Sunday, July 27, 2014

Civil War Sunday - The Saddest Affair

150 years ago today, another terrible chapter in the United States Civil War was about to be written.

War is an ugly business, and civil war (so misnamed!) may be the most ugly business of all.

As we join this story in progress, the city of Petersburg, Virginia, about 25 miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, has been under siege by the Federals since the middle of June, 1864.  Petersburg, then with a population of some 18,000, was one of the few supply routes to Richmond still uncut by Union forces.  Its railroad connections were crucial to the Confederate war effort.

On June 15, 1864, the Federals mounted a large assault against Petersburg. The city had been well fortified, in 1862, by a ten mile trench line called the Dimmock Line, This line, built by both slave and Confederate soldier labor, enabled Petersburg to defend itself.

For three days the Union army fought, attempting to cut the remaining railroad links. The Confederates successfully defended Petersburg.

Finally, the Federals realized they had to lay siege to the city.  Both sides dug in.

Summer passed, in the hot, broiling sun.  And, in Virginia, the sun is broiling indeed.

The entire story is a fascinating one.  I am only providing the barest of details.

Someone got a bright idea.  One of the Union regiments is composed of soldiers who had been coal miners in their civilian lives.  Why not have them dig a mine shaft and tunnel under the Confederate lines, pack the tunnel under the lines with explosives, and set it off?

Then the Union would send in troops, well trained for the assault, who would take advantage of the death and confusion after the torpedoes (what contact mines were called in those days) exploded. Victory would belong to the Union.  The siege of Petersburg would be over.  And the war would be over not long after as the Confederates, their last major supply lines cut, would have no choice but to surrender.

Except - things didn't go exactly according to plan.

The mine shafts were started, but the Union high command lost interest soon after.  Nevertheless, although the high command considered it a busywork project, the tunneling continued.  In a remarkable effort, this tunneling was done by hand.  A ventilation system had to be designed that couldn't be seen by the Confederates, and it was designed.  Quoting from Wikipedia:

"The mine was in a "T" shape. The approach shaft was 511 feet (156 m) long, starting in a sunken area downhill and more than 50 feet (15 m) below the Confederate battery, making detection difficult. The tunnel entrance was narrow, about 3 feet (1 m) wide and 4.5 feet (1.4 m) high. At its end, a perpendicular gallery of 75 feet (23 m) extended in both directions."

After a failed battle in late July, the Union high command decided the tunneling/explosion idea wasn't so bad after all.  Again, quoting:

"The Federals filled the mine with 320 kegs of gunpowder, totaling 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg). The explosives were approximately 20 feet (6 m) underneath the Confederate works and the T gap was packed shut with 11 feet (3 m) of earth in the side galleries and a further 32 feet (10 m) of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine."

On July 27, 1864, the packing of explosives into the tunnel was started.  On July 28 the powder charges were armed.

And then.....

The troops that had been training, for some two weeks, for the assault after the torpedoes went off were "United States Colored Troops" - in other words, free blacks in a segregated Union Army.  But Union General Meade, the day before the scheduled explosion, decided he didn't want to use the "colored" troops.  He claimed they would be exposed to needless slaughter.  Other people say Meade believed black troops were inferior fighters.

So, at the last minute, white troops were assigned to the assault - untrained and unprepared.

On July 30, 1864, at 4:44 am, the explosives were detonated.  And, the battle commenced. 

The untrained Union troops found themselves basically entering a pit with steep, sandy, unstable footing.  And once the Confederates recovered from the surprise, the slaughter commenced.  All day they fought, in that broiling sun, in conditions too horrible to imagine.

The Confederates maintained their lines.  On August 1, a truce was called so the dead and injured could be recovered.  Bands from both sides played music, for two hours, while the bodies were brought out.  Over 5,000 casualties from both sides combined, in a slaughter that would win new awards for military stupidity.

General Grant said "It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war."

And the siege dragged on for another eight terrible months.

Pictures of the Crater in 1865 and today. 


  1. Great read! Every once in awhile, probably in every war ever fought, there comes a situation or occurrence that takes the award for ineptness

  2. Great read! Every once in awhile, probably in every war ever fought, there comes a situation or occurrence that takes the award for ineptness

  3. Where I live in Plattsburgh, NY there was a battle fought. I'm sure you've heard about that if you're a fan of the Civil War.


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