Siege of Petersburg - Battle of the Crater

During the summer of 1864, Union engineers from Pennsylvania (with mining experience in their own state) dug a tunnel under Confederate lines at Petersburg, Virginia.  Their plan was to load-up the area with 8,000 pounds of black powder, detonate those four tons of explosives and blow a gaping hole directly into the enemy position.

Trained Union soldiers were then to rush into the newly opened area, push the Confederates back and take Petersburg.  Were that to happen, so the thinking went, the war would soon be over with the North victorious.

The explosion took place at 4:45 a.m. on July 30th.  According to the National Park Service's web site on the battlefield:

The earth trembled as men, equipment, and debris were hurled high into the air. At least 278 Confederate troops were killed or wounded in the tremendous blast, and 2 of the 4 guns in the battery were destroyed beyond repair. The measurements of the size of the crater torn by the powder vary considerably, but it seems to have been at least 170 feet long, 60 to 80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep.

Then ... the plan backfired.  Instead of Union troops routing the Southerners and capturing the Confederate stronghold, more and more Northern soldiers were forced into the newly created cavern.  By early afternoon, after fighting all morning in the scorching heat, their position became untenable.  Continuing with the Park Service narrative:

The last scene in the battle occurred shortly after 1 p. m.  A final charge by Mahone's men [a Confederate commander and his troops] was successful in gaining the slopes of the crater. Some of the Union men overcome with exhaustion and realizing the helplessness of their situation, surrendered; but others continued to fight. At one point where resistance centered, the Confederates put their hats on ramrods and lifted them over the rim of the crater. The caps were promptly torn to shreds by a volley. Before their foe could reload, Mahone's forces jumped into the crater where a desperate struggle with bayonets, rifle butts, and fists ensued.

Soon it was all over. The Union Army had suffered a loss of over 4,000 in killed, wounded, or captured as against about 1,500 for the Confederates.

Petersburg would ultimately fall, but it would take another year.

Media Credits

Quoted passage from Campaign for Petersburg, Historical Handbook Number Thirteen, (1951).  Online at the National Park Service web site.

Clip from Cold Mountain (2003), copyright Miramax Lionsgate, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the film and the soundtrack.

StudioMiramax Films

Directed by:  Anthony Minghella

Novel by:  Charles Frazier

Screenplay by:  Anthony Minghella

Release Date:  December 25, 2003


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"Siege of Petersburg - Battle of the Crater" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 20, 2020.
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