On July 30, 1864, at the Battle of the Crater, the Union’s clever attempt to break the Confederate lines at Petersburg, Virginia, by blowing up a tunnel that had been dug under the Rebel trenches failed terribly. Although the explosion created a gap in the Confederate defenses, the poorly planned Yankee follow up attack resulted in a devastating loss to the Union forces. The Union army suffered thousands casualties, and wasted a spectacular opportunity to capture Petersburg and end the war before Christmas.
Petersburg, Virginia, was an important railhead during the Civil War. Here, four railroad lines from the south met before they continued to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Most supplies to General Lee’s army and Richmond came through that location. Therefore, the Union regarded it as the “back door” to Richmond and desired its capture. Thus resulting in the siege of Petersburg. After General Robert E. Lee stopped Union General Ulysses Grant’s attempt to seize Petersburg on June 15, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at the previous battle of Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was looking for a chance to end the standoff. Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commander of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, offered a innovative proposal to end it.
Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania, proposed digging a long mine shaft under the Confederate Army lines and planting explosive charges directly underneath a fort in the middle of the Confederate line. Grant saw the operation as a “mere way to keep the men occupied” and doubted it of any actual tactical value, however he agreed to it.
So, in late June, a regiment from the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry began digging a tunnel under the Rebel fortifications. The soldiers dug for nearly a month to construct a horizontal shaft over 500 feet long. At the end of the tunnel, they ran two side tunnels, totaling 75 feet along the Confederate lines to maximize the destruction. Four tons of gunpowder filled the drifts, and the stage was set. The plan almost seems comically simple in retrospect–“let’s build a tunnel, load it up with explosives, and blow it up!”–but the actual work was anything but simple. The engineering feat, which included a system for circulating fresh air for tunnel workers, was truly impressive considering that most of the tools being used in the process were improvised.
Union soldiers lit the fuse before dawn on July 30. The explosion blew up a Confederate battery and most of one infantry regiment, creating a crater 170 feet long, 60 to 80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. As one Southern soldier wrote, “Several hundred yards of earth work with men and cannon was literally hurled a hundred feet in the air.” Within minutes after the explosion, the Union plan began to unravel. The awestruck and untrained leading division didn’t begin the assault for a full ten minutes after the explosion. Once they reached the massive crater, instead of going around the crater, they ran headlong into the crater. Wave after wave of soldiers followed into the crater, only to get stuck in what became a traffic jam of charging Union troops.
Confederate sharpshooters took advantage of the unfolding situation and began shooting into what was later described as a “turkey shoot.” Soon after, artillery was brought in to fire down at the Union soldiers in the crater. The brilliant engineering work and strategy that went into the surprise attack quickly devolved into a mess. Confederates quickly closed the window of opportunity created by the newly-formed crater. Union troops retreated in the early afternoon hours, unable to recover from the slaughter.
James J. Chase was 17 and a newly minted Union second lieutenant when he charged into the crater after the explosion. He recounts part of his experience here:
“A sharpshooter from the pine grove on our left fired. The bullet struck me near the left temple and came out through the nose at the inner corner of the right eye, throwing out the left eye in its course…Staggering and reeling I walked across the trench, the blood spurting before me from my wound.”
As comrades checked on him, Chase begged for a mirror. Gazing into it, “I could see no resemblance to my former self. My left eye lay upon my cheek, while my nose appeared to be shot off.”
Union casualties were 3,798 and Confederate 1,491, these numbers include those killed, wounded or missing/captured. Many of the Union losses were suffered by a division of the United States Colored Troops. Both black and white wounded prisoners were taken to the Confederate hospital at Poplar Lawn, in Petersburg. What should have ended the Grant’s siege of Petersburg; instead, brought another eight months of trench warfare. The area of the Battle of the Crater is a frequently-visited portion of Petersburg National Battlefield Park. The mine entrance is open for inspection annually on the anniversary of the battle.