The Battle of the Crater


Who: Ambrose Burnside (Union) vs. Robert E Lee and William Mahone (Confederacy)

What: Confederate victory

Where: Petersburg, Virginia

Why: An attempt to break the deadlock which ended in disaster

When: July 30, 1864

“It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war” – Ulysses S Grant

One of the countless lop-sided battles of the war, the Battle of the Crater was supposed to bring about a quick end to the Siege of Petersburg, and possibly the war; instead the combatants had to settle down for another eight months of damaging trench warfare. Having spent weeks digging a tunnel under Pegram’s Salient and carefully laying 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of explosives, the Union had trained a division of United States Colored Troops to lead the carefully planned attack. However the day before the attack, General George Meade, lacking confidence, withdrew the black soldiers trained for the operation, fearing political repercussions, and drew lots to decide the replacement division. Brigadier General James Ledlie’s 1st Division was selected, but Ledlie failed to brief the men and instead reportedly got drunk behind the lines. The mine was detonated at 4:44am, creating a crater 170 by 120 feet, and 30 feet deep. Almost 300 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed, and the Federals could have broken the lines, but the untrained troops wandered into the crater instead of around it, trapping themselves, where the Confederates regrouped and rained down fire into them; it was later described as a ‘turkey shoot’. The black soldiers were eventually called upon but it was too late, and they were slaughtered by Confederates even after surrendering as well as bayoneted by white Union soldiers who feared reprisals. The attack was a disaster, the Union suffering 3,798 casualties to the Confederates’ 1,491, and Burnside was permanently relieved of command. In 1916, the British Somme Offensive would use the same tactics, with the same result: huge loss of life and a tactical defeat.

Further reading: – The battle as featured in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain. The explosion is inaccurately portrayed as happening in daylight, but the premise is there.


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