The Siege of Petersburg, Virginia: June 1864 to March 1865
The Battle of the Crater - July 30, 1864

Petersburg - Remains of the Crater

As Captain Robert E. Lee chronicled his father's viewpoints of the war, he discussed the Confederate experience with the Battle of the Crater, at least from an officer's perspective. "About this time, the enemy, having been at work on a mine for nearly a month, exploded it, and attacked our lines with a large force. The ensuing contest was called the Battle of the Crater. General Lee, having suspected that a mine was being run under his works, was partly prepared for it, and the attack was repulsed very quickly with great loss to the enemy."

Petersburg - The entrance to the tunnel"In the address of Capt. W. Gordon McCabe before the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia--November 2, 1876--speaking of this event, he says: "From the mysterious paragraphs in the Northern papers, and from reports of deserters, though those last were vague and contradictory, Lee and Beauregard suspected that the enemy was mining in front of some one of the three salients on Beauregard's front, and the latter officer had in consequence directed counter-mines to be sunk from all three, meanwhile constructing gorge-lines in the rear upon which the troops might retire in case of surprise or disaster.... But the counter-mining on the part of the Confederates was after a time discontinued, owing to the lack of proper tools, the inexperience of the troops in such work, and the arduous nature of their service in the trenches." [52]

Union General Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the men who would dig the mine, had this to say of their efforts. "This project was proposed by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, of the Forty-eighth Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, to General Potter, who submitted the proposal to me soon after our sitting down before this place. It met my hearty consent and support. It was commenced June 25, prosecuted with great zeal through a difficult soil [sometimes of the nature of quicksand, at others a heavy marl], and with no tools but the ordinary intrenching spade and pick. The main gallery was finished July 17, 522 feet in length. It was then found that the enemy were at work in immediate proximity, and its further prosecution was conducted with great caution. Lateral galleries 37 and 38 feet in length, running under and nearly parallel to the enemy's works, were completed July 23, and the mine was ready for the charge. This, by orders from the general commanding, was put it on the 27th. It consisted of about 8,000 pounds of powder. Great praise is due to Colonel Pleasants and the officers and men of his regiment for the patient labor cheerfully bestowed on a work which deserved and met complete success." [5]

Diagram of ventilation shaftCaptain Robert E. Lee continued documenting his father's experience with the Battle of the Crater. He included portion of a letter written by General Lee after his own laconic description of the beginning of the battle. "The mine was sprung July 30th.  On the 31st, the General writes: "...Yesterday morning the enemy sprung a mine under one of our batteries on the line and got possession of a portion of our intrenchments. It was the part defended by General Beauregard's troops, I sent General Mahone with two brigades of Hill's corps, who charged them handsomely, recapturing the intrenchments and guns, twelve stands of colours, seventy-three officers, including General Bartlett, his staff, three colonels, and eight hundred and fifty enlisted men. There were upward of five hundred of his dead and unburied in the trenches, among them many officers and blacks. He suffered severely. He has withdrawn his troops from the north side of the James. I do not know what he will attempt next.  He is mining on other points along our line. I trust he will not succeed in bettering his last attempt...." [52]

Again in his own report, General Burnside would discuss some of the difficulties encountered in assaulting the Confederate lines after the explosion. "I received orders from the general commanding to spring the mine at 3.30 a.m. The troops were in position at that hour, massed behind the portion of our line nearest the point to be reached. The fuse, however, failed to ignite at a point where it had been spliced, and delay occurred. It was reignited, and the mine sprung at 4.45 a.m. Immediately the leading brigade of the First Division [the Second], under Colonel Marshall, started for the charge. There was a delay of perhaps five minutes in removing the abatis. Clearing that, the brigade advanced rapidly to the fort that had been mined, now a crater of large proportions and an obstacle of great formidableness. Mounting a crest of at least 12 feet above the level of the ground, our men found before them a huge aperture of 150 feet in length by 60 in width, and 25 or 30 in depth, the sides of loose pulverized sand piled up precipitately, from which projected huge blocks of clay. To cross such an obstacle and preserve regimental organization was a sheer impossibility. The lines of the enemy on either side were not single, but involuted and complex, filled with pits, traverses, and bomb-proofs, forming a labyrinth as difficult of passage as the crater itself." [5]

Remains of the tunnel to the craterIn his personal memoirs, General Ulysses S. Grant would briefly document how he viewed the day. "On the morning of the 30th, between four and five o'clock, the mine was sprung, blowing up a battery and most of a regiment, and the advance of the assaulting column, formed of the 9th corps, immediately took possession of the crater made by the explosion, and the line for some distance to the right and left of it, and a detached line in front of it, but for some cause failed to advance promptly to the ridge beyond.  Had they done this, I have every reason to believe that Petersburg would have fallen. Other troops were immediately pushed forward, but the time consumed in getting them up enabled the enemy to rally from his surprise (which had been complete), and get forces to this point for its defence. The captured line thus held being untenable, and of no advantage to us, the troops were withdrawn, but not without heavy loss. Thus terminated in disaster what promised to be the most successful assault of the campaign." [46]

Despite General Grant's description of the outcome of this assault, perhaps not surprisingly, General Burnside viewed it differently. After mentioning the progress and lack there of of the various Union assaults, General Burnside continued with, "At the time of the assault of the Fourth Division General Willcox threw out his Second Brigade, Colonel Humphrey's, and took an additional portion of the line on the left. Soon after the repulse, an assault from the front was made on the crater; it was gallantly repelled with great loss to the enemy, none of them advancing to our lines except those who surrendered themselves.

At this time the enemy had planted artillery at several points on the hill, and had gained the range of the crater and lines with great accuracy, his mortar firing being especially destructive.

At 9.15 a.m. I received with regret a peremptory order from the general commanding to withdraw my troops from the enemy's line. The order was sent into the crater at 12.20 p.m. with instructions to brigade commanders on the spot to consult and determine the hour and manner of retiring. I directed General Ferrero to immediately commence a covered way to the crater, to meet one already begun from there. The men in the crater and lines adjoining had become exhausted with the severity of the day's work. They had made several and had repulsed three distinct assaults, and had fought hand to hand with the enemy for the possession of his pits. They were suffering severely under a hot sun from want of water." [5]

Petersburg - Remains of the Crater

Petersburg - Entrance to mine in Fort MahoneThe soldiers in blue were not the only to attempt to burrow surreptitiously under the lines of their adversaries. This photograph, taken after the Confederates had been driven from their lines around Petersburg, shows the opening to a tunnel similar to that dug by their Union foes. Courtesy of the US Library of Congress, the caption of this photograph reads only, "Petersburg, Va. Entrance to mine in Fort Mahone, intended to undermine Fort Sedgwick. 1865 April 3."