CIVIL DISCOURSE, AUGUST 1864
Summer of 1864 finds the armies faced off on a vast entrenched line extending from the killing grounds at Cold Harbor to the railhead at Petersburg – not so much a “siege” as trench warfare anticipating another cheerless front fifty years to come. On July 30th, 1864, the Confederate army before Petersburg was startled by an enormous explosion beneath one of their forts. The Yankees intended to not only obliterate the fort and its defenders, but to more generally punch a hole through the line. Federal troops would then surge through the gap without incurring devastating casualties assaulting entrenched Confederates.
A regiment of Pennsylvania miners began digging on June 25th and by July 17th the 511 foot tunnel reached the Confederate fort. The terminus was expanded into 75 foot chambers on both sides. On July 28th, the mine was armed with 8000 pounds of powder. The plan was to wreck the fort, then have two brigades of United States Colored Troops exploit the confusion, one attacking on each side of the crater, pushing on to seize an unfortified hill beyond, and then on into Petersburg itself if possible. Two other divisions of white troops would then follow up to exploit the breach. Overall, 50,000 men were poised to support the attack, versus perhaps 15,000 Confederates defending.
The Colored infantry rehearsed the assault out of sight of the Confederates for two weeks. But at the last minute Meade decided against using the Colored troops, lacking confidence in their abilities and fearing political repercussions at home if they failed. Grant concurred. A replacement division of white soldiers was chosen by lot. The replacement troops were not drilled on the plan; indeed, their drunken commander did not even brief them on the mission.
On July 30th, at around 3:30 in the morning, the mastermind of the tunnel, Colonel Henry Pleasants, lit the long fuse leading to the powder kegs. The fuse fizzled and the mine did not blow on schedule. Two very brave volunteers crawled down the narrow shaft to see what had gone wrong and relit the fuse fifty feet short of the magazine. At 4:44 a.m., the powder detonated, wrecking the fort and killing 278 Confederates, leaving a crater about 200 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep.
At first the plan worked. At the instant of the explosion, every Union gun available began shelling the opposing line. Confused and shell-shocked Confederates barely returned fire. But the assault force was almost equally awed and did not immediately advance. Burnside had not bothered to bridge his own trenches or clear his abatis, such that the advancing troops were slowed by their own defenses. When they did reach the crater almost unopposed, they did not go around it to roll up the flanks as the Colored troops had rehearsed, but used the crater as cover as Confederates commanded by quick-thinking General Mahone assembled for counterattack.
As Harper’s puts it: “A determined rush would have crowned the crest with the loss of hardly a man.” But the troops do not press forward to occupy the commanding hill behind the lines. An hour passes and the crater continues to fill with troops packed shoulder to shoulder. As the sun comes up, a very competent Mahone rings the crater with muskets and artillery, turning it into a slaughter pen. Then the Confederates began dropping mortar bombs into the massed Federals. The Federals compounded their error by sending in the Colored infantry as reinforcements, who also crowded into the crater to be shot to pieces by enraged Confederates. Some of the Colored troops made it out to engage the Confederates in prolonged and merciless close-quarters combat in a dash for the commanding hill behind the lines, capturing about 250 Confederates and providing some respite to those trapped below. Finally the Confederates swept them all back and reclaimed the blasted scene, the Yankees retreating across open ground under withering fire. The fight had lasted eight hours, most of it under a hot July sun. Of the 50,000 Federals available to support the attack, only a single brigade of Ord’s corps came to the aid of Burnside’s men.
The opening scene of the movie Cold Mountain gives some sense of the unrestrained horror at the crater. Union losses were approximately 4,000, which included 1,900 prisoners who surrendered rather than run the fierce gauntlet of fire back to their own lines. Confederate losses were about 1,500; many of the “missing” were blown to bits in the initial blast or interred under the falling earth of the fort. In keeping with the spirit of Fort Pillow, many of the Colored Troops were bayonetted or shot after surrendering.
Congress subsequently held a Court of Inquiry to determine how a war-ending plan had gone so wrong. Grant testified that the fault lay with the divisional commanders, especially the one responsible for the two lead brigades, who was drunk in his bombproof instead of being in a position to keep his men moving on the hill which was the ultimate objective. Meade’s order, Grant says, was all that was required for success: “if the troops had been properly commanded, and had been led in accordance with this order, we should have captured Petersburg, with all of the artillery, and a good portion of its support, without the loss of five hundred men. There was a full half hour where there was no fire against our men, and they could have marched past the enemy’s entrenchments just as they could in open country; but that opportunity was lost in consequence of the divisional commanders not going with their men, but allowing them to go into the enemy’s entrenchments and spread themselves there without going on farther, thus giving the enemy time to collect and organize against them. If they had marched to the crest of that ridge they would have taken every thing in the rear. I do not think there would have been any opposition at all to our troops if that had been done.” Grant further faults the commanders of the 50,000 supporting troops who inexplicably failed to stir as their comrades were butchered in the pit. Finally, Grant acknowledged his mistake in pulling back the Colored troops who had specifically trained for the mission. Recalling that the only success of the day was their charge past the crater and toward the hill, it is a fair guess that they would have pulled it off given the chance. But politics won out and “thus terminated in disaster what promised to be the most successful assault of the campaign.” This had been a well-thought-out plan to break the siege of Petersburg and end the war in August of 1864, a priceless opportunity squandered. The armies will bleed on in the muddy trenches for another eight months.
Source: Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion
Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.