Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Crater

Dates: 25 June to 30 July, 1864

Union: Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Commander-in-Chief of the Union Armies, and Major General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prelude: Since 18 June, 1864, both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia have been digging trench line and settling down for a siege. With the exception of some small scale action, the inactivity of a siege was already taking hold. Still there might be the possibility of pushing Lee’s army out of the way and taking Petersburg.

22 June, 1864: II Corps, under Major General David Birney and VI Corps, under Major General Horatio Wright attempt to extend the Union line by seizing a section of the Weldon Railroad near Globe Tavern, south of Petersburg. They run into the Confederate corps led by Lieutenant General A.P. Hill and are heavily repulsed.

Shortly after the battle, a proposal was made by Colonel Henry Pleasants, commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania, which was made up of coal miners. Dig a tunnel under the area between the lines to under the Confederate trenches. Then dig a gallery and fill it with gun powder. At a set time, set off the powder, blowing a hole in the Confederate lines, which can then be assaulted and the breach used to get Union troops into Petersburg.

The plan was enthusiastically by the commander of IX Corps, Major General Ambrose Burnside. However the response from Meade was lukewarm. Grant approved the plan on the off chance that it might work.

25 June, 1864: Digging started on the tunnel. The plan was to create a tunnel from the rear of the Union lines west to a salient, or fort, on the Confederate lines called Elliot’s Salient. The main tunnel would be 130 yards long with shafts for ventilation. Manually operated bellows provided the fresh air.

Digging with hand tool is a hard job even in the 21st Century, imagine doing this on the 1860s, as well as keeping the Confederates from learning what was going on. Even so they tried to dig counter tunnels to stop the Federals, but to no avail.

26 July, 1864: The tunnel and gallery were completed and transporting of tons of gun powder into the gallery had begun. Around the same time, the planning and training for the assault had begun.

The force for the initial attack would be led by the 4th Division of IX Corps, led by Brigadier General Edward Ferrero and made up of African-American troops. The plan was for the two brigades to skirt around the crater, hit the surviving trenches to each side, then seize nearby Cemetery Hill and open the way for three divisions of white troops to exploit the breach. Leading the attack would be the 1st Brigade, consisting of the 27th, 30th, 39th, and 43rd Regiments of United States Colored Troops. The 2nd Brigade, consisting of the 19th, 23rd, 28th, 29th, and 31st USCT, would follow in support.

28 July, 1864: Burnside reported that everything was ready for the assault when Meade ordered that Ferrero’s division would not make the initial assault. Meade also wanted a straight line assault instead of ant trench clearing. Burnside pled his case and Meade would take it before Grant.

29 July, 1864: Burnside has just started a briefing for his three white division commanders when Grant arrived. It was decided that Meade’s orders would stand and that Burnside would have to pick one of his other divisions to lead the assault.

At this point the plan began to fall apart, instead of simply ordering another division to lead the attack, he had his division commanders draw lots.

The lead division would be led by Brigadier General James Ledlie, a known drunkard and coward who still held command due to political connections. His division would skirt around the crater. The division of Brigadier General Orlando Wilcox would cover the left while the division of Brigadier General Robert Potter would cover the right. Ferrero’s division would follow in support.

The possible reason for Grant not allowing Ferrero’s division to lead the attack was the reaction of politicians and the press to heavy African-American causalities. Also the jury was still out on the ability of African-Americans to fight, despite the actions of those troops at Battery Wagner, SC and Olstree, FL, amongst others.

That night, the troops began to form into position. If the African-American troops were angry at being knocked from the lead position, they were too professional to show it.

3:00 a.m.: The fuse is lit. It would take 30 minutes to reach the powder.

3:30 a.m.: No explosion.

4:00 a.m.: Still no explosion.

4:30 a.m.: Still no explosion. Sergeant Harry Reese runs into the tunnel and finds that the fuse went out at a splice. He relights it and runs out.

4:44 a.m.: The fuse reaches the powder gallery and Elliot’s Salient went up in a giant gout of flame and dirt and killing scores of Confederates.

It took minutes for the dust to settle, but soon afterwards Burnside ordered the attack to commence. Ledlie gave the order to his division, then ran to a shelter to get drunk. As his division reached the crater, they either deviated from the plan or they never were told to go around. They all went in! This was promptly followed by Wilcox’s division. Soon the crater was getting filled with Union troops with no easy way out.

The Confederates around the crater recovered from the shock and began pouring troops into the area. Troops led by Brigadier General William Mahone soon reinforced the defense and began pouring musket fire into the crater, now containing Potter’s division as well. The Confederates were soon supported by mortar fire, shells plunging into the mass of Federal troops.

Ferrero’s division was ordered into the attack. The Confederates shifted some of their fire on the African-American soldiers. Finding the sides covered, Ferrero had no choice but to go into the crater as well. The Confederate fire was intense and many of the troops got angry at the sight of African-Americans, many of then former slaves, with weapons. Cannon were brought up and the area was getting swept with canister fire. For the next several hours the crater became a charnel house. By 9:30 a.m., Meade was calling for the attack to stop, but to no avail.

2:00 p.m.: Mahone was able to gather a large enough force to launch a counterattack. The resulting scene was horrific, as some African-American soldiers were killed, or captured then killed. Even those who were taken prisoner were treated so harshly, they probably wished they had been killed.

Still, the United States Colored Troops showed true professionalism in the face of certain death.

Finally, the survivors were able to get out of what they started calling The Crater.

Union causalities totaled 3475 with 1327 being African-Americans. This out of a total of about 20,000.

Confederate causalities totaled 1500 out of 11,000 engaged.

Twenty-four Medals of Honor were awarded for those who fought in The Crater. Four of those were given to members of Ferrero’s Division. Only one of those was given to an African-American, Sergeant Decatur Dorsey of the 43rd USCT.

Major General Ambrose Burnside was removed from command of IX Corps and sent home to await orders, which never came.

Ledlie was dismissed.

Wilcox and Ferrero were given light reprimands.

The siege would continue.

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