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1864 August 13: Battle of the Crater — “clods of earth weighing at least a ton, and cannon, and human forms, and gun-carriages, and small-arms were all distinctly seen shooting upward in that fountain of horror”

August 15, 2014

Richard Slotkin nicely summarized the Battle of the Crater in a July 29, 2014, New York Times‘ online Opinionator article:

“The so-called Petersburg Mine was an extraordinary technical accomplishment, and its detonation on July 30 produced what was then the largest man-made explosion in history.  But federal commanders bungled the infantry attack, which never got beyond the gaping hole left by the explosion.  The Union army suffered 4,000 casualties, turning what came to be known as the Battle of the Crater from a spectacular opportunity to capture Petersburg to an unmitigated disaster.”

The following contemporary article on the Battle of the Crater is from the August 13, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.  It had appeared in The New York Times on August 2, 1864, with the following introductory paragraphs—exordium, as the reporter (H. J. W.) put it—left out of The Prescott Journal:

“I am called to the fulfillment of an ungracious task to-night.  Instead of success and victory which the morning fairly promised, I have to write of disaster and defeat.  To-day’s brief history affords another striking proof of the uncertain issues of battle, showing how the shrewdest and most elaborate strategic planning may be completely thwarted by an error or an accident in tactics.  To-day’s disaster finds solution in the old story that “some one has blundered” in a manner “worse than a crime,” but precisely who the blunderer is I do not know, and if I knew it would not devolve upon me at present to tell.  A military tribunal must decide that point.  Happily, however, the blunder is not irreparable.  It fills us with poignant grief and disappointment, necessitates a long interval of delay before future operations, has lost to us the labor of a month’s preparation, and, worse than all this, has sacrificed thousands of valuable lives.  But the result does not dishearten the Army of the Potomac, and it should not depress the people.  The soldiers who fought on Saturday have received the baptism of blood on other fields, and know how to bear reverses manfully, as they bear successes modestly.  They bate not a jot of heart or hope, and they only ask as the lesson to the country from to-day’s mishap, that their thinned ranks shall be promptly reinforced.  The army is still unfaltering in its faith, and will try and try again until the day of decisive victory.

“With so much by way of exordium, I shall attempt to give, as clearly as I may, an account of the battle, in summarizing in the first place, the relative positions of the opposing armies, the object sought to be gained by the attack, and the admirable strategic devices of the past few days.”



T h e   A s s a u l t   B e f o r e   P e t e r s b u r g h [sic].

Graphic Account of the Attack and Repulse.

[Correspondence of the New York Times.]

SATURDAY EVENING, July 30, 1864. }

With the passage of the James was exhausted all possibilities of a movement by the left flank, with Richmond as the objective point.  Nothing, therefore, remained to Gen. Grant [Ulysses S. Grant] but to assault the rebel lines in front of him at Petersburgh [sic].  The past six weeks have been devoted to preparation for this assault.  From day to day, by the aid of the shovel and the pick, our lines have been insidiously advanced by zig-zag and covered ways, until the outlying pickets of both armies have scarcely averaged 500 yards’ distance between them.  Along portions of the line, the interval between the rifle-pits was scarcely 150 yards.  The ground over which our advances have been made, is itself a series of natural fortifications, adding vastly to the difficulty of taking possession of it.  Perhaps your readers will form a more perfect opinion of its features, if I tell them that it very much resembles Greenwood Cemetery in its profile.  There are similar hills and eminences, sloping more or less precipitously into ravines which intersect at every conceivable angle, and many of the elevations are thickly wooded.  Over ground of this impracticable nature our men have sturdily fought and dug their way, driving the enemy before them, until only one hill remained for them to take to place our guns in a position commanding at easy range the town of Petersburgh [sic].  It is known as Cemetery Hill.  Its crest, frowning with guns, is not more than 800 yards distant from our advanced works, and its gently-sloping sides are welted with long rows of earthworks, pitted with redoubts and redans, and ridged with serried salients and curtains and all the skillful defences known to skillful military engineers.

The vital importance to us of this point will readily be admitted.  To gain it by direct assault must necessarily cost many lives, but to gain it in the cheapest manner gave occasion for the display of that high strategy of which Gen. Grant has long since proved himself the master.  Therefore, it was that on Tuesday night last the Second Corps, under Gen. Hancock [Hancock], and two divisions of cavalry under Gen. Sheridan [Philip Sheridan], and another division under Gen. Kautz [Kautz], crossed the James River for the purpose of engaging the enemy, who, misled by some preliminary operations of Gen. Foster’s [Foster] command at Deep Bottom, and of a portion of the Nineteenth Corps at Strawberry Plains a mile below—had a day or two earlier heavily reinforced the troops in the vicinity of Malvern Hill.  The demonstration here had precisely the effect which Gen. Grant desired.  Fearing a serious attack, Lee [Robert E. Lee] dispatched a column, estimated at from 12,000 to 15,000 strong, from before Petersburgh [sic], and the railroad between Petersburgh [sic] and Richmond was kept busy on Friday and Friday night in transporting the troops.  To keep up the rebel General’s delusion, an immense train of more than 400 empty covered wagons, mainly the transportation of the Sixth Corps, crossed the Appomattox on Friday in broad daylight, in full view of the rebel signal lookouts at Bermuda Hundred, as if destined for the army at Deep Bottom.  But on Friday night as the rebels were hurriedly taking possession of their new line, the Second Corps and the cavalry were quietly withdrawn with an additional facility for rapid movement in a third pontoon bridge laid across the James in the afternoon.  By daylight this morning, these troops were nearly all in position to cooperate with the remainder of the army in the attack.  The strategy was, therefore, perfect, and no share of the reverse can be attributed to failure in this part of the programme.

All these stratagems, too, were conducted with such secrecy, that information of their precise bearing was narrowed down to the circle of the Corps Commanders.  Until late on Friday night, few persons in the army were disposed to believe differently from what Gen. Lee suspected, viz. :  that a movement upon Richmond was intended from the north side of the James, and were only undeceived when, at one o’clock this morning, the troops were got into position for the assault.

The tactics of the movement were under Gen. Meade’s direction [George G. Meade].  His arrangement of troops and order of battle was as follows :  The Eighteenth Corps (Gen. Ord [Edward O. C. Ord]) was withdrawn on Thursday morning from its position on the extreme right, resting on the Appomattox, (being relieved by Mott’s division of the Second Corps,) and massed in rear of the Ninth Corps, (Burnside’s [Ambrose E. Burnside],) the centre of our line, in front of which the attack was to be initiated.  The extreme left held by the Fifth Corps, (Warren’s [Gouverneur K. Warren],) was to be in readiness to advance as soon as Burnside pierced the works in front of him.  Collaterally, but in unison with the advance of the infantry, every piece of siege artillery posted along the line was ordered to open simultaneously upon the enemy at a given signal made by the explosion of a mine containing eight tons of powder, which was placed directly beneath the rebel battery which Burnside was to assault.  Not only were the siege pieces to open a fierce fire, but all the field artillery which could be got into position after the opening of the battle was to advance as opportunity offered, and bring their batteries into play.  Upon this awful fire of heavy guns it was natural that great stress should be placed, in the expectation that the shock of its suddenness would have a demoralizing effect, and so make the way of the infantry easier.  So far all was well arranged ;  success was promising, and much confidence was felt in the result.

The time fixed for the assault was 3½ o’clock, when, without any moon, an almost Cimmerian darkness, would effectually shut out from the enemy the unavoidable stir and bustle of the troops as they got into position.  But just here the first misfortune of the day occurred.  Upon attempting to fire the mine the fuse or slow-match failed, and another was tried, I am told, with a similar result.  The third fuse was successful in its mission, but the hour’s delay had made it broad daylight, and, in consequence, the enemy’s suspicions were aroused, (at least along a portion of his front,) and we were robbed of the advantage of a surprise.

This was a very great misfortune.  The army felt it to be such as they stood in suspense and silent impatience in the cold gray of the morning, crouching on their arms.  Of the effect of the explosion you have been already apprised.  The mine has been talked of in the army for weeks, but only talked of with bated breath, although whisperings concerning it have been wafted over from the rebels.  Clearly they did not know its precise locality, and few on our side, I suspect, were any wiser.  It has been tacitly acknowledged as an improper subject for conversation, and the most curious have appeared to feel the propriety of checking themselves.  The noise of the explosion was a dull, rumbling thud, preceded, I am told, by a few seconds swaying and quaking of the ground in the immediate vicinity.  The earth was rent along the entire course of the excavation, heaving slowly and majestically to the surface, and folding sideways to exhibit a deep and yawning chasm, comparable, as much as anything else, to a river gorged with ice, and breaking up under the influence of a freshet.  But there was a grander effect than this observable also.  Where the charge in the burrow was heaviest, directly under the rebel work, an immense mass of dull red earth was thrown high in air, in three broad columns, diverging from a single base, and, to my mind, assuming the shape of a Prince of Wales’ feather, of colossal proportions.  Those near the spot say that clods of earth weighing at least a ton, and cannon, and human forms, and gun-carriages, and small-arms were all distinctly seen shooting upward in that fountain of horror, and fell again in shapeless and pulverized atoms.  The explosion fully accomplished what was intended.  It demolished the six-gun battery and its garrison of one regiment of South Carolina troops, and acted as the wedge which opened the way to the assault.  Our men were to rush through this breach, and so beyond upon the second line of works which crown the crest of Cemetery Hill, thus compelling the enemy to evacuate the first line, or, what was more probable, to surrender under the fire of our artillery.

The awful instant of the explosion had scarcely passed when the dull morning air was made stagnant by the thunder of our artillery.  From ninety-five pieces, niched in every hill-side commanding the enemy’s position, there belched out sheets of flame and milk-white smoke, while the shot and shell sped forward, screeching, howling, rumbling like the rushing of a hundred railroad trains.  But why attempt to give an idea of such indescribable sound?  The sudden transition from utter silence to fiercest clamor was terrible.  So the rude combat raged without sign of slackening for two long hours.  At first the enemy was slow in replying to our fire, but gradually their pieces were brought into action, and in less than half an hour banks of angry smoke partially veiled the scene from both sides.

The Petersburg Crater

The Petersburg Crater¹

In accordance with the plan of battle, the First Division of the Ninth Corps (Ledlie’s [James H. Ledlie]) was made the assaulting column.  Gen. Ledlie formed his troops in three lines of battle, having each a front of about six hundred.  The Second Brigade of this division (Col. Marshal [sic: Elisha Marshall]) led the assault, followed by the First Brigade, (Gen. W. F. Bartlett [William F. Bartlett],) and the third line made up of the Third Brigade (Col. Gould’s [Jacob P. Gould].)  The left of Ledlie’s division was supported by Brig.-Gen. Hartraupt’s [sic: John F. Hartranft] brigade of the Third Division (Wilcox’s [Orlando B. Willcox]) and its right by Gen. Griffin’s [Simon G. Griffin] brigade of Potter’s [Robert B. Potter] division.  The Fourth Division of the Ninth Corps (all negroes) was posted directly in rear of the assaulting column, to press forward whenever practicable.  The Fourteenth New York Heavy Artillery were the first to enter the breach made by the explosion.  They bounded forward at the word, in the midst of the shock of the artillery, through the dense clouds of flying dust, and clambering over the debris, found themselves violently pushed down into the yawning crater.  The sight which there met them must have been appalling.  Bodies of dead rebels crushed and mangled out of all resemblance to humanity, writhing forms partly buried, arms protruding here and legs struggling there—a very hell of horror and torture, confined to a space 50 feet in length and half as many wide.  But the time was not favorable to the play of humane promptings.  This chaos of mangled humanity mixed with debris of implements and munitions of war must be unheeded.  Enough for the storming party to do was found in exhuming two pieces of rebel cannon with their caissons, and, in obedience to the law of self-preservation, turning these guns upon the enemy, who was throwing into the crater a shower of shells and minie balls from the hill beyond, and from points on either side, which they still held on this first line.  Getting these pieces into position promptly, and under cover of their fire, the assaulting column was reformed, and at the word of command dashed forward once more to storm the crest of the hill.  It was a task too great.  They gallantly essayed it, and nearly gained the summit, subjected all the time to a withering fire, which increased in fierceness at every step, until they became the centre of a converging storm of shot and shell.  Attacked on the right flank and the left flank, in front and rear, they were compelled to fall back to the partial protection of the crater, leaving their course thickly strewn with the dying and the dead.

The colored troops, upon the heels of this repulse, were ordered to charge, and they moved out gallantly.  A hundred yards gained and they wavered.  Then the Thirty-ninth Maryland Regiment, which led, became panic-stricken and broke through to the rear, spreading demoralization swiftly.   Their officers urged them, entreated them, threatened them, but failed to rally them, and, the mass, broken and shattered, swept back like a torrent into the crater which was already choked with white troops.  The confusion, incident to this wholesale crowding and crushing of the negro soldiers into the ranks of the white troops, very nearly caused the panic to spread.  Had such been the result, it might have been fortunate, and many a brave fellow who afterwards fell, might have escaped his fate.  But at the moment the rebel fire, which had been murderously directed upon the place, materially slackened, and the white soldiers recovered their stamina.  Our lines were once more straightened, and just in time to check an impetuous charge, which was afterwards repeated, and with a similar result of heavy loss to the assailants.

So the morning waned.  It became apparent, doubtless, that the position gained could not be held without more sacrifice of life than could well be afforded at this time.  At any rate, this seems a fair inference, or the other corps would have been ordered to advance upon those portions of the first line still held by the enemy, and, as far as I can ascertain, no such order was given.  On the contrary, about noon the order was given to retire—a matter not easy of execution, as to gain our works an open space must be traversed, over which one man in every twenty was sure to be brought down by the cross-fire which swept the spot.

I omitted to say that when the negro division advanced to the charge, they were supported on the right of the Prince George Court-house Road by Turner’s [John W. Turner] division of the Tenth Corps, which gallantly advanced a long way beyond the spot where the negroes broke, and strove unavailingly to breast the storm of their retreat.  The list of casualties in this division was heavy.  I forward the names of those in hospital.

The losses on both sides, considering the numbers engaged, were very severe.  The wounded in the hospitals are more than one thousand.  Probably 1800* were taken prisoners, and the killed would swell the list materially.

* Later reports reduce this number.  The rebels only claim to have taken 936.—EDS. STATE JOURNAL.

1.  This image appears on several sites on the Internet—we got it from Wikipedia’s article on the Battle of the Crater. Nowhere it appears does anyone seem to know where it came from. One place it appears says it was taken immediately after the battle, in 1864; Wikipedia says it was taken in 1865. Does anyone know more details? Let us know!

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