Why the Union's Attempt to Use Tunnels Against Confederate Troops Failed

By Unknown - File from The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Three, The Decisive Battles. The Review of Reviews Co., New York. 1911. p. 186., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7362234
November 20, 2019 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Civil WarTunnelsTrenchesUnionConfederacyTunneling

Why the Union's Attempt to Use Tunnels Against Confederate Troops Failed

A terrible result.

Slowly the men of IX Corps moved up on the night of the 29th into their assigned positions. Ledlie’s division was out front, just behind the ridge where Union pickets were dug in and just to the rear of the mine entrance. Potter’s and Willcox’s divisions were deployed along the slope of a railroad cut—the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad bisected the Union line at that point—while Ferrero’s men waited in the bottom of the cut, chagrined at being shunted to the rear. Elsewhere along the Union line, the other corps waited as well, including Hancock’s, which now had returned, as hoped, from its movement beyond the James. A bad fuse delayed the detonation, but after it was relit the explosion came at 4:44 am. In a sudden, fiery blast, Elliot’s Salient ceased to exist. “Then came a monstrous tongue of flame shot fully two hundred feet into the air, followed by a vast column of white smoke,” recalled an onlooker from the  20th Michigan. “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, ascending, spreading, whirling, scattering and falling with great concussion to the earth once more.” Another Union onlooker, prefiguring a larger, more ominous blast 81 years later at Hiroshima, Japan, saw the smoke rising toward the sky “with a detonation of thunder spread out like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to be of fire and its head of smoke.”

The fresh Crater, which would soon become a horrendous death trap for thousands of Union soldiers, first entombed half of Pegram’s guns and crews and entire companies of Elliot’s command, as well as damaging part of the cavalier trench. A total of 278 Confederates were sent to their graves by the huge blast. Great clods of dirt, some as large as houses, littered the floor of the Crater along with the torn bodies of its erstwhile defenders. Some defenders were seen running from the trenches, but most of the South Carolinians remained at their posts in the smoky haze. It would take a full half-hour for the stunned defenders to reorganize and put up any type of effective defense. “The way was completely open to the summit of the hill,” recalled a Union observer, “which was protected by no other line of works.”

After recovering from the shock of the blast, North Carolina and Virginia regiments positioned on either side of Elliot’s Salient shifted men to support the survivors of Elliot’s five South Carolina regiments. “When we arrived at our position,” a North Carolinian recalled, “we counted twelve United States flags in the works, and the whole field in front of the crater was filled with Yankees.” Confederate defenders on both sides of the Crater began pouring a deadly fire from both flanks into Ledlie’s men while well-placed artillery raked the ground on all sides of the pit. An indecipherable labyrinth of trenches, bombproofs, and covered ways also helped freeze the first wave of Federals in place. Stunned by the explosion and the deafening roar that followed when all the Union batteries opened as one, the front line of bluecoats scrambled for the rear through a massive wave of detritus from the blast and an accompanying cloud of dust. Ledlie ordered his two brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Frank Bartlett and Colonel Elisha Marshall, to open the attack, after which Ledlie himself retired to a nearby bombproof to sit out the battle, swigging rum from a bottle he had cadged from his staff physician.

The Federals were wasting precious time; it took 15 minutes for Marshall and Bartlett to coax their hesitant troops back to their original positions and send them over the top. Almost immediately the attack went awry. In dismay over the last-minute change in plans, the flustered Burnside had neglected to have the defensive obstacles cleared from in front of the Union trenches to allow easier passage for the attacking columns. Nor had anything been done to help the attackers scale their own six-foot-high trench walls—ladders that were to help Union soldiers traverse their trenches never appeared. Improvising quickly by jabbing their bayonets into the logs above them, Union attackers climbed their makeshift stepladders out of the trenches. Creeping forward in small groups rather than advancing on a broad front, Ledlie’s men struggled to scale the trenches and lurched across the debris-strewn no-man’s-land toward the Confederate works. Navigating their own trenches had literally destroyed the Federal dispositions. Three regiments of Ledlie’s men, after being ushered through a hastily improvised 10-foot passageway, finally arrived at the explosion site.

There they were stunned to see the crown of the salient’s ridge had been replaced by a high wall of fresh earth, beyond which yawned a fresh crater 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. To many Union soldiers, inured to searching for protection when under fire, the Crater looked like the biggest and safest foxhole they had ever seen—except that it wasn’t safe at all. Its steep 30-foot walls and slippery, sandy white clay made it nearly impossible to escape once the men had entered the pit. Instead of moving around the hole and heading for the high ground—Cemetery Hill lay just 500 yards away—Federal soldiers stumbled instead into the smoking abyss, using it as a vast rifle pit. A choking pall of dust and smoke blanketed the area.

Paralyzed by conflicting orders and lack of leadership, Ledlie’s attackers failed to either widen the breach, as Ferrero’s troops had been drilled to do, or push up the slope toward Cemetery Hill. “Our orders were to charge immediately after the explosion,” recalled Union Major Charles F. Houghton of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, “but the effect produced by the falling earth and the fragments sent heavenward that appeared to be coming right down upon us, caused the first line to waver and fall back.”

At his headquarters north of the Appomattox River, General Lee was notified of the attempted breakthrough at 6:15 am. He rushed orders for Brig. Gen. William Mahone, whose division was camped about three miles west of the Crater constituted Lee’s closest reinforcements, to send two brigades to the scene of the crisis. Mahone, nicknamed “Little Billy” for his diminutive size and shrill, piping voice, chose a Georgia unit and his own Virginia Brigade, also known as the Old Dominion Brigade and including many men from Petersburg eager to defend their homes, to make the march. Using streambeds, back roads, and covered ways, Mahone and his men arrived a little after 8 am. Lee rode to the front, arriving at Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson’s command post not far from Cemetery Hill, from which vantage point Lee could clearly see the Crater and the Union units massed in and around it. He, Johnson and Beauregard rode to the Gee house at the juncture of the Baxter and Jerusalem Plank roads, 500 yards west of the Crater, where they climbed to the second floor to monitor the action.

As Confederate musket fire picked up, Bartlett pushed some of his troops into trenches south of the Crater while Marshall directed his soldiers to the north and west. Only a relative few men in the Union advance got as far as the maze of works beyond the Crater, where they began exchanging fire with a small group of Southern defenders. Unit leaders of the main body were ignored as they shouted and pointed their swords toward Cemetery Hill, and there wasn’t anyone of superior authority to salvage the situation. Burnside, at least, should have been in close communication with the front.  He was not.

Troops of one of the heavy artillery units fighting as infantry found a working gun and began utilizing it against the defenders to their west. Union reinforcements continued pouring into the breach as Burnside ordered his next two divisions forward, those of Potter and Willcox, but most of the attackers, rather than going forward toward Cemetery Hill, either joined their comrades in the Crater or branched out to the immediate right and left along the lines. As the Federals continued wasting precious time, 8- and 10-inch mortars in the Confederate rear, along with well-placed artillery batteries, began pouring a deadly storm of shell and canister into the crowded masses milling in and around the base of the Crater. Finally, fairly large groups of Union soldiers formed near the Crater’s western edge and began filtering into the captured Rebel trench system.

Two light Confederate artillery batteries under Major John Haskell hurried up the Jerusalem Plank Road and unlimbered near Cemetery Hill. Exposed to Union sharpshooters and artillery fire, Haskell nonetheless opened fire on his own and began the most effective effort of the day by either side. Haskell entered the covered way, which led 500 yards from the Jerusalem Plank Road directly to the Confederate works north of the Crater, and asked Elliot for infantry to support his exposed guns. Responding to Haskell’s request, Elliot was severely wounded when he tried, with a brave handful of fellow South Carolinians, to comply. Colonel Fitz McMaster assumed command and led 200 survivors of the 26th South Carolina into a creek depression west of the Crater, within the defensive works, where comrades from Elliot’s other regiments rallied upon them. They were, for the moment, the only Confederate forces standing between the Crater and Cemetery Hill.