It boggles the imagination. Former Pennsylvania coal miners accomplished what the West Point engineers, both North and South, said could not be done. The officers said a mine shaft over 400 feet long could not be built without installing air vents at various points along the tunnel, which would be readily visible to the rebels. The miners were not deterred. They installed an airtight canvas door just inside the entrance, ran a wooden pipe along the floor of the shaft to where the miners were working, and built a fireplace near the airtight door to send heated air up a camouflaged chimney (which drew the stale air from the far end of the tunnel and pulled in fresh air through a pipe, whose mouth was beyond the door).
Within a month, the miners had built a tunnel over 500 feet long, putting them twenty feet below the enemy’s artillery battery. They then extended the tunnel to the right and left, creating a chamber in which they set four tons of explosives. On the morning of July 30, 1864, they lit the fuse. An unusually long delay required two volunteers to enter the shaft to investigate. They discovered the fuse had burned out at the splice. They cut and relit the fuse, then ran for their lives. At 4:44 a.m., the charge erupted below the rebels’ feet. A brigadier general described the explosion:
Without form or shape, full of red flames and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, it mounted toward heaven with a detonation of thunder [and] spread out like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to be of fire and its head of smoke. — [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, p. 535]
Did this foreshadow man’s twentieth-century discovery, capable of wiping our species from the planet?
The explosion killed or wounded 278 Confederates. The resulting crater stretched sixty feet by two hundred feet and ranged from ten to thirty feet deep.
What should have been a significant Union victory, breaking Lee’s lines, quickly turned into disaster for the men in blue. While the commanding officers (Generals James Ledlie and Edward Ferrero) hid safely behind the lines sharing a bottle of rum, 15,000 men poured into the crater and lingered long enough for the rebels to recover their bearings. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. By the battle’s end, the Union suffered over 3,800 casualties, three times the number suffered by the Confederates. The rebels took out much of their anger against Ferrero’s African-American troops, bayonetting and shooting many who tried to surrender.
But as I intimated in the title to this piece, the Petersburg siege was not the first time Union forces attempted to undermine a rebel position. They had done so previously in the siege of Vicksburg (1863), with mixed success. In Vicksburg, the Union command identified a Confederate redan sitting on top of a towering bluff as their most formidable obstacle. Led by Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, Union soldiers took a less covert approach than the one taken later at Petersburg. They had to cover a distance of four hundred yards and no one thought they could build a tunnel to cover the distance. They initially dug a trench, employing various defensive measures to protect the workers.
On June 25, the miners reached the edge of the bluff, where they dug a tunnel and set off explosives, creating a crater forty feet wide and twelve feet deep. Union troops charged, only to find that the Confederates had pulled out of the redan and had set up new defenses in anticipation of an attack. The losses were lighter (34 dead and 209 wounded) than later on the Petersburg line, but the results were similar – the siege was not broken. Six days later, Union troops conducted another mining operation, which achieved more positive results when they set off 1,800 pounds of explosives. They did not follow up with an infantry charge, apparently learning from their prior experience. By this time, however, the Confederate forces were exhausted and starving, with no help on the way. Formal surrender came only three days later.
Clearly, Grant recalled the miners’ mixed success at Vicksburg when he approved a similar scheme at Petersburg. But just as had happened on too many other occasions, Grant’s subordinates failed him. In this instance not only did they fail to execute the battle plan, they chose to share a bottle of rum far from the battle, missing the action altogether, while almost four thousand men either died, were wounded, or marched off to a Confederate prison.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, Vintage Books (New York: 1986)
- Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 2005)
- National Park Service, “The Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864,” http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/hh/13/hh13f.htm.