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'A monstrous tongue of flame'

July 30th, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

"Before Petersburg at sunrise, July 30th 1864" by Alfred A. Waud

Today is the 145th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, which was fought near Petersburg, Virginia, on July 30, 1864. Kevin Levin marks the occasion by responding to our post from earlier this week, “Explaining a Massacre.” He has some words of praise and a response to Peter Luebke’s suggestion that certain claims about the battle remain “maddeningly abstract.”

In the meantime, the Battle of the Crater was one of the most bizarre and intense fights of the war. Imagine: Pennsylvania coal miners dug a mine shaft under Confederate lines, packed it with powder, and blew it up. Then, Union soldiers who were supposed to march around the Crater, promptly marched into it. They were followed by black infantrymen who reportedly shouted “No Quarter!” After Virginia troops marched in to plug up the hole in the lines, many of those same black soldiers were murdered.

Here’s a bit from our entry-in-progress about the battle:

Henry Pleasants lit the fuse at 3:15 on the morning of July 30. The blast was scheduled for 3:30, but that time came and went and by four o’clock Meade was getting anxious. He telegrammed Burnside: “The commanding general directs that if your mine has failed that you make an assault at once, opening your [artillery] batteries.” This idea didn’t much impress Burnside, so someone called for a volunteer to take a lantern into the mine shaft and check the fuse. This time there were two volunteers: Sergeant Henry Reese, who went in first, and Lieutenant Jacob Doughty. Together they discovered that the fuse had gone out, and after fixing it, they raced for the tunnel entrance in time not to be crushed by the impact of the explosion.

At precisely 4:44 there was, according to a soldier from the 20th Michigan,

a heaving and lifting of the fort and the hill on which it stood; then a monstrous tongue of flame shot fully two hundred feet in the air, followed by a vast column of white smoke . . . then a great spout or fountain of red earth rose to a great height, mingled with men and guns, timbers and planks, and every other kind of debris, all ascending, spreading, whirling, scattering . . .

At the same time, 164 Union guns opened fire. (The delay had actually been to the artillerymen’s benefit; by now it was light out and they could see what they were shooting at.) This is the moment when Ledlie’s men were supposed to advance, but like everyone else, they were briefly paralyzed by the force of the blast. At least 278 Confederates—South Carolinians and Virginians mostly—were killed instantly, and a giant crater—what has come to be known as the Crater—was opened up in the ground where moments earlier they had been sleeping. It was 200 feet long, 60 feet across, and 30 feet deep, and when Ledlie’s troops reached it, rather than march around it they marched into it.

IN ADDITION: For more information on the Battle of the Crater, see the Virginia Vignettes series (Pts. 1, 2, 3, and 4).

IMAGE: “Before Petersburg at sunrise, July 30th 1864″ by Alfred A. Waud (Harper’s Weekly, August 20, 1864)

Tags: Virginia History

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