The Crater

“What are you doing here, General?” I asked Ulysses S. Grant — at least, the guy playing Ulysses S. Grant — at Petersburg National Battlefield‘s 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Crater.  I knew that Grant hadn’t come to the area during the time around the battle.

“I’m observing,” he said, “and staying out of the way.”

Crater 070a

One of the other tourists laughed.  “As a good leader should.”

Actually, lack of leadership was the Union’s theme at the Battle of the Crater.

It was 1864 and for several months, the Union had been trying to breach the Confederate line that had been guarding the town of Petersburg, a critical supply center on the Appomattox River, just south of Richmond.  Eventually, a Pennsylvania mining engineer turned Union officer came up with a plan: dig a tunnel under the Confederates, plant some explosives, and blow a hole in their line.  The tunnel was dug and all could have worked brilliantly, had it been executed properly.  Could have, would have, should have.

Ambrose Burnside, in command of the operation, chose the U.S. Colored Troops to lead the assault that would take place after the explosion and trained them thoroughly for the mission.  The day before the explosion was to happen, however, George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, countermanded the order.  Burnside protested but Grant, the Union commander-in-chief, sided with Meade.

The explosion went off at 4:44 the morning of July 30.

The Union reenactors were camped to the north of the Crater and the Confederates to the south.  As we approached the Crater, we noticed that all the troops from both sides had marched onto a field between them and begun maneuvers.  The tourists all moved in to watch.  Mr. History Tourist and I, being crowd-averse, took a sharp left and headed into the almost-empty Confederate camp.  The “almost” was a single, elderly man in a Confederate uniform.  He greeted me with, “Good morning, ma’am.”

Crater 083a

He kind-of looked like Lee, but not in the definitive way that the Grant interpreter had looked like Grant.  This guy was older and frailer than I’d imagined Robert E. Lee being at the time of the Civil War — more Lee as president of Washington-Lee than Lee the Confederate commander.  But I noticed the stars on his uniform and responded with a cautious, “Good morning, General.”  It turned out that he was being Robert E. Lee.

I don’t know why the commander of the southern forces was left to wander around camp all alone.  Where were his aides?  But whatever the reason, he seemed happy to have someone to talk to.  He told us about Lee’s involvement in the Crater: he’d heard the explosion at his headquarters about three miles away and when a messenger told him what had happened, he jumped on Traveller and made for the battlefield.

When Mr. History Tourist mentioned Grant’s alcoholism, Lee said, “That’s a myth.”  Grant tended to over-drink occasionally, but he was not an alcoholic.  So while Lee 2.0 may not have looked exactly like Lee, he definitely had the gracious southern gentleman thing down pat.  No smack talk, even about the opposition.

After some marching and firing exhibitions from both sides, the troops marched around the the north side of the crater.  There was an all-rifle salute, a moment of silence, and taps.

Crater 105a

After the explosion, totally unprepared but totally white Union troops were sent in to breach the line. In “the absence of anyone to give them direction,” Grant would say later, the troops went into the hole made by the explosion (i.e. the Crater) instead of around it.  The Confederates recovered quickly from the explosion, surrounded the Crater, and commenced shooting the sitting ducks that were the Union soldiers inside.

Grant would later tell a Congressional committee that Meade changed the plan because Meade thought that putting black troops at risk would play badly in the north.  Given that, after the initial assault didn’t work, the black troops were sent in to be slaughtered anyway, that line of reasoning seems a little disingenuous.  Grant also told the committee, “General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe, if he had done so, it would have been a success.” cite  As it was, there were 1500 Confederate casualties and almost 3800 Union.

Crater 151a

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10 Responses to The Crater

  1. Bill Farley says:

    Great summary of a wonderful event. I was there as well, both on Wednesday morning and on Saturday. The NPS staff really put on a great series of presentations, and the volunteers/reenactors were great.

    • I wish I had made the effort to get there for the Wednesday events. Oh well.

      I agree that the NPS staff did a wonderful job all around (as they generally do). And I always admire the volunteers and reenactors, willing to spend the money and time and effort to go out there to enhance the experience for the rest of us.

  2. Kathie Shattuck says:

    I hope it was Mead’s idea to change the plan, but the reason given to Congress doesn’t sound likely. Not sure those in charge had any great respect for the capabilities of the colored unit, or any objection to using them as cannon fodder.

  3. m19flanagan says:

    It seems like we go to so many of the same places! I love reading your take on these places.

  4. Susan Barsy says:

    Such a terrible battle; re-enactment both recalls and transforms it by casting it in a gentler, almost entertaining, form.

    • That’s true — reenactments absolutely cast history in a gentler, more benign form. And it is entertainment. People go to see the shooting and the marching and the reenactors in costume. Whether the teaching and commemoration part of the activity justifies luring people with the entertainment part is the ethical question that I suppose historic sites have to work out.

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