July 30th 1864
The battle of the Crater took place on July 30, 1864 outside the city of Petersburg Virginia. The rebel held town of Petersburg was on the road to the Confederate capital of Richmond Virginia, it was also a major rail depot for Confederate supplies that went into the city of Richmond. It was essential for the Union to capture Petersburg, it was just as critical for the Confederates to keep it.
The Siege of Petersburg began around the middle of June 1864 and quickly turned into a stalemate. The Union Army made several assaults against Petersburg but could not break through the heavily entrenched Confederate lines.
The Union was desperate to break the Confederate line and capture the town. In late June Brigadier General Robert B. Potter commander of the Second Division and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants commander of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry regiment, which consisted mainly of coal miners from Schuylkill County Pennsylvania presented an innovative idea to the commander of the Ninth Corps Major General Ambrose Burnside. They believed a Confederate fort directly across from their position could be destroyed. Pleasants and his men wanted to dig a tunnel under the Confederate line. The tunnel would then be filled with gunpowder and detonated under the Confederate fort.
This explosion would be catastrophic to the Confederate defenders killing many of them and opening a huge breach in their line. The stunned defenders would be slow to recover from such a huge explosion. This would present a great opportunity for Union troops to immediately attack the gap in the Confederate line and overwhelm the defenders. The Union Army would then capture the town and be free to move on and capture Richmond and win the war.
General Burnside approved of the idea and ordered construction of the tunnel to start immediately. If nothing else General Burnside reasoned, it would at least give his men something to do. After construction had begun General Burnside presented the plan to his commanding officer Major General George Gordon Meade.
The commander of the Army of the Potomac General Ulysses S Grant was eager to make an attack against Petersburg in order to break through their line. General Meade therefore authorized the continuance of the operation, sanctioned it and entrusted that the work would at some point result in forming an important part in the operations around Petersburg.
At first Meade did not have much confidence that the plan would actually work. Meade did not like the location of the mine believing it was in a bad position and that the Confederate line was too strong and the attack would fail. After taking a better look at the Confederate defenses in the area and realizing that they were weaker than he initially thought, Meade decided that the assault had a good chance of being successful if carried out properly.
Battle of the Crater Initial Plan of Attack
After several weeks of work, the tunnel was finally completed on July 23, 1864. It was filled with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. General Burnside was the commander of the Ninth Corps. He had three white divisions and one black division under his command.
First Division Commanded by Brigadier General James H. Ledlie
Second Divison Commanded by Brigadier General Robert B. Potter
Third Divison commanded by Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox
Fourth Divison commanded by Brigadier General Edward Ferrero
Burnside’s plan called for the African American Fourth Division under the command of Brigadier General Edward Ferrero to make the initial assault. The black division was chosen for this task because they were fresh and had not seen much combat since arriving near Petersburg in mid June.
Burnside’s three white divisions which consisted of 9,023 men had been in the trenches on the front line for almost a month since arriving near Petersburg on June 18th. They sustained 1,150 casualties from rifle fire and artillery shelling, were exhausted and deemed unfit for such an important operation. They were more interested in staying under cover and out of sight, and were in no condition to assault the Confederate line.
The plan was for the mine to be detonated at 3:30 am on July 30th. After the explosion, the black soldiers would immediately dash to the Confederate gap that had opened up. They would be covered by Union artillery that would fire on the Confederate positions as they made their run toward the Confederate line. The black troops were to run around the sides of the crater and attack into the rear of the Confederates where they would capture a nearby ridge called Cemetery Hill, there they would form a defensive line and wait for reinforcements.
General Burnside’s white divisions would support the black troops and follow behind them during the assault. The black troops would also be supported on their right by troops under General Ord and on the left by troops under General Warren.
At that point more divisions would flood into the area forcing the Confederates to retreat from Petersburg. The Union army then hoped to chase the Confederates over the bridges on the Appomattox River and Swift Run and continue on to capture Richmond.
The assault would have to take place very rapidly, if there was any delay the Confederates would recover from the initial shock of the explosion and be able to rush troops into the breach, reform their line and counterattack.
Battle of the Crater Revised Plan of Attack
General Meade opposed Burnside’s plan, he did not want black troops making the initial assault. He believed the first wave of attackers would suffer heavy casualties and did not want to be accused of using black troops in such a way. He also said he wanted Burnside’s best troops with the most combat experience to make the initial assault.
General Burnside was very upset with this decision, in order to appease Burnside, General Meade agreed to ask General Grant’s opinion on the matter.
General Grant after considering both arguments agreed with General Meade that the black soldiers should not lead the assault. The matter was settled and General Meade ordered Burnside to select a white division to lead the assault while the black troops would be in a supporting role.
With no other choice General Burnside had to decide which one of his white divisions would lead the attack. The decision to force Burnside to choose a white division came on the afternoon of July 29th only one day before the attack was to take place in the early morning of July 30th. The troops in the three white divisions had received no training or information about the assault, this short notice only gave these officers and men about12 hours to prepare for the attack. The black division on the other hand had weeks of training and drills in preparation for the attack.
None of this matter because the decision from General Grand and General Meade had been made. General Burnside had to pick one of these white divisions for the assault. He decided that “It will be fair to cast lots”. The three generals cast lots and General Ledlie of the First Division drew the lot to make the assault. Of the three officers he was probably the least qualified and his troops were in the worst position, however his troops had seen less combat than the other two divisions so they were physically in better shape to make the assault.
Battle of the Crater July 30th 1864 3:30 am
Ordered the withdraw of forces at 9:25 am
Battle of the Crater Court of Inquiry
On August 3, 1864 President Abraham Lincoln ordered a court of inquiry to be convened in front of Petersburg on August 8, 1864 to determine the facts and circumstances that led to the unsuccessful assault on the Confederate lines.
The officers in charge of the operation were called to testify. They were
Major General George Gordon Meade
Major General Ambrose Burnside
Major General Warren
Major General Sheridan
Major General Ord
Brigadier General White
Brigadier General Hunt
Brigadier General Mott
The court was convened and led by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, Brigadier General Ayres, Brigadier General Miles and Colonel Schriver.
After many days of investigation and testimony from the officers in charge of the assault the court concluded that Major General Ambrose Burnside was at fault, and he was responsible for the failure of the Battle of the Crater.