In late June 1864, Union infantrymen from the 48th Pennsylvania, miners in their home-lives and bored by the mundane daily life of the entrenched siege of Petersburg, came up with a plan to break the Confederate line protecting the city. With endorsement from the IX Corps commander, Maj. General Ambrose Burnside, the soldiers dug a 500-yard main-tunnel and two 75-yard side-tunnels under Confederate fortifications, packing them with four tons of gunpowder. Just before dawn on July 30, the explosives were detonated, blowing up a Confederate artillery battery as well as most of an infantry regiment and creating a crater 170 feet long, and 60-80 feet wide. However, lacking a cohesive battle plan for after the explosion, the 15,000 Union soldiers on hand were slow to exploit the gap in the Confederate line, and most ran straight into the crater instead of around it. Part of the Confederate line was briefly captured, but the Southerners quickly regrouped and gathered on each side of the crater, firing down on the confused and trapped Union soldiers in what one Confederate later called a 'turkey shoot'. The Southern soldiers quickly retook their positions.
The battle was marked by one of the more notorious incidents of the Civil War involving black soldiers, as many were killed by Confederate bayonets and musket fire even after surrendering. There were also reports of black soldiers bayonetted by white Union soldiers who feared reprisal from the victorious Confederate troops.
Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant wrote of battle, 'It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war. Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.'
The failure of the Battle of the Crater effectively ended Ambrose Burnside's military career.
Battle of the Crater
July 30, 1864
May 29, 2014
19:46 - 10:47 am