In a war full of absurdity and horror, six North Carolina regiments take part in perhaps the most bizarre and horrific slaughter of the eastern campaign — named for a place that doesn’t even exist until after the battle opens: the Crater.
The stage is set in the late spring of 1864 with a surprise maneuver by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He marches his massed forces around the flanks of the Army of Northern Virginia, crosses the James River without a fight, and moves on Petersburg, Virginia — a vital railroad junction only 20 miles from the capital, Richmond.
If Grant can take Petersburg, Richmond must fall.
On June 15, 10,000 Union soldiers assault the entrenched Confederate garrison — a motley collection of old men and boys, only a few thousand strong, hurried into the front lines. Commanded by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, they make a gallant stand and stave off the attackers.
Now Grant has lost the initiative.
Pvt. William A. Day marches with Company I, also known as the “Catawba Marksmen,” of the 49th North Carolina Infantry, a unit mustered in Garysburg and composed of men from McDowell, Rutherford, Chatham, Cleveland, Iredell, Moore, Rowan, Mecklenburg, Gaston, Catawba, and Lincoln counties. The 49th is a seasoned outfit, veterans of Malvern Hill, where their first commander, Col. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, suffered a debilitating wound; Sharpsburg, where they stood up to an infantry charge and then counterattacked successfully; and Fredericksburg, where they suffered heavy casualties from artillery.
Now they march at the quickstep toward Petersburg.
Private Day recounts, “We started about dark and moving up the James river crossed on the pontoon bridge and marched the whole night, arriving at Petersburg at daylight very tired and sleepy … Pretty soon the artillery opened in front and we were ordered to move off in It double quick and came upon the Militia fighting like regulars, They were falling back slowly contesting every inch of ground. When we arrived on the field the enemy turned their guns on us. We moved on into the field and lay down in an old road and waited for the Militia to form on our right. At every discharge from the enemy’s guns they threw themselves flat on the ground and about the time they got on their feet another charge of grape and canister would fly and down they would go again.”
Gen. Robert E. Lee hurries his army into position overnight, as 100,000 U.S. troops mass on the outskirts of the city. Each time the bluecoats attack, they are driven off. And as they extend their lines south and west, Lee moves in more troops to meet them. Behind formidable entrenchments and linked by a chain of forts, the defenders, though outnumbered, can’t be dislodged. The two armies fight to a bloody stalemate.
Every attempt to break through the Confederate line is thwarted. The toll of dead and wounded mounts, but no ground is gained and nothing is decided.
The 49th is rotated in and out of the front line, as Private Day records: “The enemy charged our lines on the 18th and the dead had not been buried but lying in the hot sun they had begun to smell so badly we could hardly stay in the breast-works. The sharpshooters and artillery kept up a continual fire on both sides. … We remained in the works until the 26th — we were then relieved and sent back in reserve. We lay in a ditch, or covered way as it was called.”
But even in reserve, the North Carolinians come under pounding fire from mortars — stubby, thick-barreled artillery pieces that launch projectiles, weighing between 12 and 64 pounds, in a high arc so that they plunge steeply down from their apogee. They fall in behind even the heaviest breastworks.
Day writes, “The next day they had their mortars ready and about ten o’clock they began throwing twenty-four pounders into our works. Among the first they threw landed in our Regiment. I was lying down in the covered way when I heard one coming. I sprang to my feet to give it room. It fell in the ditch but never bursted but rolled along on the ground and lodged against my haversack. I waited a reasonable time then picked up my haversack and moved out to another place.”
“On the 13th was the great mortar day … They opened on us soon in the morning and kept it up all day,” Day writes. At sundown, when the barrage at last is lifted, the regiment counts 40 dead and scores more wounded and mutilated.
But all the killing accomplishes nothing. The defenders of Petersburg stubbornly hold out, and the Union Army digs in deeper, equally stubborn.
A daring plan is hatched, the revival of a technique once used in medieval siege warfare to undermine thick-walled castles. The ranks of one of the Union regiments, the 48th Pennsylvania, are full of coal miners. They get to talking about how close their own lines are to Elliott’s Salient, the nearest Confederate battery. One of the enlisted miners remarks, “We could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.”
Their commander, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, himself a mining engineer, endorses the bold tactic. He persuades Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the IX Corps, to give it a try. In December, Burnside delayed his advance across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg long enough to allow the Confederates to deploy behind impregnable fortifications on Marye’s Heights. As Burnside ordered one after another Union regiment to charge up the long hill, an appalling slaughter ensued. Now he is eager to restore his reputation. Though he is skeptical of the miners’ plan, he backs it anyway.
Maj. Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, also approves the plan. The generals confer with Grant, a hardheaded realist. A breakthrough would scatter the thin gray line. Defenseless, Petersburg would fall, Richmond would be doomed, and the war might end this summer.
Grant approves the plan.
Colonel Pleasants mobilizes his 400 men. His official report reads like an engineering manual: “It was commenced at twelve P.M., the 25th of June, 1864, without tools, lumber, or any of the materials requisite for such a work. The mining picks were made out of those used by our pioneers; plank I obtained, at first by tearing down a rebel bridge and afterwards by sending to a saw-mill five or six miles distant, and the material excavated was carried out in hand-barrows, constructed of cracker boxes.”
Colonel Pleasants, reverting to his prewar profession, calculates depth and direction using an old-fashioned surveyor’s theodolite.
A week later, the timbers give way under the weight of rain-sodden ground, and “the roof and the floor of the mine nearly met.” The miners shore up the shaft and dig through a layer of puttylike marl. They craft an ingenious mechanism for drafting fresh air into the long tunnel: An airtight canvas door seals the tunnel entrance, except for a wooden pipe to let in fresh air. Far inside the tunnel, a constant fire draws bad air from the digging end and drafts it up a ventilating chimney.
Colonel Pleasants notes the progress: “On the 17th of July the main gallery was completed, being five hundred and ten and eight-tenths feet in length.”
By the end of the month, the Pennsylvania miners have bored out a tunnel 75 feet long, and running 20 feet under the Confederate breastworks. Directly above that shaft, 30 gunners man Capt. Richard G. Pegram’s four-gun battery of 12-pounder Napoleons, supported by companies of the 22nd and 18th South Carolina Infantry — nearly 300 men.
The plan is simple: At the appointed day and hour, the engineers will blow the four tons of black powder in the mine. Immediately, a specially trained regiment — Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division of United States Colored Troops — will rush into the gap created by the blast, with reinforcements in support to exploit the breakthrough.
General Ferrero’s troops have been schooled for two weeks in the use of scaling ladders and instructed to wheel right and left in double column around the blast pit on either side — not down into it. His nine regiments are well-rested, but they are green troops — their only experience gained in guard duty and labor details. And they have not been spared “fatigue duty” during the run-up to the assault — they spend most of their time digging trenches, not drilling for battle.
Private Day underscores the danger to Lee’s forces, should the plan succeed: “It was the intention of the enemy to blow up Pegram’s battery on the crest of the hill, charge through the breach and take possession of a long high ridge, known as Cemetery Ridge, half a mile in rear of our works. On reaching this ridge the whole country around would be at the mercy of their guns.”
Executing the plan
Colonel Pleasants records in precise detail the planting of the mine: “The charge consisted of three hundred and twenty kegs of powder, each containing about twenty-five pounds. It was placed in eight magazines, connected together by wooden tubes half filled with powder. These tubes met from the lateral galleries at the inner end of the main gallery, and from this point I placed three lines of fuses for a distance of ninety-eight feet … I received orders from corps headquarters, on the 29th of July, to fire the mine at half past three A.M., July 30th.”
But detonating the mine proves tricky. Colonel Pleasants lights the fuse, but after an hour of tense waiting, nothing happens. Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Henry Rees volunteer to go into the mine. They relight the fuse from where it burned out, and at 4:44 a.m., the mine explodes.
Colonel Pleasants continues his official account: “The size of the crater formed by the explosion was at least two hundred (200) feet long, fifty (50) feet wide, and twenty-five (25) feet deep. I stood on top of our breastworks and witnessed the effect of the explosion on the enemy. It so completely paralyzed him, that the breadth of the breach, instead of being only two hundred feet, was practically four or five hundred yards.”
One rebel commander describes it as “bursting like a volcano at the feet of the men.”
Private Day witnesses the cataclysm: “… it raised the ground and sent the men whirling in the air and lumps of earth as large as barrels were thrown a hundred yards. One of the guns, a brass twelve pounder was thrown to within thirty feet of the enemy’s breastworks.”
Signaled by the detonation of the monstrous mine, the Union artillerymen open fire with 110 cannons and 54 mortars, creating a hell on earth for the defenders. Surely a breakthrough is imminent.
But there has been a last-minute change in the plan.
Generals Meade and Grant decide not to allow the U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) to lead the assault. Both are skeptical of the fighting ability of the black soldiers. Less then 24 hours before the attack, General Meade has the division commanders draw lots for the honor. Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie “wins” the lottery. His division will be followed by two other white divisions led by Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter and Brig. Gen. Orlando B. Willcox.
No one, however, has adequately briefed Ledlie’s brigade commanders on the plan to capture Cemetery Hill, nor have his men been trained to go around the Crater. Instead, they rush headlong into it and find themselves trapped in a helpless mob at the bottom, unable to claw their way up the near-vertical sandy sides.
Only now, after the disaster has been unfolding for an hour and a half, does Maj. Gen. Burnside order the Fourth U.S.C.T. Division into the breach. The first four regiments, led by Col. Joshua K. Sigfried, actually manage to cross the Crater and capture 200 prisoners. But they are hemmed in by counterattacking Confederate troops filling in on either side of the breach. The 35th and 56th North Carolina hold the north flank; the 61st is blocking the middle behind the Crater; and other regiments are forming on the Union’s left.
The remaining U.S.C.T. regiments advance down into the Crater, shouldering their way through retreating white soldiers, and they, too, are trapped there.
Lt. Robert Beecham of the 23rd U.S.C.T. records with bitterness, “Our generals had pushed us into this slaughterpen and then deserted us.” As the carnage begins, none of the four Union division commanders is on the field. General Ferrero and General Ledlie are hunkered in a bombproof shelter, drinking whiskey.
The 49th and 24th North Carolina rush to the Crater, form on the right, watch enemy troops converge on the Crater, and overwhelm the works on either side.
“When we reached our position we counted twelve United States flags in the works, and the whole field in front of the Crater was full of Yankees,” Day writes.
White and black Union troops are mixed together in a charging mob. “Oh, they looked black and ugly,” Day recalls. “It was said they were drunk, but I don’t know whether they were or not. We plainly saw the position we were in, to be captured by negro troops meant death. It meant the capture of Petersburg, and the slaughter of helpless women and children, we knew the negroes would spare neither sex … We had the whole field full of negroes to shoot into, at about seventy-five yards distance. Good breast-works, and plenty of ammunition, and we made every shot tell.”
The 28th Regiment, U.S.C.T., loses seven out of 11 officers. Ninety-one out of 224 men fall — a casualty rate of greater than 40 percent.
Inside the Crater, hundreds of men are trapped. Day and his comrades fire down on them. Soon, mortars open fire, dropping shells directly into the Crater.
The officer corps of the 29th U.S.C.T. suffers nearly 100 percent casualties, its commander killed. One surviving officer reports, “The ‘crater,’ where we were halted, was a perfect slaughterpen.”
Enraged by the instantaneous annihilation of nearly an entire regiment and its guns, the Confederate counterattackers show no mercy. And the sight of hundreds of black soldiers among the attacking enemy only fuels their killing frenzy.
Lt. Col. Delevan Bates of the 30th U.S.C.T. records that “many a dusky warrior had his brains knocked out with the butt of a musket, or was run thru with a bayonet while vainly imploring for mercy.”
Confederate General Porter Alexander reports, “Some of the Negro prisoners who were originally allowed to surrender … were afterward shot by others, & there was, without doubt, a great deal of unnecessary killing of them.”
Alerted by General Lee, Maj. Gen. William Mahone launches his division into a counterattack. His five brigades of infantry sweep the field.
The 25th North Carolina, men from William Holland Thomas’s legion of highlanders, also arrives on the scene with a South Carolina regiment to reinforce the shattered Confederate line. “They halted on the brink and fired one volley into the surging mass, then turned the butts of their guns and jumped in among them,” Day records.
Before long, the surviving white and black Union troops are routed, mobbing toward the rear.
The deadly toll
By day’s end, nearly 4,000 Union troops are killed, wounded, or missing in action, including nearly 1,300 of the U.S.C.T. The casualties among those manning Elliott’s Salient above the blast are almost 100 percent — some 300 men gone in an explosive instant. The Confederates have suffered about 1,500 total casualties. For his role in the debacle, General Ledlie is dismissed from the army. General Burnside, too, is later removed from command, never to hold another.
General Grant calls the butchery “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”
He explains his and General Meade’s disastrous decision in testimony before the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War: “If we put the colored troops out front … and if it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving those people ahead to be killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.”
The Crater, an artifact of the terrible power of human engineering, endures as a fixture in the landscape outside Petersburg. The scarred earth is an emblem for this consuming war featuring efficient modern weapons of destruction wielded by men behaving at their most savagely primitive.