Battle of the Crater
ramfanatic note: I had indicated earlier that I planned to write about the Battle of the Crater. Just before I began to write, I received an e-mail from a viewer in California who summarized what happened in that battle better than I ever could. I asked the writer, Jack Nelson, a UNC grad and history major, if I could have his permission to post his e-mail instead of me writing the promised article. He graciously agreed and his e-mail is as follows:
Read your interesting article on the movie Cold Mountain. I haven't seen it yet but it is on my list of "to do" things.
As to the Battle of the Crater, you are right, it was no Northern victory. It was one of those Civil War tragedies, like Cold Harbor or Franklin (TN), where good men paid in blood for the stupidity of their leaders.
The idea of the Petersburg "mine" came from a Pennsylvania coal miner, Col. Henry Pleasants, who believed that a shaft could be dug under the Confederate works. The army engineers laughed at him and told him it was impossible, but Pleasants knew better (he had been mining coal in Schuylkill County for years) and finally got his corps commander, Gen. Burnside, to approve the plan.
Pleasants put his regiment to digging, most of them being miners too, and figured out all the logistics and ventilation schemes, and before long they had their shaft completed. (Incidentally, the Confederates suspected what was going on and sank countershafts of their own, but missed the Yankee tunnel.) They packed it with black powder, set a fuse, and waited for army command to tell them to light it.
In the meantime, Gen. Burnside had been busy setting up the infantry part of the plan. You know, usually Burnside comes across as a bumbling nincompoop, but he did have his moments. In this case, Burn was just what a good corps commander should be - saw merit in a subordinate's plan, fought for it through channels, and prepared thoroughly for its execution.
Burnside picked the biggest and freshest of his four divisions to lead the attack, and saw to it that the men received special training in how to level the parapet and clear the abatis, so that when the division went forward they could do so as a solid mass. Ladders were built so that the men could climb out of the trenches, and brigade/regimental commanders were told that when the men reached the crater, they were to fan out left and right and seize the trenches on either side. Then, the remainder of IX Corps would rush through the gap, Petersburg would be captured, the war won. Then, 24 hours before the attack, Burnside was notified that his plan had to be changed - the picked division could no longer lead the attack. That division was made up of all black soldiers, and if the attack failed, it would look like they had been sacrificed.
Burnside protested, but was told by Grant to get on with it. Then Burnside went into brain lock. He called together his three remaining division commanders, and announced that since he could see no reason why one division should lead the attack in preference to the others, the commanders could simply draw straws! So they did, and the lot fell to the division of Gen. James H. Ledlie, the smallest of all IX Corps units. But the real problem was Ledlie, who was known to his subordinates as a coward and a drunkard. But somehow, Burnside didn't know what was common knowledge among the rank and file, and allowed the draw to stand.
So, at the appointed hour, Ledlie's men (minus Ledlie, who was in a bunker a mile from the front, killing a jug of rum) filed into the trenches, and Pleasants was told to light his fuse. He did, and waited ... and nothing happened. Pleasants then sent one of his sergeants to see what was up, the sergeant (with probably something less than complete enthusiasm) crawled into the tunnel, found the fuse had failed at a splice, fixed it, and relit it.
Pleasants' mine worked exactly as advertised, as visitors can still see, and blew up a huge chunk of Confederate works. Those soldiers not blown up by the mine, quite understandably, ran like hell and for 30 minutes or so, there was a mile-wide hole in the Petersburg defenses. Now came the infantry attack, but of course no one had bothered to tell Ledlie's men that the parapet had to be leveled, and they had no ladders as those items were a half-mile in the rear with the black division, who had never been told that they were not the vanguard. So Yankee soldiers ran forward in groups of 10-15 men, not as a cohesive division ready to deliver a knockout blow. And, no one had told them to keep out of the crater, so when they arrived they started climbing down inside, digging up half-buried Johnnies and milling around.
Of course, the Confederates quickly regained their composure, and began filing back to the crater, firing down into what was now a mass of bluecoats. Some artillery picked up the range, and began dropping shells into the crater. Within an hour, the battle was totally lost, but nobody told Burnside, who was ordering fresh soldiers forward as though the plan had worked. Among these were the blacks, who in pursuance of their orders rushed around the crater and headed for the trenches on either side. But these works were no longer abandoned but now full of very angry Rebs, who poured a killing fire into the division. So it was a fiasco of the first order, and one of Pleasants' miners later wrote his wife "When Col. Pleasants saw what was going on, he was awful mad". I'll bet he was.
So ended the Battle of the Crater. Ledlie was cashiered, and Burnside was relieved of command. Grant summed it up when he wrote his report: "Such an opportunity to capture works I have never seen, and never again expect to have".
Anyway, thanks for the "review" of Cold Mountain and sorry for the long e-mail: slow day at work.
Jack Nelson UNC '65
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