Volume XXX Issue #5 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of the Crater

by Emmanuel Dabney

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

Charge of the 12th Virginia at the Crater. Painting by James Elder.

Before dawn on June 18, Robert E. Lee finally put his army into motion to assist Beauregard. Nearly simultaneously, the Federal forces began pushing forward in their hopes to finally capture Petersburg. As elements of Lee’s army arrived during the day, the fighting continued in a poorly coordinated manner. During the morning, men in Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps had fought hard to obtain the Taylor House ridge. Some men had moved into the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad cut. At 5:30 p.m., three brigades surged out of the railroad cut and rushed over an open area toward Poor Creek. There they pushed out Confederate pickets and then two of the brigades arranged themselves to drive forward against the Confederate defenses. However, the Southerners laid down a heavy shower of bullets and began entrenching. The Union troops were about 125 yards from this Confederate line. Thus, the half-hour action left these Yankees in a position closer to the Rebels than any other place along the Federal line.

Almost immediately the soldiers became miserable. The summer of 1864 was brutally scorching in the Richmond-Petersburg area as rain was nearly non-existent during the summer and a heat wave made the troops swelter. A chaplain in the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry noted,

You see nothing but dust—you smell dust, you eat dust, you drink dust. Your clothes, blanket, tent, food, drink, are all permeated with dust. You walk in dust, you halt in dust, you lie down in dust, you sleep in dust, you wake in dust, you live in dust—you are emphatically dusty.

In addition to the stifling heat and dust, sharpshooting was constant and with deadly consequences. In the first two days following the initial assaults, Confederate Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson reported skirmish and artillery fire “all day,” and on the third day, “Picket firing as usual.” Johnson noted between June 25-July 2, his division lost more than 116 men killed and wounded. Meanwhile the work of building and strengthening earthworks had to go on.

The Mine—From Idea to Reality

As early as June 21, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry in the IX Corps thought mining the Confederate position known as Elliott’s Salient (or Pegram’s Battery) and planting explosives was a possibility. Pleasants had been a civil engineer before the war which gave him some confidence that a mine could be dug toward the Southern position. He conferred with his division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter, who liked the proposal and informed General Burnside. On the night of June 24, Pleasants met with Burnside and explained “everything about” the mine and Burnside encouraged him to start immediately. The work of excavating the mine began on June 25 at noon.

For many years it has erroneously been stated that the 48th Pennsylvania was composed entirely of miners. This is not true. Maj. Oliver Bosbyshell rightfully noted years later, “There were a number of miners in the organization, as there were men of various other trades and occupations.” Many of the men prior to their enlistment were farmers, general laborers, shoemakers, bricklayers, cigar makers, teamsters, and did numerous other jobs. Thus the work of building the mine would come easier to those with mining experience than to others. The man in charge of oversight for the work was Sgt. Henry Reese of Co. F, 48th Pennsylvania. He was remembered as being . . .

on duty continually, never leaving the mine during its construction. His meals were taken at night on the grounds, and he kept his blankets at the mouth of the mine and slept there and could be found and consulted by day or by night. Being a practical miner, his advice and assistance were of material aid to Col. Pleasants, and were promptly acknowledged by that officer.

The work at the mine was conducted without proper mining tools, and to frame the interior of the mine shaft troops first destroyed a bridge, then put into operation a sawmill “five or six miles” from the ravine where the troops were digging the mine. The men also did not have wheelbarrows to cart away the earth that was excavated so they improvised a hand carting system using empty hardtack boxes. Colonel Pleasants described the cracker box handbarrows as having hickory sticks “nailed on the boxes . . . and then iron-claded them with hoops of iron taken from old pork and beef barrels.” The mine was only about four and half feet in height, making the removal of the earth even more challenging. Major Bosbyshell recorded that shifts of men worked for two and a half hour intervals.