Union forces stopped at the Battle of the Crater

Union forces stopped at the Battle of the Crater

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On July 30, 1864, at the Battle of the Crater, the Union’s ingenious attempt to break the Confederate lines at Petersburg, Virginia, by blowing up a tunnel that had been dug under the Rebel trenches fails. Although the explosion created a gap in the Confederate defenses, a poorly planned Yankee attack wasted the effort and the result was an eight-month continuation of the siege.

The bloody campaign between Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Robert E. Lee ground to a halt in mid-June, when the two armies dug in at Petersburg, south of Richmond. For the previous six weeks, Grant had pounded away at Lee, producing little results other than frightful casualties. A series of battles and flanking maneuvers brought Grant to Petersburg, where he opted for a siege rather than another costly frontal assault.

READ MORE: Petersburg Campaign

In late June, a Union regiment from the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry began digging a tunnel under the Rebel fortifications. The soldiers, experienced miners from Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal regions, dug for nearly a month to construct a horizontal shaft over 500 feet long. At the end of the tunnel, they ran two drifts, or side tunnels, totaling 75 feet along the Confederate lines to maximize the destruction. Four tons of gunpowder filled the drifts, and the stage was set.

Union soldiers lit the fuse before dawn on July 30. The explosion that came just before 5:00 a.m. blew up a Confederate battery and most of one infantry regiment, creating a crater 170 feet long, 60 to 80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. As one Southern soldier wrote, “Several hundred yards of earth work with men and cannon was literally hurled a hundred feet in the air.” However, the Union was woefully unprepared to exploit the gap. The Yankees were slow to exit the trenches, and when they did the 15,000 attacking troops ran into the crater rather than around it. Part of the Rebel line was captured, but the Confederates that gathered from each side fired down on the Yankees. The Union troops could not maintain the beachhead, and by early afternoon they retreated back to their original trenches.

This failure led to finger pointing among the Union command. General Ambrose Burnside, the corps commander of the troops involved, had ordered regiments from the United States Colored Troops to lead the attack, but the commander of the Army of the Potomac, George G. Meade, nixed that plan shortly before the attack was scheduled. Fearing that it may be perceived as a ploy to use African-American soldiers as cannon fodder, Meade ordered that white troops lead the charge. With little time for training, General James H. Ledlie was left to command the attack.

The Battle of the Crater essentially marked the end of Burnside’s military career, and on April 15, 1865, he resigned from the army.

Petersburg - Battle of the Crater - July 30, 1864

Two weeks after the Union forces arrived outside of Petersburg, Virginia, the battle lines of both sides had settled into a stalemate. Since the Battle of Cold Harbor and the opening assaults on Petersburg, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was reluctant to mount a frontal attack against well-fortified Confederate positions. By late June, his lines covered most of the eastern approaches to Petersburg, but neither side seemed ready to risk a major offensive move.

As the siege wore on, and Grant’s men sought a way to break the impasse. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania, a mining engineer by profession, saw a way to end the stalemate at Petersburg. Pleasants proposed to dig a mine running from the Federal lines and under Elliott’s Salient on the high ground within the Confederate line. A large gallery would be excavated and packed with black powder and ignited. This would blow a huge hole in the enemy line, opening a clear path to Petersburg. Pleasants began digging on June 25, completing a 510-foot shaft within three weeks. By July 27, the mine was packed with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder and ready to ignite.

At the end of July, Grant authorized the explosion. Spearheading the Federal attack was Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps. Burnside planned to pass his leading division through the gap created by the explosion and then have his troops turn north and south, respectively, to widen the breach and clear the way. The IX Corps commander chose Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division of United States Colored Troops (USCTs) to spearhead the assault. Though these troops had spent most of their service guarding wagon trains and building fortifications, Burnside believed their enthusiasm and a chance to prove themselves in battle would compensate for their lack of combat experience. Each brigade in Ferrero’s division trained for its role in Burnside’s carefully choreographed scheme. On the day before the assault, however, General George G. Meade ordered Burnside to select a white unit instead, fearing the public image of sacrificing colored troops on what was certain to be a forlorn hope. Burnside had his division commanders draw lots for the job.

Colonel Bates

Colonel Bates was the commander of one the aforementioned troops of black soldiers trained to go into the crater. He was the very first person to enter the crater after the “turkey shoot”. It had been some time since the explosion and the terrifying aftermath. Though the soldiers were “demoralized” walking amidst the more than two hundred dead and dying, they held strong and pushed the Confederates back.

Delavan Bates

When they had succeeded and were resting, Bates was given an order from Burnside to leave the crater and charge up nearby Cemetery Hill against Confederates that were beating the Union there. He told his men that during the charge they should ignore the wounded and carry on.

As they went up the hill, Colonel Bates was shot in the right cheek with a fifty-eight caliber Enfield Ball which exited his left ear. It narrowly missed killing him instantly. His men rejected the order to ignore the wounded, knowing that the Confederates had no mercy for an officer in command of black troops.

The Mine entrance today. Rjones216 – CC BY-SA 3.0

In the melee of gunfire, they hoisted him up and carried him away to safety. By October of that year, he was well and recovered and was upgraded in rank to General in command of a brigade in North Carolina.

General Bates left service after Reconstruction. He married in 1870, two years later leaving his home state of New York to become a pioneer homesteader in Nebraska. Once his homestead claim was recognized, he moved into the town od Aurora, NB to became vice president of a bank there. He was well-loved among his neighbors and townspeople.

He was a city councilman for 8 years, county superintendent of schools, and a two-term mayor. He had four children. Even in old age, and for 16 years after the death of his wife, he remained a pivotal member of the community, organizing fundraising and implementation of a cemetery, a bandstand, and other civic projects until his death in 1919.

The Battle of the Crater

The Battle of the Crater ended with what may have been the worst racial massacre on any Civil War battlefield.

The Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864, has gone into the history books as &ldquoa stupendous failure.&rdquo The Union army suffered four thousand casualties, and wasted a spectacular opportunity to capture Petersburg and end the war before Christmas. Less well known is the fact that the battle ended with what may have been the worst racial massacre on any Civil War battlefield. [1]

In the spring of 1864 the Army of the Potomac had fought its way south at terrible cost, only to be stymied by the impregnable trench lines of Petersburg, the vital railroad junction south of Richmond and the James River. Then the ingenuity of a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners in Major General Ambrose Everett Burnside&rsquos IX Corps created the opportunity for a breakthrough. The 48 th Pennsylvania held the apex of &ldquothe Horseshoe,&rdquo a forward projection of the Union trenches that came within a hundred yards of a Confederate strong-point known as Elliott&rsquos Salient&mdashroughly in the center of the arc of Confederate trenches that defended Petersburg. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay Pleasants, commanding the 48 th , was an engineer in civilian life, and had designed and constructed long tunnels for coal mines and railroads. His regiment included a number of professional miners, and many of his men had experience in mining. On June 21 Pleasants, perhaps acting on a suggestion from the ranks, developed a plan for tunneling across the no-man&rsquos-land between the Horseshoe and Elliott&rsquos Salient, planting a mine below the strong point, and blowing it up. The mine explosion would create a wide breach in the Confederate trench line, through which Federal infantry could attack. Beyond Elliott&rsquos Salient was open ground, rising gradually to the low north-south ridge along which ran the Jerusalem Plank Road. If Union infantry could seize and hold that high ground its artillery would command the town of Petersburg and the Confederate army would be split in two.

Pleasants&rsquo proposal was passed up the chain of command to Burnside, who (on June 25) enthusiastically recommended it to Major General George Gordon Meade. But Meade&rsquos chief engineer, Major James C. Duane, dismissed the project as &ldquoclaptrap and nonsense.&rdquo He believed it was impossible to dig a military mine of the proposed length&mdashmore than 500 feet from the mine-head behind the front line to the salient opposite. Moreover, even if a breach were effected at that point, the ground was still swept by Confederate batteries located north and south of the salient. Finally, Meade had no faith in Burnside&rsquos military judgment or ability to manage a complex operation. On Meade&rsquos orders, the miners would receive no support from army headquarters. [2]

But Burnside believed in the project and supported it using his own resources. He borrowed a theodolite from a civilian engineer (a personal friend) so Pleasants could triangulate an accurate course for his tunnel. Pleasants and his men improvised tools and drew on their civilian expertise to overcome a series of technical problems and push the digging ahead. By July 16 the tunnel had been driven 511 feet, right up under the Salient, and the men began digging lateral galleries to either side to contain the four tons of gunpowder that would blow up the Confederate battery.

In the meantime, Burnside made plans for an infantry assault to exploit the breach if and when the mine was exploded. The division spearheading the attack would have the most difficult and complex assignment. It would have to pass through or around the crater and the large debris field left by the mine re-form for attack on the far side then advance to seize the high ground along the Jerusalem Plank Road against whatever reserves of infantry and artillery the Confederates might have at that point. There were four understrength divisions in IX Corps. Three of them consisted of White troops but these had been exhausted and demoralized by months of combat and heavy losses. Burnside mistrusted their willingness to advance energetically against enemy entrenchments.

The Fourth Division comprised two brigades of United States Colored Troops. Its units were nearly at full strength, and its men were relatively fresh because they had seen very little combat so far&mdashthe soldierly quality of Black troops was considered suspect, so most of their service had been guarding the army&rsquos wagon trains. Burnside thought better of their combat capability, and he knew their morale was better than that of his White divisions. Their lack of combat experience meant they had not been habituated to the idea that trench lines could not be attacked. If their rookie enthusiasm could be tempered by proper training, they would serve for a spearhead. Burnside therefore consulted with the Fourth Division&rsquos brigade commanders in planning the assault, and arranged for the regiments that would lead the attack to receive special training in the maneuvers required to pass the breach and storm the high ground.

Although Meade remained hostile to the plan, General Ulysses S. Grant was willing to consider anything that might break the stalemate, and in early July he took a distant interest in the project. A change in the strategic picture brought that interest to the fore. The month of July saw a Rebel army under Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early driving north through the Shenandoah Valley, threatening an invasion of Maryland and, ultimately, an attack on Washington. Grant was first compelled to send to Washington the reinforcements he had planned to use against Petersburg, and then to reduce his own strength by sending the VI Corps. To press the offensive against Petersburg with reduced forces, Grant would have to make use of the mine. On July 23 he began working with Meade on a plan that would combine the mine explosion with an attack in force at Deep Bottom, on the north side of the James River, to threaten Richmond. If that attack seemed likely to succeed, the mine explosion and an attack by Burnside would be used to hold General Robert E. Lee&rsquos reserves south of the river. If Lee diverted his reserves to block the Deep Bottom attack, then Burnside&rsquos would become the main assault.

Burnside now had the cooperation of Meade&rsquos engineers. The mine galleries were completed and packed with four tons of gunpowder. Fuses were run from the galleries to the mine-head through tubes. Galleries and tunnel were tamped with sand-bags to compress the explosion and drive it upward. Surveys of the Rebel lines from the Union positions suggested that the ground behind Elliott&rsquos Salient was open &ndash devoid of entrenchments&mdashall the way to the ridge-line of the Jerusalem Plank Road and that there was no continuous entrenchment on that line, only a couple of battery emplacements. Federal plans assumed that once the first line of entrenchments was breached, an assaulting column would have a clear road to the high ground.

That assumption was mistaken. The ground immediately behind the Confederate front line (which could not be seen from Federal observation towers) was a labyrinth of communication trenches, in which reserve troops could rally. There was also a ravine half-way up the slope which could shelter infantry. Moreover, the Confederates were aware that Burnside was mining on their front. For weeks Southern engineers had been probing with countermines to discover the Federals&rsquo target. While those efforts failed, the Confederate command was forewarned of trouble, and reinforced the artillery positions in that sector. In addition to the batteries on the Plank Road, batteries were established five hundred yards south and seven hundred yards north of Elliott&rsquos Salient. An especially large battery was established midway down a spur of higher ground that ran from the Plank Road toward the Union lines. Together these batteries provided interlocking fields of fire across the whole area behind Elliott&rsquos Salient and the no-man&rsquos-land between the lines.

The Confederates were confident in the strength of their positions. The entrenchments on the Petersburg front were extremely strong, and manned by four divisions of veteran infantry, one fronting the Bermuda Hundred peninsula and three in front of Petersburg itself. But what made them impregnable was the fact that behind the front lines Lee had a reserve of four infantry and three cavalry divisions. Even if Union troops succeeded in cracking the front line, the gap could easily be sealed by one or more of these reserve divisions, at heavy cost to the attacking Federals.

Grant would negate that Confederate advantage by a brilliant tactical ploy. On July 28-29 Grant sent 25,000 infantry and cavalry under his most aggressive generals (Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and Major General Phillip Henry Sheridan) north of the James River to Deep Bottom. They attacked with such strength that Lee believed Richmond was in danger, and sent his entire reserve north of the James to defend it. That left only three divisions in front of Petersburg, with no mobile reserve &ndash except three brigades of Major General William Mahone&rsquos Division that could be pulled out of line and marched to a threatened point. That meant that the trenches directly opposite Burnside&rsquos 16,000 infantry (IX Corps and a division from X Corps) were held by 4,400 Confederates in Major General Bushrod Rust Johnson&rsquos Division. The only available reserves were three brigades of Mahone&rsquos Division (about 2,300 men), who would have to be pulled off the front line and would need an hour or more to reach Johnson&rsquos front.

Once Federal intelligence reported that Lee&rsquos reserve had gone north of the James, Grant ordered the mine to be blown and Burnside to make his attack. The Fourth Division was ordered to concentrate behind Burnside&rsquos fourteen-gun battery and prepare to spearhead the assault.

Burnside&rsquos operational plan began to fall apart when, the day before the attack, General Meade forbade the use of the &ldquoColored Division&rdquo as the spearhead. Meade did not think Blacks were good enough soldiers, and he feared political repercussions if he gave them so important and dangerous a task. If they failed with heavy losses, Radical Republicans in Congress would condemn him for using Negroes as cannon fodder. And Democratic politicians would condemn him no matter what happened. They were fighting that year&rsquos presidential campaign by whipping up racial animosity, on a platform described by one of its partisans as &ldquothe Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the Niggers where they are.&rdquo Democrats opposed the recruitment and use of Blacks in combat the more extreme demanded that those already in service be dismissed. [3]

Until that moment Burnside&rsquos handling of the operation had been impeccable. But Meade&rsquos disruption sent him into a funk of confusion and resentment. Instead of making a new plan, he had the commanders of his other three divisions draw lots for the spearhead mission. Chance decreed that Brigadier General James Hewett Ledlie&rsquos First Division should lead&mdasha division exhausted by weeks of constant fighting, with a commander who had literally gotten falling-down drunk in his two earlier battles. In the confusion of changing arrangements Burnside and his staff also neglected to detail engineers to accompany the assault troops, to help them fortify the high ground once they had seized it, and to make pathways through the trench lines so that artillery could be sent forward. So even if Ledlie succeeded in storming the high ground, his ability to hold it would be compromised.

Burnside&rsquos orders called for Ledlie&rsquos men to charge through the breach made by the explosion, and take the high ground along the Jerusalem Plank Road. If they succeeded Lee&rsquos army would be split, and Federal guns would command Petersburg. But Ledlie never gave those orders to his brigade commanders. Instead he told them simply to hold the ground around the breach&mdashand wait for the Fourth Division to assault the heights! It is not clear if Ledlie misunderstood his orders because he was drunk, or deliberately falsified them to evade responsibility for leading the assault.

The mine was scheduled to explode at 3:30 a.m. on July 30, and the fuse was lit&mdashbut nothing happened. While the whole operation hung in suspense, and Meade harried Burnside about the delay, Sergeant Harry Reese (the foreman in Pleasants&rsquo operation) and Lieutenant Jacob Douty crawled down the tunnel (which might have exploded in their faces). They found a break in the fuse-line, spliced and re-lit it, then scrambled to daylight.

At 4:45 a.m. the earth below the Rebel strongpoint bulged and broke, and an enormous mushroom cloud, &ldquofull of red flames, and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, mounted towards heaven with a detonation of thunder.&rdquo The explosion blasted a crater 130 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 30 feet deep, with sheer walls of jagged clay. The bottom was &ldquofilled with dust, great blocks of clay, guns, broken carriages, projecting timbers, and men buried in various ways . . . some with their legs kicking in the air, some with the arms only exposed, and some with every bone in their bodies apparently broken.&rdquo [4]

The effect of the explosion was not what Burnside hoped. The crater itself was an impassable barrier, and the debris-clogged trenches to either side did not permit swift forward movement. A third of Brigadier General Stephen Elliott&rsquos South Carolina brigade, which defended these lines, was destroyed in the blast. But behind the main line Rebel infantry rallied in that labyrinth of communication trenches and the ravine half-way up the slope. On the north side of the breach, Elliott&rsquos survivors were joined by units of Brigadier General Matt Whitaker Ransom&rsquos North Carolina Brigade on the south side by elements of Wise&rsquos Virginia Brigade. The guns in the ring of well-placed artillery batteries now laid down a heavy cross-fire of canister and case shot that pinned Ledlie&rsquos division in the breach. During the next three hours Burnside&rsquos Second and Third Divisions tried to advance, but those units that assailed the unbroken trenches north and south of the breach were repulsed. The rest piled into the already crowded breach, where they simply added to the logjam around the crater.

At 7:30 a.m., in a last attempt to redeem this disaster, Burnside ordered the Colored Division to charge and carry out its original mission. But after more than three hours of fighting, all the advantages of surprise and shock were gone and Rebel reinforcements were coming up. In order to attack they would have to cross no-man&rsquos-land under fire, then force their way forward through the mass of demoralized White troops around the crater. Nevertheless, their assault accomplished far more than could have been expected. Lieutenant Colonel H. Seymour Hall and Colonel Delavan Bates, commanding the two leading regiments in the first brigade (Lieutenant Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried&rsquos), improvised a pincer attack that drove the Rebel defenders back, and captured 150 prisoners and a clutch of battle-flags. The regiments in the second brigade (Colonel Henry Goddard Thomas&rsquos) also worked their way through the mob and under heavy artillery fire tried to advance, in conjunction with some rallied White regiments.

But by now Rebel reinforcements had arrived, two of the three brigades from Mahone&rsquos Division, and a brilliantly timed and executed counter-attack broke up and routed the attempted Federal advance. Hundreds of troops, Black and White, fled back across the captured sections of the trench line. Small groups of soldiers (Black and White) rallied in the trenches, but too few to stem the Confederate counter-attack. The Federals retreated down the trench line towards the crater, pursued by Confederate soldiers&mdashmany of whom murdered the wounded or surrendering Black soldiers in their path. But Mahone&rsquos charge was finally checked by fire from Federals who held the outer berm of the crater and the half-buried trenches around it. With the aid of their artillery, Mahone&rsquos attackers kept the crater position under fire while they waited for Mahone&rsquos third brigade to arrive.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of routed troops and broken organizations, Burnside refused to admit his attack had failed, and rode to Meade&rsquos headquarters to demand reinforcements. The two generals got into a furious argument, which ended in Meade&rsquos peremptory order to withdraw the troops and avoid further casualties. A proper appreciation of the situation would have told them that a successful retreat would require diversionary attacks by other units (since Burnside&rsquos troops were wholly disorganized). However, at 10:30 a.m. Meade and Grant just packed up and left the scene and instead of developing a plan for withdrawal, Burnside left it to the officers in the crater.

Meanwhile, the troops in the crater were demoralized and trapped in an indefensible position. Between eight hundred and a thousand men were packed into the bottom of the crater, without food or water, in oven-like heat, unable to fight but vulnerable to mortar-fire. A thin line of riflemen defended the crater berm and the trenches to either side. Officers who commanded in the crater testified that Black troops were the mainstay of this last-ditch defense. An enemy, Private Bird of the 12 th Virginia gave them the accolade: &ldquoThey fought like bulldogs and died like soldiers.&rdquo They held out under those conditions for three hours. [5]

Then at 2:30 p.m. the Confederates made their final assault. Two of Mahone&rsquos brigades were joined by the rallied survivors of the Elliott&rsquos South Carolinians and Ransom&rsquos North Carolina Brigade. The attackers chanted, &ldquoSpare the white man, kill the nigger.&rdquo Major Matthew N. Love of the 25 th North Carolina wrote, &ldquosuch Slaughter I have not witnessed upon any battle field any where. Their men were principally negroes and we shot them down untill we got near enough and then run them through with the Bayonet . . . we was not very particular whether we captured or killed them the only thing we did not like to be pestered berrying the Heathens.&rdquo Major John C. Haskell of the Branch Battery (North Carolina) observed, &ldquoOur men, who were always made wild by having negroes sent against them . . . were utterly frenzied with rage. Nothing in the war could have exceeded the horrors that followed. No quarter was given, and for what seemed a long time, fearful butchery was carried on.&rdquo Some of the officers tried to stop the killing, &ldquobut [the men] kept on until they finished up.&rdquo [6]

As the defense collapsed some White Federals turned against their Black comrades-in-arms, shooting or bayonetting them, because they believed Confederate troops would not grant quarter to Blacks in arms, or to White troops serving with them. As one Union soldier said, &ldquowe was not about to be taken prisoner amongst them niggers.&rdquo [7]

Their fear was justified. Federal soldiers had seen Rebels killing wounded or surrendering Blacks during the retreat to the crater. Soldiers on both sides believed, with good reason, that the Confederate government sanctioned such killings. The Confederate Congress had declared that officers of the USCT would not be treated as POWs, but criminals fomenting slave rebellion&mdashan offense punishable by death. Fear of Federal retaliation prevented open execution of that policy, but Confederate Secretary of War James Alexander Seddon encouraged field commanders to apply its principles unofficially, &ldquored-handed on the field or immediately thereafter.&rdquo There was ample evidence that Rebel troops would do just that. Recent months had seen the notorious massacre of Blacks and their White comrades at Fort Pillow and North Carolina troops of Ransom&rsquos Brigade had participated in a similar massacre at Plymouth, North Carolina two months earlier. One of Ransom&rsquos soldiers wrote, &ldquoit is understood amongst us that we take no negro prisoners,&rdquo and another: &ldquoit is deth eny way if we got hold of them for wee have no quarters for a negro.&rdquo [8]

The killing went beyond the excesses that occur in the heat of battle. Many Black wounded and POWs under escort were shot, bayonetted or clubbed to death as they went to the rear. Confederate Captain William J. Pegram thought it was &ldquoperfectly&rdquo proper that all captured Blacks be killed &ldquoas a matter of policy,&rdquo because it clarified the racial basis of the Southern struggle for independence. He found satisfaction in the belief that fewer than half of the Blacks who surrendered on the field &ldquoever reached the rear . . . You could see them lying dead all along the route.&rdquo [9]

Not everyone shared in or approved of the massacre. On the one hand, Private Dorsey Binyon of the 48 th Georgia regretted that &ldquosome few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.&rdquo On the other Noble Brooks, another Georgia private, was deeply upset: &ldquoOh! the depravity of the human heart that would cause men to cry out &lsquono quarters&rsquo in battle, or not show any when asked for.&rdquo Among the Alabamans, one lieutenant found the killing &ldquoheart sickening&rdquo and tried to check it. On the other hand, Captain Featherston &ldquoapologized&rdquo to his wife for having taken the Negroes prisoner instead of killing them: &ldquoAll that we had not killed surrendered, and I must say we took some of the negroes prisoners. But we will not be held culpable for this when it is considered the numbers we had already slain.&rdquo [10]

Most of the eyewitness evidence of the Crater massacre comes from Confederate sources. This is because, on balance, official policy and public opinion approved of the murder of Black troops, so that Confederate soldiers made no effort to conceal the work of massacre&mdashrather, they took pride in describing it. As a further indication of official attitudes, on the day after the battle Confederate military authorities had the IX Corps prisoners&mdashblack and white, officers and men, wounded and whole&mdashparaded through the streets of Petersburg to be insulted and humiliated by the citizens&mdashan abuse of prisoners unprecedented in American warfare.

The Battle of the Crater was a hugely disappointing and demoralizing defeat. The opportunity presented by Grant&rsquos successful diversion north of the James and the explosion of the mine was one that would never recur. Burnside and Ledlie were sacked, several subordinate commanders reprimanded. The army and much of the press blamed the Black troops for the breakdown of the infantry attack, although their performance had actually been the best of any of the engaged units. They seized more critical ground, captured more enemy troops, advanced further and suffered heavier losses than any other unit. Ledlie&rsquos white division, which was engaged for nine hours, suffered 18% casualties. The Fourth Division, engaged for less than half that time, lost 31% and because so many of their wounded were murdered, their ratio of killed to wounded was more than double that of any Federal unit.

The Union armies lost approximately 3,800 men, killed, wounded, missing and captured, at the Crater. Confederate losses are harder to specify, but were between 2,300 and 2,500 at a minimum. However, when the casualties of the Deep Bottom diversion are added in (438 Union, 635 Confederate) the disparity shrinks. Grant could better afford his 4,000+ casualties than Lee his 3,100.

  • [1] Ulysses S. Grant, The papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Vol. 2, June 1-August 15, 1864, ed. John Y. Simon. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 361-363.
  • [2] William Marvel, Burnside (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 390-1.
  • [3] Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War: The Attack on Petersburg on the 30 th Day of July, 1864, H.R. Rep. 2d Sess. No. 38-114, at 17, 42, 57 (1865) James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 560.
  • [4] Regis de Trobriand, Four Years with the Army of the Potomac, trans. George K. Dauchy (Boston: Ticknor and Co., 1889), 618 Stephen M. Weld, “Petersburg Mine”, Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, vol. 5 no. 10 (Read Before the Society March 27, 1882): 209.
  • [5] Gregory J. W. Urwin, ed. Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), 205.
  • [6] George S. Burkhardt, Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), 168-9 John Cheves Haskell, Haskell Memoirs: The Personal Narrative of a Confederate Officer, eds. Gilbert E. Govan & James W. Livingston (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1960), 77-8.
  • [7] Michael A. Cavanaugh & William Marvel. The Petersburg Campaign: The Battle of the Crater, “The Horrid Pit” June 25 – August 6, 1864. 2 nd ed. (Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, 1989), 98.
  • [8] McPherson, Battle Cry, 566-7 Ervin L. Jordan, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 168.
  • [9] Peter S. Carmichael, Lee’s Young Artillerist: William R.J. Pegram (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 1301.
  • [10] J. Tracy Power, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 139.

If you can read only one book:

Slotkin, Richard No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. New York: Random House, 2009.

American Indian Sharpshooters at the Battle of the Crater

Sharpshooters of the 18th Corps in action at the Battle of the Crater.

Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley was fighting for his life in the man-made hellhole that was the Petersburg Crater when he noticed that the former slaves in his company of the 30th United States Colored Troops were not the only men of color wearing Union blue and dodging Confederate Minié balls on the stifling hot morning of July 30, 1864. “Among our troops was a company of Indians, belonging to the 1st Michigan S.S. [Sharpshooters],” recalled Bowley many years later. “They did splendid work, crawling to the very top of the bank, and rising up, they would take a quick and fatal aim, then drop quickly down again.”

More than 20,000 American Indians fought in the Civil War for both the Union and the Confederacy. Probably the best known were the Cherokee soldiers of General Stand Watie, who sided with the South in the Trans-Mississippi West. But the men Bowley saw were mostly Chippewas and Ottawas from Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, the largest unit of American Indians serving with the Union armies east of the Mississippi River.

Why did these men, who were neither citizens nor subject to the draft, leave the primeval pine forests and sparkling lakes where their people had lived for thousands of years to fight and die on the killing fields of Virginia? What motivated a people accustomed to white racism and government duplicity to send its fathers, sons and brothers to fight in a war to free black slaves while they themselves were not completely free? How could men, characterized by Michigan newspapers as “demi-savages” and “a poor, ignorant, and dependent race” resolutely stand their ground on the blood-slicked red clay slopes of the Crater while many other soldiers fled in terror?

The warriors of Company K were in the trenches before Petersburg because, by late 1863, the Union armies desperately needed men. President Abraham Lincoln had imposed a federal draft and assigned numerical quotas to be filled by each state’s governor. Two years earlier, however, the Michigan Legislature had rejected an offer by George Copway, a Chippewa and well-known Methodist minister, to raise a regiment of Great Lakes-area Indians who were, as he put it, “inured to hardships, fleet as deer, shrewd, and cautious.”

But the blood of Michigan boys soaking battlefields from Shiloh to Gettysburg gradually opened the lawmakers’ eyes to the possibility of affording their American Indian population the benefits of citizenship, at least as far as it affected their ability to be soldiers. By late 1862, the supervisors of Oceana County, along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, informed authorities that “thirty-four Indians whom we regard as citizens of said county” had enlisted. The good fathers of Oceana County seemed to have put prejudice aside—and not coincidently spared 34 white males and potential voters from the draft.

While the Michigan lawmakers were congratulating themselves on their newly discovered sense of equality, Colonel Charles V. DeLand, a veteran of the 9th Michigan Infantry, and a troop of energetic recruiters were scouring the Michigan hinterlands looking for men to join a regiment of sharpshooters—men who could move with stealth and kill with a single shot. American Indians, with a reputation for marksmanship and a tradition of living off the land, seemed ideal candidates if they could be convinced to join up.

Laurence Hauptman’s seminal study of Indians in the Civil War, Between Two Fires, argues that extreme economic necessity and the hopes of negotiating a more favorable treaty to protect their traditional homelands from white incursion were the primary reasons driving Michigan Indians into Union uniforms. But Saginaw Chippe­wa Chief Nock-ke-chick-faw-me, in a speech to the young warriors of his tribe gathered at Detroit, used a more sensational form of motivation. “If the South conquers you will be slave dogs,” he warned. “There will be no protection for us we shall be driven from our homes, our lands, and the graves of our friends.”

A similar oration given by Ottawa Chief Paw-baw-me on July 4, 1863, at the reservation in Oceana County caused 25 men to join the colors. Almost the entire tribe turned out to see them depart by steamer from the dock at Pentwater for mustering at Detroit. Among them was 23-year-old Antoine Scott, who was to be recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Crater. More recruits came from Bear River, Little Traverse, Charlevoix and La Croix. Some Ottawa-Ojibwas came from the Isabella Reser­vation on the Lower Peninsula near Saginaw. One of the first to sign up was Thomas Ke-chi-ti-go, a tall, muscular man known as “Big Tom.” He had been refused enlistment in 1861 but became a sergeant in Company K.

Second Lieutenant Garrett A. Graveraet led one of the most successful recruiting drives. His father was a Franco-Ottawa merchant-fur trader, and his mother, Sophie Bailey, was recorded as “Chippewayan.” Only 23, Graveraet was well known, well educated and spoke fluent Chippewa. He even signed up his own father, 55-year old Henry, who claimed to be only 45. The elder Graveraet became a sergeant in Company K and its only non-Indian enlisted man.

Along with Captain Edwin V. Andress and 1st Lt. William Driggs, Graveraet drilled the new recruits of Company K while Colonel DeLand and part of the regiment chased Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders through southern Indiana. When DeLand returned, he found 80 well-drilled men whom Lt. Col. John R. Smith, the mustering officer, characterized as “the stuff, no doubt, of which good sharpshooters can easily be made.” In all, about 150 American Indians served in Company K during the war.

Colonel DeLand had made it clear to his recruiters that “great care will be taken in enlisting Indians to give them all necessary and correct information upon all subjects….” They were to receive the same benefits as white soldiers. This included a $50 state bounty, $25 federal bounty and $13 per month in pay. In comparison, when African Americans first enlisted in USCT regiments, they received only $10 per month until a July 1864 act of Congress mandated equal pay.

But like their black brethren, the men of Company K began their Civil War service far from the front lines, protecting arsenals and guarding prisoners of war. In August 1863, seven companies of the 1st Michigan were ordered to Camp Douglas outside Chicago to guard Confederate prisoners. The routine of camp life quickly descended into boredom and its handmaidens: desertion and disease. There were few amenities or diversions for the men, and Charles Bibbins of Company E recalled after the war that the Indians “never associated with the other soldiers, always keeping strictly to themselves from the time they joined the regiment until the time they were mustered out.” Nevertheless, the warriors of Company K were a popular curiosity with the civilians of Chicago, who came out in droves to see them.

Orders finally came through on March 8, 1864, for the regiment to report to Annapolis, Md., the rendezvous point for units joining Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The men of Company K arrived just as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began his Overland campaign, and they remained in the thick of the fighting for more than a year until General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.

Company K’s first encounter with the enemy came in the confused fighting known as the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, north of the Chewing farm almost halfway between Parker’s Store and Wilderness Tavern. Skilled at skirmishing as well as sharpshooting, the Indians first rolled in the brush and mud to camouflage their blue uniforms. The rest of the regiment soon adopted the practice before every engagement.

Sergeant Charles Allen was severely wounded in the fighting that followed and died a week later in Fredericksburg. He was the first from Company K to die in battle. But on the afternoon of May 12 in the tangled woods and swamps around Spotsylvania Court House, the company faced an attack by Brig. Gen. James H. Lane’s North Carolinians, and the toll was much higher. Eight men, including Sergeant Graveraet, were killed, and two more died later from their wounds.

The Army of the Potomac moved south of the James River, and on June 17 Company K and the rest of the 1st Michigan were part of an attack by Brig. Gen. Orlando Willcox’s 3rd Division against a Confederate salient in front of the Shand house along the defenses around Petersburg, Va. The ferocious attack was poorly led. The sharpshooters soon found themselves in possession of some Rebel breastworks, but also isolated and surrounded.

Around 10 p.m., under the cover of an artillery barrage, remnants of five North Carolina regiments from Brig. Gen. Matthew Ransom’s Brigade swarmed over the defensive position of the severely depleted sharpshooters. After fighting that was often hand to hand, the Rebels forced the surrender of the defenders—who had covered the retreat of their comrades. Men of the 56th North Carolina confiscated many of the Indians’ prized rifles, with their uniquely carved stocks.

Company K had only two casualties in the action. Oliver Ar-pe-targe-zhik succumbed to his wounds in Washington, D.C., on July 9 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Lieutenant Garrett Graveraet also died of his wounds in Washington the next day. He is buried next to his father on Mackinac Island, deep beneath the soil of the land of the Great Hare, which was sacred to his family and his ancestors. But the 1st Michigan’s greatest loss from that day was not understood until after the war. More than 80 soldiers, including 14 from Company K, were captured and sent to Andersonville Prison 37, including eight from Company K, never returned.

For the next month the men of Company K fell into the routine of siege warfare, picketing, sniping and digging. Mud, flies and stifling heat were their constant companions. Both sides engaged in regular sniping, and Lieutenant Bowley recalled that an inordinate number of casualties near his unit indicated a well-placed Confederate sharpshooter was at work. The Indians were called in to stop him.

“Nearly a mile away stood a high chimney,” Bowley recalled. “All day the Indians watched that chimney and never fired a shot. The sun had gone down and the twilight was deepening, when one of the Indians fired. A man was seen to fall from the chimney…he had incautiously exposed a portion of his body, and the Indian sharpshooter had instantly dropped him.” Bowley didn’t know it at the time, but his life and the lives of the men of Company K were soon to be inextricably linked below a Confederate redoubt called Elliott’s Salient in a place that would come to be known as the Crater.

To break the stalemate between the two armies in front of Petersburg, Burnside devised a plan to dig a tunnel 510 feet long under the Confederate defenses and detonate 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. Four brigades of his IX Corps, led by Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s “Colored Division,” were supposed to swarm into the abyss, sweep the dazed defenders aside and pour into the Confederate trenches. They were to move swiftly to occupy some high ground about 500 yards away known as Cemetery Hill and then roll into Petersburg.

Reluctantly, both Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade approved the plan—but insisted that the Colored Division not lead the attack, fearing that if it failed, Northern abolitionists would rail about needlessly sacrificing mostly untested black soldiers. Burnside had the commanders of his three white divisions draw straws, and Brig. Gen. James F. Ledlie, the most incompetent among them, got the short one. The 2nd Brigade from Willcox’s division, including the 1st Michigan, was to be the third unit in, and the Colored Division, with Bowley and the 30th USCT, would follow them.

The mine detonated about 90 minutes late. Bowley, roughly a quarter mile behind the front lines, vividly recalled, “From the earth there burst a red glare of flame, followed by the black smoke with it came a terrible rumbling, that lengthened into a muffled roar. High into the air rose the cloud of smoke and dust, and with it great blocks of clay and many dark objects that might have been men or cannon. Back to earth the mess fell again, with another shock almost equal to the first.”

After the blast, nothing went according to plan. By the time Company K entered the pit, it encountered a leaderless, roiling mass of humanity, some wounded, some dazed, all unsure of what to do or where to go. Those who managed to reach the Rebel lines found a bewildering labyrinth of pits, trenches, dugouts and covered walkways. Worst of all, the Confederates were regrouping and fighting back.

The sharpshooters, on the far left of the disorganized Union forces, were joined by the 2nd and 20th Michigan. They had gained a foothold on the Rebel works, and it is uncertain whether they could see the gallant but ineffectual charge made by the untested black troops on the right. Unit cohesion was impossible, and it is doubtful orders could have been heard, much less followed. Men clawed into the sides of the crater in a vain attempt to evade Confederate fire raining down on them. Under a pitiless sun, the corpses soon bloated and became breastworks for those who were still alive.

Through it all, the Indians kept their composure. Lieutenant William H. Randall of Company I, captured during the fight, remembered that “the Indians showed great coolness. They would fire at a Johnny and then drop down. Would then peek over the works and try to see the effect of their shot.” Lieutenant Bowley claimed to have seen that “some of them were mortally wounded, and clustering together, covered their heads with their blouses, chanted a death song, and died—four of them in a group.”

Official reports describing the actions of the 1st Michigan in the Crater are scant. Colonel DeLand was stunned by an exploding shell almost immediately upon entering the fight and went to the rear. Captain Elmer C. Dicey, who assumed command, was captured and did not file an after-action report.

Nevertheless, Raymond Herek, the regiment’s modern-day historian, has pieced together an account of their last moments in the Crater. “Some of the Sharpshooters,” Herek wrote, “among them Pvts. Sidney Haight, Antoine Scott, and Charles Thatcher, covered the retreat as best they could before they pulled out. Scott (Co. K) was one of the last to leave the fort….Thatcher, Haight, Scott and [Charles H.] DePuy all were cited for the Medal of Honor for their exploits that day.” Thatcher, Haight and DePuy, all white, received their medals in 1896. Scott, the Pentwater Chippewa, died in 1878—probably never knowing that his exceptional bravery had been recognized.

Herek lists only three men of Company K as killed, one wounded and six captured in the Crater. All the captured sharpshooters were sent to an old tobacco warehouse in Danville, Va. Overall, the 1st Michigan lost 62 men in the ill-fated assault.

The Crater was the last major action for the Indian sharpshooters, though Company K did some fighting at Ream’s Station, Peebles Farm, Hatcher’s Run and the final assault on Petersburg in April 1865. The 1st Michigan was the first Union regiment to enter the evacuated city. The men marched in the Grand Review of the armies in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 1865, and were mustered out of service on July 28.

Of the 1,300 men who served in the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, only 23 officers and 386 enlisted men were on the steamer that brought the regiment home. For the widows and mothers of those who were disabled or had died, meager pensions were all the government offered as consolation. Sophie Graveraet, who lost both her husband and only son fighting in another man’s war, received $15 per month until she died.

For additional reading, see Laurence Hauptman’s Between Two Fires and These Men Have Seen Hard Service: The First Michigan Sharpshooters in the Civil War, by Raymond J. Herek.

This article by Gordon Berg was originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!

White Union Soldiers, Race, and the Battle of the Crater

I am putting the finishing touches on an article which is slated to appear in the next volume of Gary Gallagher’s Campaigns of the Civil War Series (UNC Press). I’ve gone back and expanded the focus (as well as the Crater book manuscript) to include the perspective of Union soldiers and their perceptions of race and the participation of USCTs during the battle. My collection of sources has included Union accounts from the beginning of my research, however, for a number of reasons I resisted giving them full voice in my study. Part of the reason can be explained by the fact that the postwar focus on commemoration and memory was carried out overwhelmingly by white Southerners. Given this I decided that my focus on the war years should concentrate on white Southerners. Since I received the manuscript reviews back in the spring I’ve had a chance to rethink this approach and have decided to expand the focus if for no other reason than to drive home the challenge that black Americans faced from the beginning in working to place their stories within the broader national narrative.

Recent studies by James McPherson, Reid Mitchell, Earl Hess, and Chandra Manning have highlighted the racial outlook of Civil War soldiers. Manning has recently argued that the views of Union soldiers evolved to a point which regarded the abolition of slavery as a necessary step in ending the war. She also contends that a noticeable change in the views of Union soldiers can be seen much earlier than previously thought. It is important, however, to distinguish (and I believe Manning does so) between a view that connected the end of slavery with the end of the war and a change in perceptions of race. Even with all of the evidence that Manning musters in demonstrating the way the realities of war and slave system in the South effected Union soldiers I believe we need to be cautious in drawing conclusion which purport to trace views of race over time. A close look at the response of Union soldiers to their defeat at the Crater is a case in point.

The other point I want to make before sharing a few wartime accounts is that my inclusion of Union soldiers is not to simply reduce their experiences to those of Confederates (white Southerners). Racism was no doubt a reality on both sides, but the experience of fighting with or against black soldiers matter and those salient features of their respective experiences need to be taken into account. While many Union soldiers clearly blamed the USCTs for defeat at the Crater they did not view their participation as a slave rebellion. Here are a few samples from my collection:

Louis H. Bell to George, August 12, 1864 [4th New Hampshire Infantry, Commander 3rd Brigade]

“July 31st I witnessed the explosion of the great mine in front of Petersburg and took part [in] the charge and was among those who were run over by the panic stricken negros. [W]e used our sabers freely on the cowards but could not stop them and were driven back – pell nell.”

Lt. Hilon A. Parker to Father, July 31, 1864 [10th New York Heavy Artillery]

"Everything went favorable until at 9 o’clock when the rebels attacked our men but the attack – if we can believe reports – could have been easily repulsed had it not been for a panic which scared the Colored troops who gave way and went to the rear with a rush which was almost as baud as the charge of the rebels themselves.”

Edward L. Cook to Sister, August 4, 1864 [100 th New York Infantry]

“How do the people North feel about the Petersburgh affair[?] Everybody here is down on the niggers. Our loss was very heavy but a large portion of it was caused by the white troops firing into the retreating niggers. We had Petersburgh in our power that day if the nigs had not been seized with a kind of unusual panic or if we had followed up our success in taking the first line by an immediate charge on the remaining line. The rebel force was very small in comparison to our own as it is proved that only 1 corps was in Petersburgh.”

Alonzo G. Rich to Father, July 31, 1864 [36th Massachusetts Regiment]

“A charge was then made. We gained the fort and the first line of breastworks without a very great loss. They were then halted. We were doing nicely. It was too much glory for white men. Niggers must go in and they skedaddled and created a panic. If it hadn’t been for them we should have occupied Petersburg yesterday by they mixed them up so that they didn’t show white men any mercy att [sic] all. They even bayoneted and shot our wounded…. I am willing the niggers should fight but I say put them all in together and let them fight. If not, keep them out and let the white men do it. They never will catch me in a fight with niggers.”

Orren S. Allen to Wife, August 3, 1864 [112th New York Volunteer Infantry]

“Many try to lay the blame to the Colored Troops, It is a Lie, they fought like heroes, I saw them and I talked with soldiers who has always been down on them before but said they never seen men fight better. They better not say much about the “Smokes” as they call them. When I saw a Brig. Gen. running for his life from where there was no danger. Men were trampled down like grass, ran like cows and but for the bravery of a few they would have been slaughtered.”

Accounts sympathetic to Orren S. Allen’s view are rare among Union soldiers. Most of what I’ve found place some blame for the defeat on the USCTs. What these soldiers fail to acknowledge, however, is that those black soldiers were part of the furthest advance on the battlefield before the initial charge of Mahone’s brigade took place around 9am. The retreating columns also included white men from New Hampshire regiments. It is not surprising that white Union soldiers would gravitate towards blaming USCTs for their defeat given that their racial views included the assumption that they made poor soldiers. It is important, however, to notice that even the most virulent racist could still conclude that the institution of slavery must end for the war to be successfully concluded. So, while I am sympathetic with those who suggest that Union soldier’s views of slavery evolved during the war I am suspicious of anything comparable in the racial context.

I am confused by this letter. Alonzo G. Rich, 36th Massachusetts Regiment, says: “They even bayoneted and shot our wounded.”

Who is “they”? Is he saying that USCT’s shot and bayonetted US wounded? Or am I misreading it? The subject of the last sentence was the USCTs, which implies that’s still who he is talking about.

USCTs killing US troops sounds dubious to me, though I know the reverse occurred.

I just thought I’d share a Harper’s Weekly article (August, 20, 1864, p. 531, c. 1) which I have always found fascinating as it was published in a national newspaper at the time:

THERE can be nothing more pitiful than the malevolent eagerness with which certain newspapers deride the colored troops for being no braver than the white troops at Petersburg. Did the unhappy panic at Bull Run, three years ago, prove that white men were cowards? Did the misfortune of the noble Second Corps, five or six weeks since, which General HANCOCK announced must be retrieved, show that they were poor soldiers? Or did ever sensible man say at once that the reputation of that brave corps was not to be lost by a mishap which might occur to the best corps of the best army in the world? Upon occasion of the late disaster to General M’COOK’s cavalry–caused by the fact as reported, that the men were drunk with whisky–is it sneeringly asserted that if the Government chooses to employ white cavalry, nothing is to be expected but that they will get drunk and be whipped on every occasion?

Of course not. When we read of M’COOK’s misfortune we remember SHERIDAN’s, and KAUTZ’s, and GRIERSON’s and AVERILL’s daring and victorious excursions, and we acknowledge with pride and gratitude the valor of our cavalry while we regret every mischance that befalls them. When we heard that the Second Corps had been flanked and had lost prisoners, we recalled their dauntless conduct at Spotsylvania and in the Wilderness, and chafed with them over the temporary shadow that obscured their name. And every sensible and true American citizen, when he reads of the faltering and retreat of the colored troops at Petersburg, recollects Fort Wagner, Olustee, Milliken’s Bend, and BALDY SMITH’s charge upon the same ground at Petersburg, and knows that the failure is not the proof of cowardice or incompetency, but is one of the painful events from which the record of no corps and no army can be entirely free.

We have always insisted that colored men should have the same chance of fighting in this war that white men have and we have always believed that, battle for battle, they would show the same spirit and pluck. Nor has the history of the war, the last assault at Petersburg included, belied our belief. And we may fairly ask whether any class of men—white, black, red, or yellow—whose services had been so grudgingly received and so reluctantly rewarded who knew that their capture was equivalent to torture, massacre, or slavery, and for whose wrongs retaliation so loudly promised was as yet not inflicted who were so maligned, rebuffed, and insulted as the colored men in this country are—we may fairly ask whether any soldiers would have fought more steadfastly and bravely and willingly than the colored troops in the Union army?

The mental and moral condition of those who begrudge fair play to the most unfortunate, but by no means the least meritorious class of our population, is one of the most melancholy phenomena of the times. The want of that fair play has produced the war, and until we concede it the war under some form will continue. The most brutal part of our population, deluded by “Conservative” demagogues, incessantly declare that “niggers are fit for slaves.” The science of all Christian civilization, rejects the foul injustice. It is the conflict of that enlightened sense of equity and right with the ferocious determination of class privilege and prejudice which is reddening our soil every where. Whoever panders to that injustice prolongs that war. Whoever cherishes it postpones the peace which can be permanently established upon Justice only.

The more thoughtful among those who are committed by party-spirit and jealousy to fostering the unmanly refusal to allow the black race fair play in this country must sometimes clearly see the hopelessness of their cause. They know as well as we that their profession of seeking the real interest of that race is a self-delusion. They know that the word slavery expresses some form of injustice, disguise it as they may and they are constantly aware that they are fighting against the human heart, against the instinct of civilization, and against the peace of the world. In such a contest, however they may prolong it, they are doomed to defeat and ignominy. They know, as we all do, that General GREENE in commending he valor of the colored troops in the revolutionary battle of Rhode Island is a more humane and ennobling figure to our imaginations than he would have been had he sneered at them as unfit for soldiers because they were “niggers.” For that is not the spirit which makes honorable men or great nations. We, too, are passing into history. And in our children’s eyes which will seem nobler, the men who died bravely fighting upon the slopes of Wagner and Petersburg, and on the plains of Olustee and Milliken’s Bend, or those who contemptuously cried as they read the story of the last Petersburg assault, “Pshaw! niggers never will make soldiers.”

Did the Union Army ever massacre surrendering Confederate troops similar to the Battle of Crater?

B/c of recent comments about Robert E. Lee, the massacre at the Battle of Crater has come up. There's also instances where Nathan Bedford Forrest murdered Union soldiers and atrocious conditions of Andersonville. But are there instances where the Union army participated in what would now be war crimes against CSA troops? I'm fairly well read in the US Civil War have never come across anything and I was wondering if it never happened or if it was just something that was unacknowledged b/c it would make someone look bad, or that the instances where it did happen were so small that Forrest's actions overshadow them completely.

War is a nasty business, and I doubt you can find one where the hands of both sides are truly clean. I preface with this to point out that recognizing this simple fact doesn't invalidate larger, correct historical narratives, even though this is a common and unfortunate tactic seen by apologists for any number of deplorable causes. In this case, the answer of course is "Yes". Union troops did at times commit war crimes too, and I don't want to play atrocity Olympics with them about who did worse things, as they could be quite heinous on both sides, but I do want to stress that it neither removes culpability that can be ascribed to the Confederates for their own transgressions, nor somehow elevates or lowers the comparative moral forcefulness of the broader causes represented by the Confederacy and Union, respectively.

So, with that little preamble done, again, the answer is "Yes". The Confederacy is far better known for certain massacres of surrendering boys in blue, most famous being the Fort Pillow Massacre, where several hundred men, mostly black soldiers of the USCT, were gunned down in a racially motivated slaughter by troops under the command of Nathan B. Forrest. The racial angle is fairly important in context here, as neither side particularly disputes it as motivation, the Confederate apologists simply arguing that it was essentially excusable for that reason, playing into larger grand, racist narratives of southern fears about armed black men, which was the underlying driving force of much of the Confederate abuse of surrendering soldiers, restricted mostly to black soldiers for much of the war.

Published far and wide and becoming a battle cry of sorts, Ft. Pillow was especially galvanizing within the black community, as while not an isolated incident (Others such as Milliken's Bend, Poison Springs, the Crater simply never quite captured the public indignity), its publicity hammered home the point that they could often expect no quarter from whiter southerners, and despite Lincoln's initial promises that tick would be met with tack with regards to killing of prisoners, reprisal executions were not carried out. The result was many men of the USCT simply adopted the 'No Quarter" ethos that they knew to already be directed against them. Although this had the clearly positive impact of imparting upon them a sterner fighting spirit that even the Confederates acknowledged, it of course had a darker side too. One white officer of a USCT wrote that:

After Fort Pillow, my command virtually fought under the black flag. We soon found that all our men that were captured and all wounded that we had to leave were promptly killed, and from that [time] on my officers and men never reported capturing any prisoners, and no questions were asked.

When discussing what are essentially reciprocating atrocities, it can be a delicate line to walk, but context remains key here. Union killing of Confederates attempting to surrender, which occurred at the hands of both white and black troops, was known to be happening, and while at times, such as above, it was essentially allowed to continue without official censure, it also did not reflect official policy. This stands in stark contrast to the Confederacy, where if anything what crimes did occur were not even to the full extent that the Confederate government officially endorsed! In 1862, when the prospect of black troops cropped up, they were explicitly to be denied status as lawful combatants, and the Secretary of War himself endorsed killing them, or selling them back into slavery. The Congress went even further in passing a resolution the next spring that found white Union officers in command of black troops to be "inciting servile insurrection" and liable for execution if captured, although this seems to have been actually carried out in only a handful of cases at best, with the majority of those officers captured surviving their ordeal.

This turns us to the Union policy. There was no similar, broad edict that mandated the execution of captured Confederate soldiers, and in fact the Lieber Code of the Union offered explicit protections to them and is seen as an important step in the development of the Laws of War. The closest example was Lincoln's threat that, in the face of Confederate policy towards prisoners from the USCT, retaliatory executions would be carried out on a like number of Confederate prisoners. It was in many ways an empty threat, and in the face of Fort Pillow especially, Lincoln's failure to follow through was galling to the black community, where Frederick Douglass compared Lincoln's attitude as no different than *"the slaughter of beeves for the use in *the Army."

But it wasn't entirely without impact, and although small comfort to the men struck down in the fields or craters, it almost certainly did play a large part in nullifying the proclamation for the execution of white officers. It also at least helped in curtailing broader massacres of black prisoners than otherwise would have happened, as many Confederate officers, mindful of the threat, attempted to prevent abuse of those under their care. How effective we can see it as being however is conjecture, as at least in part it only helped to instill more of the "Give No Quarter" attitude so while ensuring that those taken prisoner might have a better chance of survival, it possibly just encouraged fewer prisoners to be taken in the first place as it allowed for easier plausible deniability, such as seen in the letter written by Kirby Smith to Dick Taylor in the wake of Milliken's Bend:

I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers. In this way we may be relieved from a disagreeable dilemma.

The dilemma of course being here having to treat these men as prisoners of war, or else risk Union retaliation. This group of captured troops were the exception at Milliken's Bend, where reports from witnesses attested to bayoneting of the wounded, such as one body later described as having "six bayonet thrusts after having fallen by a shot".

This underlying racial conflict was the driving force of much of the killings against prisoners carried out by both sides. The Southerners adopting a policy of "No Quarter" against what they saw as no different than rebelling slaves, to be treated without mercy, and the Union troops, most especially those black men so targeted, responding in kind when they knew they would receive no better. This was the "norm", insofar as we can say there was one, but there were isolated incidents beyond it. One of the more infamous examples of Union soldiers killing prisoners occurred in the fall of 1862, at Palmyra, Missouri, a state which perhaps more than any other was emblematic of a disregard for the niceties of war, with paramilitary groups on both sides - Union Jayhawkers and Confederate Bushwackers - often operating with little control by the military authorities they nominally obeyed.

Often not granted status as proper soldiers, and thus not protected by the Lieber Code it was understood that they could be shot out out hand, as happened on a number of occasions. The identification of these guerrillas with common criminals was not always far from the truth, and the distinction could be blurred considerably, with many bands as likely to prey on civilians as they were to harass the nominal enemy forces. Not that it soiled them too much in the eyes of the proper Confederate forces, and the non-military treatment, including executions, evoked much consternation with Confederate commanders. In a communique to his opponent Samuel R. Curtis, the Confederate commander Theophilus H. Holmes protested the "barbarity" of executions, but even then couldn't help but bring race into the picture, writing only two weeks after the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation heralded the coming of armed, black soldiers, and warning that retaliation against them would be in the air:

The proclamation of your President apparently contemplates, and the act of your officers in putting arms in the hands of slaves seems to provide for, even that extremity. It cannot in such a situation be expected that we will remain passive, quietly acquiescing in a war of extermination against us, without waging a similar war in return.

Holmes' threat did nothing to stop what would happen a week later at Palmyra, where ten prisoners, both Confederate soldiers and civilians sympathetic as such, were executed, although Curtis claimed to have been unaware in any case.. Suspected of being involved in partisan activity, they nevertheless had no known connection with the disappearance of a local Union supporter, believed murdered by men under Col. Joseph Porter, for which they were killed in retaliation after ten days had elapsed following an edict by Union Gen. John McNeil ordering the return of Andrew Alsman.

This Massacre of Black Soldiers During the Civil War Is Reason Enough to Bring Down the Confederate Statues

Alan Singer, historian, is a Professor of Education at Hofstra University, and the author of the forthcoming book, New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee (SUNY Press). Follow Alan Singer on Twitter.

The war in Tennessee : Confederates massacre Union soldiers after they surrender at Fort Pillow, April 12th, 1864.

April 12 is the 154th anniversary of the Civil War battle and massacre at Fort Pillow, located on the Mississippi River near Henning, Tennessee. It was a strategic location, held by United States (Union) forces just north of Memphis and controlling river access to and from St. Louis and the Ohio River Valley.

On April 16, 1864, the New York Times reported that rebel forces under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, after twice using a “flag of truce” to maneuver prior to attack, overwhelmed defenders. After taking the fort, “the Confederates commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks, including those of both colors who had been previously wounded.” Black women and children in the fort were also slaughtered. “Out of the garrison of six hundred, only two hundred remained alive.” In the same issue, the Times published an account of events from a “correspondent of the Union, who was on board the steamer Platte Valley at Fort Pillow.” This correspondent “gives even a more appalling description of the fiendishness of the rebels.”

“On the morning after the battle the rebels went over the field, and shot the negroes who had not died from their wounds . . . . Many of those who had escaped from the works and hospital, who desired to be treated as prisoners of war, as the rebels said, were ordered to fall into line, and when they had formed, were inhumanly shot down. Of 350 colored troops not more than 56 escaped the massacre, and not one officer that commanded them survives.”

The Black soldiers who were butchered in cold blood by the Confederate troops were regularly enlisted in the Union army, were in full uniform, and were defending the United States flag.

General James Ronald Chalmers explained to the Times correspondent that the Confederate troops were following orders. It was official policy to kill wounded Black Union soldiers and anyone who surrendered, as well as White officers who served with Black troops.

In battle dispatches, General Forrest wrote, “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners."

In response to the massacre, Congress passed a joint resolution demanding an official inquiry, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton initiated a military investigation, and Abraham Lincoln ordered General Benjamin Butler, who was negotiating prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy, to demand that captured Black soldiers be treated the same as White soldiers, a demand that Confederate negotiators rejected.

An enraged Lincoln issued a resolution that for every “soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed,” but it was never been implemented.

Black lives mattered, at least publicly, for about a month, and then the incident was forgotten. There was never a federal response even though the massacres did not stop. In July 1864, Confederate forces under the command of General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of the Crater in Virginia massacred Black United States soldiers who were trying to surrender.

In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center, in an admittedly incomplete list, identified over fifteen hundred Confederate “place names and other symbols in public spaces” in the United States. Lee’s legacy, status and statues have continually been debated. We are now witnessing an attempt to correct history that includes removing some of the monuments that honor Confederate leaders and the Confederacy in general, including Robert E. Lee.

After the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest helped found, and then served, as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in its campaign to terrorize newly emancipated Southern Blacks into submission. Astoundingly, there are still Forrest monuments and memorials across the South, including a bust in the state capital of Tennessee and a Forrest County in Mississippi. A monument in the Oak Cemetery in Selma, Alabama, describes Forrest as “Defender of Selma, Wizard of the Saddle, Untutored Genius, The first with the most.”

The effort to portray the Civil War as somehow a glorious “Lost Cause” dates back to the 1890s campaign for Jim Crow laws, the legalization of racial segregation, and the lynching of Black men in the South to terrorize people into acceptance of second-class citizenship. It was promoted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), their children’s auxiliaries, Children of the Confederacy, and the United Confederate Veterans (UCV).

A major part of their campaign to rewrite history was pressuring textbook companies and libraries to purge books that “calls a Confederate soldier a traitor, a rebel and the war a rebellion that says the South fought to hold her slaves that speaks of the slaveholder as cruel or unjust to his slaves that glories Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis.”

The American Civil War was not a glorious lost cause. It was a war by the South to preserve slavery. The Civil War was not an unfortunate battle between brothers – Southern Whites never considered Blacks or their White supporters to be their brothers.

“Remember Fort Pillow!” became a battle cry for Black troops in the United States Army for the rest of the Civil War. As the United States confronts the legacy of discrimination and continuing police violence against Black Americans, and debates removing statues and renaming places honoring racists and traitors, this country needs to once again “Remember Fort Pillow!”

The Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Virginia (June 15-18, 1864)

The Richmond-Petersburg campaign was a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia during the third year of the Civil War. The campaign consisted of nine months of trench warfare in which Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant, General George C. Meade, and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, fought against Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee in what became known as the Siege of Petersburg.

Petersburg was a critical location for both sides, as four major rail lines converged in the town. Operations began in May 1864, and by June, the two sides had reached a stalemate leading to the Union siege of the town. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer in the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, suggested digging a tunnel under the Confederate defensive lines, filling the shaft with explosives, and blowing a gap in Confederate forces, to break the siege. On June 25, Pleasants’ men began digging a 511-foot shaft that extended approximately 20 to 25 feet under Confederate lines by July 17. They then created a 75-foot lateral tunnel that was completed on July 23, and filled it with 8,000 pounds of black powder four days later.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) was selected to lead the assault after the explosion. Union officers drilled the USCT, including many who had recently been enslaved, in preparation for the attack. However, on July 29, the day before the attack, General Meade vetoed Ferrero’s use of the USCT to lead the attack. He feared a potential political fallout if the attack failed and critics accused him of sacrificing black soldiers rather than white Union troops. Instead Brigadier General James Ledlie’s ill-prepared white division was selected to lead the attack.

At 4:44 on July 30 the explosion rang out and 278 Confederate soldiers were killed in the blast. A crater was formed about 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Ledlie’s untrained white division wandered into the crater with no ladders to climb out, as the USCT had been previously trained to do. While Ledlie was reportedly drunk and hiding during the attack, his men were slaughtered in a Confederate counterattack. USCT soldiers eventually flanked to the right beyond the crater, assaulting and driving back Confederate troops often in hand-to-hand combat. Casualties were high and many of Ferrero’s division of USCT were captured.

Union forces stopped at the Battle of the Crater - HISTORY

By Arnold Blumberg

In the summer of 1864, after six weeks of virtually constant combat in the Wilderness area of northern Virginia, the Union and Confederate armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee settled into an uneasy siege around the city of Petersburg, 23 miles southeast of Richmond. With a population of 18,000, Petersburg was the second largest city in Virginia and the seventh largest in the entire Confederacy. Lead works used for manufacturing bullets, as well as numerous warehouses located within its confines, gave the city a manufacturing value central to the Southern war effort.

The five rail lines radiating out from the town gave it added strategic significance. The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad connected Petersburg with the capital. The Petersburg Railroad, commonly called the Weldon Railroad, ran between Petersburg and Weldon, North Carolina. Together, these two lines provided the only direct rail link between Richmond and the rich resources of the coastal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia. In addition, the South Side Railroad connected Petersburg with East Tennessee, and the Deep South via the Richmond and Danville Railroad. The City Point branch of the South Side line gave the Confederates access to the deep-river port at City Point. Finally, the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad ran through the fertile Blackwater River country before reaching enemy-held Suffolk. Petersburg thus linked Richmond with the rest of the Confederacy, and control of the critical rail hub was vital if Richmond was to be held successfully.

An Opportunity to Take Petersburg

The first direct Union threat to Petersburg was mounted in May 1864, when Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler advanced south of the James River from Bermuda Hundred. Butler’s Army of the James, operating where the Appomattox River entered the James, could have occupied the town in early May, but bad luck and poor leadership prevented its capture at the time. A concerted attempt to take Petersburg occurred on June 15 when the Federals assaulted the town’s outer defenses. The effort lasted for three days and proved another costly Union failure. The missed opportunities of May and June convinced Grant that more frontal attacks on the entrenched positions defending Petersburg would not succeed. He embarked instead on a series of flanking movements to his left and south designed to take the enemy bastion from the rear.

June 22 saw the first Union slide around the Confederate right at Petersburg. That day the Union II Corps was surprised and routed by Brig. Gen. William Mahone’s gray-clad infantry. The next day a Federal try at breaking the Weldon Railroad due south of the city was shattered, again by Mahone and his men. The opposing armies, exhausted and bloodied, began to dig in, and the siege of Petersburg commenced in earnest. It was not a siege in the classical sense the Confederates were never completely surrounded. From its fortified lines to the east and south of the enemy stronghold, the Union Army would launch repeated expeditions toward the sparsely defended regions to the southwest in an effort to cut the Weldon and South Side Railroads—Richmond’s last links to the outside world. In response, Lee would counter the enemy thrusts with blocking movements and counterattacks of his own.

During July, active operations shifted north of the James River as the Federals attempted to take Richmond by delivering an assault from the Union bridgehead at Deep Bottom on the north shore of the James River. Although another failure, the effort did have one promising result. To counter the enemy thrust at Richmond from Deep Bottom, Lee withdrew four infantry divisions from south of the James, leaving only four weak infantry divisions to guard the vital Weldon and South Side Railroads. Realizing that the Petersburg front had been weakened, at least temporarily, the relentless Grant looked for a way to exploit the new situation.

The Dimmock Line

Brigadier General William Mahon.

The defenses Grant sought to breach stretched along high ground for 10 miles around Petersburg, beginning and ending on the Appomattox River and protecting all but the northern approaches to the city. Fifty-five partially enclosed artillery batteries, consecutively numbered from east to west, were linked together by trenches. The cannons and crews manning the line were protected by earth and log forts, while large pits were dug for the placement of mortars. Communication trenches leading to the rear allowed for relatively safe passage to and from the front, while earthen bomb-proofs afforded shelter for troops stationed behind the main line of resistance. Officially called the “Dimmock Line” after Confederate engineer Captain Charles Dimmock, who had supervised the construction of the Richmond defenses, the works around Petersburg had been built up and improved upon over the past two years.

As formidable as the Dimmock Line appeared to be, it had some serious weaknesses. Between Batteries 7 and 8 a deep ravine provided a route of penetration for an attacker. Near the Jerusalem Plank Road, between Batteries 24 and 25, south of the city, a second ravine along Taylor’s Creek created a gap in the Confederate site that made for a potential breakthrough point. Furthermore, many of the artillery pieces ringing the town were placed above the parapets, exposing them to enemy fire, while their own fields of fire were obstructed by wooded areas to the front. The log and earthen forts housing the cannons could be attacked easily from the rear since none was fully enclosed. Lastly, the entire complex never had enough men to properly garrison it. This was underscored when the outnumbered Confederates had to give up the line’s outer works and retreat to the inner defenses following the enemy attacks on June 19-20.

Facing the Confederate fortifications surrounding Petersburg, the Army of the Potomac built its own strong, static siege lines. Thirty-one forts, some as large as five acres, were created. The forts could hold 10 to 30 guns and 300 men, while additional field works could accommodate four to six pieces of artillery and as many as 200 troops. Most of these sites were fully enclosed and strengthened by gabions, abatis, and chevaux-de-frise and built close enough to each other to provide mutual fire support. Bomb-proofs were laid out every 20 yards. High parapets for infantry to hide behind, with obstacles such as ditches to their front, connected the entire line. For good measure, a reverse line facing to the rear was created a short distance from the front works. The architect of the Union field engineering effort at Petersburg was Major James C. Duane, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac.

The Federal Trenches Around Petersburg

After the failed assault on the town during the second half of June, the Army of the Potomac was arranged around Petersburg with XVIII Corps (part of Butler’s Army of the James) resting on the Appomattox River and stretching south to link with the right wing of IX Corps, followed by V Corps, which connected with IX Corps’ left. II Corps was held in the immediate rear as a ready reserve. IX Corps was closest to the enemy works, about 100 yards to the west, and occupied sloping ground that fell off to a ravine in the rear. Through the ravine passed Taylor’s Creek and part of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad.

Brigadier General Edward Ferrero.

Life in the trenches was both hard and dangerous. Troops would usually spend a 24-hour shift on the picket line, where they observed the enemy and engaged in frequent skirmishes. Within short rifle range of the opposing lines, soldiers had to keep low, and could only be relieved during the hours of darkness. Deadly Confederate marksmen, armed with English-made Whitworth rifles, were especially adept at picking off unwary targets. One sniper dropped two Union soldiers at a well, several thousand yards away, with a single shot—they were dead before the shot was heard. Enemy trench raids, usually conducted just prior to dawn, added to the tension. As if the threat of sniper fire was not enough, life in the trenches at Petersburg also brought with it lice, swarms of flies, summer heat, lack of water, and cramped quarters. The stench of decaying bodies that could not be removed to the rear due to enemy fire was, as one New York infantryman remarked, “constantly in our nostrils and settled in our clothes.”

From late June on, IX Corps found itself under the guns of the Rebel fortifications protecting Petersburg. The corps was the smallest in the Army of the Potomac, with a complement of only 39 regiments, about half of the number in other corps (II Corps, for example, had 83 regiments). Along with II Corps, IX Corps had suffered the majority of the 10,000 losses sustained by the army in the assaults on Petersburg between June 15 and 18. During the battles of May and June, five brigade leaders had been lost to wounds, and many experienced staff officers had been killed or disabled. By early July it was common to see regiments led by captains, while many colonels now commanded brigades.

Ambrose Burnside: A General out of Retirement

If IX Corps was bled white and exhausted as it settled in for the siege of Petersburg, the same could be said of its commander, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was 40 years old in 1864, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Class of 1847. After serving in the Mexican War and on the southwestern frontier, Burnside retired from the Army in 1853 to engage in the gun-manufacturing business. He later took a management position with the Illinois Central Railroad. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he raised the 1st Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry Regiment, led an infantry brigade at First Manassas, and was soon promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. For a string of minor successes on the coast of North Carolina in 1862, Burnside was promoted to major general.

Following the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, where his performance as head of IX Corps was mediocre, Burnside was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac that November. The next month he led the army to a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Replaced as army commander, Burnside was transferred to the Department of the Ohio in March 1863. His successful defense of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the winter of that year paved the way for his reassignment back to the eastern theater and command of his old IX Corps the next spring.

Burnside’s second tenure with the Army of the Potomac was a difficult one. Both officers and enlisted men resented him for his bloody failure at Fredericksburg the year before and viewed him (rightly) as a critic of deposed Maj. Gen. George McClellan, a man whom many in the Army of the Potomac still revered. By the conclusion of the Overland Campaign, Grant’s confidence in Burnside and his IX Corps was all but exhausted. The Union commander felt that Burnside and his men were slow to execute orders, sluggish on the march, and unreliable in combat. And then there was the issue of the black troops in Burnside’s command.

Controversy With the 4th Division

At the start of the Virginia campaign of 1864, there were 18 infantry and two cavalry regiments, as well one artillery battery, of United States Colored Troops (USCT). Commanded by white officers at the company, regimental, and brigade level, none of the African American soldiers had performed any duty other than mundane camp work, engineering and fatigue details. Northern racism fueled the supposition that the former slaves could never be trained to fight effectively. The creation of two all-black infantry divisions, one in IX Corps, was looked upon by the military as a politically motivated experiment. The Army was never sure what role the black troops should play in the war, and thus watched their activities with a critical and judgmental eye.

The African American infantry in the Army of the Potomac, nine regiments grouped into the 4th Division, had not been given a chance to prove itself during the Overland Campaign. The full-strength formation did little more than guard the vast wagon trains supporting Grant’s move from the Rappahannock River to south of the James. By mid-July, with the army stalemated at Petersburg, the men of the division spent their days providing fatigue parties for other corps facing the Confederates. No time was allowed for them to train or engage the enemy. The army’s titular commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade (Grant commanded all the armies in the East), felt that he could not rely on the colored troops to guard the trenches or skirmish with the enemy. He preferred to keep them employed in work details.

The leader of the 4th Division, Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero, spent much of July attempting to get his rapidly tiring troops off these work details. His reasons for doing so were twofold: first, division morale and cohesion were breaking down due to the fragmentation of his unit resulting from constant detachment as laborers second, he had been informed by Burnside early in the month that his men might have to lead the assault on Petersburg’s works after the successful completion of a top-secret mining operation that was then being conducted in IX Corps’ sector. Unfortunately, Ferrero’s pleas to his superiors for time to gather his division and prepare it for the coming action were ignored. Little respect for his black troops, and even less for him, made Ferrero’s requests fall on deaf ears.

Deep trenches like this one, across from Elliott’s Salient, helped conceal Union miners from Confederate eyes as they tunneled under enemy lines.

The 33-year-old Ferrero had been a successful dancing instructor in New York City and a lieutenant colonel of militia. He participated in Burnside’s North Carolina expedition in 1862 as colonel of the 51st New York Infantry. At that rank, he led a brigade in the IX Corps at Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. His performance was lackluster. His leadership of a division at the siege of Knoxville was passable at best and did nothing to engender respect from his superior officers when he came East. To top it off, there was bad blood between Ferrero and his corps commander. After the debacle of Fredericksburg and the embarrassment of the Mud March that followed, Burnside demanded that a number of officers he deemed insubordinate be removed from their posts. One of them was Ferrero.

A Plan to Mine the Confederate Lines

The plan to explode a mine under the Confederate lines, thus opening a breach in the town’s defenses, was first proposed by Brig. Gen. Robert G. Potter, leader of the 2nd Division, IX Army Corps. Since late June his command had held the Union trench works west of Taylor’s Creek. From this vantage point he observed a bulge in the enemy line, 100 yards to his front. Dubbed Elliott’s Salient after Confederate Brig. Gen. Stephen Elliott, Jr., whose South Carolina troops occupied it, the salient contained a small redoubt guarded by a four-gun artillery battery. The brigadier surmised that an underground mine set off beneath the fortification could create a gap in the enemy lines that might lead to the capture of Petersburg itself. Potter sent his proposal to his corps commander, Burnside.

Unknown to Potter, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment had come to the same conclusion about the feasibility of mining under the Confederate position. A trained railroad engineer who had participated in drilling a 4,200-foot tunnel through the Alleghenies in the 1850s, Pleasants had both the personal experience and the skilled coal miners in his own regiment to do the job. He and Potter went to discuss the project with Burnside on June 25. Despite the corps commander’s initial doubts, Pleasants obtained permission to begin the tunnel the next day.

Within 72 hours of opening the mine, Pleasants and his men had burrowed 130 feet—a quarter of the distance to the enemy fort. While Pleasants’ men toiled, Meade and Duane looked on with skepticism. Both felt certain that the project would fail and did their part to make that prediction come true by withholding all material aid. Pleasants had to scour the rear areas of the army to find the necessary wood and tools required for the job. By mid-July, the tunnel was almost completed. Pleasants requested from the artillery chief eight tons of black powder and 1,000 yards of safety fuse. What he got was only four tons of powder and a blasting fuse—not the requested safety fuse. Nevertheless, on July 28, Pleasants reported that the mine was ready to be activated. Some 320 kegs of gunpowder, weighing a total of 8,000 pounds, had been placed at intervals inside the 510-foot tunnel, primed for explosion with a 98-foot-long fuse.

Cemetery Hill: Key Objective at Petersburg

While Pleasants’ men dug, Burnside finalized a plan for the follow-up assault. As he envisioned it, the attack would take place before dawn with the lead units in column formation and engineers at the head of each formation to clear away any obstacles in their path. Grant, in turn, ordered a diversionary move by Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock’s II Corps and a few thousand cavalry north of the James River in the hopes of drawing off enemy forces from Burnside’s front. Grant also ordered Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Maj. Gen. Edward Ord’s XVIII Corps to ready themselves to support IX Corps’ effort.

The key to Burnside’s plan was getting to the high ground 400 yards northeast and behind the Confederate lines near the town of Blandford, just east of Petersburg. Running parallel to the enemy works was the Jerusalem Plank Road, heading north. Topping the summit was a small brick church and cemetery that gave the hill its mordant name—Cemetery Hill—in subsequent reports. Burnside envisioned his black troops conducting a lighting thrust through the hole created by the mine, supported on the left flank by the 3rd Division and on the right flank by the 1st Division, with the 2nd Division following closely behind.

Ferrero’s division was chosen to lead the attack. Burnside picked the troops for a number of reasons. First, although lacking combat experience, they were relatively fresh and up to strength with 4,300 men, something that could not be said of IX Corps’ three white divisions, which were low in numbers as well as morale. Second, unlike the battle-wise troops of the white units, who Burnside felt would go to ground as soon as they advanced beyond friendly entrenchments, the black soldiers would be eager to prove themselves and would attack without hesitation. Ferrero was ordered to detach a regiment from each of his two brigades to clear the enemy trenches to the left and right of the breach made by the exploding mine.

On July 26, Burnside presented his plan to Meade, who in no uncertain terms forbade the colored troops from leading the assault. Furthermore, Meade ordered the attack to be a straight drive for Cemetery Hill, with no forces being spared for clearing the adjacent Confederate works. Meade went to Grant and convinced him that to allow black troops to head the attack would bring down a political firestorm from radical abolitionists in the Lincoln administration if the operation failed and the black division incurred great loss of life. Grant agreed and gave his approval for Meade’s revised attack plan.

A New Plan by Burnside

With his carefully thought-out scheme for the advance on the Petersburg fortifications rejected, Burnside had to construct a new one from scratch. He sent for the commanders of his three white divisions—Brig. Gens. James H. Ledlie, Robert B. Potter, and Orlando B. Wilcox—and told them to decide among themselves which one of their formations would now lead the attack. (Ferrero was not at the conference, having been granted leave on July 21 to travel to Washington to lobby Congress in person for his yet unconfirmed brigadier rank. He would not return to the front until the late afternoon of the 29th, barely eight hours before the mine was set to go off.) Several hours of unproductive discussion followed, with no one volunteering for the dangerous assignment. Frustrated by the proceedings, Burnside finally had the generals pick lots. Ledlie drew the dubious honor of leading the attack, which was to commence barely 12 hours hence.

Burnside was likely disappointed with fortune’s choice of Ledlie and his men to spearhead the assault. Burnside had previously expressed his opinion that the unit’s soldiers “are worthless. They didn’t enlist to fight.” His opinion of Ledlie was no better. Ledlie was a 32-year-old civil engineer who had worked on railroads before the start of the war. He was appointed a brigadier general in 1863 after unexceptional service on the Carolina coast and as post commander at various locations in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. Rising from brigade to division command by June 1864, he had spent the better part of the summer attempting to resign from the army. His notorious lack of personal bravery, barely masked by his addiction to drink, made him an object of scorn by officers and enlisted men alike.

During the evening of July 29, Burnside issued written orders to his divisions, setting down their precise responsibilities for the coming attack. Ledlie’s division was to press through the gap created by the mine and seize Cemetery Hill. Wilcox’s men were to follow on the heels of Ledlie, then turn left to form a protective shoulder, while Potter’s command, following Wilcox, created a blocking position to the right of the penetration. Ferrero’s men would pass through the 1st Division and occupy the Petersburg suburb of Blandford. Burnside hoped the attack still would have the element of surprise on its side—for the last several weeks the frontline troops and the Petersburg newspapers speculated about a Yankee mine being planted, and the Confederates had dug countermines to discover its location—without success.

The tunnel Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants and his men dug ran for 510 feet.

The mine was scheduled to go off at 3:30 am its eruption was the signal for the all-out Union attack. The designated time came and went and no explosion occurred. The three spliced-together fuses that were supposed to spark the gunpowder had gone out. Lieutenant Jacob Douty and Sergeant Harry Reese volunteered to enter the mine and relight the fuse. Impatient at the delay, Meade asked Burnside repeatedly what had gone wrong. His last query ordered the corps commander to commence the attack immediately, whether or not the mine went off. Finally, at 4:44 am, the planned explosion occurred.

Five Minutes of Falling Debris

The ensuing blast “would have done credit to several thunderstorms,” a Union soldier remembered. The explosion set off ground tremors that were felt for several hundred yards in all directions. Followed by a muffled rumbling noise, almost in slow motion, the fort, its cannons, and garrison were lifted 100 feet into the air by a mushroom-shaped cloud. Debris did not stop falling to earth for a full five minutes, and observers said “a heavy veil of smoke stood for a moment over the wreck [crater] as if reluctant to reveal the destruction.” As the sound of the explosion died away, it was replaced by the blasts of 164 Union cannons and mortars directed at the Confederate lines.

Awed by the noise and the apparent devastation caused by the mine, the first wave of Federal troops did not leave their trenches for a full five minutes, their eyes and mouths wide open in disbelief. But within 10 minutes, their officers roused them to the attack. They followed the axe-wielding sappers, whose task it was to knock down the man-made obstacles implanted in the no-man’s-land between the Union and Confederate lines. After sprinting about 130 yards, the blue columns of Ledlie’s division poured into the exploded fort, preceded by engineers who began reversing the face of the enemy trenches and digging a covered way from the Crater back to their own works.

Charging into the Crater

Elliott’s Salient was now a chasm 135 feet in length, 97 feet in breadth, and 30 feet in depth, with a rim 12 feet high. The huge blast had annihilated Captain John Pegram’s battery and many of the men in the 19th and 22nd South Carolina Infantry Regiments, about 250 in all. Into the hole swarmed the Union brigades of Colonel Elisha G. Marshall and Brig. Gen. William F. Bartlett. Picking their way through the debris, the men attempted to climb the pit’s outer lip, but found the going difficult because of the loose sand and clay that made up the pit’s sides. Scattered fire from Confederate trenches adjacent to the Crater drove many of the Bluecoats to ground before they could move forward. Meanwhile, Colonel John F. Hartranft’s 1st Brigade went forward into the enemy trenches to the left of the blasted ground while Colonel Simon G. Griffin’s 2nd Brigade did the same on the right. Brig. Gen. Zenas Bliss’s brigade followed in support. Sweeping the enemy positions with musketry and bayonets, the Federals cleared the Confederate emplacements for 100 feet in both directions.

It was now about 5:30 am and small-arms fire from the dirt-encrusted survivors of Elliot’s command, in concert with artillery concentrations from Cemetery Hill, prevented any Union forward movement. Many of the Union troops began spilling back into the Crater to avoid the enemy fire. There they found the huddled masses of Bartlett’s and Marshall’s men, who would not budge. They had lost all unit cohesion and could hardly move within the confines of the smoking hole and the surrounding trenches. The arrival of Bliss’s brigade only made the situation more chaotic. Along the 1,000-foot front confusion reigned—no one seemed to be in charge.

The one officer who should have been on hand to sort out the mess was Ledlie, but he had ensconced himself in a bomb-proof shelter not far from the fighting. Fortifying himself with rum supplied by an army surgeon and complaining constantly of ill health, Ledlie from time to time would send orders to his commanders to take the high ground north of the Crater. He never left the shelter to see for himself if his directives were being carried out.

Meade, furious with the lack of progress by IX Corps, sent Burnside a peremptory order at 6:30 am that the attack must get moving and that Burnside should commit all his strength to the assault. For the next hour, fragments of Griffin’s, Bartlett’s, and Marshall’s brigades attempted vainly to capture Cemetery Hill. Supported by Colonel William Humphrey’s brigade, the attack was repulsed by Confederate flanking fire and stiffening enemy resistance north of the Crater. Meanwhile, just behind the Union trench system, Ferrero’s division had been waiting since 5:30 for the order to join the battle. That order finally came at 7:15. Ferrero received it in the same dugout that Ledlie had been calling home since the battle began three hours before. Ferrero wanted to wait for Ledlie’s command to make his own advance, but further instructions from Burnside forced him to move sooner than he wanted. Gulping down a fortifying cup of rum, Ferrero left the bunker to get his men moving.

At 7:30 Ferrero’s 1st Brigade, with Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried leading the way, plunged into the Crater, closely followed by Colonel Henry G. Thomas and the 2nd Brigade. Somehow, Sigfried and his men were able emerge from the gaping hole into the maze of trenches and traverses behind it. Thomas’s regiments moved to the right of the Crater and found themselves in a warren of trenches, crowded between units from other divisions. While attempting to sort out his regiments, the colonel received a message from Ferrero to attack Cemetery Hill. Forming in the open as best they could, the Union troops made a valiant charge, but collapsed in the face of a Confederate counterattack. The beaten men ran for safety back into the Crater and the trenches adjoining it. It was 8:30 am and the last Union offensive of the Battle of the Crater already was over.

“Little Billy” Mahone

Not long after the mine went off, Lee was notified of the situation by General P.G.T. Beauregard. Bypassing the usual army chain of command, Lee immediately contacted Mahone, whose 3,000-man division was located two miles south of the raging battle near Lieutenant Creek. Lee needed a man of action capable of dealing with the current crisis—he knew Mahone fit the bill. A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and a railroad engineer before the war, Mahone’s first command was the 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. During the Peninsula Campaign he had led an all-Virginia brigade of infantry. After his sterling performance in the Wilderness battles, he was given Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s division when Anderson took over I Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia after Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s wounding on May 6. “Little Billy,” as the 100-pound, short and wiry Mahone was dubbed by his comrades, had sharpened his command into seasoned shock troops by the fourth summer of the war

Mahone had heard the mine explosion but was not aware what it meant until Lee’s order reached him at his headquarters near the Wilcox Farm. Told to send two of his five brigades to the scene, Mahone decided to lead them himself. He quickly got Colonel David Weisiger’s Old Dominion Brigade and Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright’s Georgia Brigade (temporarily commanded by Colonel Matthew R. Hall) into marching order. These units started on their journey around 6 am, taking a roundabout route through ravines to conceal them from Federal observation.

Battlefield artist E.F. Mullen contributed this sketch of the XVIII Corps overrunning a
portion of the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Racing ahead of his moving formations, Mahone found Beauregard, who gave the Virginian the authority to conduct the operations against the Union threat at the Crater as he saw fit. Leaving Beauregard, Mahone made his way down the Jerusalem Plank Road, passed Cemetery Hill, and traversed a covered way a few hundred yards from the Confederate front. Following the covered way, the general entered a shallow ravine that ran parallel to the main trench line. Mahone climbed a slight rise and observed firsthand the chaotic situation at the Crater. He determined that he would need as much of his division as possible to deal with the mob of Union forces in and around the smoldering breach. He called for Colonel John C. Sanders’s Alabama Brigade to join him immediately.

“No Quarter, No Quarter!”

As Mahone scouted the Federal position, Weisiger’s and Wright’s men cautiously approached, their progress hampered by heavy artillery fire. The 800 Virginians passed the cemetery and entered a ravine that lay directly opposite the Crater. They were ordered to lie down, fix bayonets, and prepare to attack. Seeing Thomas’s black regiments preparing to come forward, the Confederates moved against them. The Virginians, followed by several North Carolina regiments, struck the Federals’ front and flank just north of the Crater. Suffering heavy losses, the black troops were thrown back amid angry Confederate cries of “No quarter, no quarter!” Several black soldiers captured during the melee were killed on the spot by their captors.

The retreating Federals were driven back to the Crater and the surviving trenches on either side. The Union troops were packed together so tightly, said one Federal officer, that “it was impossible for any to use their muskets, and when the enemy, in overwhelming numbers charged down upon us, they found us in this defenseless condition. Surrender or death were the only alternatives present.” Another Union officer remembered how his men found it almost impossible to move their arms or legs—let alone fire their weapons.

Fear spread quickly among the troops inside the Crater. As soon as Confederate rifle barrels were seen pointing over the Crater’s rim and discharging into the milling masses, fear turned to abject panic. Some men tried to shoot their guns, others tumbled out of the hole and ran headlong for the Union lines. The white soldiers attempted to keep the black troops in front of them as human shields.

“Close Quarters with the Bayonet and Rifle Butt Freely Used”

The fight continued in full flood, and the Confederate defenders paid in blood as well. Captain John E. Laughton, with the Virginia Brigade, recalled that his unit of over 100 men was almost wiped out. Another Confederate officer described the combat as taking place at “close quarters with the bayonet and rifle butt freely used.” Despite the fury of their attack, Weisiger’s men could not clear the Crater of the dense throngs of enemy troops inside it. They had lost half their strength because of fire coming from the Crater and the nearby trenches. Mahone sent Wright’s brigade to the south of the Crater to take some of the pressure off the Virginians. The Georgians swung to the rear of the Federals, only to meet determined resistance from Hartranft’s and Humphrey’s commands, which occupied part of the fort not demolished by the explosion. The Bluecoats were supported by two captured artillery pieces. A Confederate officer remarked that as “soon as the Georgians got near enough the enemy opened fire, and they [the Confederates] fell like autumn leaves.” Wright’s men had to retreat.

Confederate small-arms fire was joined by increasing numbers of cannon and mortar rounds. The exhausted Union forces inside the Crater realized that no help would be forthcoming—the Union high command had not even considered it. Their only salvation lay in retreating over the shell-swept ground. A message from Burnside to the brigade leaders in the Crater sanctioned a withdrawal. Word passed down the line to the respective units to prepare to make a dash for safety. An officer was sent back to the Federal trench line to arrange covering fire by friendly artillery. Just as the movement to the rear was about to commence, the Confederates launched another counterattack. Mahone hoped to pin down the enemy left while he administered the coup de grace. Mahone told Sanders and his men to advance to the Crater without firing and make for that part of the fort that had not been shattered by the mine blast. Once under its cover they were to shoot into the Crater and capture or drive out its defenders.

The final Confederate attack started at 2 pm, preceded by the opposing artillery pounding each other. Arms shouldered, the Alabamans moved out immediately, raised a yell, and made a beeline for the fort’s walls. Union musket fire proved ineffectual because of the speed and surprise of the southern attack. The Confederates approached within 100 feet of their target before they were even seen. With little enemy rifle fire directed at them, Sanders’s brigade reached the crest of the Crater and poured volley after volley into the stunned Union troops. Not only bullets but chunks of wood, clods of dirt, spent cannon balls, and discarded bayonet-tipped muskets were hurled at the huddled and demoralized enemy. Then the Confederates surged in to the Crater itself using clubbed muskets and bayonets with great execution. In a matter of minutes the Federal defense fell apart some soldiers surrendered, others attempted to flee back to the main Union lines through an intense gauntlet of fire. Many of the black troops were cut down by Sanders’s men as they tried to surrender.

The End of Burnside’s Military Career

The Battle of the Crater cost the Union army 504 men killed, 1,881 wounded, and 1,413 captured—a total of 3,475. Of this total, Ferrero’s African American division suffered 1,327 losses, including 209 killed. Confederate losses were about half those of their Union opponents. The greatest loss, 677 men, came from Elliot’s command, which had been standing on the ground above the mine.

The battle ended Burnside’s military career Ledlie resigned his commission in early 1865. Ferrero, although roundly criticized for his poor performance, somehow retained his division command and later was promoted to brevet major general. Mahone, for his part, was made a major general immediately after the battle. The Crater was a painful Union disaster, a great opportunity carelessly executed and quickly forfeited. The final judgment belonged to Grant, who called the battle “a stupendous failure … the saddest affair I have seen in this war.”


The disaster at the Battle of the Crater cost the Union around 3,793 killed, wounded, and captured, while the Confederates incurred around 1,500. While Pleasants was commended for his idea, the resulting attack had failed and the armies remained stalemated at Petersburg for another eight months. In the wake of the attack, Ledlie (who may have been drunk at the time) was removed from command and dismissed from the service. On August 14, Grant also relieved Burnside and sent him on leave. He would not receive another command during the war. Grant later testified that though he supported Meade's decision to withdraw Ferrero's division, he believed that if the Black troops had been permitted to lead the attack, the battle would have resulted in a victory.

Watch the video: The Battle of the Crater


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