On July 24, 1864, commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant approved US Major General George Gordon Meade’s request to detonate a mine under the Confederate lines at Petersburg. In his order, Grant stated, “If this is attempted it will be necessary to concentrate all the force possible at that point in the enemy’s line we expect to penetrate. All officers should be fully impressed with the absolute necessity of pushing entirely beyond the enemy’s present line, if they should succeed in penetrating it, and of getting back to their present line promptly if they should not succeed in breaking through.”(i)
Centered near Pegram’s Salient (also called Elliott’s Salient for the infantry brigade commanded by Stephen Elliott), the tunnels, and galleries took several weeks to build. The 48th Pennsylvania was tasked with building the tunnels, adding supports and placing the galleries in the correct places. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, many of the men of the 48th Pennsylvania were miners by trade. With the mine excavations completed on July 27, Grant ordered the mine to be detonated at 3:30 A.M., on July 30. Packed with 8,000 pounds of black powder, evenly placed in separate magazines in the galleries, they were connected with wooden troughs half filled with powder. Common blasting fuses were used to light the explosives, and ran 98 feet to a wall, constructed of logs and sandbags. This wall was designed to keep the powerful explosion centered under the Rebel line.(ii)
On July 30, Pleasants lit the fuse at 3:15 A.M., after which he walked calmly out of the shaft. The mine did not explode at 3:30 A.M. Deciding to give it one hour to detonate, Pleasants asked for volunteers when the mine had not exploded by 4:15 A.M. Sergeant Henry Reese, and Lieutenant Jacob Douty, both of the 48th Pennsylvania, volunteered to enter the shaft. Entering the shaft, they found that all three fuses had been extinguished at a splice. The fuse was repaired, and the men quickly exited the shaft.(iii)
The mine exploded at 4:44 A.M., with devastating results. US Captain Thomas W. Clark, describing the blast stated, “There flashed out a lily-shaped fountain of dark red and yellow fire, with brown streaks in it.”(iv) The explosion was strong enough to lift many of the prone Federal soldiers off their bellies in front of the Federal lines. It created a “crater” in the earth, 30 feet deep, 50 feet wide and 125 feet long that would be described as resembling “a long Irish potato.”(v) It is estimated that between 275–300 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast – or buried alive while they slept.
Tasked with leading the infantry charge against Pegram’s Salient was US Brigadier General James H. Ledlie. Commanding a division in US Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps, Ledlie had a less than stellar reputation – having been found drunk during the action at the North Anna River. Burnside had originally planned on using US Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, consisting of United States Colored Troops (USCT), for the attack, but was overruled by Meade. Burnside’s reasoning was that Ferrero’s division was better rested than his other veteran divisions. Meade was concerned with how the “green” USCT troops would react under severe pressure on such an important operation. Grant sustained Meade and the matter was put to rest.(vi)
After an opening salvo of artillery fire, from US Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt’s batteries, Ledlie ordered his troops forward – approximately ten minutes after the blast. His division quickly pushed towards the crater. Two brigades, commanded by colonels William F. Bartlett and Elisha G. Marshall, streamed into the crater. Ledlie, not possessing the best communication skills, did not issue clear orders for his brigade commanders resulting in the brigades entering the crater and not pushing to the ultimate target - the high ground beyond the Confederate lines. Confusion reigned within the crater as the soldiers had no way of scaling the wall on the Confederate side. Following Ledlie’s brigade were portions of US Brigadier General Robert B. Potter’s Second Division. These troops, aligned on the right of Ledlie’s division, pushed to the Rebel lines north of the crater. Due to the confusion of battle, some of US Colonel Simon Griffin’s Second Brigade veered left into the crater – creating additional mayhem. Following Ledlie and Potter’s division was a portion of US Brigadier General Orlando Willcox’s Third Division. Forming a second line of battle, Willcox’s first brigade, commanded by US Colonel John Hartranft, entered the crater, further compacting the mass of men, while the remainder of the division pushed to the south of the crater.
Opposing the Federal troops were Confederate troops under the command of CSA Brigadier General Stephen Elliott. Consisting of men from South Carolina, Elliott’s Brigade included the 17th, 18th, 22d, 23d and the 26th South Carolina infantry regiments. South of the crater was CSA Colonel J.T. Goode’s brigade of veteran Virginians. Elliott’s Brigade would receive the thrust of Potter’s Federal division, while Goode’s Brigade would defend against Willcox’s division. While portions of Elliott’s brigade streamed to the rear, the 49th North Carolina, of CSA Brigadier General M.W. Ransom’s Brigade pushed to the face of the crater. They quickly began emptying their muskets into the mass of men stuck in the crater. The action was vividly described by North Carolina infantryman Thomas R. Rouhac, “Our men aimed steadily and true, and as each rifle became too hot to be used another gun was at work by one who took the place of the first, or supplied him rifles that could be handled.”(vii)
Meade, growing impatient with the stagnated fighting ordered Burnside to, “push your men forward at all hazards (white and black) and don’t lose time in making formations, but rush for the crest.”(viii) Burnside immediately issued orders to all division commanders to push forward. Meade, not directly witnessing the action in the crater, would become incensed when he learned of the confusion in the crater. He further ordered Burnside to use troops from the V and XVIII Corps, as necessary.
On the Confederate side, much of Elliott’s Brigade had scattered in the confusion of the blast, with the remaining troops all that separated Burnside from successfully penetrating the line. These South Carolinians fought bravely holding back a much larger force. Elliott, after ordering a charge around 6:00 A.M., was shot as soon as he stepped out of the trench. Command of the brigade passed to CSA Colonel Fitz W. McMaster, of the 17th South Carolina, who placed the brigade in position north, and south, of the crater. McMaster’s efforts were greatly augmented by artillery which poured a deadly fire into the crater, and its approaches.
About this time, CSA General Robert E. Lee learned of the action at Pegram’s Salient. He immediately dispatched his staffer, Colonel Charles Venable, to CSA Brigadier General William Mahone, ordering two of his brigades to support Elliott and Goode. Federal signal officers quickly noticed this movement and alerted Meade, who believed he might have an opportunity west of the Jerusalem Plank Road. Ordering US Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps to determine the feasibility of an attack south of Burnside, they quickly determined that it would be impractical. Burnside was on his own and Mahone’s brigades now made their presence known at the crater.
Communication on the Federal front was terrible. Meade felt that Burnside was deliberately keeping him uninformed, while Ledlie provided Burnside no communication. When he sent his division forward, Ledlie quietly retired to a bombproof behind the lines. Complaining of malarial symptoms, the surgeon of the 27th Michigan provided Ledlie with rum. When he received orders from a Burnside staffer to send his division to the ridge behind Pegram’s Salient, Ledlie directed the staffer to spread word to his division.(ix) Ledlie would later be cashiered for being intoxicated during the battle.
By 9:00 A.M. the Federals held roughly 300 yards of the Confederate trenches. With all of his troops now in the fray, Ferrero’s Fourth Division, composed of the USCT’s troops, were leading the push towards the ridge, and the Jerusalem Plank Road. With the tangled mass of men in the crater, only the 30th and 43d USCT regiments managed to break through. Colonel Delavan Bates, of the 30th USCT, urged his men forward, “Remember Fort Pillow!”(x) Bates, shot in the face, would survive his wound and be awarded the Medal of Honor on June 22, 1891.
Facing Ferrero’s USCT troops were Mahone’s two brigades which he took personal command of. Leading his old brigade, commanded by Brigadier General David Weisiger, he would send them to support Elliott’s 200 soldiers north of the crater. Much hand-to-hand combat took place between Weisiger’s Virginians and the US Colored Troops. After about twenty minutes the Federal troops had been cleared from the captured trenches. Meanwhile, south of the crater, Hartranft ordered his men back to a portion of Pegram’s Salient that was still intact. With the arrival of Mahone many of the Federal troops in the crater retreated in disorder for the Union lines. However, approximate 600 men remained in the crater, many of them black troops. They would claw their way to the top of the precipice and would either be shot, or clubbed, inevitably rolling back down the face into the soldiers under them. The men writhing in the bottom of the crater were mercilessly picked off by Mahone’s Confederates, with little means of defending themselves.
By this time, at Federal headquarters, both Grant and Meade had determined to call off the attack. Between 9:30 and 10:00 A.M. Burnside received two orders to call off his offensive. Determined to resurrect his plan, Burnside rode to headquarters to plead his case with Meade. Meade was unmoved, but allowed Burnside to wait until dark to pull his men back. Upon returning to his headquarters, at Fourteen Gun Battery, Burnside issued ambiguous orders for retreat, leaving the timing up to his division commanders. Before these orders reached the field, Mahone issued orders to Hall’s Georgia brigade to attack south of the crater. This proved a dismal failure as the Georgians, under heavy fire from the crater, pushed towards the left, behind Weisiger’s brigade. Undeterred, Mahone ordered Sanders’ Brigade to attack south of the crater, at 1:00 PM. While waiting for the arrival of Sanders, the Federal troops received their orders from Burnside. Determining that it would be too dangerous to retire during daylight, they stayed in the crater. Sanders attack started at 1:00 P.M., as planned. They arrived at the edge of the crater, but advanced no further, for fear of falling into the mass of Federals in the hole. Resorting to throwing their bayonet tipped muskets into the crater, or throwing dirt clods, they were ineffective. Finally they pushed into the crater. They immediately started killing the black soldiers – even after many of them had surrendered. After about thirty minutes, the crater was completely commanded by Sanders’ brigade. They captured 500 men and three regimental flags. The debacle at the crater was finally over.(xi)
All told, the Federals suffered 3,800 casualties at the Battle of the Crater – over 500 were killed. On the Confederate side, losses were approximately 1,500 of which there were 200 killed in action. Grant clearly made his opinion known, “The effort was a stupendous failure. It cost us about 4,000 men, mostly, however, captured; and all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.”(xii) For the next eight months, the combatants would continue to attempt to outmaneuver each other in front of Petersburg. Finally, on April 2, 1865, Grant would break Lee’s lines at Petersburg, ending in the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Earl J. Hess’ scholarly work on Petersburg, “In the Trenches of Petersburg,” was used to research this article. This is a wonderful analysis of all the actions at Petersburg, during the ten month offensive. For more information on this book, please read my review on the book by clicking here. Included is an in-depth interview with Mr. Hess that is very enlightening.
(i) Grant, Ulysses S., Grant Memoirs and Selected Letters, published by The Library of America 1990, Pg. 611.
(ii) Hess, Earl J., In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat, published by The University of North Carolina Press, June 2009, Pgs. 84–85.
(iii) Ibid, Pg. 90.
(iv) Ibid, Pg. 90.
(v) Ibid, Pg. 91.
(vi) Ibid, Pgs. 87–88.
(vii) Ibid, Pg. 92.
(viii) Ibid, Pg. 93.
(ix) Ibid, Pg. 97.
(x) Ibid, Pg. 98.
(xi) Ibid, Pgs. 98–103.
(xii) Grant, Ulysses S., Grant Memoirs and Selected Letters, published by The Library of America 1990, Pg. 613.