|Black troops attempt to break out of the Crater.|
File this one in the “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley” Department. The plan was brilliant. Its execution nearly perfect down to the last detail. The result exactly as desired, until mere mortal men marched into the breach.
By the summer of 1864 the grim carnage of the American Civil War had ground to a stalemate. Since Gettysburg a year earlier Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia had been hard pressed by vastly superior Union forces of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General George Meade directly and personally supervised by Commanding General Ulysses S Grant.
Once famous for his audacious and aggressive maneuvers, Lee was forced to defend the Confederate capital of Richmond. He erected impressive earthen work fortifications in a wide ring around the city. The old man was proving to be just as adept at what would be the future of war in the Industrial Age—trench warfare.
The key to Richmond was at the rail hub of Petersburg through which the city and the army could remain supplied with food, supplies, and munitions. Grant called it the “backdoor to Richmond” and proceeded to lay siege to the city and its fortifications.
The armies faced each other along a 20 mile front from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond to areas south of Petersburg. An attempt to take the town by assault ended in failure on June 15. Since then the two armies had pounded each other with artillery, peppered the opposing lines with deadly fire from sharpshooters and snipers, and delicately probed each other’s lines with reconnaissance patrols. Both commanding generals were frustrated.
It took a mining engineer to come up with a solution to Grant’s problem—Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps. His proposal was simple on paper—dig a long mineshaft from the Union siege trenches then under Confederate outer defenses until under the major fortification at the center of the Rebel lines, Elliott’s Salient. Sappers would then plant and set off a huge mine which would blow the fort away and open a breach through which Union forces could pour, smashing the Confederate I Corps and rolling up Petersburg before Lee could muster his forces from elsewhere along the lines.
Burnside was a once promising commander nursing a badly bruised reputation. His indecision as Army of the Potomac commander at Fredericksburg in December of 1862 had thrown away the best chance for an early end to the war and led to one of the bloodiest defeats the Army was ever handed. Busted back to a Corps commander, his lack of aggressiveness at Spotsylvania Court House earlier that year had aggravated Grant. Burnside was determined to prove that he was imaginative and aggressive. He quickly gave the go-ahead to Pleasant’s plan. Up the chain of command Meade and Grant also signed off on it but were not much convinced it would work. Neither lent much logistical support to the effort.
Pleasants’ own troops, tough coal miners from the fields of western Pennsylvania, were just the men for the job. They were maybe the only men in the Union army who would not consider the task drudgery. In fact for them digging in the soft Virginia soil must have seemed like a cakewalk.
Digging began in June and proceeded quickly. The men had to scrounge lumber to shore up the tunnel and for the ingenious ventilation system which sucked fresh air from the narrow mine entrance all the way to the face of the digging via a wooden duct. Fetid air at the end was heated by a constantly burning pit fire which heated the air and vented it out drawing the fresh air to fill the vacuum. This system avoided the use of multiple air vents which could have been observed.
The miners dug by hand and removed the soil in wooden soap and ammunition boxes drawn by rope along a crude wooden plank rail. On July 17 the shaft reached under Elliott’s Salient at a depth of about fifty feet. A perpendicular gallery about 75 feet long extended in both directions.-
All of this had been accomplished un-detected by the enemy. Confederate intelligence reported rumors of the mine to Lee about two weeks after construction began. He didn’t believe it. Finally after receiving new report he began desultory anti-mine efforts which failed to find or detect the shaft.
Confederate General John Pegram in charge of the artillery in the sector took the rumors more seriously, however, and on his own authority as a precaution had trenches and gun emplacements built to the rear of the Salient as a secondary line of defense.
Meade and Grant finally decided to go all in on the plan. The gallery underneath the Confederate position was filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder in 320 kegs. The main chamber was extended to 20 feet below the fort and was packed shut with 11 feet of earth in the side galleries and 32 feet of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine.
On July 27 Grant sent Major Generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Phil Sheridan on a combined infantry/cavalry attack along the James River southwest of Richmond and miles from the Petersburg front. In what became known as the First Battle of Deep Bottom or New Market Road the forces were repelled in two sharp days of skirmishing around Fussell’s Mill and Bailey’s Creek. Although Grant held out some hope that Hancock’s infantry could punch a hole in the defenses to allow Sheridan’s cavalry to pour into Richmond, or failing that ride around the city severing rail connections, he was not entirely disappointed when the attacks were repulsed. They had succeeded in causing Lee to send troops from Petersburg to re-enforce the line along the James.
Grant turned his personal attention to the well-developed plans for the Petersburg mine attack.
Weeks earlier at an officer’s call Burnside had acceded to the plea of former New York City dance master Brigadier General Edward Ferrero to use his division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) as the leading assault unit. Burnside, who originally had other plans, agreed. The division was fresh, well equipped, and most importantly at full strength, 4,200—a rarity when veteran units were often whittled away to half their original size or less through combat loss, disease, and desertion. The division was given a rarity for the Civil War—two full weeks of specialized training and instructions for this mission. After the mine went off, they were to move ahead in the confusion of the enemy and secure the crest of the crater on either side to allow the rest of the Corps to pass along the rim or through the crater itself.
When Meade reviewed the plans he fretted that the unit which Burnside considered fresh was simply green and therefore unreliable in combat, especially in a critical role. He also worried that if the Colored Troops failed, they would discourage commanders from accepting and fighting alongside of others. Although Colored Troops had proved themselves in other theaters, they were new to the elite Army of the Potomac. Grant agreed and ordered Burnside to revise the order of battle less than 24 hours before the attack.
At another officer’s call Burnside conducted a lottery among his three white divisions to select a lead. Brigadier General James F. Ledlie of the 1st Division won the draw. The Colored Division would join the two others in the second wave of the attack.
Ledlie returned to his unit but never issued the special instructions for taking the flanking rim first. The men were told only that they would have the honor of leading a full frontal assault.
Meanwhile Col. Pleasants was deep underground personally supervising the final placement of the explosives and making sure the earthen plugs in the tunnel were strong.
The mine was supposed to be detonated at 3:30 in the morning of June 30. But the Army had provided inferior fuses. Two attempts to light it failed. Finally two volunteers crawled into the mine, found where the fuse had burned out and broken, and spliced a fresh fuse on the end. It was after dawn when the mine finally blew up at 4:30, with enough light for Confederate pickets to recognize that there were large Union forces inside their lines.
The explosion itself went off flawlessly. And impressively. The fortifications of Elliott’s Salient were blown sky high killing most of the garrison. Despite a little warning, the Confederate line was thrown into the anticipated confusion and panic.
Ledlie’s men at first seemed as stunned by the spectacle as the enemy. They paused to take in the scene and had to be prodded forward by their officers and sergeants. Ledlie himself was nowhere to be found. He was well to the rear, completely out of line of sight of the battle in a bombproof bunker with Ferrero of the Colored Division. Passing a bottle between them the two officers were getting quietly drunk.
When the 1st Division reached the crater instead of securing the rim, they charged directly into it. And at the bottom they stopped to gape the destruction. The delays allowed time for Brig. Gen. William Mahone to cobble together a Confederate force to rush to plug the breech. They quickly occupied the vacant rim and commenced a Turkey shoot of the defenseless men in the Crater. Troops madly tried to scramble up the sides, but found the dirt gave way under them. They were trapped.
But they were not to be alone. Burnside, refusing to be charged once again with indecision and lack of aggression, ordered the Colored Division forward to reinforce the trapped 1st. Denied the rim, they followed into the Crater. Their appearance enraged the Confederates who intensified fire, including volley after volley of intense artillery fire.
The Turkey shoot continued for more than two hours. At one point some troops supporting troops did manage to flank the crater and advance inside the Confederate line taking trenches in brutal hand to hand combat. But there were not enough of them and could not be reinforced. After holding out for a short while they were cleaned out of the trenches by a counter attack.
As the battle wound down, Confederate troops summarily executed Black soldiers trying to surrender. Fearing retaliation by the Rebels, some White Union troops bayonetted Blacks as well. The Colored Division was virtually wiped out as an effective unit.
In all Union forces suffered 3,798 casualties including 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, and 1,413 missing or captured. The Confederates lost 1,491—361 killed, 727 wounded, and 403 missing or captured.
Probably the best chance of the year at an early end to the war was thrown away. Grant reported to Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war…Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”
The finger pointing and blaming began immediately. A Court of Inquiry pinned the rap on Burnside, who was relieved of command and never entrusted with another. His reputation was ruined beyond repair. All of his division commanders were censured, especially Ledlie and Ferrero.
One of the few to come out of the affair with an enhanced reputation was Pleasants, whose troops were not engaged in the actual fighting that day. He was rewarded for his plan and execution with a brevet to Brigadier General.
At war’s end in 1865 the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War opened an inquiry into the debacle. Pleasants testified that if Burnside had been allowed to retain his original order of Battle, that the operation would have been a success. Grant concurred. He wrote to the Commission:
General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.
In the end, the commission agreed, laying the blame at Meade’s feet and exonerating Burnside. Little good did that do for the generals already destroyed reputation.
On the Confederate side Mahone was hailed a hero and became one of Lee’s most trusted division commanders in the last year of the war.
The Siege of Petersburg ground on for months more into a new year. Union successes elsewhere, especially William Tecumseh Sherman’s operations in the Deep South, were sealing the fate of the Confederacy. After Grant’s bloody Wilderness Campaign offensive, Lee was finally forced out of his trenches. Richmond fell. Lee surrendered. The South was defeated.
But had the operation at the Crater gone as planned, maybe a million lives might have been saved.