Battle of the Crater


Feb 20, 2005
The Deep South, Alabama
I recently saw this on a newsletter that I receive:

" At the Battle of the Crater white Union soldiers bayoneted
retreating Black Union soldiers and the 54th Massachusetts was intentionally fired upon by Union Maine troops while assaulting Battery Wagner. The Federal Official Records and memoirs of the USCT document all of these war crimes."

Before every Bluecoat on the board draws a bead on me, I am interested in the opinions of board members who specialize in battles to tell me what happened here.

In looking briefly into this, I found this tidbit:
"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 an explosive charge directly underneath a fort in the middle of the Confederate First Corps line. [There were no "high-explosives".] 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."

I have found these summaries on the "net" but I would appreciate the expertise this board provides. Thank you...Thea

Battle Summary: Crater, VA
... Crater Other Names: The Mine. Location: Petersburg. ... Unit after unit charged
into and around the crater, where soldiers milled in confusion. ...

Battle of the Crater - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Battle of the Crater. ... The Battle of the Crater was the first major clash
of arms between the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Gen. ...

Battle of the Crater
The Battle of the Crater and it's tragic results for both Confederate
and Union armies. Battle of the Crater. .....they hesitated. ...

Battle of the Crater Poster (high-quality 16x12 Art Print)
Battle of the Crater Poster (high-quality 16x12 Art Print) image and information,
with the option to order for only about $76.5 (you can buy online immediately ... posters/battle-of-the-crater-poster-137706.html

The Battle of the Crater
McWhiney Foundation Press. The Battle of the Crater by Jeff Kinard. ... The Battle
of the Crater ISBN 1-886661-06-5 paper $11.95 LC 95-33310. 6x9. 104 pp. ...

First Deep Bottom and the Crater
... The Crater (July 30, 1864). ... dominated by Radical Republicans, had spent much of the
winter of 1863-64 investigating Meade's conduct of the Battle of Gettysburg ...

The Story of the Battle of the Crater
The Story of the Battle of the Crater. The Battle of Petersburg was
the site of the longest siege in American history after Grant ...

Battle of the Crater - encyclopedia article about Battle of the ...
encyclopedia article about Battle of the Crater. Battle of the Crater in Free
online English dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia. ... Battle of the Crater. ... Battle%20of%20the%20Crater

REENACTMENT OF THE "BATTLE OF THE CRATER". ... History Channel personnel were
shooting the "Battle of the Crater" segment that will air this summer. ...


Regimental Armorer
Retired Moderator
Feb 20, 2005
South of the North 40
Thea, the best account I've read of how the black troops were treated both at the Crater &amp; at Battery Wagner is from Trudeau in his book <u>Like Men of War</u> The NPS has an excellent pamphlet on the subject as well.

The Battery Wagner incident happened and it was a case of accidental friendly fire... The black men who reported it knew it at the time and the White Regiment who volleyed (once) apoologized for it... and from all I can find; they meant it. IIRC the incident happened at dusk in a mass of confusion. As a testimony to the regiment who did the firing... they apparently couldn't shoot straight as the casualties inflicted were minimal.

The crater incident I don't honestly know a good answer to as I've read several different accounts including several first hand accounts that mention it. To give an example of the confusion this creates I specifically recall one letter home from a NY man stating that some men of his company tried to keep the USCT from entering into the crater because they knew they would be slaughtered and the addition of more Regiments would only make the situation worse... Another mentions using his bayonet to keep from being trampled by the unruhing column of USCT. To add confusion at least one group of CSA troops involved in the battle were wearing blue jackets, a NC unit IIRC, and it is thought they might have been the culprits of the bayoneting. Though this seems highly unlikely as I don't believe they ever got down into the crater.

The question arises of why in the hell anyone would bayonet men coming to assist them in the first place. When the purported bayoneting took place the black troops were so intermingled with white that I find it a questionable action. The crater may well have been one of the most confusing battles of the war, and one that might well have suceeded had the plan been adhered to.

To give some background; Meade had little faith in the fighting ability of Black troops and thought they wouldn't be able to push through against veterans... To give him some credit the USCT units chosen for the operation were largely green w/ little combat experiance and the unit that had been specifically trained to take the crater had not yet seen the elephant. He was intimetly familiar w/ the results of green troops facing veterans.

That was his reasoning for replacing the USCT regiments that had been specifically trained for the batlle at the last minute w/ veteran white troops. Unfortunetly, the Veteran white troops had not been trained on how to deply up and out of or around the crater and got horribly intermingled at the bottom of it. By the time they got things straightened out the Confeds had troops at the top of the crater. Climbing a roughly 45 degree angle under fire is not an easy task. It was well after this point that Meade ordered the Reserves in; the USCT men who had been trained to do it in the first place. Bluntly put, they double quicked into hell itself. There was no unit cohesion left inside the crater, it was filled w/ smoke and large numbers of the white troops w/in just wanted out of that hell. It is at this point that some bayonetting might have happened. Though, to be honest it more likely would have been USCT troops bayoneting or prodding out of the way panicked white troops who were blocking the narrow way into the crater.

Once the USCT units were inside the crater it was bedlam and it didn't take long for the USCT to lose cohesion.

To truly understand it you have to see the Crater, it is just that a crater and there were several thousand men packed into an area considerably smaller than a football field, Confederates ringed the rim and were firing down, at short range into a densley packed mass of men. I read somewhere that one in four shots fired from the rim killed or wounded a Union soldier. Despite this, elements of the USCT did manage to fight their way clear of the Crater. They attained their first objective but w/out support thay had no hope of holding it.

The Confederates offered no quarter to the USCT, it should be mentioned that they showed no quarter to many of the white units either. It was here after the battle that many of the USCT men who had surrendered (and their surrender was accepted) were murdered, some w/in sight of the Union lines.

I have often discounted the reports of white Union soldiers bayonetting USCT troops at the Crater, I still do to a degree. However, it might well have happened, though if so I believe it was both isolated and likely accidental. Apparently, Provost troops had been ordered to the rear of the fray to prod some units forward and they might well have been the culprits of such an action, their after action report doesn't mention any problems w/ routed USCT men... But the problem is that it was such a chaotic battle that positively documenting very much is quite difficult.


Feb 20, 2005
As to the Union troops bayonetting their colored counterparts, this was done because they feared that the Confederates would show them no quarter if the were captured with colored troops. For the same reason, some of the Union officers who led the colored troops removed their insignia before going into battle.

You won't find this information within the official reports. Instead look to published diaries, journals and letters.

Oh, another interesting tidbit is how 48th Penn. Col. H. Pleasants was able to use the theodolyte without being shot. He draped some burlap over the instrument and his head. At his signal, his men raised their hats on ramrods to amuse the Confederates who blasted away at them. Pleasants was able to take his measurements without being shot at. It's the first application of burlap as camouflage and today our snipers make ghillie suits out of burlap.


Feb 20, 2005
Guys, I dont know how accurate the account of the Battle of the Crater is on Cold Mountain, but it sure looks like what happened. It was basically a slaughter, somewhere like 5,000-5,300 Union casualties and about 1,000-1,500 for the Confederates. Someone on the Union side sure made a major mistake. Guys, I didnt copy from yall on the statistics, just thought I'd add, I dont ppl to think I copied, lol. God Bless


First Sergeant
Feb 20, 2005

My understanding is that the Battle of the Crater scene in Cold Mountain is pretty accurate. I've watched this movie several times and I think they did a good job of depicting the true horror of what happened that day. It was a plan that literally backfired in the face of the Union Army.

I'm not sure who led the Union troops at the Battle of the Crater?



Feb 20, 2005
Check out the August (?) issue of the Civil War Times. It has Burnside on the front. Anyways, huge article in there on this very battle. Burnside proposed the attack to Meade, who had him confirm it with Grant. Grant ok'd the project, but Meade did not like Burnside too much, and took liberties with Burnsides plans. Check out the article though, because it was a great article, and my copy is of the magaizne is in my trailor from after a weekend of re-enacting, so I don't remember all the legistics, but I bet someone on this list can help you with the technical.


First Sergeant
Feb 20, 2005
According to an article in North and South on the making of Cold Mountain, the explosion and formation of the Crater was amazingly accurate, from the width to the depth, being only a few feet off on the width.
As to the leader of this attack. General James H. Ledlie. The explosion was as planned. The troop movement into the crater area was good. The crests of the crater were clear of rebel troops, so the way was clear for the 1st Division to get into the defences. However, there was no leader to guide and direct. General Ledlie had removed himself from the area and gone into a safe dugout many yards behind the lines and there he stayed, drinking rum, now and again receiving a written order sent along by Burnside and giving it to a runner to carry foward to brigade commanders. From first to last he never saw this battle. Needing good leadership more desperately than ever before, his division today got no leadership at all.
Chuck in IL.


Feb 20, 2005
Victoria, Australia
I know this isn't related to the original post but for a good read on the crater i enjoy U.S. Grants personal memoirs, and E.P. Alexander's "fighting for the confederacy".

Both books (as well as sheridan's) show that Meade was a tool, meddling in everything during the overland campaign and petersburg siege, if u ask me they should have transferred him somewhere where he couldn't mess with the AotP. i don't know what his problem was, maybe being in a token position it upset him (kinda like Grant after shiloh, maybe grant having been in a token position before should have done something else with Meade, but as he states himself he didn't want to step on any toes in the AotP, and his actions were all with good heart) As for meade's actions at the battle of the crater was unspeakable, he wanted a different plan to burnside, and when a third plan of the attack was used, Meade look at it as already failed, at the early stages of the battle Meade withdrew the troops waiting to support the flanks, and thus made the disaster of the crate total. Even if the troops supporting the flanks wouldn't mean certain success of the operation I do believe it would have made the loses in the crater much less, and the evacuation smoother, and hell ill even stick my bum out and say it could have bought success if the flank attacks had came at the right time to support the crater, don't forget the south pay a fair price to plug the gap it wasn't just the union who got a bloody nose.