Monday, August 13, 2012

Petersburg 1864-65: The Crater

Oh! the depravity of the human heart; that would cause men to cry out "no quarter" in battle, or not show any when asked for.
Private Noble Brooks, Wright's Brigade, C.S.A.

In June of 1864 Union forces under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had tried to take Petersburg, Virginia- located along the Appomattox River 22 miles south of the Confederate capital, Richmond. The Yankees would have succeeded were it not for Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. So Grant had to make do with a siege that resembled the First World War more than the American Civil War, with fortifications and entrenchments. 

Or did he have to make do? That same month, someone in the 48th Pennsylvania had a solution: Why not blow up that Rebel position on other side with a mine? The idea was discussed among the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers, and they liked it. So when Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, who had himself been a mining engineer in civilian life, heard them out and liked it, too, drafting plans and drawing sketches for the proposed mining operation that night. The following day, he forwarded the proposal up the chain of command, to the Second Division, IX Corps commander Brigadier General Robert Potter, who in turn sent it up to General Ambrose Burnside, the affable commander of that corps of the Army of the Potomac, with his enthusiastic endorsement on June 24. After interrogating Pleasants, studying his sketches, and taking a look at the enemy stronghold himself, Burnside approved the plan as well. Historian James McPherson writes, "Here was a chance to redeem his failure at Fredericksburg by capturing Petersburg and winning the war.”

Gen. Robert B. Potter
A problem arose when the plan reached the headquarters of the Union Army of the Potomac. It wasn't that Major General George G. Meade, the army’s commander, failed to sanction it; his reply to Burnside was prompt and amicable. Rather, it was the man who he sent to decide whether the operation was viable or not: Major J.C. Duane—author of the U.S. armed force’s mining manual… and an opponent of IX Corps commander ever since the Battle of Antietam in 1862. As Burnside expected, Duane deemed the proposal “claptrap and nonsense.” A 150- to 200-yard long tunnel, he believed, could not be constructed. So he refused to provide Burnside with the appropriate military mining equipment.

But no matter: At 12:00 A.M. on June 25, 1864 the tunneling commenced, and the more the Pennsylvanians dug, the more Burnside became a proponent of the enterprise.

The target was Elliott's, or Pegram’s, Salient—named after the men whose commands occupied it: brigade commander Stephen Elliott and battery commander Richard Pegram. It was opposite IX Corps’ own salient—known to the troops as “the Horseshoe”—by less than 400 feet of desolate landscape, and on its tip was the 48th Pennsylvania. There, unlike other parts of the line, there were no pickets, only abatis.

Elliott’s Salient, when compared to the Horseshoe, was also on higher ground—a situation that gave the Rebels a distinct advantage, for they could see plenty of the enemy’s activity. Consequently, they became at raiding IX Corps picket line at night. It became even more unpleasant for the Federals on June 19 when the Rebels learned that the Union corps had black troops. As a history of the 20th Michigan recounts, that evening “the Rebels vented, in an incessant galling and somewhat deadly fire, the bitter spite they felt against both Negro soldiers and the white ones beside whom they fought.” When Billy Yank and Johnny Reb “were even disposed to be friendly” in other sectors, calling brief cessations of hostilities and exchanging coffee, tobacco, and the latest issues of newspapers like Harper’s Weekly, IX Corp’s was an absolute hellhole. Not surprisingly, not only did animosity grow for their enemy, but blacks were not popular among many of the white troops of the IX Corps. “They hated the Rebels for shooting them,” explains historian Richard Slotkin, “but some of them also hated the Rebels for treating them as if they chose to associate with Negroes, and some hated the Blacks whose mere presence had brought this ordeal upon them.”
 Petersburg, Virginia. Interior view of Confederate works near Elliott's salient, April 3, 1865.

Gen. Edward Ferrero 
The attack would be spearheaded by the corps' Fourth Division, which was composed of nine regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT): the 19th, 23rd, 30th, and 39th USCT from Maryland and northern Virginia; the 43rd from Pennsylvania; the 31st from New York City and Connecticut; the 27th from Ohio; the 28th from Indiana; and 29th from Illinois. The three other white divisions, having participated heavily in the bloody Overland Campaign, were a shadow of their former selves. So far, the only action the division had seen were the hardly exciting jobs of construction work and guarding ammunition trains, far from the adrenaline-pumping experience of combat indeed. If the composition of the division was unique in the Army of the Potomac, so was the background of the man who led it among that army's officer corps. Brigadier General Edward Ferrero's background was conspicuous in the extreme. He was born in Spain to an Italian couple in 1831, and in the antebellum years he had been a teacher and manager of a dancing school his father had set up in New York City, a fact that was the cause of much scorn from his fellow officers. Nevertheless, Ferrero was a capable fighter and began readying his division for the role they were about to play. "We were all pleased with the compliment of being chosen to lead the assault," wrote Colonel Henry G. Thomas, who commanded the division's Second Brigade.

Both officers and men were eager to show the white troops what the colored division could do. We had acquired confidence in our men. They believed us infallible. We had drilled certain movements, to be executed in gaining and occupying the crest. It is an axiom in military art that there are times when the ardour, hopefulness, and enthusiasm of new troops, not yet rendered doubtful by reverses or chilled by defeat, more than compensate, in a dash, for training and experience.

That ardour, hopefulness and enthusiasm were, in the case of the Fourth Division, not just the characteristics of green troops but of former slaves fighting for their freedom and the freedom of their loved ones still in bondage.

They were also reminded by their officers of the Fort Pillow Massacre that took place in Tennessee back in April, in which enraged Confederates under General Nathan Bedford Forrest butchered Union troops, White and Black alike: “Remember Fort Pillow, remember that the enemy will show no mercy and grant no quarter. How will you answer that threat?” Not surprisingly their battle cry—like the Rebel yell and the “Hurrah” of their White comrades—became, “Fort Pillow! No quarter!”

It was a battle cry that would prove a double-edged sword.

General George Gordon Meade—the completely colorless (especially when compared with Ferrero) but competent commanding general of the Army of the Potomac who, like the Fourth Division commander, had been born in Spain—had reservations about Burnside's plans for the assault, however. When Burnside arrived at his headquarters near City Point at 12:00 A.M., July 28, Meade ordered him to not use the Colored division because “he could not trust them because they were untried.”

That same meeting Burnside had agreed to have the lead regiments to not change formation in the attack; that there would be no extra powder charge for the mine. But demoting the Fourth Division was going too far for him. So he explained to Meade why it would be prudent to deploy the Negroes instead of the Whites.

General Burnside, Meade replied, it is not that I have “any reason to doubt, or any desire to doubt the good qualities of the colored troops.” However, this “operation” is “to be a coup-de-main.” Your “assaulting column” is “to be a forlorn hope, such as are put into breaches.” Therefore, “assault with” your “best troops.”

Burnside—who was now, according to Meade, “very much disappointed”—persisted, though. 

All right, General, Meade said, I’ll report this matter to Grant; “state to him” both of our reasons, and let him decide.

If the attack failed, he asserted to Grant, it would appear that the Yankees were using the blacks as "cannon fodder." The War Democrats and Peace Democrats, better known as Copperheads, on the Right would froth in the mouth at their employment. Radical Republicans on the Left would accuse them of treason if they were not used. The possibility of a slaughter, as Grant would explain, put another strike against appeasing the Radicals: 

General Meade said that if we put the colored troops (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving those people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.

Grant agreed.

It was perhaps 11:00 A.M. the next morning that generals Meade and Edward Ord rode up to Burnside’s headquarters near the Shand House. The bright sun beat down oppressively over the land. In the shade of his headquarters tent, Burnside was planning with two of his division commanders—brigadier generals Potter and Orlando B. Willcox, commanding the Third Division—for next day’s assault. When Meade came up to him, Burnside asked, What did Grant decide on the colored troops, general?

Meade was taken aback a bit. Obviously Burnside hadn't received his dispatch by telegraph. Well, he thought, I knew I’d have had to augment this order by my personal presence.

“I saw General Grant,” he replied, “and he agrees with me that it will not do to put the colored division in the lead.”

Can that decision not be changed? asked an immensely disappointed Burnside.

“No, general, it cannot; it is final, and you must put in your white troops.”

Burnside then repeated his arguments. 

Meade was done debating, however: “You must detail one of your white divisions to make the advance.” 

“Very well, general,” said Burnside, “I will carry out this plan to the best of my ability.”

Ord and Meade rode off to take a look for themselves at the ground Burnside’s corps would have to traverse.

Back in his tent, Burnside turned to Willcox and Potter. Both argued convincingly why his worn out division shouldn’t be the spearhead. The conference was now at a stalemate, even after Burnside had brought General Ledlie, his other division commander over. Ledlie’s argument for why his division shouldn’t play the lead role was just as persuasive as Potter’s and Willcox’s,

That was so for about two hours before Meade returned from his inspection. General Burnside, he emphasized, “if immediate advantage” is “not taken of the explosion of the mine, and the consequent confusion of the enemy, and the crest immediately gained,” the enemy will bring up their reserves and contain you around the crater. You couldn’t hold that position, because their artillery nearly surrounds it. If success hasn’t been procured quickly, you must call it off and extricate your troops before there is immense loss of life. Then he departed once more.

From that point on, it seemed that everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.

Since all of his divisions were depleted and he had no reason to question any of their commanders’ competence, Burnside, exhibiting a remarkable indecisiveness, believed that fairness should take precedent over everything else: At the table he looked at each of their faces and said, “It will be fair to cast lots.” He tore three pieces of paper and put them into his black brimmed hat.

Gen. James H. Ledlie 
Brigadier General James Hewitt Ledlie, the commander of the First Division—a “dark-eyed, pudgy little man with a huge black mustache”—drew the shortest piece. Out of all the candidates to lead the assault New Yorker Ledlie was the least qualified as well as a loose cannon. A former civil engineer, Ledlie had a severe drinking problem and seemingly could not go into battle without being intoxicated. Although Burnside was unaware of Ledlie's huge liability, Grant was, but he failed to convey his knowledge to neither Burnside nor Meade until after the Battle of the Crater. Anyway, Burnside recollected, Ledlie “at once left my headquarters in a very cheerful mood to make his arrangements.”

Something else Burnside hadn't considered was that out of all of his White divisions, Ledlie’s the proportional lion’s share of the relative greenhorns—men who had only joined up in April. Half of each of the division’s two brigades was veterans; the other half was newcomers, who had to become combat wise in combat.

The revised plan was to have the mine explode precisely at 3:30 on the morning of July 30. Then Ledlie's division, supported by the Second and Third Divisions, would advance over and beyond the crater and, “if possible,” take a promontory with a small church and cemetery on its crest (thus it would be called "Cemetery Hill" in the battle's aftermath) near the town of Blanford. Troops of V and XVIII Corps, as well as a division of the Army of the James’ X Corps, would also participate. When Cemetery Hill was secured, the Fourth Division, now in reserve, would move leap-frog over the First and attempt to take Blanford. In Ledlie's division, Colonel Elisha G. Marshall's Second Brigade would be the tip of the spear that would be thrust at the Rebels, followed by Brigadier General William Francis Bartlett's First. 

The Yankees of IX Corps started moving into position at 9:00 A.M., July 29. "The men were cautioned to prevent the rattling of tin cups and bayonets," observed Major Charles Houghton of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, Second Brigade, First Division, "because we were so near the enemy that they would discover our movements. We marched with the stillness of death; not a word was said above a whisper. We knew, of course, that something very important was to be done and that we were to play a prominent part." It is a common practice for a soldier in any army to "hurry up and wait," and that was what the Yankees did until the early morning hours of July 30. The last thunderstorm had been on the 21st, so the heat was sultry even at nighttime. Consequently, the Union troops waiting for the assault were already very sweaty. Having been on their feet for hours, their officers allowed them to sit, and several then slept. For many it would be their last sleep. 

Gen. William Francis Bartlett 
William Francis Bartlett had been born into Boston’s privileged mercantile class. His photographs seem to indicate a considerable degree of aristocratic self-confidence, with his very upright back—which no doubt made himself look taller than his six feet—and long hooked nose slightly tilted. Blond-haired and blue-eyed Bartlett had been attending Harvard when Fort Sumter was bombarded. Although he thought the South’s reasons for secession were legitimate, he felt impelled by honor and the necessity to be useful to volunteer as a private in the 4th Massachusetts. Soon he was a captain in the 20th Massachusetts. Next he became a colonel commanding his state’s 49th then 57th regiments.

Now, at just 24 years of age, he was a brigadier general commanding the First Brigade of IX Corps’s First Division. With Colonel Marshall, he attended a meeting with General Ledlie at 3:00 P.M. on the 29th. Ledlie repeated Burnside’s order to them… with one little modification: Bartlett and Marshall were only to seize the Rebel entrenchments in the immediate vicinity of the expected crater, and not press on to Cemetery Hill. His orders from Burnside told him to try to take the hill “if possible.” Ledlie figured that his men, having seized the enemy trenches, couldn’t possibly be able to take Cemetery Hill. That task should be left to the coloreds. This was insubordination of the highest order on Ledlie’s part.

Of course, Bartlett didn’t know that. Even if his superior officer had not edited anything, it probably wouldn’t have done anything to diminish the New Englander’s acute awareness of his own mortality. His cork leg was a constant reminder of the real one he had lost at Yorktown two years before. At Port Hudson, Louisiana, in 1863 a bullet had shattered his wrist. In the Wilderness two months ago, a spent bullet to the head resulted in partial blindness. This forthcoming battle, Bartlett believed, might be his last: “We storm the works tomorrow at daylight,” he wrote in his journal. “Our Division leads. I hardly dare hope to live through it. God have mercy.”

To Lee, the Federal effort at Deep Bottom on the north side of the James River appeared to be a diversion. Thus, at two on the morning of the 30th he directed all forces in front of Petersburg to be ready for an attack. It could, he added, happen tomorrow at the earliest.

So far, nothing out of the ordinary was happening: "Daylight approaches," noted Captain Eldridge J. Copp, 3rd New Hampshire, Second Brigade, First Division, X Corps, Army of the James, "and yet no sound except the usual firing upon the picket line in our front, and on along the whole line to our left until the sounds are lost in the distant."

Then there was delay. The mine's fuse had gone out. Sergeant Henry Reese- a Welsh redhead from Minersville, Pennsylvania who was overseer of the project- and Lieutenant Jacob Douty, Company K, 48th Pennsylvania went back into the tunnel, relighting the fuse and therefore fixing the problem.

So it was at around 4:45 A.M., an hour and 15 minutes behind schedule, the next day that the mine was detonated. Smoke and soil spewed forth from Elliott's Salient. Lieutenant J.J. Chase, 32nd Maine, was awakened by the explosion's noise:

Oh horrors! Was I in the midst of an earthquake? Was the ground around me about to part and let me into the bowels of the earth? Hardly realizing where I was or what it all meant, this terrible thunder, accompanied by the upheaving and rocking of the ground, springing to my feet I recovered my senses enough to understand that an explosion had taken place. Glancing in the direction of Cemetery Hill, I beheld a huge mass of earth being thrown up, followed by a dark lurid cloud of smoke.

Major William H. Powell, an aide-de-camp in the 4th U.S. Infantry, conveyed the moment more optimistically:

It was a magnificient spectacle, and as the mass of earth went up into the air, carrying with it men, guns, carriages, and timbers, and spread out like an immense cloud as it reached its altitude, so close were the Union lines that the mass appeared as if it would descend immediately upon the troops waiting to make the charge. This caused them to break and scatter to the rear, and about ten minutes were consumed re-forming for the attack. Not much was lost by this delay, however, as it took nearly that time for the cloud of dust to pass off. The order was then given to advance.

A lieutenant of the 14th New York Heavies was thrown into a mud hole by the blast’s shock wave  As he was getting up and trying to get the soil out of his eyes, he heard some shout “Forward!” Once he had “scraped the mud from his eyes” he himself cried, “Forward!”

Before Petersburg at sunrise, July 30th 1864 by Alfred Waud. On a separate sheet of paper is the following description: "Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass." 

At the epicenter, South Carolinians were buried under earth and ruins and thrown about this way and that—even to kingdom come, it seemed. “God only knows how high it sent me,” remembered a Confederate officer. “I spread out my wings to see if I could fly but the first thing I knowed I was laying on top of the works.” 

"For some minutes there was utmost consternation among our men," Colonel Fitz William McMaster, who commanded both the 17th South Carolina. "Some scampered out of the lines; some, paralyzed with fear, vaguely scratched at the counterscarp as if trying to escape. Smoke and dust filled the air." The Rebels to the right and left fled in all directions—for 25 or 30 yards, that is. 

Two of the Confederates' 12-pounder Napoleon guns of Captain Richard G. Pegram's Virginia battery had been thrown into no-man's land; the remaining two, located in an area of the position untouched by the mine to the south, did not budge. In the crater some southerners were buried with dirt up to their necks and waists, others with their feet and legs sticking out. The mine had claimed 350 Rebels: 170 killed or wounded for the 22nd South Carolina manning the salient proper; 43 killed and 43 wounded for the adjacent 18th; 25 killed and 8 wounded for the 17th; 14 killed and 41 wounded for the 23rd; and 22 casualties for Pegram's battery.

About a hundred yards to the south, Sergeant William Russell, 26th Virginia, was standing on the fire step of his earthwork. The “rocking of the ground,” to use Lieutenant Chase’s wording, caused by the explosion made him rock, too. 

Two hundred yards from the epicenter of the blast, Lieutenant Henry Eugene Levy of a Louisiana battery recalled, there was a “throb beneath our feet and, a moment after, as if a volcano had burst from the bowels of the land (200 yds to my left), men, spades, wheels, logs, vast boulders of earth and an indescribable debris obscured the rising sun.”

In his headquarters their army commander felt it, too, and heard the subsequent barrage. General Lee wasn't very worried about it, though, because he wasn't sure if this was an attack or a diversion. So he decided to wait for confirmation on whether it was one or the other.

Across from Chase and Powell, the Confederates, while shocked by the explosion, were not surprised by its occurrence. Despite orders to the men of the 48th Pennsylvania to not talk about what they were doing to their comrades and families, rumors of a mining project did reach the Rebels, through fraternization between enemy pickets, through Union deserters. The southerners were constructing a countermine at the time of the Union mine's detonation, but it came nowhere close to finding where the enemy mine actually was. Also, as Grant would later recall, the intelligence the Confederates had was way off the mark as well:

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.

Yet when Marshall's Second Brigade, having easily surmounted the enemy abatis and chevaux-de-frise and entered the crater, commenced advancing out of the huge hole it sustained losses from fire in the rear, from Rebels in trenches to the left and right unaffected by the mine's detonation. Instead of rolling up the Rebel flanks to the left and right, fire from which prevented the attackers from moving forward, the Yankees went into the 170 foot long, 30 foot deep, 60 foot wide crater. "The whole scene of the explosion struck every one dumb with astonishment as we arrived at the crest of the debris," remembered Major Powell.

It was impossible for the troops of the Second Brigade to move forward in line, as they had advanced; and, owing to the broken state they were in, every man crowding up to look into the hole, and being pressed by the First Brigade, which was immediately in rear, it was equally impossible to move by the flank, by any command, around the crater. Before the brigade commanders could realize the situation, the two brigades became inextricably mixed, in the desire to look into the hole.

In the First Brigade was Colonel Stephen M. Weld, Jr., the commander of the 56th Massachusetts:

Here, in the crater, was a confused mob of men continually increasing by fresh arrivals. Of course, nothing could be seen from this crater of the situation of affairs around us. Any attempt to move forward from this crater was absolutely hopeless. The men could not be got forward. It was a perfect mob, as far as any company or regimental organization was concerned, and that necessarily from the way we went forward, and not from any fault of the officers or men. To ask men to go forward in such a condition was useless. Each one felt as if he were to encounter the whole Confederate force alone and unsupported. The moral backing of an organized body of men, which each would sustain his companions on either side, was wanting.

As more men filed into the crater, the Confederate artillery had a field day. Major Wade Gibbs, a Rebel artillery officer, found enough men to man an abandoned gun from Davidson's Virginia battery to the south of the hole, exacerbating the Yankee's confusion from 1,000 yards.

Amidst the roar of bursting shells, soil and shrapnel flying all around them, regimental and brigade commanders in the crater tried to reorganize their units among the rabble, a sea of blue dotted with little red badges of shields crossed by anchors and cannons, which denoted they were members of the First Division, IX Corps. The officers' attempts worked for the 179th New York, 3rd Maryland Battalion, and 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery, the men of which were now fighting as infantrymen. However, the New Yorkers and Marylanders failed to push into the supposedly precarious northern Rebel flank while the Pennsylvanians only made it to just beyond the crater's rim. As Ledlie's division was hung up, so too were Wilcox's and Potter's.

Still, there were individual soldiers who distinguished themselves in the heat of battle. Men of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, led by Sergeant Wesley Stanley of that regiment's Company D, captured Pegram's two remaining cannons. The Yankees then turned them southwards and used them against their former owners. Captain Benjamin A. Spear's Company K, 57th Massachusetts sniped at enemy artillerymen with their Model 1860 Spencer repeating rifles. First Sergeant Barnard A. Strasbaugh of the 3rd Maryland's Company A took eight Rebels prisoner and recaptured the flag of the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery; he would receive the Medal of Honor for these deeds.

Fifty-five yards behind the Union trenches and perhaps 30 minutes into the attack, Ledlie had entered a bombproof shelter, borrowed some rum from a surgeon, and started drinking from the bottle. Now Major Powell approached him there. To the right and left of the crater, Powell reported to Ledlie, your men are being forced into the hole with the rest of their comrades. I advise you, General, to pull them back so they wouldn't impede the bulk of your division's advance. Ledlie simply reiterated his order for the First Division to "advance on Cemetery Hill." Not long after Powell's departure, General Ferrero entered the shelter, and the two of them shared the rum. Then came another order from Burnside: "The general wishes you to move your troops forward to the crest of the hill and hold it." Ledlie called for an aide. Pass this order to the men in the crater, he ordered him. The aide saluted and set off for his destination. Next, another order arrived, this time for Ferrero. His Fourth Division was to advance "through and charge down to the city." He ambiguously promised to comply "as soon as those troops were out of the way." Two more orders with essentially the same meaning followed, and Ferrero exited the bombproof to obey them with Ledlie and Colonel William W. Loring, Burnside's inspector general who was now playing the stop-gap role of Ferrero's adviser.

As they walked, Loring thought. Reinforcing the men in the crater with the Fourth Division would only make their side's deplorable circumstance even worse, he reasoned... then he spoke up: General Ferrero, you should send me back to Burnside so I can inform him of what is really going on out there. Perhaps such information could make him rescind his commands. Very well, Ferrero replied, and Loring left. It wasn't a long wait. When he came back, Loring was the bearer of bad news for Ferrero: Burnside's orders were final.

Consequently, at around 7:30 A.M., the Fourth Division was told to advance. Coincidentally, Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried's First Brigade moved out first, then Colonel Thomas's Second went second. "A colored division mount the works, and they too go forward on the charge," wrote Captain James H. Clark, 115th New York, Second Division, X Corps, Army of the James.

We watch eagerly, it is their first fight and we wonder if they will stand the shock. Noble fellows! Grandly they cross the field; they are under a qithering [sic] fire, but still rush on regardless of fallen comrades, and the storm of pitiless lead and relentless grape that pours upon them three sides, and gain the works with a ringing cheer.

Scene of the explosion Saturday July 30th by Alfred Waud. There is a description written in pencil and black ink on an accompanying peice of paper of what is being portrayed: "The advance to the 'crater' after the explosion of the mine. In the middle distance are the mounds of earth thrown up by the explosion: beyond upon the high ground cemetery hill the Confederates inner line of works, which if they had carried, would have given the Union Army Petersburg and Richmond. In the foreground troops are seen advancing to and beyond Burnsides outer intrenched line and moving upon the Confederate defences. These were on the left Bartletts Massachusetts brigade, and on the right, the Negro troops this sketch was made about 8 AM July 30th 1864." 
Through the throngs of their white comrades in the crater they went, passing their dead, wounded, and unwounded. At last the 43rd US Colored Troops (USCT) poured across the hole's rim, the men's bayonets gleaming in the sunlight. Leading his 13th USCT, Colonel Delevan Bates was killed by a bullet to the head; he would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor. The blacks made it to the Rebel support trenches, taking prisoners, a "rebel stand of colors," and a "stand of national colors" that had been captured earlier. Wounded Major James C. Leeke, also of the 13th USCT, standing on the earthen embankments and blood pouring from his mouth, urged his men to advance even farther. But the heavy price the division's officers had to pay caused great demoralization among the enlisted ranks.

Upon reaching the First Brigade, Thomas ordered his men to charge. All of them did... except those of the 31st USCT, which "was disheartened at its loss of officers and could not be gotten out promptly." Thomas, Captain Marshall L. Dempey, and Lieutenant Christopher Pennell tried to hearten them anew, "but the fire was so hot that half the few who came out of the works were shot." Carrying the regimental colors forward, Pennell fell dead, blood flowing out of the many holes the enemy bullets had made in his body. The other, surviving half fell back.

While the attack was unfolding the Confederate commanders did not sit idle. The mine's explosion caused General P. G. T. Beauregard, a quite Creole West Pointer who had been tasked in April with assisting Lee in the Eastern Theater, to wake up. He then a sent an officer of his staff to inform Dunn's Hill, Robert E. Lee's headquarters, of the Union attack. Lee reacted quickly. Brigadier General William "Little Billy" Mahone, small in stature but tall in aggressiveness, was ordered to send two of his brigades to augment Major General Bushrod R. Johnson's division, which was opposing the Yankees of the IX Corps, and counterattack.
Gen. William Mahone, C.S.A.
From his headquarters at the Wilcox Farm close to Lieutenant Creek, Mahone departed at six that morning for the crater two miles away. However, it wasn't a two-mile journey. Lest Yankee signalmen detect him, he took a longer route full of ravines that offered great concealment. Upon arrival at the scene of the fight Mahone and Brigadier General David Addison Weisiger, one of Mahone's brigade commanders, surveyed the enemy manning the rim of the crater as their men were entering the field and laying down on the devastated ground devoid of virtually all greenery to be prepared to charge.

Both Mahone and Weisiger soon realized that the bluecoats were about to charge as well. Across the field Lieutenant Colonel John A. Bross of the 29th USCT arose. Back and forth he waved his regiment's colors, shouting, "Forward, my brave boys!" "Fix bayonets and no quarter" was what Major William H. Etheredge, who commanded the 41st Virginia, Weisiger's brigade, believed he heard the Yankee officers ordering their men simultaneous to Bross's cry. With "the few" only just having been repulsed, Colonel Thomas received an order from General Ferrero to advance alongside the First Brigade and capture the crest of Cemetery Hill. "I ordered the Twenty-ninth this time to lead, which it did gallantly, closely followed by the Twenty-eighth and a few of the Twenty-third, when it was at once engaged by a heavy charging column of the enemy, and after a struggle driven back over our rifle-pits." The Rebels had beaten them to it.

On they came, the 6th, 16th, 61st, 41st, and 12th Virginia regiments of Weisiger's brigade from the Yankees' left to right, with the 17th and 61st North Carolinas from Hoke's division and the 26th North Carolina from Heth's advancing behind them. Their shining bayonets were lowered, ready to be plunged into Union bodies, and they cried "no quarter"... and the chilling Rebel Yell. "At this moment a panic commenced," continued Thomas.

The black and white troops came pouring back together. A few, more gallant, than the rest, without organization, but guided by a soldier's instinct, remained on the side of the pits nearest our line and held the enemy at bay some ten or fifteen minutes, until they were nearly all shot away... Whether we fought well or not, the scores of our dead lying thick as if mowed down by the hand of some mighty reaper and the terrible loss of officers can best attest.

Back into the crater and its adjacent northern trenches the retreating Yankees fled. "The mass of the Union army are swept back like a breath of air," remembered Captain Clark, "and are cut up badly on the backward track." So crowded was the crater that the bluecoats within it were unable to lift neither their arms nor their weapons.

Soon the Virginians arrived with unloaded guns. Among them was Major Etheredge:

The scene that follows beggars description: our men would drive the bayonet into one man, pull it out, turn the butt and knock the brains out of another, and so on until the ditch ran with blood of the dead and dying. So great was the slaughter that Lieutenant Colonel William H. Seward, of the Sixty-first regiment, in command, and myself... had to make a detail [of men] to pile up the dead on the side of the ditch to make room so we could reinforce to the right or left, as occasion might require.

Conversely, Mahone's other, Georgian brigade under Colonel Matthew R. Hall failed to inflict as much damage on the enemy as the Virginians. Attacking the Union troops holding the undamaged portion of Elliott's Salient, they met indomitable opposition. The remnants of Brigadier General John F. Hartranft's First Brigade, Third Division, IX Corps and Union artillery, including the captured guns manned by the New Yorkers, gave the Rebels volley after volley. Shells put huge holes in the long line of battle containing colors ranging from grey to butternut, causing soil, blood, and body parts to fly everywhere. More Confederates died when they were within rifle range. Eventually, unable to withstand the slaughter any longer, the Rebels retreated.

But the situation still remained bleak for the Yankees, and by 9:00 A.M. Burnside admitted defeat. The supporting troops on either side of the crater were low on ammunition and hence ordered to try to retreat in an organized fashion; Ferrero's division had been pushed back and now reunited with Ledlie's; and with the Confederate reinforcements under Mahone having entered the fray there seemed a little likelihood that this operation would result in a breakthrough. The stalemate would have to be broken somewhere else, some other way...

Of course, Burnside didn't notify Mahone and Lee of his admission. Little Billy Mahone wanted to make the Union defeat even greater, so he brought up another Georgia brigade commanded by Brigadier General John C. C. Sanders. Before they would assail the enemy, Mahone gave them some advice. Men, he declared, General Lee will be watching you from the Gee House close to the Jerusalem Plank Road. Also, among the enemy occupants of the immense ditch are negro troops; make sure you give them "no quarter."

Before the attack Rebel artillery tried too soften up the enemy, drawing the attention of his guns. Then all was silent. The was soon broken with firing of two Confederate guns, signaling the attack, and at 2:00 P.M. Sanders's brigade rose up, shouldered their arms, and advanced in line of battle.
At the same time the assault commenced the Yankees in the crater were ordered to retreat. So when the southerners reached the rim of the crater, the northerners in it did not give much in the way of opposition. Having had his cork leg shot off, Brigadier General William Francis Bartlett, a former Harvard student whose loss of a leg at Yorktown two years before caused him to form his own regiment just to get back into the war, requested to be lifted up to witness the approach of Sanders's men; as soon as he was a bullet cut deeply into his head. The Rebels threw at their enemy led, soil, wood, cannonballs, and even rifles, bayonets first, to harpoon the unfortunate Yankees like whales.

"Why in hell don't you surrender?" shouted a Confederate officer at a Union colonel.

"Why in hell don't you let us!" the colonel retorted.

Yankees started to capitulate in droves. "Hold on there," a southern captain said to his men, trying to prevent further killing; "they have surrendered." Such mercy was not reserved for the men of the Fourth Division. If they were not killed by enraged Rebels while capitulating they were by white Union troops fearful they might be murdered if the enemy found them with their black comrades. By about 4:40 P.M., the remaining Union troops in the crater had surrendered. Yankees suffered 3,798 casualties out of 20,708 participants; the Rebels, approximately 1,500 out of 11,466.

As Grant would later write of the Battle of the Crater, "The effort was a stupendous failure." Through his derliction of duty as a division commander, "Ledlie besides being otherwise inefficient, proved also to possess disqualification less common among soldiers." Burnside, while ignorant of Ledlie's defect, should have been more decisive by choosing the more capable Wilcox or Potter to lead the assault instead of basing his decision on drawn straws. Even Grant and Meade share guilt for what happened- Meade for suggesting at the last minute that a white division be designated to lead the attack instead of a black one, Grant for agreeing. To be fair with them, at that high up the chain of command a commander must make political as well as military considerations; both generals were doing just that. Ironically, their move to lessen the political consequences in case the operation failed actually ensured that it did.

Nevertheless, if viewed in a strategic sense, the operation was not a complete disaster. While the Yankees suffered more casualties in the engagement, they had the greater number of participants, and the North throughout the American Civil War possessed the advantage of manpower. If anything, Lee's repulse of Burnside's attack simply delayed the inevitable, for his army, for the South. The Confederacy's only hope was that it could, to quote Lee, "resist manfully" and impart to the Union more such setbacks sufficiently long for disenchanted northerners to elect in November a Peace Democrat for president who would recognize its independence. Doing that, of course, was easier said than done, and until the election the North intended to attack just as manfully. Between now and then, the Yankees could have a triumph that would unravel all of the Confederates' plans.

Selected Sources and Further Reading:

Field, Ron. Petersburg 1864-65: The Longest Siege. Oxford: Osprey, 2009. Print.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print. The Oxford History of the United States v. 6.
Slotkin, Richard. No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.