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Photo courtesy of National Archives photo no. 111-B-146 (Brady Collection)
Confederate breastworks in front of Petersburg, 1865
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Illustration courtesy of Library of Congress reproduction number LC-USZ62-72890
No photos exist from the battle. This sketch of the crater, as seen from the Union side, was made at the time of the battle.
Two events this summer will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater.
The idea came from a bunch of Pennsylvania soldiers. Coal miners before the war, they looked across the enemy lines at a Confederate artillery encampment about 175 yards away and thought to themselves, “Why not dig under it and blow it up?” And from that idea came the Battle of the Crater.
One of the Civil War’s nastiest, goriest, most racially charged clashes, it is without question the most famous battle of the Siege of Petersburg, a nine-month stalemate from June 1864 to March 1865 during which Union troops and Confederates engaged in trench warfare as the Confederates tried in vain to prevent the fall of Petersburg, and ultimately Richmond.
“It’s the most unique battle of the war — all the tunneling and explosions and hand-to-hand combat,” says Jimmy Blankenship, a historian with Petersburg National Battlefield. “No one would have wanted to be there — let’s put it that way.”
However, Petersburg National Battlefield hopes plenty of people will want to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, so they’re holding observances on two days: the actual anniversary of Wednesday, July 30, and the following Saturday, Aug. 2, when working parents and families can visit.
“The soldiers didn’t have the foresight 150 years ago to pick a convenient day of the week” for the battle’s anniversary, jokes Chris Bryce, the battlefield’s chief of interpretation.
On July 30, park rangers will offer real-time tours talking about what was happening at that exact time 150 years ago, beginning from the explosion at 5:45 a.m. until the battle’s end at 3 p.m. A program with speeches by VIPs will be held at 10 a.m., and the U.S. Postal Service will unveil and begin selling a new Civil War stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Petersburg.
The Aug. 2 event will include guided tours and living-history programs with interpreters portraying artillery soldiers and field medics, as well as generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Edwin C. Bearss, former chief historian for the National Park Service, also will sign copies of his newestbook, The Petersburg Campaign Vol. 2: The Western Front Battles September 1864 - April 1865.
The War Goes Underground
It took the Union soldiers about a month to dig the tunnel. Though they were concealed by a hillside, “rumors were flying around” the Confederate camps about Union tunneling, says Blankenship. “At night, the Confederates thought they were hearing the sounds of digging.”
The Confederates tried digging their own “listening galleries” and shafts in an effort to discover the tunnel. Ironically, “one of their countermines went right over top of the Union tunnel,” Blankenship says. “They didn’t go deep enough.”
The Union tunnel was completed on July 23, 1864, and filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder.
On the morning of July 30, 1864, at 4:45 a.m. (or what would be 5:45 a.m. in our modern daylight saving time system), following a few technical difficulties, Union troops detonated the fuse.“
No one knew what 8,000 pounds of gunpowder would do when it blew up,” Blankenship says. “So much debris and dirt and men and cannons were thrown up into the air that one description says that chunks of clay as large as four-room school houses were blown 200 feet into the air.”
Nearly 300 Confederate soldiers were killed in the initial blast, which carved out the eponymous crater, a massive hole as much as 200 feet long in places and 30 to 60 feet deep. (Today it’s a grassy, bowl-shaped meadow, about 12 feet deep; parts of the tunnel still survive and can be seen behind iron gates at the battlefield park in Petersburg.)
Because black powder is a slow-burning explosive, “it was not just one boom and it was over with,” Blankenship explains. “The explosions lasted for 10 to 15 minutes” – during which time both the Union and Confederate troops were pinned down and blinded by the continual rainstorm of debris.
When the stunned Union troops began to charge, they were fired on by Confederate artillery batteries. About 1,000 Union troops ended up seeking refuge in the crater, where the blood was ankle-deep and salted with body parts of dead and half-buried Confederates. Union soldiers fired out of the crater, “pouring sheet after sheet of lead,” Blankenship says.
"Give no quarter!"
Later in the morning, the Union sent in a brigade of African-American soldiers. Union and Confederate artillery and small-arms fire were flying in both directions. The black troops yelled “Remember Fort Pillow!” and “Give no quarter!” — references to the recent Fort Pillow Massacre, an April 1864 Tennessee battle in which troops under Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who would later become the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan) massacred hundreds of surrendering African-American Union soldiers, crying, “No quarter!”
The African-American Union soldiers in Petersburg “promised they’re not going to take anybody prisoner. They’re going to do as the Confederate troops did at Fort Pillow,” says battlefield Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney. “This amps up the tension in what was already a tense situation.”
The “pent-up energy of 200 years” of racial animosities also exploded at Petersburg that day, Dabney says. The white Confederates were furious and fought back fiercely with swords, bayonets and pistols, close-range weapons rarely used in the war. The African-American soldiers panicked, which spread to the white Union soldiers.
“The white Union troops realized that the Confederates are very, very angry and they came to the realization that they’re not angry because they had mined the Confederate division; they’re angry that there are black troops in front of them,” Dabney says. Some of the white Union soldiers began killing African-American Union soldiers to prevent them from killing the white Confederate soldiers. Some white officers taken prisoner claimed they weren’t with the African-American soldiers; other white Union officers stuck with their African-American brethren and suffered the consequences.
Many retreating Union soldiers fell into the crater. “One Union soldier remembers the dead were unable to fall in the crater because the dead were packed so tightly and the living were squirming underneath, trying to get out,” Dabney says. The crater was a soup of blood and bodies. A group of Union Native American sharpshooters from Michigan chanted a death song inside the hole, realizing they would not survive.
By noon, the Union soldiers lost all the ground they’d gained, aside from the soldiers stuck in the crater. The Confederates threw bayonets and lit artillery shells into the hole, creating more carnage.
By the end of the day, the 16,000 Union soldiers in the battle took nearly 3,800 casualties (including those wounded, missing or captured), with about 500 soldiers killed, about 200 of whom were African-Americans. (Captured African-American soldiers were likely enslaved, Blankenship notes.) The 9,400 Confederates had about 1,600 casualties, with around 360 killed.
The Battle of the Crater “strategically … does not impact the outcome of the war,” Dabney says. “The campaign lasts another eight months afterward. But it is going to make Grant change his thinking from direct attacks on Petersburg to try to move around it. It’s going to take eight months, but ultimately he was right: Petersburg will fall. Richmond will fall.”
And the first Union soldiers to enter the fallen Richmond would be African-Americans.