The Battle of the Crater was the first major clash of arms between the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade after the siege of Petersburg began in June of 1864. The battle had the potential to end the American Civil War a year early, but instead, wound up as a Union disaster.
The battle took place on July 30, 1864 in front of a trench line facing the city of Petersburg, Virginia. The armies themselves were aligned along a series of fortified positions and trenches more than 20 miles long, extending from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond all the way to areas south of Petersburg.
After Lee had checked Grant in an attempt to seize Petersburg on June 15-17, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was chafing at the inactivity to which Lee's trenches and forts had confined him. Finally, a lieutenant colonel, Henry Pleasants of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's Ninth Corps offered what could have been a novel solution to the problem.
Pleasants, a mining engineer in civilian life, proposed digging a long mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines and planting a high-explosive charge directly underneath a fort in the middle of the Confederate First Corps line. If successful, this would not only kill all the defenders in the area, it would also open a hole in the Confederate defenses. If enough Union troops filled the breach quickly enough, the Confederates wouldn't be able to muster enough force to drive them out, and Petersburg would fall. Burnside, whose reputation had suffered from his 1862 defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and his miserable performance earlier that year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, gave Pleasants the go-ahead, hoping to recover his earlier high esteem.
The mine took weeks to dig, and although the Confederates on the other end of the field were aware that something was in the works, they never figured out exactly what it was. On July 28, the mine was completed, and on the morning of July 30, Pleasants set it off. A crater some 135 feet in diameter--still visible today--was created, and between 280 and 350 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast.
But the plan was doomed from the start due to Meade's interference on the day before the battle. Burnside had trained a division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero to lead the assault. They were ordered to move around the edges of the crater and then fan out to extend the breach in the Confederate line. Then, Burnside's two other divisions, made up of white troops, would move in, supporting Ferrero's flanks and racing for Petersburg itself.
Meade, who lacked confidence in the operation, ordered Burnside not to use the black troops in the lead assault, thinking the attack would fail and the black soldiers would be killed needlessly, creating political repercussions in the North. Burnside protested, but complied with the order. The white divisions were moved into the lead role, but their commanders, who were of questionable quality, failed to brief the men on what was expected of them. The result was a disaster nearly on the scale of Cold Harbor.
The two white divisions went across the field to the crater and, instead of moving around it, actually moved down into the crater itself, wasting valuable time while the Confederates, under Maj. Gen. William Mahone, gathered as many troops together as they could for a counterattack. Soon, they had formed up around the crater and began firing down into it, in what Mahone later described as a "turkey shoot". The plan had failed, but Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, sent in Ferrero's men. They also went down into the crater, and for the next few hours, Mahone's soldiers, along with those of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson, and artillery slaughtered the Ninth Corps as it attempted to escape from the crater.
The Confederates reported losses of 1,032 men in the battle, while Union losses were estimated at 5,300. About half of them were from Ferrero's division, to which many of the Confederates offered no quarter. Burnside was relieved of command. Although he was as responsible for the defeat as was Burnside, Meade escaped censure. As for Mahone, the victory, won largely due to his efforts in supporting Johnson's stunned men, earned him a lasting reputation as one of the better generals of Lee's army in the war's last year.