-- A Sketch --
On 30 July, 1864, Union forces under the command of General Ambrose Burnside suffered approximately 5,000 casualties either killed, wounded and missing with Confederate forces under the Command of General Robert E. Lee suffering approximately 1,100 casualties.
The significant planning for this battle was inspired by an idea of a Pennsylvania mining engineer, Union Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants. Pleasants commanded the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a Regiment that included many coal miners from the Schuylkill County area. In June 1864, Pleasants suggested that the strongly entrenched Confederate lines near Petersburg could be breached by digging a tunnel and placing explosives directly underneath the Confederate position. Generals Burnside, George G. Meade and Ulysses S. Grant all approved the plan.
Pleasants' men began digging the tunnel at noon, June 25, 1864. Pleasants devised successful methods for ventilating the shaft and the disposal of the dirt during the digging. In less than a month, the Union "soldier-miners" completed a 510 8/10 foot tunnel to the Confederate position on a ridge known as Elliot's or Pegram's Salient. At the end of the tunnel, the troops dug two 4 /1/2 x 4 1/2 foot shafts, left and right, underneath the salient, where they placed 4 tons of Black powder.
The explosive powder was ignited at 4:45 a.m. on July 30. A Union soldier's account of the exploding scene follows:
"Suddenly the earth trembled under our feet. An enormous mass sprang into the air. A mass without form or shape, full of red flames, and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, mounted towards heaven with a detonation of thunder.”
"It spread out like a sheaf, like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to be of fire and its head of smoke. Then everything appeared to break up and fall back in a rain of earth mixed with rocks, with beams, timbers, and mangled human bodies, leaving floating in the air a cloud of white smoke, which rose up in the heavens, and a cloud of gray dust, which fell slowly towards the earth."
Another Union soldier described it as a "tremendous blast which rent the sleeping hills beyond, a vast column of earth and smoke shoots upward to a great height, its dark sides flashing out sparks of fire, hangs poised for a moment in mid-air, and then, hurtling down with a roaring sound, showers of stones, broken timbers, and blackened human limbs."
The blast created a crater that measured about 170 feet long, 70 feet wide and 30 feet deep in places.
The Confederates lost 278 men as a direct result of the explosion. Many other Confederate troops fled the area immediately and even into the Federal Lines after the blast. A break in the Confederate defenses was made. In the words of historian Bruce Catton, "The Pennsylvania miners had brought the end of the war within whispering distance."
Burnside's plan originally called for a Division of Black troops under the command of General Edward Ferrero to take advantage of the gap and to take the heights overlooking Petersburg. Meade, concerned about possible criticism should the Black troops fail and be slaughtered in their first combat action, at the last minute ordered Burnside to select another division to make the initial charge. Grant agreed. This plan of General Burnside was changed on the night of the 29th by General Meade. For some unexplained reason the colored division was not ordered in for near three hours after the explosion, and then with but little idea of what they were expected to do.
Burnside unwisely selected, by a drawing of lots, a Division commander, General James Ledlie to lead his Division in the assault. Ledlie is described as the "weakest" and "most unfit" of Burnside's Division commanders. The result, Grant recalled in his memoirs, was "a stupendous failure.”
Ledlie's troops, with their commander drinking rum a safe 400 yards behind the line, rushed toward the Crater and, instead of moving around its edges toward Cemetery Hill to exploit the breach in the line, entered the Crater in mass confusion. While these two White Divisions had crossed the field to the Crater, actually moving down into the Crater itself and wasting valuable time, the Confederates, under General William Mahone gathered as many troops together as they could for a counterattack.
Over and over Union error mounted. One example of testimony:
"I then assisted Colonel Marshall in reforming his men. While we were reforming the head of the colored Division came over the crest of the Crater right down this line, and knocked all to pieces the formation we had secured. Colonel Bates apparently did not know where he was going to strike for." -- Brevet Lieutenant Colonel J. L. Van Buren.
General Mahone regrouped and poured artillery fire into the Crater with deadly effect. Soon, they had formed up around the Crater and began firing down into it, in what General Mahone later described as a "turkey shoot". The poorly lead plan had failed, but General Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, had sent in General Ferrero's men. Bruce Catton wrote,... "remembered a horrible debris of severed limbs and heads flying through the air after each shell exploded."
This was war at its worst!
Conditions were as horrific for the Confederates also: 278 unarmed sleeping, and unsuspecting men were blown up in what one could categorize as unconventional warfare of the day. The Confederates were significantly outnumbered by the attackers and then approximately 4000 Union soldiers under Ferrero Division attacked approximately 800 counter attacking Confederates at the breach in the line. There are numerous reports of Union soldiers hollering "no quarter" as they trampled bodies of the Confederate dead and wounded in their assault. Hand to hand combat ensued.
According to Mahone, there was plenty of time between the explosion and when his troops arrived on the scene; moreover, "after the explosion there was nothing on the Confederate side to prevent the orderly projection of any column through the breach which had been effected, cutting the Confederate army in twain." A good energetic commander leading the troops should have been able to get through the breach onto the high ground beyond in that time.
The gap in the Confederate lines had closed. By 1 p.m., the battle was over. The "Siege of Petersburg" would continue for another nine months.
Today, 141 years later, the Crater is still there with memorials to all the brave soles who fought that day, and behind Union lines, you still can visit the entrance to the tunnel dug by Pleasants and his Schuylkill County miners. Pleasants' ingenious plan resulted in a Union disaster because of poor execution and leadership -- to say the least!
"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never tasted victory or defeat."
-- Theodore Roosevelt
Additional battle detail can be found in the documents on the previous page.
Official Reference & Additional Reading:
Report of The Committee On The Conduct Of The War
ATTACK ON PETERSBURG, 30TH DAY OF JULY, 1864
Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864;
In The Senate of the United States.