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.