Although the Battle of Petersburg had ended with the Confederates retaining control of the city, the Union had started its siege; a strategy that had been effective at Vicksburg but required months to succeed. Prolonged trench warfare was virtually certain, and, despite federal efforts to disrupt Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s supply lines, many of the northern troops lacked the energy that they possessed during the early part of the war and were unable to destroy the railroads surrounding Petersburg so completely that the rebels could not repair them. While the beginning of 1864 had shown the Union’s ability to take rebel territory, from June to the end of July, the momentum of the war took on a pendular quality as both sides seemed to come ever closer to victory.
By July 6, Confederate General Jubal Early had brought 15,000 rebels across the Potomac River via the Shenandoah Valley.[i] Within the next few days, they dominated a small federal force near the Monocacy River and began an unopposed march toward Washington.[ii] By July 11, the Confederates were five miles north of the White House.[iii] As much as the Union had collectively grown hopeful of imminent success, that optimism was replaced with a growing sense of dread: while there were strong fortifications surrounding the capital, there were no troops in the area other than militia men and convalescents; neither of which would be sufficient to take on Early’s men.[iv] Within city limits, the War Department frantically sent a message to Union General Ulysses S. Grant causing him to send his 6th Corps north and into the federal works “just in time to discourage Early from assaulting them.”[v]
The following day, taking advantage of the opportunity to see the war so close to Washington and to boost the morale of the city and the soldiers, President Abraham Lincoln made his way to Fort Stevens.[vi] With his characteristic stovepipe hat on, he “repeatedly stood to peer over the parapet as sharpshooters’ bullets whizzed nearby” and caused one young captain named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—who after the war would have a storied judicial career—to shout without knowing he was speaking to none other than the commander-in-chief, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!”[vii] After that, Lincoln stayed down even as a bullet struck an officer within three feet of him.[viii] Early, realizing that he and his men would soon be surrounded by the 6th Corps, a group of grizzled veterans, as well as federal reinforcements, called for a return to Virginia.[ix]
Early’s raid had caused many to forget the Union’s progress in the previous months. The London Times commented that “the Confederacy is more formidable than ever,” and the northern diarist George Templeton Strong wrote: “I see no bright spot anywhere” but only “humiliation and disaster. . . . The blood and treasure spent on this summer’s campaign have done little for the country.”[x] One Democratic editor, in response to Lincoln’s call for 500,000 draftees before the fall election, wrote, “Lincoln is deader than dead.”[xi] Immediately, Grant ordered Philip Sheridan to bring his cavalry and follow Early “to the death.”[xii] Although Sheridan forced Early and his men back, the message had been sent to the Union that both sides could contend for each other’s capital.
Grant, continuing to siege Petersburg with the hope of achieving a breakthrough in the rebel line, had a plan come to him from the 48th Pennsylvania (containing many coal miners) to “blow that damn fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.”[xiii] Specifically, Colonel Henry Pleasants, who was a mining engineer before the war, proposed the scheme to General Ambrose Burnside and received approval.[xiv] The regiment began excavating a tunnel longer than 500 feet toward the high ground “where the rebels had built a strong redoubt.”[xv] The army’s engineers called the project “claptrap and nonsense” given the fact that military tunnels had not exceeded 400 feet because of ventilation problems, but the 48th Pennsylvania went on timbering the shaft even setting up a “fire at the base to create a draft and pull in fresh air through a tube” and borrowing a theodolite from a civilian to “triangulate for distance and direction.”[xvi] Pleasants’ men made do without picks or barrows instead going to the regiment’s blacksmiths for tools and using cracker boxes to transport the dirt out of the tunnel.[xvii] Once completed, the 511-foot-long shaft had two galleries at the end that went under the rebel line and housed “four tons of gunpowder.”[xviii] The ceiling was twenty feet below the rebels, and those in the tunnel could hear the men walking about as they sat likes moles.[xix] Grant and General George Meade authorized Burnside, the general that had failed at Fredericksburg and was anxious to redeem himself in the eyes of the nation, to “spring the mine and attack with his corps through the resulting gap.”[xx] While Burnside had under his command divisions of black troops, he ordered to send in the white divisions first, which Grant approved because—as he later explained to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War—if the black divisions went in first, “it would then be said . . . that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.”[xxi] And so, after over a month of digging the tunnel and preparing the assault, the plan was set for execution on July 30 at sunrise.
The rebels had their suspicions that the Union men were attempting to blow them skyward: they had heard the underground digging stop, and experts told them that a tunnel was impracticable so the ceasing of the “sound of picks and shovels” must have meant a cave-in or a halting of efforts due to asphyxiation of too many miners.[xxii] Nonetheless, as daylight was growing on July 30, there was “a slight tremor of the earth for a second, then the rocking as of an earthquake” followed by:
[A] tremendous blast which rent the sleeping hills beyond, a vast column of earth and smoke shoots upward to a great height, its dark sides flashing out sparks of fire, hangs poised for a moment in mid-air, and then, hurtling down with a roaring sound, showers of stones, broken timbers and blackened human limbs, subsides—the gloomy pall of darkening smoke flushing to an angry crimson as it floats away to meet the morning sun.[xxiii]
One observer later wrote: “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.”[xxiv] The explosion left a hole “170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep” and buried an “entire rebel regiment and an artillery battery” under the debris.[xxv] Confederate soldiers, the nearest witnesses to the carnage, scrambled in terror while other men, a safe distance away, “stopped to gawk at the awesome spectacle.”[xxvi] The Union troops, rather than move around the crater’s left and right sides, went into the low ground and degenerated into a “disorganized mob” of over 10,000 men; creating a target that even the worst rebel artillery and mortars could not miss.[xxvii] And thus began a firestorm of shells as heavy “as was ever poured continuously upon a single objective point.”[xxviii] Amidst the chaos, the black soldiers took the brunt of a Confederate assault, and rebel soldiers, “enraged by the sight of black men in uniform murdered several of them who tried to surrender.”[xxix] Around 9:30 a.m., Grant and Meade ordered Burnside to withdraw the men.[xxx]
Fighting came to an end only after the northern troops suffered 4,000 casualties (more than double their opponents), and although an engineering marvel had given hope to break into the rebel lines and get to Lee, it did nothing other than trap Union soldiers and expose them to their enemies.[xxxi] As Grant recounted in a message to Washington: “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.”[xxxii] Burnside—after an exchange with Meade that “went far toward confirming one’s belief in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute”—resigned from the service at forty years old and returned to Rhode Island to become a businessman.[xxxiii] Finding civilian life prosperous and more genial, he served three terms as governor and died during his second term as a United States Senator, twenty years after the war had begun.
[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 756.
[iv] See id.
[v] Id. at 757.
[vii] Id. (citing James G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure [New York, 1955], 200; Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography [New York, 1952], 434).
[viii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 458.
[ix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 757.
[x] Id. at 757-58 (quoting Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 461; George Templeton Strong, The Diary of George Templeton Strong, vol. 3: The Civil War 1860-1865, ed. Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas [New York, 1952], 467, 474).
[xi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 758 (citing Roy C. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. VII [New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55], 448-49; Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West [Chicago, 1960], 233).
[xii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 758 (quoting War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 37, pt. 2, 558).
[xiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 758.
[xiv] See id.
[xv] Id. (citing Henry Pleasants, Jr., The Tragedy of the Crater [Washington, 1938], 32; William H. Powell, “The Battle of the Petersburg Crater,” in Clarence C. buel and Robert U. Johnson, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, [New York, 1888], IV, 545).
[xvi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 758-59.
[xvii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 532.
[xviii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 759.
[xix] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 532.
[xx] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 759.
[xxi] See id. (quoting Powell, “The Battle of the Petersburg Crater,” 548).
[xxii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 534.
[xxiii] See id. at 535.
[xxv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 760.
[xxvii] See id.; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 537.
[xxviii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 537.
[xxix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 760.
[xxx] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 537.
[xxxi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 760.
[xxxii] War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 40, pt. 1, 17.
[xxxiii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 538.