Civil War Book Review: Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg

Editor’s Note: This Civil War book review originally appeared at The Siege of Petersburg Online: Beyond the Crater earlier today.

Hess, Earl J. Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg. The University of South Carolina Press (September 30, 2010). 352 pp., 45 illustrations, maps, order of battle, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-57003-922-5 $44.95 (Cloth).

Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg by Earl J. HessThe Battle of the Crater is arguably the most famous action of the entire nine month long Siege of Petersburg, filled with controversy and amazing events. Other mines were exploded under enemy lines during the Civil War, but none with more spectacular results or more tragic consequences than Henry Pleasants’s mine under Pegram’s Salient on July 30, 1864. Why did the Union attack fail under what has generally been assumed were favorable conditions? Did Confederate soldiers massacre Blacks in the Union USCT regiments in and around the Crater? Which Confederate forces are truly responsible for restoring their lines after the mine explosion? Hess answers these questions and more with Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg.

Author Dr. Earl J. Hess is no stranger to the Siege of Petersburg. In fact, his previous book In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat is an important contribution to an overlooked but vastly important and ever present component of the siege, the forts and trenches surrounding Richmond and Petersburg. Hess has had published no less than twelve books on the Civil War, and is well-known to serious students of the conflict.

The Battle of the Crater, a battle during Grant’s Third Offensive against Petersburg, occurred as a direct result of a mine explosion under Pegram’s Salient on July 30, 1864. This portion of the Confederate lines east of Petersburg was very near Union lines and hence vulnerable to a mining operation by the Union Ninth Corps facing them. Henry Pleasants, the colonel of the 48th Pennsylvania, happened to have many former coal miners in his ranks. He was given the go-ahead to attempt a lengthy tunnel under the Confederate works with the intention of blowing a portion up in June 1864. Interestingly there was debate about whether to even attack after blowing up the mine. Pressures on Ulysses S. Grant in the form of Early’s raid on the North and the failure of a planned attack north of the James against Richmond at the Battle of Deep Bottom forced the Federal hand, however. The explosion under Pegram’s Salient occurred spectacularly at 4:44 a.m. on July 30, 1864, resulting in a large hole in the ground ever after referred to as the Crater. Ambrose E. Burnside, widely regarded as one of the worst high level commanders in the entire war on either side, was in charge of the attack. Several command blunders caused Union brigades to pack into the Crater and the trenches just north and south of the newly made landmark. Union division and brigade commanders were confused about whether they were supposed to push on or consolidate their gains, and the maze of covered ways behind the Confederate lines did not help in any potential attack on the high ground beyond the crater. While the Federal troops continued shoving into an ever more constricted area, Confederate survivors in the area combined to provide another deterrent to any further Union attacks. In addition, three brigades of Mahone’s Army of Northern Virginia division were on their way. They delivered three separate attacks in the late morning and early afternoon of July 30, eventually causing a massive Union retreat and a bloody hand to hand fight in the Crater and surrounding trenches. At this point the debate began about Confederates massacring USCT (United States Colored Troops) prisoners during the fighting. The battle ended with the capture of many Union prisoners, a bloody disgrace for Ambrose Burnside and his Ninth Corps men. Burnside was soon after relieved of duty with the Army of the Potomac as a result of the battle and his arguments with Meade before, during, and after July 30. The Battle of the Crater still captures the imagination today, recently appearing in the Civil War era movie Cold Mountain.

As can be imagined with such an unusual Civil War battle, there were numerous controversies. Many of these centered around Burnside’s plans to assault, Meade’s interference, and the eventual lack of execution by many high level Ninth Corps commanders. Meade and Burnside had a final falling out during these few days which made it clear one of them had to go. Another major controversy was the possible massacre of Black Union soldiers by Confederates who attacked the Crater. The authors’ final thoughts will not be revealed here, but it suffices to say that he does believe these accusations have merit. Portioning out the credit for the successful assault on the Confederate side has also been a source of contention. Hess relentlessly wades through a voluminous number of sources on these controversies, and his conclusions do not always follow the preconceived “facts” about the Crater. The number of eyewitness accounts the author uses lends validity to these conclusions, as it is clear he knows the material well.

The book has a large number of maps going down to regimental and battery level which clearly show the fighting as it took place. Maps are also presented for the earlier Battle of Deep Bottom, a prequel of sorts to the Crater. While this book is not truly about the entire Third Offensive, Hess does set the stage nicely by giving the Deep Bottom operation more than just a cursory glance. The Order of Battle is standard, going down to regimental/battery level and down to brigade level for commander names. No unit strengths are given, however, despite some of these making their way into the book’s text. Even a brief glance at the bibliography, a favorite section of mine for any Civil War book, backs up Hess’ claim that Into the Crater is the most thoroughly researched book on the Battle of the Crater to appear to date. The number of archival sources is amazing, showing the author is willing to do a lot of hard work to make his book the best it could possibly be.

Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg is the best book on the Battle of the Crater, period. Hess uses the most sources, uses them well, and doesn’t take anything for granted. He debunks some “facts” as myths and only further reinforces others. One of the foremost questions about the Crater battle involves the controversial massacre of Black troops by Confederate soldiers, and the author covers this topic well. In addition, Hess does a good job of placing the Battle of the Crater in the wider context of Grant’s Third Offensive and the entire Siege of Petersburg. Many excellent maps are tied well to the text. This book is worth the cover price for the extensive bibliography alone. Civil War readers looking for a good military history “battle book” will love Into the Crater. In addition, anyone interested in the Battle of the Crater or the larger Siege of Petersburg will want to make this the centerpiece of their collection on this battle. Readers unfamiliar with the Petersburg Campaign but looking to learn more about this lengthy, sprawling conflict could do much worse than starting here. As a student of the Siege of Petersburg, I highly recommend this book.

I would like to thank Jonathan Haupt at The University of South Carolina Press.

Editor’s Note: A copy of this book was provided gratis for the above review.

For detailed information and notes on this book, see BTC Notes: Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg.


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