers demanded that the forces should be brought back to protect loyal territory. Historians have suggested that this was the time when a negotiated peace on the basis of reunion, with nothing said of slavery or other issues, was possible. Politically the outlook seemed very dark for President Lincoln and his administration.

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At Petersburg the Crater failure ushered in a more stabilized type of warfare. New works would be built, and old works would be made stronger than ever. Burnside reported on August 5 [1864] that the main gallery of the tunnel was intact and could be used again. The least of the dangers facing the Confederacy was that Grant would use his second-hand tunnel, but elaborate precautions were taken against the possibility.

Then there was the problem of the hole itself. As soon as possible an earthwork was built around its edge, and steps were taken to dig into the tunnel and make it useless. When that was begun, gases from powder, smoke, and decomposing bodies were such that strong men fainted.

A new and heavy Confederate emphasis on countermining began the day after the battle. Eight additional engineer companies were brought to Petersburg, and large detachments of infantry were made to assist the engineers. They worked around the clock. Artesi[a]n wells were used for purposes of detection, and existing wells were carefully checked for sudden disappearance of water.

Countermining was undertaken at every important point on the Confederate lines. A shaft of about 30 feet would be sunk, from which a drift of about ten feet would be dug. Then galleries parallel with the parapets above were excavated, and from them four-inch augur holes were drilled into the walls of the earth, upward or in the direction of the enemy. Sentries constantly were on the alert for evidences of mining and were prepared to force combustibles into any hostile tunnels into order to smoke out the miners. The drifts and tunnels so constructed were said to total two and a half miles.

In retrospect much of this effort seems unnecessary, but it is plain that Lee expected the enemy to continue mining and did not intend to be taken even partially by surprise.

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Also, a hundred years ago today [July 31, 1864], as for a long time afterward, the causes of the failure was being debated. Perhaps Union General [Marsena] Patrick summed up the feeling when he wrote: “Everything was in our favor, but nothing was carried out well.”

An obvious reason for the failure of the attack was that, on the Confederate side, everybody concerned acted with promptitude. The intended victims may have taken the idea of the mine too lightly prior to July 30 [1864], but on that day they left nothing undone, beginning with the batteries on the left and right of the scene of the explosion. In later years their members would claim, with some justice, that their part in arresting the advance too often was overlooked. Except for prompt and decisive action on an over-all scale on the part of the Confederates, the Union confusion might have been overcome.

In instructing Mahone to send troops to the scene, Lee by-passed General A. P. Hill, but even that sensitive corps commander took no offense under the circumstances. Within a very short time Lee himself and Beauregard were much closer to the fighting than Burnside, Meade, or Grant ever approached. They operated from headquarters. Mahone, who could have sent his men, chose to lead them. In some earlier engagements of the war, strange as it sounds, he had been described as indifferent or lethargic, but at the Crater he rose to his full stature and functioned even more as an inspired commander than in the June railroad battles.

In later years, as a result of politics, there would be bitter arguments over the respective performances of [William] Mahone, [David] Weisiger, and [Victor] Girardey. The recriminations make strange and dreary reading today, when the fact appears that each did more than an individual could be expected to do. The explanation must be that political hostility can make people do and say very strange things. However, some of Mahone’s political enemies always managed to draw a distinction between war and politics. Then there were also complaints that the units from certain states did not receive full credit.

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Disputes over credit on one side were matched by bitter assessments of the reasons for defeat on the other. The only thing which got a high grade was the tunnel itself, which had provoked Union skepticism and which the Confederates may not have taken seriously enough.

There is irony in the fact that the scapegoat was [Ambrose] Burnside, the only general officer who had shown real enthusiasm for the project. No doubt he had bungled the last-minute planning and erred in resorting to lots.1 However, his fellow officers were likely to record in their letters and journals that nothing could be laid at Burnside’s door which could not also be laid at Meade’s and that Grant himself hardly could be called a disinterested party. Meade never had evinced enthusiasm for the undertaking. Grant, whose interest rose until he called it the best opportunity for carrying earthworks he had ever seen, wrote many years later that he would have done nothing differently except to have different persons execute the orders. However, at the time and later, he managed to maintain an attitude of some detachment.

With the wisdom of hindsight, critics have suggested that Union planning should have called for widening the breach and going around the crater rather than through it; in that case, the approaches might not have been jammed with men looking for their officers and officers looking for their men. Possibly the great hole in the ground created a false sense of security.

There appears to be no doubt that the effect of the explosion was upsetting and confusing to those who were supposed to go forward. Freeman Cleaves, biographer of Meade, uses an apt phrase in referring to “this 1864 equivalent of an atomic bomb.”

Failure to remove the obstructions to egress was a serious blunder on the part of the attacker. The Negro soldiers who were to have led the attack were said to have been cast into depression by the change of plans which deprived them of the opportunity. When they were used, their presence had an inflammatory effect. Negro troops were not first used at the Crater, as often has been stated, for they had been used successfully, in the first major attack on Petersburg, that of June 15 [1864].

[Southern historian Douglas Southall] Freeman summarized the reasons for failure under defective coordination, tardiness of some units, and crowding of men in small space.

The fact of the matter is that no clearcut and definitive assessment of the failure is ever likely to be made.2 Next to the very unusual nature of the effort, that probably explains why the Battle of the Crater has continued to hold so much fascination for those interested in such matters.3

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


  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: When Burnside’s decision to use Ferrero’s Black Division to lead the assault was overrules, Burnside had the three commanders of his White divisions draw lots, and unfortunately for him the worst of the lot, James H. Ledlie, “won” the honor of leading the affair.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: The editor might be surprised today at the sheer number of books on the Crater.  Earl Hess’ book is the best of the lot.
  3. “Aftermath Of The Crater.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  July 31, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-6
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