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Civil War's bloody Battle of the Crater leaves its mark 154 years later

The Crater, near Petersburg, Va., in 2009.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By ROBERT MCCABE | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: July 30, 2018

PETERSBURG, Va. (Tribune News Service) — One of the most horrific — and iconic — events of the Civil War unfolded 154 years ago Monday.

In the pre-dawn steaminess of July 30, 1864, Lt. Col. William H. Stewart, a Confederate infantry officer from what is now Chesapeake, was in a tent on a farm just outside of Petersburg.

In a 1911 memoir of his Civil War service, Stewart wrote:

“I was quietly sleeping under this little shelter, dreaming perhaps of home and all its dear associations (for only a soldier can fully appreciate these), when a deep rumbling sound, that seemed to rend the very earth in twain, startled me from my sleep, and in an instant I beheld a mountain of curling smoke ascending towards the heavens.”

What awoke Stewart and thousands of other troops that morning was 8,000 pounds of gunpowder exploding from a mine that Union troops had spent a month tunneling under a Confederate fortification about three-quarters of a mile southeast of Old Blandford Church, which stands today.

The blast blew a hole 170 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep, all but vaporizing some South Carolina infantry regiments and a Virginia artillery unit manning the position, instantly killing or wounding about 350.

Today, more than a century and a half later, you can still stand next to “the Crater,” as it’s known. Covered with lush summer greenery, its contours still reveal two depressions, where powder-filled “branches” to the left and right of the end of the tunnel were set.

It’s hard to conceive of the depravity that took place there. Two years after the battle, crews found 669 bodies in the crater area, at least 300 of them in the crater itself, according to historian Earl Hess.

Nearby, down a green sloping meadow, a little more than 500 feet away, you can see the sand-bagged entrance to the tunnel, too, framed with wooden beams.

The blast set in motion a roughly nine-hour free-for-all in and around the hole it created in what became known as the Battle of the Crater. It pitted about 16,700 Union troops against a Confederate force of roughly 9,400.

“What followed, my friends, was the most intense hand-to-hand combat that has ever stained the North American continent,” said historian A. Wilson Greene during a talk last month in Gettysburg, Pa.

When it was over, nearly 3,800 Union soldiers were dead, mortally wounded, wounded or missing. Confederate casualties totaled about 1,600.

The Union casualties included 1,327 from the 4th Division, an African American unit of about 4,300. Of those lost, 209 were killed or mortally wounded, about 41 percent of such Union losses overall, according to “The Battle of the Crater: ‘The Horrid Pit’ ” by Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel.

The black division lost one man killed for nearly every two that were wounded, while in the average Civil War battle, only one of nearly every five wounded men was killed, Greene noted.

The high casualty rate for the black troops — though they were the last of four Union divisions to enter the battle — was at least in part because of what played out as the battle progressed: the massacre of African American troops, many of them unarmed, who had surrendered or been captured.

The battle took place not long after the start of a 292-day Union siege of Petersburg, beginning about mid-June 1864, and ending in early April 1865, just a week before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.

At the time, Petersburg was a major city, a railroad hub that linked to points from southwest Virginia to Wilmington, N.C.

The siege began shortly after 70,000 Union troops, over four days of fighting, tried to take the city by storm and failed, with a loss of 10,000 men, said Tracy Chernault, a park ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield.

It also followed nearly six weeks of terrible fighting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, where Union troops under Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant suffered withering casualties attacking Confederate defensive positions.

Union troops, once again facing Confederate fortifications and artillery batteries, were reluctant to attempt more attacks on well-fortified positions, knowing the price they could exact. Against this backdrop came an idea from a Union soldier in the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, many of whose original men were miners: “We could blow that damn fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.”

Work began on June 25, 1864 on what would become a 511-foot-long tunnel that would extend directly under a Confederate fortification, with two, nearly 40-foot-long lateral branches at its end. It included a ventilation shaft to draw in fresh air and was built at least 25 feet deep.

The Confederates were on to the plan a few days after it began and about July 10 started digging to intercept the Union tunnel. But they didn’t go deep enough, according to Hess’ book “Into the Crater,” and weren’t able to stop the Union effort.

The Pennsylvanians’ work was completed around July 27; the mine was scheduled to blow at 3:30 a.m. July 30.

The plan was to begin an infantry attack immediately after the blast, to charge through the gap created in the Confederate line, and to swarm the high ground where Old Blandford Church stands, positioning Union forces to take Petersburg and bring the war to an early conclusion.

But it didn’t turn out that way.

Among the many reasons cited for the colossal failure was poor leadership.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s IX Corps, had four divisions in his command — three white, one black. Weeks before the attack, he had decided that the black unit — the 4th Division — would spearhead the assault immediately after the mine explosion.

The black division had never been in combat , but the three white divisions had, suffering losses in nearby battles. Burnside thought it best to go with the fresh 4th Division.

Ultimately, Grant, who had taken a special interest in the plan, called for a change at the 11th hour.

After being lobbied by Maj. Gen. George Meade, Burnside’s immediate commander, Grant was reluctant to let an untested division lead the assault.

The change wasn’t communicated to Burnside until less than 24 hours before the attack was to begin.

Burnside hastily called a meeting of the three white division commanders, none of whom was keen about leading the charge. They wound up drawing lots and James Ledlie, commander of the 1st Division, known as a lackluster leader with a drinking problem, was the “winner.”

The stage was finally set.

After a slight delay because of a problem with the fuse leading to the mine, it was lit again around 4:30 a.m.

At 4:44 a.m., the explosion tore up the sky.

Sgt. Henry Reese, one of the men who helped light the fuse, described the blast as “a heavy jar, a dull thud, a big volcano-puff of smoke and dust, and up went the earth under and around that fort for a distance in the air of a hundred feet or more, carrying with it cannons, caissons, muskets — and men.”

When Ledlie’s troops finally made their way to the lip of the crater, they encountered sights that were virtually indescribable and could only stand there, slack-jawed, unable to take their eyes off what lie before them.

It might be compared, in more contemporary terms, to motorists stumbling on a bad car wreck on I-264 in Virginia Beach, pulling over and getting out of their vehicles to see blood on the road, Chernault said.

Rather than fanning out around and past the blast to advance, some of the first Union troops on the scene went into the crater itself and, apparently moved at the sight of half-buried Confederates, some flailing their legs, tried to help dig them out. Such humanitarian impulses, however, eventually gave way to something much darker.

The 4th Division of black troops began their assault, with orders to move to the high ground around the church, about 7:30 a.m. As they moved, they chanted, “Remember Fort Pillow! No quarter!”

That spring, black prisoners had been executed by Confederate troops at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. The 4th Division was looking for revenge.

On the other hand, Greene pointed out, “It was conventional wisdom among Confederate soldiers that if they were captured by black troops, they would be killed.” So the cry of “No Quarter!” from the black troops wasn’t a surprise, he said, and “conformed with the preconceived notion that Confederates had of fighting blacks.”

Despite their shock, it did not take long for the Confederates to rally and, eventually, begin a series of counterattacks led by Brig. Gen. William Mahone, in what would turn out to be an amazing reversal of fortunes.

The 4th Division and the other Union troops faced withering fire from Mahone’s counterattacks and soon wound up being sucked into the crater, which at first seemed to offer some protection.

It soon, however, turned into a slaughterhouse.

“Confederates ringed the Crater and poured volley after volley into this heaped up mass of terrified Negroes and their brave officers,” a Confederate captain recalled, according to Greene. “We recaptured all our lines, driving the enemy over into the Crater, like a herd of frantic buffaloes,” another remembered.

The Crater became “a seething mass of men, hundreds and thousands of them, some firing back at us, some struggling to escape; shattering volleys were fired into the seething abyss until it became a perfect hell of blood.”

Seeing the rage that the Confederates had for the black troops, some white Union soldiers — thinking they might save themselves — also shared in the murder of their black comrades, Greene said.

Even after the fighting appeared to be over, “Many Confederates could not bring themselves to stop fighting even after the enemy gave up,” Hess wrote. “For several minutes there ensued a frenzy of cold-blooded murder as many unarmed black soldiers were bayoneted and beaten to death.”

Greene said that Mahone, “sickened by the sight of these surrendering black soldiers being clubbed, stabbed or shot down, ordered the slaughter to cease.”

When it finally stopped, about 1,000 Union troops were left to surrender, “a relatively small number of them African-Americans.”

In a recent interview, Greene cautioned against viewing the events at the Crater through a modern-day lens:

“One of the things that we have to be careful of is to make sure that our judgments of people’s actions in the past are based on an understanding of the culture of the period in which those actions occurred, rather than simply applying our standards to the people of 150 years ago. And that’s not to excuse what happened relative to the black troops at all. I think we’re obligated to try to understand what happened rather than just stop and say, ‘Wasn’t this horrible?’ ”

Asked in an email why an average American should care about this event that took place 154 years ago, Hess responded that “the salient thing is indeed the race issue.”

Students of military history may focus on the operational side of the Civil War and look at what went wrong.

“But for the larger American community the battle of the Crater provides yet another example of virulent race hatred by many white Southerners and a striking denial of the idea that many Southerners still hold today that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery or racial issues,” Hess wrote.

“The battle was a landmark on the hard road toward a better deal for African-Americans in the U.S.”

©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
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A plaque near the Crater honors South Carolina troops who died in the 1864 battle.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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