Aftermath (July 31, 1864)

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

George Meade and Theodore Lyman write home about the explosion of the mine and the failed attack afterwards.

But first, here’s another excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, relating the aftermath. Meade’s account follows, and then Lyman’s.

The attack had been a fiasco. Union casualties numbered around thirty-eight hundred, mostly from the IX Corps. Meade requested that Grant relieve Burnside from command. Grant did just that following a court of inquiry that parceled out the blame to Burnside, Ledlie, Ferrero, and others.

Ambrose Burnside left the Army of the Potomac on August 13. Officially he was on furlough, but his active role in the war was over. He later became the governor of Rhode Island and served in the U.S. Senate. Maj. Gen. John Parke, like Meade a Philadelphian and a West Point-trained engineer, took over command of the IX Corps.

There was plenty of blame to go around for the fiasco. Some must be attributed to Meade for interfering with Burnside’s preparations at the last minute. Apparently he realized that. According to Col. Joshua Sigfried, “Had the original plan been adhered to, I am PERFECTLY satisfied Petersburg would have been in our possession before 10 o’clock. Generals Grant and Meade both admitted that to me afterwards.”

Why did Meade order Burnside to replace Ferraro’s division? Was it because of their inexperience or their race? Lyman once noted that if Meade had a bias regarding black soldiers, “it is towards and not against them, and indeed it would go to the heart of the best Bob to see the punctilious way in which he returns their salutes.” “The best Bob” referred to Lyman’s Harvard friend Robert Gould Shaw, who took command of the 54th Massachusetts and died with the regiment’s African American soldiers fighting to capture Battery Wagner outside Charleston. Matthew Broderick portrayed him in the 1989 movie Glory. “I can say with certainty,” Lyman continued, “that there is not a General in this army from whom the nigs might expect a judicious helping hand more than from Meade.”

In a letter dated February 1863 Meade told his wife about a somewhat ambiguous encounter he had had in Washington. He had dropped by George McClellan’s after dinner and found the ex-commander of the Army of the Potomac dining with a number of politicians and soldiers. One of them was Andrew Porter, a general who had served on McClellan’s staff. For some reason he and Meade did not get along. Porter, apparently miffed over Meade’s recent promotion to major general, decided to needle him. He said he had heard that Meade would receive command of “an Army Corps of Niggers,” as Meade related it. “I laughingly replied I had not been informed of the honor awaiting me, but one thing I begged to assure Porter, that if the niggers were going into the field and really could be brought heartily to fight, I was ready to command them, and should prefer such duty to others that might be assigned to me.”<+>48 It was a polite thrust and parry, no doubt conducted behind tight smiles and with icy cordiality. We may find the language offensive today, but it was common parlance in 1863. Still, there is a mystery at the heart of this encounter. As a McClellanite, Porter certainly would have been opposed to waging a war of “servile insurrection,” much less arming black soldiers. Meade was certainly no abolitionist, so I’m not sure whether he was expressing his real opinions or just saying something he knew would irritate Porter.

Meade was essentially conservative, as were many in the army, especially the officers who owed their positions to McClellan. It’s probably not surprising that two of the generals with whom Meade had bad relationships were Birney and Doubleday, two men who sided with the abolitionists. Certainly he was not the only Union general who doubted the black soldiers’ fighting abilities. H. Seymour Hall, who had served on the staff of the abolitionist Emory Upton before leaving to take command of the 43rd United States Colored Troops, noted that there was a “strong prejudice” against the use of African American soldiers. Said one general to Hall, “I am sorry to have you leave my command, and still more sorry that you are going to serve with negroes. I think it’s a disgrace to the Army to make soldiers of them.”

Such attitudes were probably more common than otherwise. In July 1864 Grant suggested Andrew Humphreys for command of the X Corps in the Army of the James, which included African American soldiers. Although Humphreys was eager to receive a corps command, he declined this offer because he did not want to command blacks, telling Grant, “I confess that while I have the kindliest feelings for the negro race and gladly see anything done that promises to ameliorate their condition, yet as they are not my own people, nor my own race, I could not feel towards negro troops as I have always felt towards the troops I have commanded, that their character, their reputation, their honor was a part of mine, that the two were so intimately connected that they could not be separated.” And Lyman wrote, “I say, as I always have, that you never, in the long run, can make negroes fight with success against white men.”

By the end of the war, more than 186,000 African American men had joined the army to fight for the Union in a war that had started because of slavery and that Lincoln had turned into a war to end slavery. Great men rise above the accepted wisdom. When it came to the role of African American soldiers in his army, Meade, along with many of his fellow generals, fell short of greatness.

Here’s Meade’s letter:

Our attack yesterday, although made under the most advantageous circumstances, was a failure. By a movement to the north bank of the James, Lee was completely deceived, and thinking it was a movement of the whole army against Richmond, he rushed over there with the greater portion of his army, leaving his works in our front held by only three out of the eight divisions of his army. When this was ascertained, it was determined to spring a mine which had been dug under one of the enemy’s batteries on their line, assault the breach, and push the whole army through to the Appomattox River. The mine had been dug by a Pennsylvania regiment of coal miners in Burnside’s Corps, and to this officer was entrusted the assault. At 5 A. M. yesterday the mine was most successfully exploded, throwing into the air, and subsequently burying, four guns and a South Carolina regiment. Our column immediately took possession of the crater and the adjacent part of the enemy’s first line; but instead of immediately pushing on and crowning the hill in front, which was the key to the whole of the enemy’s position, our men crouched in the crater and could not be got forward. Burnside and myself had a dispute, he not being willing to admit his men would not advance; at the same time it was evident to all no progress was being made. In this manner, after a delay of five hours, finding it impossible to get an advance, the thing was given up and Burnside ordered to withdraw. In the meantime the enemy, seeing we did not come forward, rallied, and massing on the point held by our troops, drove them back, with confusion and the loss of a number of prisoners.

The affair was very badly managed by Burnside, and has produced a great deal of irritation and bad feeling, and I have applied to have him relieved. In one of my despatches I asked if the difficulty was the refusal of his officers and men to obey his orders to advance, and I said I wanted to know the truth, and to have an immediate answer. This he chose to construe into an imputation on his veracity, and replied that the charge on my part was unofficer-like and ungentlemanly. Of course this has brought matters to a focus, and either he or I has got to go. It was a real misfortune, because we can hardly expect again to have such a good chance, and a failure at this time is most unfortunate. Grant was on the field with me all the time, and assented to all I did. I am afraid our failure will have a most unfavorable influence on the public mind, prone as it is to despondency. I was not much in favor of the plan, but it being determined on, I wanted to try everything for success.

Grant went last night to see the President. What the result will be I cannot tell; but what with the re-advance of the enemy into Pennsylvania, and the failure to accomplish anything here, matters are becoming complicated.

Theodore Lyman continues his account of the Battle of the Crater, which he started on July 30:

I will continue now my letter that broke off last night, and confide to you in all honesty, that I went fast to sleep on the bed and never woke till it was too late for more writing! The fact is, it was a day of extraordinary heat, and remarkably close also. I had been up at half-past two that morning, and I felt a great deal depressed by the day’s work. Well, I had got my fuse to the mouth of the gallery. You must know that all the time they were putting in the powder they could hear the enemy digging pretty near them, over their heads; for they had suspected we were mining, and had begun digging, to try to find it: they sunk a “shaft” or well inside their bastion, and then ran a gallery outside, from which they dug each way, to cut our gallery. But they did not go deep enough and so missed their object. The enemy had lately sent a large part of their force to head off Hancock at Deep Bottom, across the James, a movement that had seriously alarmed them. So the forces in our front were much weakened and the moment was favorable. . . .

On the 29th Hancock was ordered to withdraw, hold two divisions in reserve, and relieve the 18th Corps on the line with the third. The 18th Corps was then to move up in the night, and take position to support the 9th Corps in the assault. The 5th Corps was to be held in readiness on its part of the line, and to open with musketry as soon as the mine was sprung, in order to keep down the enemy’s fire on the assaulting column. New batteries of heavy mortars and siege guns were put in position and the whole artillery was ordered to open on the enemy’s batteries, the moment the mine was blown up. The 9th Corps was arranged to make a rush to the gap, the moment the explosion took place, and then one column was to keep on, and occupy the crest beyond (the key of the whole position), and others were to look out for an attack on either flank. The hour for springing the mine was 3.30 A.m.

General Hunt had been everywhere and arranged his artillery like clockwork; each chief of piece knew his distances and his directions to an inch. We were all up and horses saddled by 2.30. . . . We were to go to Burnside’s Headquarters to wait — an arrangement that I regretted, as you can see nothing from there. It was near half-past three when we got there, and only a faint suspicion of daylight was yet to be noticed. It was an anxious time — eight thousand pounds of gunpowder to go into the air at once! I had considered all I had read about explosions and had concluded it would make little noise and be very circumscribed in its effects. Others, however, thought it might be a sort of earthquake, overturn trees, etc., which idea was founded on the fact that even a dozen pounds confined would pretty nearly blow a house down. However, we were something like a mile away and would not be likely to get the worst of it. General Burnside with his Staff had gone to the front. Presently General Grant arrived, I think after four o’clock. He said, “What is the matter with the mine?” General Meade shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know—guess the fuse has gone out.” Which was a true guess. Where the fuse was spliced, it stopped burning; upon which Colonel Pleasants coolly went into the gallery and fired the new end! At ten minutes before five there was a distant, dull-sounding explosion, like a heavy gun, far away; and, in an instant, as if by magic, the whole line of batteries burst forth in one roar, and there was nothing but the banging of the guns and the distant hum of the shells! My back was turned at the moment, but those that had a good view say that a mass of earth about 50 feet wide and 120 long was thrown some 130 feet in the air, looking like the picture of the Iceland geysers. The explosion made a crater some 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 25 deep (so it was described to me). The mine blew up about under the bastion and rather on one side of it.

[The description of what followed, is copied from Lyman’s “Journal.”]

Elisha G. Marshall commanded a brigade in Ledlie's division (Library of Congress).

Elisha G. Marshall commanded a brigade in Ledlie’s division (Library of Congress).

So astounded was the enemy and so covered was their position by our augmented artillery, that their reply was weak indeed and was soon almost silenced. Meantime, after incomprehensible delay (usually described as at least twenty minutes), the assaulting column moved forward, in a loose manner. This was ]Elisha G.]Marshall’s brigade of Ledlie’s division, a brigade composed of dismounted cavalry and demoralized heavy artillery (!), the whole good for nothing, over which Marshall, a severe, courageous man, had been put, in the vain hope of beating in some discipline! Burnside, with inconceivable fatuity, allowed the troops for leading the assault to be selected by lot! The Corps was enough run down to make it hard to get a good forlorn hope with the most careful picking. Then no gap had been made in the parapet, which, next the mine, was at least eight feet high — all in disobedience to orders. All this time there was more or less cannon and musketry. Orders were sent to take the crest: to push on at once! But plainly there was a hitch! Colonel de Chanal, who was standing with me, was frantic over this loss of precious moments. “Mais, cette perte de temps!” he kept saying. In fact Marshall’s brigade had gone into the crater and had filled it, and now were utterly immovable and sullen! The supports, brought up by the flank in bad order, crowded into the crater and the neighboring bomb-proofs and covered ways. There was some fighting, and the Rebel breastworks for 200 or 300 yards were taken, with a few prisoners; but advance to the crest the men would not. Our own covered ways were jammed with supporting troops that could do no good to anyone. 7 A.m. A lull. At a few minutes after 8 A.m. the troops of the 18th Corps and the black division of the 9th attempted a charge. Sanders, who saw it, said the troops would not go up with any spirit at all. The negroes came back in confusion, all mixed with the whites in and about the crater. Their officers behaved with distinguished courage, and the blacks seem to have done as well as whites — which is faint praise. This attack was over three hours after the springing of the mine. Meanwhile, of course, the enemy had strained every nerve to hold their remaining works and had made all preparations to retake the lost ground. They got guns in position whence they could play on the assailants without fear of getting silenced; and they brought a heavy musketry to bear in the same direction. The space between our line and the crater now was swept by a heavy fire, and made the transit hazardous. 9.15 A.m. or thereabouts; a charge by a brigade of the 18th Corps and a regiment of blacks; a part of one white regiment got to, or nearly to, the crest, but of course could not stay. During the morning a despatch had come, by mistake, to General Meade. It was from Lieutenant-Colonel C. G. Loring, Inspector of 9th Corps, who reported that the troops jammed in the crater and could not be made to advance. Loring had himself gone into the crater. This was the first news from the spot that showed Meade the hitch in affairs; because Burnside’s despatches had been of a general and a favorable character. Hereupon Meade telegraphed Burnside that he wanted the full state of the case, which B. took to mean that he had not told the truth! and at once flew into one of his singular fits of rage. Grant mounted his horse and rode down towards the Taylor Battery to try and see something. Meade remained, receiving despatches and sending orders. Grant is very desirous always of seeing, and quite regardless of his own exposure. 10.30 A.m. Burnside and Ord came in. The former, much flushed, walked up to General Meade and used extremely insubordinate language. He afterwards said he could advance, and wished of all things to persist; but could not show how he would do it! Ord was opposed to further attempts. Meade ordered the attack suspended. As Ord and Burnside passed me, the latter said something like: “You have 15,000 men concentrated on one point. It is strange if you cannot do something with them.” Ord replied angrily, flourishing his arms: “You can fight if you have an opportunity; but, if you are held by the throat, how can you do anything?” Meaning, I suppose, that things were so placed that troops could not be used. Burnside said to one of his Staff officers: “Well, tell them to connect, and hold it.” Which was easy to say, but they seem to have had no provision of tools, and, at any rate, did not connect with the old line. Poor Burnside remarked, quite calmly: “I certainly fully expected this morning to go into Petersburg!”1 At 11.30 A.m. Headquarters mounted and rode sadly to camp. 3.30 P.m. Harwood, of the Engineers, said to me: “They have retaken that point and captured a brigade of our people!” Indeed, the Rebels had made a bold charge upon the huddled mass of demoralized men and retaken the crater, killing some, driving back others, and capturing most. And so ended this woeful affair! If you ask what was the cause of this failure to avail of one of the best chances a besieging army could ask for, I could answer with many reasons from many officers. But I can give you one reason that includes and over-rides every other—the men did not fight hard enough.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 217-18. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 196-201. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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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.