Petersburg will tell whole story behind Battle of the Crater

Late in the day at The Crater, in 2009.<br>Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes
Late in the day at The Crater, in 2009.

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Among the Civil War’s myriad horrors, the Battle of the Crater stands out.

The sheer savagery of this fight, which will mark its 150th anniversary this week, boggles the mind.

From the moment that Union miners blew a hole in the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on July 30, 1864, legions of people have been talking about this against-all-odds marvel and the mayhem that followed.

“It was this ‘Oh, my God’ kind of moment,” said Emmanuel Dabney, a ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. “The ground shook like an earthquake, and what witnesses heard and saw stuck in their minds.”

A regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners had dug a 511-foot-long tunnel beneath Confederate earthworks, packed one end with 8,000 pounds of black powder, lit the fuse — twice (after it went out the first time) — and created the biggest manmade blast in the Western Hemisphere. At least 278 Confederates, mostly South Carolinians and Virginians, died instantly.

The sky filled with “earth, stones, timbers, arms, legs, guns unlimbered and bodies unlimbed,” a Maine soldier wrote.

“A monstrous tongue of flame shot fully two hundred feet in the air,

followed by a vast column of white smoke . . . then a great . . . fountain of red earth,” a Michigan soldier wrote.

Had Union troops swept the Confederate trenches and pushed on to Cemetery Hill beyond, “they might have captured Petersburg that day,” historian William Marvel has said.

Petersburg’s fall, given its vital railroads to Richmond and points south, would have been a catastrophe for the Confederacy.

Yet the attack turned into a Union disaster.

Northern troops poured into the explosion’s 30-foot-deep, 170-foot-long crater, pausing to dig out Confederate survivors. The battle plan had called for them to go around the hole, but commanders’ communications were a shambles.

The battle plan wasn’t relayed to the front-line troops. The man who was supposed to lead the charge, James H. Ledlie — a notorious drunk — stayed snug behind the lines in a sandbagged bunker, sipping on a bottle of rum.

Some Union troops advanced right and left of the crater, but were pushed back into it by counterattacking troops led by Confederate commander William Mahone, a Virginia Military Institute graduate.

“Confederates . . . wheeled their cannons up to the edge of the hole, pointed them down and let loose,” historian Brendan Wolfe writes.

The scene inside the crater beggared belief, as depicted — however inaccurately — in the movie “Cold Mountain.”

U.S. Colored Troops formed a significant portion of the attack. This was their first real taste of combat.

Some screamed “No quarter!” as they went forward.

Others cried “Remember Fort Pillow!” — referring to a Tennessee battle in which black troops were murdered by their captors.

Enraged by sight of the Southerners, the USCTs showed them no mercy, Dabney said in an interview. (See his Crater talk on C–SPAN: bit.ly/battlecrater.)

“They wanted to prove their manhood to a nation that did not believe black men could be men,” Dabney said.

Conversely, many Confederates were furious at the sight of the USCTs.

By law, the South didn’t recognize black troops as soldiers; it considered them slaves in revolt (even if some were born free) and allowed their re-enslavement and their officers’ execution.

Men clubbed other men to death with their gun butts.

Some of Mahone’s men hurled bayonet-tipped muskets like spears.

“[I]t seems cruel to murder [the black solders] in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very cause . . . I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men,” Confederate Col. William Pegram wrote his sister.

For decades afterward, Southern veterans would revisit the battlefield and describe — with pride — how they had vanquished the negroes, Dabney said.

But some Union soldiers, desperate to save themselves in the fight’s final chaos, killed USCTs, he said.

“This battlefield can’t get away from the issue of race,” he said.

Yet, it did, for decades.

“During the Civil War centennial, no one is going to talk about armed black men at the same time the civil rights movement is going on,” Dabney said.

But now, Petersburg tells the whole story.

Fredericksburg-area black soldiers—who enlisted in the 23rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops — are part of it. Of all the USCT regiments engaged, the 23rd suffered the highest number of casualties during the battle—more than 300.

Members of today’s 23rd, a Spotsylvania-based re-enactment unit, will take part in this weekend’s 150th anniversary program.

The park has many special events planned (see bit.ly/npspete150), starting early Wednesday.

On Wednesday, from 5:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., it will host tours and a “real-time” battle program. In the afternoon, the U.S. Postal Service will unveil its new 150th Anniversary of the Battle of the Crater stamp.

On Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Gillfield Baptist Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church will host panel presentations and lectures. Then, at 7 p.m., historian Kevin Levin will speak on “The Battle of the Crater & Civil War Memory.”

Saturday will offer living history, artillery demonstrations, tours, a family activity tent, and guest speaker Ed Bearss — chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service.

After the Union attack’s failure, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant telegraphed Army chief of staff Henry W. Halleck: “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”

Petersburg’s trauma went on another eight months, the longest siege on U.S. soil.


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