July 30, 1864: Debacle at the Crater
When looking at the battle of the Crater, it is a study in contrasts. The digging of the tunnel and the explosion of the mine at dawn on July 30, 1864, go here to read about the tunnel construction, was a tribute to the ingenuity and sheer compentence of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants and his men of the 48th Pennsylvania, who, with almost no help from the rest of the army, gave the Army of the Potomac a golden opportunity to take Petersburg and bring the War to a rapid conclusion. That this opportunity was missed was largely attributable to criminal incompetence on the part of the generals involved.
Here are the generals who contributed to the debacle:
1. Grant and Meade-Burnside, the commander of the IX corps making the assault, had trained a division of United States Colored Troops to lead the advance after the explosion of the mine. The day before the battle Meade, concerned that the attack would fail and that their would be political repercussions if black troops incurred heavy casualties as a result, ordered Burnside to assign a white division to lead the attack. Burnside protested this decision, but Grant backed Meade up.
2. Burnside-Burnside had the white division chosen by lot rather than picking the best division. Burnside made no effort to make certain that his attacking divisions had access ways cleared of debris and fortifications so they could rapidly advance after the explosion. He made no effort to inform the new white division leading the assault that it was to go around any crater created by the explosion instead of going down into it, which is precisely what the attacking divisions did, making themselves sitting ducks at the bottom of a large hole when the Confederate counter-attack began. Rather than calling off the attack after it became obvious that no breakthrough was possible, Burnside kept feeding troops into the Crater with the only effect being to lengthen the list of Union dead and wounded.
3. James H. Ledlie-Brigadier General James H. Ledlie earned a notable distiction during the battle. It was not unusual for Civil War generals to make bad decisions, and to not infrequently show a distinct lack of common sense, however almost all of them were very brave men. Ledlie was not. In addition to being a very bad commander as indicated by his failure to inform his division of what was expected of them after his division was chosen by lot to lead the assault, he spent the battle drunk and well behind the lines, safe and secure as his men went into the meat grinder. He richly earned his dismissal from the Army after the battle.
4. Edward Ferrero-Brigadier General Edward Ferrero was the foremost dance instructor in the country prior to the War. He should have stuck to that trade. The commander of the black division involved in the battle of the Crater, he spent the battle in the same bomb proof dugout behind the line as Ledlie, and he shared Ledlie’s bottle with him. Ferrero’s behavior is somwhat incomprehensible as he had shown extreme valor in other battles. Astonishingly he was not cashiered from the service, and in December of 1864 he received a brevet promotion to Major General of Volunteers for “bravery and meritorious services”.
With this type of leadership it is no wonder that the attack failed. The initial mine explosion killed 278 Confederates and wounded hundreds of others. For 15 minutes the stunned Confederates did not fire at the attacking Union units. Union troops went down into the Crater and within an hour were receiving heavy fire from Confederate troops at the top of the side of the Crater facing Petersburg. Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone, in charge of the Confederate counterattack, called it a turkey shoot. Instead of calling off the attack when it became clear that the Confederates had sealed the breach caused by the explosion, Burnside kept sending divisions, including the black division, down into the Crater where they were quickly slaughtered. Some Confederate troops murdered black troops who were trying to surrender. When General Lee heard of this he supposedly sent a message to General Mahone telling him to put a stop to this or he would be removed from command.
Union casualties were 4000 to 1500 for the Confederates. The whole debacle was the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Here is Grant’s assessment of the fiasco from his Personal Memoirs:
The gallery to the mine was over five hundred feet long from where it entered the ground to the point where it was under the enemy’s works, and with a cross gallery of something over eighty feet running under their lines. Eight chambers had been left, requiring a ton of powder each to charge them. All was ready by the time I had prescribed; and on the 29th Hancock and Sheridan were brought back near the James River with their troops. Under cover of night they started to recross the bridge at Deep Bottom, and to march directly for that part of our lines in front of the mine.
Warren was to hold his line of intrenchments with a sufficient number of men and concentrate the balance on the right next to Burnside’s corps, while Ord, now commanding the 18th corps, temporarily under Meade, was to form in the rear of Burnside to support him when he went in. All were to clear off the parapets and the abatis in their front so as to leave the space as open as possible, and be able to charge the moment the mine had been sprung and Burnside had taken possession. Burnside’s corps was not to stop in the crater at all but push on to the top of the hill, supported on the right and left by Ord’s and Warren’s corps.
Warren and Ord fulfilled their instructions perfectly so far as making ready was concerned. Burnside seemed to have paid no attention whatever to the instructions, and left all the obstruction in his own front for his troops to get over in the best way they could. The four divisions of his corps were commanded by Generals Potter, Willcox, Ledlie and Ferrero. The last was a colored division; and Burnside selected it to make the assault. Meade interfered with this. Burnside then took Ledlie’s division—a worse selection than the first could have been. In fact, Potter and Willcox were the only division commanders Burnside had who were equal to the occasion. Ledlie besides being otherwise inefficient, proved also to possess disqualification less common among soldiers.
There was some delay about the explosion of the mine so that it did not go off until about five o’clock in the morning. When it did explode it was very successful, making a crater twenty feet deep and something like a hundred feet in length. Instantly one hundred and ten cannon and fifty mortars, which had been placed in the most commanding positions covering the ground to the right and left of where the troops were to enter the enemy’s lines, commenced playing. Ledlie’s division marched into the crater immediately on the explosion, but most of the men stopped there in the absence of any one to give directions; their commander having found some safe retreat to get into before they started. There was some delay on the left and right in advancing, but some of the troops did get in and turn to the right and left, carrying the rifle-pits as I expected they would do.
There had been great consternation in Petersburg, as we were well aware, about a rumored mine that we were going to explode. They knew we were mining, and they had failed to cut our mine off by countermining, though Beauregard had taken the precaution to run up a line of intrenchments to the rear of that part of their line fronting where they could see that our men were at work. We had learned through deserters who had come in that the people had very wild rumors about what was going on on our side. They said that we had undermined the whole of Petersburg; that they were resting upon a slumbering volcano and did not know at what moment they might expect an eruption. I somewhat based my calculations upon this state of feeling, and expected that when the mine was exploded the troops to the right and left would flee in all directions, and that our troops, if they moved promptly, could get in and strengthen themselves before the enemy had come to a realization of the true situation. It was just as I expected it would be. We could see the men running without any apparent object except to get away. It was half an hour before musketry firing, to amount to anything, was opened upon our men in the crater. It was an hour before the enemy got artillery up to play upon them; and it was nine o’clock before Lee got up reinforcements from his right to join in expelling our troops.
The effort was a stupendous failure. It cost us about four thousand men, mostly, however, captured; and all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.