The Battle of The Crater
Volume XXX Issue #5 • An Excerpt From:
The Battle of the Crater
by Emmanuel Dabney
In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant to be the new general-in-chief of the Federal forces. The Civil War turned three years old in the spring of 1864, and for Lincoln and the War Department the conflict was no closer to victory than when it started. Despite assertions made in the years since the war that the South was doomed to defeat after the Battle of Gettysburg, the truth is that the Confederacy was still motivated to fight the war. Grant and Lincoln both recognized this and for Lincoln it was particularly important to end the war, as he faced an election in the fall of 1864. General Grant decided to accompany Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac for the spring campaign of 1864.
Gen. Robert E. Lee began the spring of 1864 reconstituting his army in north-central Virginia. The previous September, most of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps had been sent south, where it participated in the Battle of Chickamauga, then spent the winter of 1863-1864 in East Tennessee. On April 7, 1864, Longstreet was ordered back to Virginia for the spring campaign.
Fighting erupted in early May (Map, Pg. 10). It stretched for a month at the Battles of the Wilderness (May 5-6), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-20), North Anna River (May 23-26), and Totopotomoy Creek (May 28-30). Each time the Union troops were stopped, Grant maneuvered in a southerly direction around Lee’s right closer to Richmond until halted at Cold Harbor. After the costly fighting there on June 1-3, both sides entrenched and engaged in sharpshooting and artillery duels. On June 12, the Army of the Potomac and a portion of the Army of the James pulled away from the fortifications at Cold Harbor and began the movement toward Petersburg. Troops who had moved out earlier would be the lead attack force against Petersburg. They were ferried to Bermuda Hundred to launch their attack. The major obstacle for the Army of the Potomac was the James River. This was overcome as boats ferried troops across the river and Federal engineers constructed a pontoon bridge to allow about one-third of the infantry to cross.
Petersburg, Virginia in 1860, was the state’s second largest city with a population of 18,266 people. Since the War of 1812, it had been referred to as the “Cockade City” because volunteers from the city wore cockades on their hats. Four railroads radiated from the city—the Petersburg Railroad, which ran south to Weldon, North Carolina; the Richmond & Petersburg, which connected Virginia’s state capital with Petersburg; the Southside, which linked the city with City Point to the east (modern-day Hopewell) and Lynchburg to the west; and the Norfolk & Petersburg uniting those cities by rail. In addition to Petersburg’s railroads the city possessed four cotton factories, three flour mills, four iron foundries, and three planing mills. These operations were busy during the war years cranking out food and supplies for the Confederate and Virginia state governments.
In addition to the industrial activity mentioned, the Confederacy operated several wartime plants within or near the city that were still functioning in 1864. These included a naval rope works, a lead works and artificial niter beds (to get saltpeter for gunpowder), and a wagon works. The wagon works closed in June 1864, as the Federals bore down upon the city. The wartime blockade had created even greater importance for the Petersburg Railroad, because at Weldon a separate company, the Wilmington & Weldon, operated and linked to the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Running in and out of the port were numerous blockade runners taking away cotton to obtain cloth, shoes, blankets, buttons, iron, steel, food, cannon, muskets, gunpowder, percussion caps, and a host of other items needed by the Confederate government. Blockade runners also transported goods which people on the homefront needed for survival, and frivolous notions that were not important to the war effort but were critical for morale. Thus Petersburg was second only to Richmond of importance in Virginia by the spring and summer of 1864.
Grant wanted to cut off Richmond’s communications and transportation of goods from and through Petersburg to destroy Lee’s army. On June 15, Union troops assaulted the defenses of Petersburg, called the Dimmock Line. They broke through the initial Confederate earthworks in the evening. However, the assault stopped at 9:00 p.m., short of Petersburg. Confederate Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the commander in charge in this district, rapidly moved soldiers to the city for its defense on the next day. From a hastily prepared line of field fortifications, Beauregard’s troops held back Union assaults on June 16-17, despite ever increasing numbers of Federal soldiers. However, on the night of the 17th his troops withdrew to a line of works located perilously close to the Cockade City.
Before dawn on June 18, Robert E. Lee finally put his army into motion to assist Beauregard. Nearly simultaneously, the Federal forces began pushing forward in their hopes to finally capture Petersburg. As elements of Lee’s army arrived during the day, the fighting continued in a poorly coordinated manner. During the morning, men in Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps had fought hard to obtain the Taylor House ridge. Some men had moved into the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad cut. At 5:30 p.m., three brigades surged out of the railroad cut and rushed over an open area toward Poor Creek. There they pushed out Confederate pickets and then two of the brigades arranged themselves to drive forward against the Confederate defenses. However, the Southerners laid down a heavy shower of bullets and began entrenching. The Union troops were about 125 yards from this Confederate line. Thus, the half-hour action left these Yankees in a position closer to the Rebels than any other place along the Federal line.
Almost immediately the soldiers became miserable. The summer of 1864 was brutally scorching in the Richmond-Petersburg area as rain was nearly non-existent during the summer and a heat wave made the troops swelter. A chaplain in the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry noted,
You see nothing but dust—you smell dust, you eat dust, you drink dust. Your clothes, blanket, tent, food, drink, are all permeated with dust. You walk in dust, you halt in dust, you lie down in dust, you sleep in dust, you wake in dust, you live in dust—you are emphatically dusty.
In addition to the stifling heat and dust, sharpshooting was constant and with deadly consequences. In the first two days following the initial assaults, Confederate Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson reported skirmish and artillery fire “all day,” and on the third day, “Picket firing as usual.” Johnson noted between June 25-July 2, his division lost more than 116 men killed and wounded. Meanwhile the work of building and strengthening earthworks had to go on.
The Mine—From Idea to Reality
As early as June 21, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry in the IX Corps thought mining the Confederate position known as Elliott’s Salient (or Pegram’s Battery) and planting explosives was a possibility. Pleasants had been a civil engineer before the war which gave him some confidence that a mine could be dug toward the Southern position. He conferred with his division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter, who liked the proposal and informed General Burnside. On the night of June 24, Pleasants met with Burnside and explained “everything about” the mine and Burnside encouraged him to start immediately. The work of excavating the mine began on June 25 at noon.
For many years it has erroneously been stated that the 48th Pennsylvania was composed entirely of miners. This is not true. Maj. Oliver Bosbyshell rightfully noted years later, “There were a number of miners in the organization, as there were men of various other trades and occupations.” Many of the men prior to their enlistment were farmers, general laborers, shoemakers, bricklayers, cigar makers, teamsters, and did numerous other jobs. Thus the work of building the mine would come easier to those with mining experience than to others. The man in charge of oversight for the work was Sgt. Henry Reese of Co. F, 48th Pennsylvania. He was remembered as being . . .
on duty continually, never leaving the mine during its construction. His meals were taken at night on the grounds, and he kept his blankets at the mouth of the mine and slept there and could be found and consulted by day or by night. Being a practical miner, his advice and assistance were of material aid to Col. Pleasants, and were promptly acknowledged by that officer.
The work at the mine was conducted without proper mining tools, and to frame the interior of the mine shaft troops first destroyed a bridge, then put into operation a sawmill “five or six miles” from the ravine where the troops were digging the mine. The men also did not have wheelbarrows to cart away the earth that was excavated so they improvised a hand carting system using empty hardtack boxes. Colonel Pleasants described the cracker box handbarrows as having hickory sticks “nailed on the boxes . . . and then iron-claded them with hoops of iron taken from old pork and beef barrels.” The mine was only about four and half feet in height, making the removal of the earth even more challenging. Major Bosbyshell recorded that shifts of men worked for two and a half hour intervals.