The Battle of the Crater: 148 Years Ago Today

The Battle of the Crater, arguably the most famous battle of the Siege of Petersburg, occurred on this date 148 years ago, on July 30, 1864.  For further information on the battle of the Crater, as well as numerous first person accounts, see my Battle of the Crater page at the Siege of Petersburg Online.

Battle of the Crater: July 30, 1864
Battle of the Crater: July 30, 1864

Most know the basics of the story:

  • Col. Henry Pleasants and his miners in the 48th Pennsylvania did what many professionals considered impossible, digging a shaft over 500 feet long and building a gallery for explosives underneath Elliott’s Salient.
  • The only African-American division in Burnside’s 9th Corps, under BG Edward Ferrero, was trained for the assault after the mine exploded, though exactly what training was done is still in dispute.
  • Once Meade got wind of which division was leading the assault, he told Burnside another division would have to be chosen.  He was afraid that he would be accused of slaughtering Black men if the assault was a failure.
  • Burnside, perhaps sulking at this intrusion, had the three white division commanders draw straws.  James Ledlie, the “winner”, was perhaps the worst division commander in the entire Army of the Potomac, and he proved this on the day of the battle.
  • The explosion was originally scheduled to go off a little after 3:30 in the morning of July 30, 1864, but after a mishap with the fuse, the mine finally exploded at 4:44 a.m.
  • Union troops poured into the Crater after a period of delay, but never made a concerted effort to reach the high ground on Cemetery Hill  closer to Petersburg.
  • The Confederate survivors held on tenaciously on the flanks of the Union intrusion into their lines, long enough for portions of William Mahone’s division to organize a counterattack out of a ravine to the west and northwest of the Crater.
  • Though David Weisiger’s Virginians, Mahone’s old brigade, have received the lion’s share of credit for this successful counterattack, other units played an important role as well.
  • By the time the Confederate counterattack had occurred, Ferrero’s Black soldiers were among those Union troops packed into the Crater.
  • The massacre at Fort Pillow had occurred earlier in 1864, and some Confederates claimed to have heard Ferrero’s men yelling “No quarter!” while advancing.
  • By the time Mahone’s division attacked the Crater, they had been made aware of the “No Quarter!” shouts and were determined to act in kind.
  • The result was a massacre, with some Black soldiers being killed after surrendering, and many others being treated roughly as they were herded to the rear as prisoners.
  • In the end, the breach in the Confederate line was sealed, and the day was a Union disaster.  Meade, who had tried to prevent the slaughter of Black soldiers for political reasons, ironically failed in this task due to ensuing events.
  • The Siege of Petersburg was destined to continue for another eight long months.

Here is a list of documents over at The Siege of Petersburg Online which discuss the Crater battle:

Siege of Petersburg Documents Which Mention This Battle:


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