A Brilliant Bloody Blunder
In a war often filled with blunders, it may have been the biggest blunder of all. It began as an ingenious plan to dissolve the stalemate along the outer defensive lines east of Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1864, 150 years ago this week. The scheme was inordinately brilliant. The result, nonetheless, was a totally unforeseen, immeasurably regrettable brilliant bloody blunder.
For most of six weeks, Gen. U.S. Grant's vastly superior forces laid siege upon the Confederate fortresses of Richmond and Petersburg. Someone had to give. Local units of the 48th Georgia Infantry Regiment from Emanuel, Twiggs and Johnson counties, the latter composed of some Laurens Countians, were under the command of Gen. A.R. Wright. Wright's brigade had suffered dreadfully at Gettysburg and fared scarcely better during Grant's advance toward Richmond in the spring of 1864. In late June, while guarding Gen. R.E. Lee's supply lines along the Weldon Railroad, the 48th was engaged in a horrific fight with moderate, but acceptable, losses.
Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry proposed a bold plan to break the Confederate lines in early July. His regiment consisted of numerous talented coal miners. Pleasants convinced his superiors to allow his men to dig a tunnel more than 500 feet long under a Confederate battery. Gen. Grant, in an attempt to disguise his true intentions, took the better part of his army in a feint against Richmond, leaving Gen. Burnside in command of a 165,000 men superfluous force in front of Petersburg, a score of miles to the south.
The Union plan was to explode eight thousand pounds of dynamite at the end of the tunnel and create a un-repairable rupture in the impregnable Confederate entrenchments. Following the break in the Confederate line, Meade was authorized to send as many men as he could through the breach and wheel around to the right to capture Petersburg and cut off Richmond from the south.
It was a typically balmy night early in the morning of July 30, 1864. There had been talk of some sort of mine being constructed, but most of Petersburg guardians dismissed it as just that, talk. At 4:35 a.m., just as the nautical twilight was illuminating the combatants, some still asleep in their trenches, Elliot's Salient erupted in a massive explosion. Pegram's Battery and its supporting South Carolina troops were killed instantly. The remnants of their corpses, those which were not scattered into oblivion, were buried in a coagulation of dirt, rubble and accouterments.
The explosion resulted in a gap in the Confederate lines of up to 800 yards, wide enough to situate three or four brigades. Along the core of the explosion, dirt and rocks were blown away leaving a crater, twenty-five feet deep, one-hundred-fifty feet long and fifty feet wide. After a brief falter, Gen. Ledlie ushered a Federal division into the crater. He was supported by Gen. Ferrero's Colored division. Confederate eyewitnesses recounted that ten to fifteen thousand troops swarmed into the void of the crater in ranks of five men deep. Most of Burnside's entire 9th Corps, supported by divisions of the 1st and 2nd Corps, was engaged in the charge.
Gen. William Mahone, charged with holding his shattered line at all costs, ordered his old Virginia brigade and Wright's Georgians, jointly totaling only eight hundred effectives, to move from Blandford Cemetery in a zigzag line, through a ravine hidden from Union view. Their sole mission was to stave off the overwhelming Union offensive. Gen. Mahone couldn't wait on Wright's men to come up to the right. He ordered a charge directly into the oncoming onslaught of Colored troops, who by some accounts stated that they were forced into the fray as fodder for Confederate infantrymen.
Virginia General Weisiger led the rush to the rim of the crater. The 6th Virginia lost ninety percent of its men. Company F was completely obliterated. A total slaughter ensued. Union troops were heaped in stacks as many as eight bodies deep in the crater. Some troops pretended to be dead, while others were trapped under the accumulation of the dead and dying. The Union forces, temporarily paralyzed and understandably demoralized at the horror emanating before them, failed to advance as they had been directed to do. Those trapped in the chasm could neither charge toward their objective nor could they extract themselves in retreat either. All the while, profoundly deafening and decisively deadly artillery rounds enfiladed the melee from all points of the compass.
Confederates, incensed at the deployment of former slaves as soldiers against them, took out their frustrations and slaughtered the succumbing Negro soldiers with bullets. Some mortally beat them with the butts of their rifles. One soldier reported that useless Union rifles with bayonets attached were heaved into the mounds of the dead and wounded to impale any survivors in their flight path.
At 10:30, Wright's Brigade was ready to commence the attack following on Weisiger's right. Wright's line veered to the left colliding with Weisiger's men. Unaware that the Rebels were running out of ammunition and believing that any further attempts to penetrate the enemy line would be futile, Gen. Meade ordered a withdrawal. Union losses amounted to between 4500 and 5000 casualties. Confederate losses were about 1,500, but in light of the amount of men fit for fighting, the success in holding the line was no fortuitous victory. Gen. Mahone counted eleven hundred prisoners and was given permanent command of his division for his actions during the affair.
As the morning of the Sabbath dawned, more than three thousand perished Union souls were still lying where they fell. Both sides, recognizing the trepidation which had transpired, consummated negotiations for a truce. Union details arrived at the scene and began the arduous task of burying the then putrefying corpses. A long trench was excavated, and the thousands of fatalities were buried crosswise, several layers deep.
This minor battle, which was virtually over in thirty minutes, was one of the costliest moments during the war. Several of Johnson County's Battleground Guards were in the vicinity of the explosion. Alfred Price was killed in the explosion. Samuel Price and Francis Tapley were killed in the fighting and may have also been annihilated by the blast. Wiley Riner was wounded during the fighting. Private James C.H. Horton was said to have been "blown up" at Petersburg.
"While the Earth rocked with a swaying motion like that which precedes the earthquake, a huge black mass suddenly shot up two hundred feet in the air from the left of Elliott's salient. Seams of fire were glistening from its dark side, flashes of light rose above it on the sky, and the whole mass of earth, broken timbers, military equipment, and human bodies hung so like a huge monster over our heads." A New York artilleryman, at "The Crater," July 30,1864.