The Petersburg Mine: The Big Kaboom Part II
A while back, I wrote a post about a big explosion on the Ypres Salient in WWI. It had an impact, you might say – oh, the puns. Many of my friends here said it reminded them of a similar incident that occurred during the US Civil War. So I thought, why not make that article a two-parter? Here for you is the story of the Petersburg Mine of 1864. My readers correctly pointed out that the two stories follow a very similar path, right down to the horribly tragic ending.
But let’s start at the beginning, and that, in a word, is gridlock. Anyone involved in a military situation really hates that word. Gridlock, or siege warfare, leads to nothing but a bloodletting, draining the opposing army dry, and you can only hope yours is the one left standing in the end. Hunkering down in a filthy trench is the only way to survive a gridlock, until someone comes up with one hairbrained scheme or another to break the stalemate.
This exact scenario dropped on the US Civil War in the spring of 1864, where it tangled up the thriving city of Petersburg, Virginia. As the crow flies, this key city of interlocking highways and railroad junctions lay about twenty-five miles south of Richmond. It was almost a more valuable target than the Confederacy’s capitol city. Because its priceless railway system kept the boys in gray fed, resupplied, and reinforced. General Robert E. Lee’s seasoned Virginia troops would be paralyzed without this vital supply line. Since Lee needed all-hands-on deck to fight off General Ulysses S. Grant and his mighty hosts in Cold Harbor, by early June of 1864, Petersburg sat hopelessly vulnerable with minimal defenders.
It was an apple ripe for the plucking, and General Grant intended to yank it off the tree, but it wouldn’t be so simple. Because Union generals and armies had been pushed to their limits in the preceding Overland Campaign. An entire month of ceaseless marching, battles, and skirmishes took their toll. Casualties had increased exponentially. Soldiers were played out and officers spent. It felt like a poor time to make such an important strike, but strike they did.
Or at least… they tried to. From early to mid-June of 1864, the Union army stacked up a dizzying amount of missed opportunities to seize valuable Petersburg. These misses came through a series of unsupported attacks, unfollowed orders, taxing delays, and botched strategy in the campaigns outside the city. More snarls and tangles, such as misplaced supplies, misdirected artillery guns, and generals too tired to stage a full-scale assault when it mattered the most, added to the frustrations.
No matter what the reasons, and there were several, the Union failed to take Petersburg when it was at its weakest. The final grand push of the Union army petered into a tired stagger, and it gave Lee plenty of time to hurry thousands of reinforcements to Petersburg. By the end of June, the windows of opportunity and the gates to the city had slammed shut.
However, Grant had no intentions of going anywhere, and it led to that painful word that everyone in war hates – gridlock. As the sweltering summer of 1864 set in, two desperate armies faced each other outside besieged Petersburg. Swarms of artillery and heavy guns froze them both in place. A snarling system of trenches sprung up all around the city. Engineers erected hasty forts and dusty soldiers occupied them. Snipers crawled into hiding places and wreaked havoc on unsuspecting soldiers burrowed into the ground like animals. The heat settled over the city too, and it left soldiers completely caked in dust, dirt, and gun powder. The siege of Petersburg, in short, provided a harrowing harbinger to WWI.
By July of 1864, generals of the Union side threw up their hands in exasperation, as did the politically battered Abraham Lincoln. That said nothing of the populace, fed up with the abysmal scenario and piles of dead coming out of Virginia. Scales had tipped dangerously in favor of the “Copperhead” Peace Democrats, who wanted to acknowledge the Confederacy and have done with it.
The Union Cause floundered like a fish out of water, and they needed a fresh boost. That’s usually when those hairbrained schemes get hatched. Union Colonel Henry Pleasants headed up a regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers at Petersburg, many of whom had backgrounds in mining. This gave them exceptional skills in carving out tunnels and blowing things up. They often spoke about their ideas to run a mine shaft under the rebel line. Pleasants finally mentioned it to General Ambrose Burnside, who in turn pitched it to Grant. Just desperate enough for a victory, Grant approved it, and the miners got to work.
Digging mines during the Civil War days came with plenty of obstacles. First of all, the terrain around Petersburg was besot with unstable earth and even quicksand. The tools on hand to complete the job were primitive at best. Army Engineers charged to assist never showed up, nor did the necessary supplies such as sand bags and support beams. Patches of wet clay collapsed the tunnel and almost killed miners on more than one occasion. The constant fear of discovery cut like a cheese grater to the nerves. Conditions in the tunnels were in fact so deplorable that Pleasants rationed each man a shot of liquor after a stint of digging. And that didn’t even include the biggest problem of all – how to get fresh air into a tunnel that eventually spanned over 500 feet.
To solve the ventilation problem, Colonel Pleasants himself actually came up with a clever solution. He devised one of the most primitive and earliest versions of air conditioning. He had the miners dig a separate, vertical air shaft opening into the big tunnel. He also had them construct a square tube with wooden boards stretching the length of the big tunnel, with one end open to the outside. When miners lit a fire in the recess of the vertical mini shaft, and sealed the open end of the mine with a door, it created a wind draft that pushed all the smoke and bad air out, while the square tube pulled fresh air in. A mechanical marvel for its time, this allowed the miners to work deep underground, far away from their lines, without the danger of suffocating.
Although plenty of dangers still lurked about the mine. Number one was the Confederates, who got a sinking feeling the Union army was up to no good across the way. They suspected mining, and they tried to thwart the project by digging their own mine tunnel in reverse. They also sunk shafts where they thought their enemy prowled beneath their feet. Their efforts didn’t amount to much, other than to scare the daylights out of the Union workers below.
By July 23, miners completed their work, and Union soldiers got busy packing in the goodies and preparing to light the fuse. While Grant provided diversions with attacks on the nearby Confederate railroads, miners dumped over eight thousand pounds of explosives into their freshly dug tunnel.
Meanwhile, Generals Burnside, Meade, and Grant drew up an infantry assault plan for after the kaboom went off. Burnside wanted to use a highly motivated unit of black soldiers to spearhead the attack. These men were capable, confident, and ready to fight for the cause more than anyone. They had also received very specialized training and rehearsals. They knew just what to do when that mine went off. Fan out, keep going, and make a breakthrough. However, both Meade and Grant feared the political turmoil that would ensue if the mission failed. They switched the black unit out for three white regiments, none of which had received the same focused training.
No matter what the intentions for making the switch, the new plan bore disastrous consequences, resulting in one of the most horrific racial crimes of the war. To add insult to injury, the general the Union tapped to lead the new white troops, General James Ledlie, had a terribly sketchy record in the field. One general remarked of this choice – “Ledlie was a drunkard and an arrant coward…It was wicked to risk the lives of men in such a man’s hands.”
So, perhaps the big kaboom was doomed before anyone even lit the match. It certainly almost came to that too. Grant scheduled the mine to go off at 3:30am on July 30, 1864. Yet, when the soldiers for the assault lined up, and the clocks ticked to the highly-anticipated hour, no explosion came. Everyone stood in anxious silence for several minutes, but still, nothing moved. By 4:00am, the first hints of dawn had appeared on the horizon, and Grant prepared to forget the whole thing. Just in the nick of time, two miners discovered a burnout in the fuse. Playing with fire in a way I just can’t imagine, they relit the fuse and ran like hell.
Just as the gutsy miners crawled out of the tunnel, around 4:45am, the blast went off. The mighty roar resounded all over the countryside, and a complete Confederate regiment was immediately wiped off the map. The rest of the gray line broke in a panic at the sight of the horrifying spectacle.
The Union side was equally knocked off their feet. “A slight tremor of the earth for a second, then the rocking as of an earthquake,” one stunned Captain recalled. “With a tremendous blast which rent the sleeping hills beyond, a vast column of earth and smoke shoots upward to a great height… then, hurtling down with a roaring sound, showers of stones, broken timbers and blackened human limbs, [it] subsides…” One of General Hancock’s brigadiers also described the spectacle – “Without form or shape, full of red flames and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, it mounted toward heaven with a detonation of thunder and spread out like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to be of fire and its head of smoke.”
The mine sure did the job all had intended, but the Union soldiers in the aftermath didn’t. Not as rehearsed as the black regiments, Ledlie’s soldiers fell victim to their own shock and awe at the effects of the monumental blast. The chilling remnants of human gore all over the terrain also proved a terrible distraction. The soldiers did not charge forward during the crucial moments of paralysis on the Confederate line, nor did they fan out around the crater.
It gave the Confederate generals just enough time to get their rattled men back to their positions. By the time the Union regiments collected themselves for the assault, they walked right into a compact wall of very angry rebel soldiers.
This would be especially detrimental for the black regiments, who didn’t get into the fray until the fourth assault wave. They moved to fan out according to their training, but by then, confusion on the battlefield had grown so intense they wound up boxed into the crater itself. Rebel soldiers, incensed at both the mine and the sight of former slaves fighting against them, went on a rabid attack. It produced one of the most horrific and savage atrocities in the entire Civil War. Southern soldiers gunned down black soldiers at point-blank range as they struggled to escape the crater. They impaled them with bayonets. Even when they surrendered, Confederates mowed them down in cold blood. One can’t help but ask how things could have been different had they been allowed to lead the assault.
As for the rest of the Union soldiers, troops in gray kicked them out of the crater and back across the battlefield in one of their bloodiest reverses. The Battle of the Crater, as it came to be known, resulted in nothing but thousands of deaths, racial atrocity, and another gridlock that wiped out thousands more. The fight for Petersburg would grind on, in static trench warfare style, until April the following year.
It was a nasty and grisly chapter in a war that was already terrible. Grant called it “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” Ledlie, who ducked in the rear with liquor instead of going out with his men, got condemned by a Court of Inquiry and dismissed from the service. General Burnside also got thrown out the door, since the crater debacle was just one more misstep on his already vast trail of them.
Yet, as my readers well know, it wasn’t the last time an army would pull this stunt. Barely a generation later, another massive mine blew up in the WWI Ypres Salient. I’m not clear if the generals of that war knew about this episode, but one thing rang painfully clear. Sometimes, we just don’t learn the lessons very well, do we? To tell you the truth, it makes reading and writing about history a very tearing thing. There’s nothing more heartbreaking and frustrating than watching the same horrible things play out over and over again, all through the years, and even in my own time. I’m not even sure what keeps me going…
…Until I stand at the foot of all those military graves. Whatever the cause, no matter who sent them there, they died for something. In their minds and in their hearts, it wasn’t in vain. In my mind and in my heart, I feel they deserve to be remembered. They didn’t get to grow old and leave their mark. So, I will take up my pen and paper and try to make it for them. I will go on fighting. Because maybe through their stories, someone will learn someday, and that would be something, wouldn’t it?
Petersburg National Military Park
“A Stillness at Appomattox” – B. Catton
“Grant” – R. Chernow
“The Civil War – A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox” – S. Foote
“Smithsonian’s Great Battles & Battlefields of the Civil War” – J. Wertz & E.C. Bearss
M.B. HENRY ON FURLOUGH! This will be the last post for a while, as my husband and I are departing for some much-needed and exciting summer travels. You can follow along with us on Twitter and Instagram – handle @mbhenry1985, as we drive across the United States on the Historic Route 66! I hear it’s a good place to get your kicks. I’m sure I will come back with lots of photos and stories to share. Until then, have a wonderful summer! Posts, as well as visits to all of your fabulous blogs, will resume in September.