The Mine (July 30, 1864)

A depiction of the Battle of the Crater by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

A depiction of the Battle of the Crater by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater. The attack started with one heck of a bang when the Union exploded 8,000 tons of gunpowder at the end of a tunnel dug beneath the Confederate defenses. Things went downhill from there. Ulysses S. Grant called  the end result “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”

Here’s a rather lengthy excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: the Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg (If you don’t have the book already, you can buy it here). Following that is the letter Theodore Lyman wrote on July 30.

Gen. Robert Potter. His men came up with the idea for the Petersburg mine (Library of Congress).

Gen. Robert Potter. His men came up with the idea for the Petersburg mine (Library of Congress).

The plan behind the crater was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the IX Corps’ 48th Pennsylvania. Like Meade, Pleasants had cosmopolitan origins, born in Buenos Aires of a Philadelphia Quaker and his Spanish bride. His regiment included many miners from Pennsylvania’s coal country, men who knew a thing or two about digging. Some of them told Pleasants they could dig a tunnel beneath the Confederate breastworks, stuff it full of gunpowder, and blow a huge gap in the rebel defenses. Pleasants told his division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter, about the idea. Potter told corps commander Ambrose Burnside, who approved the scheme.

Meade entertained no great hopes for the idea; according to Pleasants, Meade told Burnside “it was all clap-trap and nonsense” and predicted that the tunnel would collapse or the men would suffocate. He also was not happy about the location, which would expose attackers to fire from the flank and rear as they moved forward. Meade could not summon any more enthusiasm when he summarized the plan for Grant. “I am not prepared to say the attempt would be hopeless” was the best he could manage. Still, he allowed it to move forward, although Pleasants complained about the lack of support he received.

After scrounging what equipment they could, the Pennsylvania miners set to work on June 25. Over the next few weeks they dug a tunnel that stretched more than five hundred feet to a point beneath a Confederate fort in front of Burnside’s position. At the end they dug two shorter tunnels to each side, one thirty-seven feet long and the other thirty-eight. The coal miners drew on all their experience not only to dig shafts to provide air to the men inside, but also to hide the dirt they removed so the Confederates would not suspect that something was going on beneath their feet. In fact, the rebels did suspect something but could not determine the tunnel’s location. At the battlefield today you can still see the shallow depressions left behind by the countermines they dug.

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Excitement grew as it became more apparent that Pleasants’s crackpot scheme might actually work. Grant had already made plans to have Hancock attack the Confederates north of the James River, and he decided that movement would also provide a perfect way to draw troops from the site of the mine explosion. Burnside, in the meantime, prepared a plan of attack. He assigned Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division of African American troops the mission of leading the assault on the enemy’s lines after the explosion. Ferrero’s men began training for their role.

Burnside preferred Ferrero’s soldiers because, unlike the rest of the IX Corps, they had not seen any serious fighting, so they remained fresh. At the last minute, Meade decided that having the black soldiers lead the attack was not wise. He advised Grant that this was not a good time to give untested troops their first combat experience. Furthermore, Meade continued, if the attack should fail, it would be said “that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them.” Grant agreed. On the day before the mine explosion, Meade told Burnside to pick a different division to lead the attack.

Brig. Gen. James Ledlie (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. James Ledlie (Library of Congress).

Rather than choosing the second-best men available, Burnside had his division commanders draw straws. The winner–or loser, depending on how you look at it–was Brig. Gen. James Ledlie. This was the same Ledlie who had been visibly intoxicated at the North Anna. (“Ledlie was a wretched, incapable drunkard, not fit to command a company, and was the ruin of his division,” said Lyman.) Meade also interfered with Burnside’s tactics. Burnside wanted the first wave of attacking soldiers to swing left and right to roll up the Confederate lines on each side of the crater. Meade overruled him. He wanted the first troops to charge forward and take the high ground occupied by Blandford Cemetery, about four hundred yards away and off to the right. The divisions following would then turn to the sides to cover the leaders’ flanks, with Ferrero’s 4th Division taking up the rear. Ord’s XVIII and Warren’s V Corps would wait in support.

Soldiers quietly lugged bags of powder down the long, cramped tunnel and placed them in galleries along the lateral extensions at the end. Pleasants had planned to use twelve thousand pounds, but after consultation with his engineers, Meade decreed that eight thousand pounds would be sufficient. The miners strung a long, spliced-together fuse down the tunnel. The schedule called for the explosion to happen at 3:30 a.m. on July 30. In the predawn darkness Ledlie’s division quietly filed down protected trenches to the front lines, and then they waited. The fuse was lit; time ticked by; the sky began lightening in the east; nerves were on edge as all ears strained for the sound of the explosion . . . and nothing happened.

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Carrying powder into the mine. The soldiers detailed for this duty carried the power a keg in either end of a grain bag thrown across the shoulder. A portion of the c̀overed way' along which they had to pass, was exposed to the enemies fire. At the dangerous points they would watch their oppartunity[sic] and dash over the exposed ground into comparative safety (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Carrying powder into the mine. The soldiers detailed for this duty carried the power a keg in either end of a grain bag thrown across the shoulder. A portion of the c̀overed way’ along which they had to pass, was exposed to the enemies fire. At the dangerous points they would watch their oppartunity[sic] and dash over the exposed ground into comparative safety (Library of Congress).

Meade waited impatiently at IX Corps headquarters. Burnside had gone forward to observe from a gun battery, later named Fort Morton, but remained in communication with Meade by telegraph wire.

Grant arrived around 4:00. “What’s the matter with the Mine?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” said Meade, but he figured rightly that the fuse had gone out. Sgt. Henry Rees took on the unnerving duty of going into the tunnel to determine the problem and set things right. He found that the fuse had indeed been extinguished at one of the splices. With the help of Lt. Jacob Douty, he fixed the splice, relit the fuse, and hightailed it out of the tunnel.

The result was everything its planners hoped it would be. “The explosion was the grandest spectacle I ever saw,” wrote Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts, part of Ledlie’s division. “The first I knew of it, was feeling the earth shaking. I looked up and saw a huge mass of earth and flame rising some 50 or 60 feet in the air, almost slowly and majestically, as if a volcano had just opened, followed by an immense volume of smoke rolling out in every direction.” It looked as though the debris would rain down on the Union soldiers, and some of them broke and ran. It required twenty minutes or so to re-form the lines for the attack. (Imagine what would have happened had the mine used the full twelve thousand pounds of powder.) Then the men had to clamber over entrenchments and through abatis, further delaying them.

The explosion had created a crater indeed, one that was 60 feet wide, 170 feet long, and 30 feet deep. When Weld and his men reached the pit, he recalled, “The scene inside was horrible. Men were found half buried; some dead, some alive, some with their legs kicking in the air, some with the arms only exposed, and some with every bone in their bodies apparently broken.”

The Confederates had been surprised by the explosion, which wiped out some 150 feet of their defensive line. But the attacking troops seemed equally stunned. With Ledlie taking shelter behind the lines in a bombproof, drunk, there was no one in authority to spur the Union soldiers forward. The men moved into the crater and milled about in confusion as the defenders began to recover from the initial shock and turn to the business of killing their attackers. Back at IX Corps headquarters, Meade intercepted a message intended for Burnside that said the men would not advance. He telegraphed Burnside and demanded information. “I wish to know the truth and desire an immediate answer,” he said.

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Meade’s implication enraged Burnside. “I have never in any report said anything different from what I conceived to be the truth,” he telegraphed back. “Were it not insubordinate I would say that the latter remark of your note was unofficerlike and ungentlemanly.”

Meanwhile, the situation at the front was going from bad to worse. At 6:00 Meade told Burnside to push his entire command forward. Burnside interpreted that to mean he should order Ferrero’s men to the crater, even though it was already crowded with soldiers who would not move forward. “It was a perfect pandemonium,” Weld recalled. “The negroes charged into the mine, and we were packed in there like sardines in a box. I literally could not raise my arms from my side.” Some of the black soldiers did advance beyond the crater, but the intense Confederate fire soon drove them back in disorder.

The attack had clearly failed. Sometime before 10:00 Meade ordered Burnside to recall his men. Burnside rode over to protest in person. He said his men could still take the hill. At the very least, he did not want to withdraw them until nightfall. Horace Porter described the encounter as “peppery” and said it “went far toward confirming one’s believe in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute.” Meade repeated his order for a withdrawal, but it remained unclear how the men could leave without being gunned down during the retreat. For hours the Union soldiers remained trapped within the crater under a sweltering sun, enemy fire making it impossible to move forward or backward. “It was a sickening sight,” recalled one soldier: “men were dead and dying all around us; blood was streaming down the sides of the crater to the bottom, where it gathered in pools for a time before being absorbed by the hard red clay.”

Confederates under Brig. Gen. William Mahone finally charged to retake their lines. “Over the crest and into the crater they poured, and a hand-to-hand conflict ensued,” recounted Maj. William H. Powell. “It was of short duration, however; crowded as our troops were, and without organization, resistance was vain.” Some of the Confederates were enraged to see the black soldiers and slaughtered them without mercy when they tried to surrender. Weld was standing next to a black soldier when they both were captured. “Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man,” one of their captors yelled, and the rebels gunned down the black man. As Weld climbed out of the crater, rebels shot another black man in front of him, killing the man after three shots. Afterward A. P. Hill had the Union prisoners, white and black, marched through Petersburg so the residents could jeer and abuse them.

Theodore Lyman began a letter about the crater debacle on July 30. I will print that letter today and then continue with letters from both Meade and Lyman tomorrow.

My spirits to-night are not very high; our project of attack, which in the beginning promised well, has not been a success in the result. You must know that there has always been a point on Burnside’s line that was quite near that of the enemy, say 250 feet. A mine was begun there over a month since, and has been quite finished for a week. It was at first rather an amateur affair, for the policy of the future operations had not then been fixed. However, it was steadily pushed, being in charge of Colonel Pleasants, who has a regiment of Pennsylvania coal-miners. He first ran a subterranean gallery, straight out to the enemy’s bastion, where they had four guns. Then three lateral passages were made, each terminating in a chamber, to be filled with gunpowder. These chambers or magazines were about twenty feet underground. The final springing of the mine was delayed, in order to build heavy batteries and get the guns and mortars in. A couple of days ago orders were given to charge the chambers with 8000 pounds of gunpowder (four tons).* The powder was laboriously carried in in kegs (the gallery was so low, the men were forced to double themselves over in passing), and the kegs were packed in, after removing their heads. When a chamber was charged, loose powder was poured over the whole. The magazines were connected by a wooden casing filled with powder, and this was also run along the gallery for some distance, where it was connected to a fuse which ran to the mouth of the gallery. To-morrow I will continue, but now it is rather late.

*”[James] Duane had sent for the mining records before Sebastopol and got me to read them to learn the proper charge; for, what with malaria, and sunstroke, and quinine, whiskey, and arsenic, he can hardly see, but clings to duty to the last! Finding nothing there, he said the book was a humbug, and determined on 8000 lbs. The charge was tamped with twenty-five feet of sand bags.” — Lyman’s Journal [Note: Major Duane was the army’s chief engineer.]

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 195-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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