When the wretchedly managed Federal assaults of 15-18 June ended in an ineffectual welter of blood, Grant faced the necessity to begin a siege. He had lost more than 10,000 men in the awkward attempt to batter his way into Petersburg, as against appreciably fewer than half as many Confederate casualties. With characteristic determination, Grant quickly arranged to extend his lines southwestward across Lee's front. His purpose in this and several subsequent initiatives was to snap Southern railroads and other lines of communication and supply. At the same time, his almost limitless resources in men and materiel would benefit from ever-longer front lines. Eventually the limited Confederate strength would be stretched to the breaking point. Execution of those two initiatives constituted the story of the next nine months.
Grant's first move of his left beyond Lee's right came on 21 June. The reliable II Corps, under the magnificent leadership of General Winfield Scott Hancock, moved across the Jerusalem Plank Road, permanently denying that artery to the Confederates, and on toward the Weldon Railroad. Lee could not surrender the vital rail link without a fight. He sent two divisions out to intercept Hancock's force. The tactical result was stunning. The glorious old Federal II Corps folded and ran in the face of a smaller force, losing 2,500 men, the vast majority of them as prisoners of war.
This embarrassing result, which could not have been imagined under any circumstances from that seasoned formation a few months earlier, highlighted the condition of Grant's army. It had been bled so thoroughly, and enervated so completely, that it had lost its hard-won and long-held prowess. Most of the army's field-grade officers, company officers, and non-commissioned officers lay moldering in graves between the Rapidan and James rivers, or languishing wounded in facilities along the east coast.
Conventional historical wisdom has long credited Grant with a sort of quiet genius that recognized the necessity of slaughtering troops of both sides in endless hecatombs until arithmetic won the war. The unmistakable historical record shows that accepting about 200,000 combined casualties in getting to Richmond did end the war in a year of bloodshed. A minority opinion suggests that the immutable advantages of terrain and strategic imperatives available to the Federal cause around Petersburg would have set a far more desirable stage upon which to invoke elements of the military art. By the time the Army of the Potomac reached that advantageous ground in 1864, however, the army retained only a barely recognizable shadow of its former might. The months to come would feature operations in the image of the Weldon Railroad.
Through the summer of 1864, Grant intermittently pushed his left farther west, and Lee countered on his right. Most of the soldiers' energies, however, went into work with shovels rather than with rifles. A warren of forts and redoubts and trenches sprang up and ambled across the Virginia countryside. Men fought from behind works of wood and dirt, and lived in 'bombproofs,' as they called their rude homes hollowed out
General Winfield Scott Hancock's superb leadership had made the Federal II Corps into a redoubtable force. (Public domain)
in the earth and reinforced with timber.
One of the war's most remarkable episodes, the product of an amazing engineering feat, grew out of the stalemate imposed by impregnable fortifications. Attacking a deeply entrenched enemy afforded little hope of success, against a guarantee of staggering casualties. A regiment recruited in coal-mining country, the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, conceived the notion of digging a tunnel far beneath the earth's surface that would lead under the Confederate line, which then could be blown to smithereens. The Pennsylvanians undertook the novel project with a great deal of energy and ingenuity. They modified ration boxes to use for removing the dirt. They sent parties out to cut timber to shore up the excavation. They fabricated a complex but clever means to exhaust bad air from the lengthening tunnel and bring in
The fight for control of the Crater developed into a savage hand-to-hand struggle. (Public domain)
The fight for control of the Crater developed into a savage hand-to-hand struggle. (Public domain)
fresh air through a wooden conduit. After three weeks of labor, the miners had completed a tunnel that ran 511ft (156m) and ended squarely beneath the main enemy line. For 10 days they dug a lateral chamber and then packed it full of gunpowder -four tons of it. They planned to blow up the massive charge at dawn on 30 July.
The Pennsylvanian soldier-miners had achieved an incredible success, but the Federal military hierarchy had not done nearly as well preparing to capitalize on the fruits of their labor. General Ambrose E. Burnside, who had failed so egregiously at Fredericksburg in 1862, was back with the army in command of the Federal IX Corps and responsible for the sector where the 48th had dug so diligently. He decided to assign his well-trained but untested all-black division to exploit the gap to be made by the explosion. General Meade refused to let Burnside use the black troops as the first wave because he knew that, if they took heavy losses, he would be pilloried by politicians and journalists. Burnside chose (by the mindless expedient of drawing straws) to substitute the least effective of his white divisions, commanded by the inept - and perhaps drunken - General James H. Ledlie.
Exploding the mine involved moments of high drama. An officer of the 48th lit the long, long fuse at 3.00 am and thousands of men in blue waited in breathless silence for the explosion. Thousands of Confederates in deadly danger dozed in innocence. Nothing happened. By 4.15 am it had become apparent that nothing was going to happen without intervention. Two brave Pennsylvanians, Lieutenant Jacob Douty (a doughty fellow indeed) and Sergeant Harry Reese, crawled into the long, dark mine to investigate. They found that the fuse had failed at one of its several splices, relit it, and scurried to safety. Finally, at 4.45 am the 'earth trembled for miles around,' as a Virginia soldier put it, under the echoes of a mighty explosion. The blast killed or wounded nearly 300 South Carolinians.
When Smith Lipscomb, who survived, tumbled out of the air and landed on his feet, his 'thies [thighs] felt like they were almost shivered.' Lipscomb thought that he must have been badly crippled, but a Federal volley 'convinced me I was not as badly hurt as I thought I was,' he recalled later. The injured man staggered back under cover and began rubbing his painful legs. Before long he had found a rifle and began shooting at the enemy. The carnage continued until
Smith 'saw the blood run down |a] little drain ditch several feet.'
Ledlie's troops dashed forward toward the breach and gazed in awe at a chasm about 170ft long, 80ft wide, and 30 ft deep (50m x 25m x 10m). While they stared at the place known ever since as 'the Crater,' Confederates behind the gap and on either side began to rally. Federal reinforcements pushed into the Crater and beyond, but fire from either flank limited their penetration. General Lee pulled Southern reinforcements from points all around his front to use in re-establishing his line. For several hours, an opening blown in the Confederate position beckoned Federals to lunge through and capture the city just beyond. Eventually Burnside received permission to commit the black division to the fight, but long after the crucial moment for which those troops had been trained. The black soldiers simply added to the chaos in the muddy, bloody Crater.
As Confederate units closed in, Federals in the Crater became defenders instead of attackers. Artillery shells, some of them from newly deployed high-angle mortars, exploded above the Crater and flung shards into its corners. The Confederate charge that retook the position erupted over the lip of
the Crater and surged through its midst in hand-to-hand combat that turned the pit into 'one seething cauldron of struggling, dying men.' General J. C. C. Sanders of Alabama, who commanded a brigade at the scene, wrote that Southern guns 'literally mowed down the enemy piling up Yankees and Negroes on each other.' Confederate artillerist Frank Huger used similar language: 'our men literally butchered them.' A Massachusetts officer described the crowded situation inside the Crater as so tight that 'many of those killed were held in a standing position until jostled to the ground.'
The performance of the black troops generated considerable controversy. Some Northerners applauded their efforts; others damned them. A private from Massachusetts, writing the next day, called the black soldiers 'cowardly rascals' and declared that they 'didn't get far before they broke and skedaddled ... one might as well try to stop the wind.' The Yankee lad expressed a wish that the newspapermen so fond of extolling black troops should go into battle with them. General Sanders, watching from across the lines, admitted that the black troops 'fight much better than I expected but ... many of them were shot down by the [Yankees].' Southerners who had never fought against freed slaves before relentlessly fired into the Crater and killed men under circumstances that would usually have resulted in captures. 'This day was the jubilee of fiends in human shape,' a Southerner wrote, 'and without souls.' A conflict in which slavery had become a steadily more significant issue had now reached a point where former slaves fought directly on the front line for their freedom and that of their brothers.
When the last Federal survivor dashed back to the lines beyond the Crater, an unusually dramatic battle ended and a dazzling opportunity had disappeared. The Union army lost 4,000 men on 30 July; the Confederates about 1,500. General Grant removed Burnside and Ledlie from their commands, and summarized the Crater in regretful benediction: 'It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.' There would be no other chance to go straight at Petersburg until the war's final week. For Grant, it was back to striking westward toward the railroads.
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