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.

With the fighting now spread over a square mile centered on the Crater, the battle was about to turn in the defenders’ favor for good. A few hundred yards to the west, Mahone prepared to apply the coup de grace. He sent Sanders’ five Alabama regiments down the covered way into the creekside depression, telling Sanders to march his brigade around the friendly troops to his front (Wright’s Georgians) and come in against the Crater from the southwest. Their orders were simple: clear the Yankees, black and white, from the line. The method was simple as well: one shot, then the bayonet. They would advance just before 1 pm under an artillery barrage while Lee and other commanders watched from the Gee House.

Supported by North and South Carolina units, the Alabama troops stepped off smartly. Once they passed the cavalier trench, however, they came under heavy fire from the Crater. The last few yards proved the toughest. On level ground, the Confederates were momentarily exposed to Union artillery that blew great gaps in the gray lines. The attackers doggedly closed ranks and came on, reaching the edge of the Crater before they had suffered more harm.

In these last minutes, Union resistance centered at the Crater’s western edge crumbled in vicious fighting. Federal muskets with their bayonets still attached lay scattered about everywhere, and opportunistic Confederates picked them up and launched them like javelins into the teeming blue crowd. Confederate soldiers surged over the Crater’s rim and into the pit, slashing their way forward. Bayonets, knives, and muskets used as clubs were the weapons of choice as the dense mass of humanity left little room for maneuver. The Rebels again refused to accept the surrender of black troops, dispatching them with brutality. Once more, fearing Rebel reprisals, many white Federals killed their black comrades in a craven attempt to ensure their own survival.

With Confederates pouring over the top, Griffin and Hartranft yelled for any Northerners within range of their voices to retreat. The Union perimeter disappeared as a flood of survivors crawled out of the pit and headed back through no-man’s-land. With Rebel mortars and artillery bracketing the area, more Federals were killed and wounded in the retreat than in Ledlie’s morning attack. Those at the back of the pack turned and faced their pursuing tormenters, the fighting as savage as any witnessed in the entire war. “Our fellows seized the muskets abandoned by the retreating enemy,” wrote one Confederate soldier, “and threw them like pitchforks into the huddled troops over the ramparts. Screams, groans and explosions throwing up human limbs made it a scene of awful carnage.”

By 1:30 pm the battle was over with the exultant Confederates taking full possession of the Crater and the field works surrounding it. Pioneers and engineers worked all night to incorporate the Crater into the Confederate defenses. Meanwhile, within the Union lines, Burnside sat stunned as casualty figures came in. At 3 pm, Potter reported that his division was annihilated. Full regiments had been captured whole, and the majority of his field officers had been killed or wounded. Other division commanders reported similar heavy losses, and stories of the heartless treatment of USCT soldiers—by Rebels and Yankees alike—shocked Burnside, who struggled to make sense of the tragedy. He had committed 14,000 men from his corps and within six hours had lost nearly 35 percent of them. Despite numerous requests, Burnside waited until the next evening to report to Meade, finally admitting to a loss of almost 4,000 men, which he blamed on the lack of support from adjoining corps that were not committed.

The battle was over, but the repercussions were still to come. During a battle that reeked of command malfeasance on a scale that equaled that of Cold Harbor—two drunken Union division commanders sitting out the battle behind the lines—the Union Army suffered 3,798 casualties, including 504 killed and 1,881 wounded. Fully one third of the casualties were suffered by black troops, including 219 killed in action and almost 1,000 wounded, the worst day for USCT troops in the entire war. A large number of Union casualties occurred after Meade and Grant had ordered a withdrawal, but both commanders were too far from the lines to realize Burnside had delayed sounding the recall. Meade had now suffered almost 6,000 casualties for the month with almost nothing to show for it (Lee could take a little comfort that Confederate casualties were less than half of Meade’s). Most of the Confederate dead at the Crater were killed in the explosion that opened the battle; the defenders lost 361 men killed, 727 wounded, and 403 missing or captured for the day. The Confederate victory didn’t change the strategic situation, which meant that the siege of Petersburg would drag on for another eight bloody months.

There was plenty of blame to go around on the Union side. Meade and his chief engineer had failed utterly to support Pleasants’ mining efforts, and Meade and Grant had changed Burnside’s attack plans at the last minute for political reasons. Burnside had failed to issue new and specific attack orders to Ledlie and delayed sending orders for his corps to retreat. Ledlie (but not Ferrero, who amazingly was overlooked in the aftermath) was soon sent packing, condemned by a court of inquiry along with Burnside, Willcox, and Colonel Zenas Bliss, for his part in the mismanagement of what Grant called “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.” Burnside left on the heels of a violent argument with Meade, who wanted his corps commander court-martialed for incompetence. Grant, preferring a quieter procedure (and with the memory of his own misguided attack at Cold Harbor still fresh in his mind), sent Burnside home on leave, summing up the battle as “a stupendous failure, all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.”

Resigning from the service, Burnside returned to Rhode Island, where he slowly recovered the geniality he had lost in the course of a calamitous Civil War career that had required him to occupy positions he himself had warned he was unqualified to fill. He found a large measure of solace in early 1865, when the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War exonerated him and condemned Meade for changing the plan of attack at the last minute.

The Petersburg campaign—it wasn’t a siege in the true sense—encompassed 292 days of combat, maneuver, and trench warfare between June 15, 1864, and April 3, 1865. After the fiasco at the Crater, Grant spent the next eight months focusing on severing Petersburg’s many road and rail connections to the south and west. He launched a total of nine offensives—the Battle of the Crater taking place during the third—in the campaign, striking both north and south of the James River. After six weeks of vicious fighting, the combat subsided into a prolonged stalemate in the trenches before Petersburg and Richmond that anticipated the gruesome conditions on the Western Front during World War I.

Pleasants had remained with Burnside on the parapet of a 14-gun Union battery during the battle and watched in horror as his men’s incredible excavation effort—a legitimate mining marvel—went for naught. When things finally went horribly wrong, he angrily told Burnside that he had “nothing but a damned set of cowards in your brigade commanders.” Many of Pleasants’ surviving troops would have agreed with the colonel’s assessment. For thousands of others, of course, it was then too late to say.

Originally Published January 18, 2019.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia