30 July 1864, The Battle of the Crater, mixing politics and war is a bad idea
Today being my birthday, I thought I’d look at history and see if anything interesting ever happened on July 30th. Turns out it’s not an especially auspicious day in history. Lots happened of course, but mostly events that are now long forgotten. A big earthquake in Naples in 1629, various minor massacres and political events, Elvis made his debut as a public performer in 1954 on this day. In 1975 Jimmy Hoffa disappeared.
A recent tragedy is that the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk in 1945 on this day, with the loss of over 800 lives. A blog post in itself someday I suppose, the flagship of the US Pacific Fleet was sunk…and no one noticed for 48 hours. Another fine illustration of the fact that our leaders, military and civilian, are not omnipotent as so often portrayed in Hollywood. And apparently in many people’s minds, but again, I’ll save that for another post.
Still, we come to the Battle of the Crater on July 30th, 1864. Turns out the idea of digging a tunnel under enemy lines and packing it with explosives was around at least as early as the American Civil War. I touched upon this in my previous post with my link to the unexploded tunnel full of explosives left after a World War One battle. In 1864 the American Civil War was raging. Lee was tenaciously defending Richmond, the Capitol of the Confederacy, with miles of trenches defending the key city of Petersburg. This part of the war was in fact known as the Siege of Petersburg, and the miles of trenches were a precursor to the trench warfare of the First World War. It was not a siege as the term is commonly used though, since Lee’s forces were not surrounded. It was just a long face off of two foes, the armies faced each other in trenches from June 1864 to March 1865.
Grant made numerous attempts to break Lee’s lines, the Battle of the Crater is one of them. A Union Colonel, a Henry Pleasants, had an idea. He was a mining engineer in civilian life, and he proposed digging a tunnel under a key section of the Confederate line, blowing it up, then rushing thousands of Union troops into the breech where they would spread out and prevent the Confederates from reforming their line. If followed up with enough troops, the entire Confederate line could fall, and the important City of Petersburg could be captured. General Burnside, Pleasants’ commander, thought it was a good idea and gave it the green light.
The tunnel was dug, it was a clever feat. The Confederates did get wind of it and made some preparations, though their counter mining efforts were lacklustre and they did not discover the tunnel. About 3600 kg (4 tons) of explosive were placed in a shaft under the Confederate trenches. General Burnside had carefully prepared 3 divisions, about 30,000 men, for the assault. A division of coloured troops was selected to spearhead the attack, they would go out and around and past the crater, setting up defensive lines. Two other divisions of white troops were trained to follow them and expand the breech in the enemy lines. It was a good plan…up to that point.
The night before the operation, General Meade forbade the use of the coloured troops in the initial assault, fearing heavy losses and political repercussions. Grant backed him up. (Neither Grant nor Meade were particularly enthusiastic about or supportive of the whole plan.) Burnside hastily selected one of the white divisions to spearhead the assault, however its general, James Ledlie, failed to brief his men on what they were supposed to do during the attack. Even worse, he showed up drunk the morning of the battle. Nonetheless, the fuse was lit and the operation commenced.
The explosion was more than satisfactory from the Union perspective, as illustrated above. A huge hole was blown in the Confederate line, some 250-350 of Lee’s troops were killed instantly. The crater was 50m (170 ft) long, 20-25m (60-80 ft) wide and some 10m (30ft) deep. It’s still visible today. General Ledlie’s troops rushed forward, and things went downhill from there. Instead of passing the crater and attacking the stunned Confederate troops nearby, they thought the crater looked like a great place to dig in, and they proceeded to do so. Within an hour the Confederates had recovered their composure, mostly due to the heroic and expert leadership of a General Mahone. They surrounded the crater and began pouring deadly fire onto its defenders.
At this point the battle was lost, but Burnside sent another division forward, who also tried to defend themselves in the crater. The result was what the Confederates called a turkey shoot, they slaughtered large numbers of Union troops as they entered or fled the crater. The Union troops did get organized at one point and drove the confederates from their lines on one side of the crater, but General Mahone organized and led a counterattack which drove the Union back into the crater. By day’s end the Union troops had been completely driven back to their lines and the battle was over. The Union had lost some 5000 men, the Confederates about 1000.
The battle basically had no effect on the siege and was just a waste of lives. Burnside’s career was ended, Meade escaped censure even though he was as responsible if not more so than Burnside for the debacle. Ledlie was simply cashiered for his role in the battle. Mahone earned a lasting reputation as one of Lee’s finest young generals. Pleasants, the guy who came up with the idea in the first place, was eventually promoted and given credit for the plan.
The battle is pretty much forgotten today, though apparently it was recreated in the movie “Cold Mountain” which I have yet to see. It was a relatively minor action at the time, though by modern terms the loss of life seems dreadful. Back then it was necessary to mass troops together much more closely because of the limited firepower available, so battles like this were not terribly unusual.
The military lessons to draw from it seem obvious, a good idea needs to be well executed. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses. Bad things often happen when military decisions are made for political reasons, a topic I promise to return to. The main thing I would draw from this example is that this sort of screw-up is far more the norm in warfare than the heroic claptrap portrayed on TV, and that this sort of thing is still happening today. Exactly how and where these lessons apply today…is subject to debate, stay tuned.
(The above sketch of the explosion as seen from Union lines is public domain under US copyright law. Credit: A.R. Waud, a contemporary artist.)