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Editors Letter: The Battle of the Crater

The Battle of the Crater

This issue features one of the most brutal contests of the Civil War, displaying on the one hand the worst attributes of mankind, and on the other hand the kind of spunk and ingenuity that made America the greatest country on the globe. Then, as usual, politics got in the way to ruin a perfectly good plan.

The campaign in Virginia in the spring of 1864 pits Grant and Lee against each other for the first time. The recently appointed commander of all United States forces chooses to make his headquarters with the armies of the Eastern Theater to face the South’s greatest general.

Fighting in the Wilderness in early May shows Lee his new adversary doesn’t look back. There’s no respite after a bloody engagement. Grant presses on and the armies clash again at Spotsylvania Court House. The fighting there puts a new face on the evolving nature of the war from stand-up fights in open fields to digging in and fighting from behind protective works.

This kind of combat places attackers at a greater disadvantage, but Grant has superior numbers. Still, the carnage at Cold Harbor in early June gives Grant reason to pause. Maybe it’s time to maneuver rather than fight. He slips across the James River and drives on Petersburg, an important rail nexus south of Richmond.

Grant again slams into Confederate earthworks and the new routine of digging in and stalemate resumes. But then the ingenuity of a Pennsylvania civil engineer springs forth with a plan to disrupt the enemy trench lines in one fell swoop.

Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, the son of a Philadelphia father and a Buenos Aires mother, feels certain he can dig a mine under a narrow stretch of no-man’s land. Pack it with explosives—six tons seems sufficient—then detonate it and drive a few attack columns through the breach, and Petersburg belongs to the Union. And Lee’s army is cut off from its supply sources.

Several factors conspire to thwart the Union plan and the result is the “brutal contest” mentioned above. One factor involves the corps whose front contains the mine and the division chosen to make the attack. Another factor is purely, and sadly, political.


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