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.

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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.

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Petersburg Fort Replica

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.

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Petersburg Fort Replica

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.

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Petersburg Ft. Stedman remains

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.

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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.”

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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.

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Petersburg – The Crater

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.”

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Petersburg – The Crater

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.

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Petersburg – The Crater

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?

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SOURCES

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

All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from the Civil War, click here, here, and here.

 

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.  

85 Comments on “The Petersburg Mine – The Big Kaboom Part II

    • 🙁 History is a frustrating muse at times! It really, really would be something if people learned! Thanks for stopping by and giving this a read 🙂 Hope things are cooling down out your way.

  1. Sadness! Why do I not remember these details from history classes way back when? Was I not interested or not listening?

    Have a great time on your trip down Route 66. 😊

    • Why thank you, I’m sure we will. We’ve both always wanted to drive the 66 so we’re very excited! 🙂 We will probably stray at times to check out some of the scenery nearby though! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

    • Thank you! That’s very flattering to me. 🙂 I’m so glad you came by for a read.

  2. MB, to echo another commenter, your research and story-telling skills are extraordinary. What you recounted was incredibly depressing — including the racism portion of it — but riveting to read.

    • Uuuugh. It’s an ugly chapter all around! Especially what happened to those black regiments. It’s one of those historical questions that grinds my gears really – how might it have been different if they had just let them go in first?! But then again, war is ugly and no one really “wins.” 🙁 Glad you stopped by for a read, Dave!

  3. I was riveted. You tell the tale so well! This episode reminded me of the Port Chicago disaster and Port Chicago Mutiny from WWII. In 1944 near San Francisco a cargo ship blew up while being loaded by African American sailors. The toll was 320 killed and 390 injured mainly the sailors who were loading. The mutiny happened about a month later when hundreds of African American sailors refused to load munitions because of safety concerns. Fifty were court martialed and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. It took 75 years, but last month Congress passed a resolution recognizing the victims and exonerating those court martialed.

    • Wow, another example of the heartbreaking sagas of history you told there. 75 years…. gosh, how frustrating that it takes so long for that 🙁

  4. The first scene in the book (and movie of the same name with Jude Law and Nicole Kidman)called Cold Mountain — wonderfully written by Charles Frazier — recounts the story of this siege in fictional form and is well worth a read next to your fine post. Thanks for the photos as well — how bloody those areas must have been. I’m sure we can’t even imagine the horror, the fear, the stench… Thank you.

    • I have both seen the movie and read the book Cold Mountain – what an excellent reminder, thanks so much for bringing those up. You are right, both have pretty chilling accounts of that battle. It must have indeed been terrible, since so many of those scars still linger in and around Petersburg even to this day. Thanks so much for giving this a read! 🙂

  5. That was superbly told, MB. I know rather too much about WW1, but shamefully little about your Civil War – though did get the impression that the Union side was curiously inept to begin with (maybe I was reading a reb book!). In any event, I had no idea any of this went on and thought the WW1 mining was a descendant of medieval siege warfare. I guess it was. But the story you tell is riveting, and terrible. Your closing paragraph was just perfect. PS Jealous of your plan to travel west, on the highway that’s the best… 🙂

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m sure the WWI mining came at least in part from medieval tactic. I do know that many European generals came to observe the US Civil War in both ranks, so it would be interesting to know if they got some got cues from those battlefields, but I’m not certain. I agree with you too, the Union army was incredibly ill-prepared for what that war would turn into. I think among other things, they fell into the all too common “it will be over by Christmas” attitude and next thing you know, they were horribly beaten off their first major battlefield and a good few more afterwards. My oh my, if we would just learn the lessons…! I’m sure we will have a wonderful time on our trip, stay tuned for lots of pics and posts!

  6. A superbly drawn parallel demonstrating that we never learn. That’s the problem with war it is waged by human beings led by leaders who know no better. Enjoy your trip

    • Yes, an excellent point! A higher-up in rank doesn’t always mean a higher-up in knowledge, which seemed especially true in the Civil War. I’m sure we will have a great time, thanks for the well wishes 🙂

  7. I always enjoy reading your history posts and hope you enjoy your travels. I’ll follow on Twitter. Quick side note – you may have heard the saying “hoisted on his own petard.” Military engineers in those days sometimes ignited larger charges with a smaller black powder charge tied to a long stick. The small charge was called a “petard” instead of using a fuse as they did here. If it went off early as it was being tied to the stick the engineer was “hoisted” or lifted into the air on his own charge. A colorful use of language that has stayed with us to this day. Enjoy your journey and thanks for the stories.

    • Wow! That is a very interesting side-note indeed 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing that here. I will have to check my “military slang” glossaries and see if they make a mention of it too! 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and my other ones, a writer always enjoys hearing that! 🙂

  8. A gruesome story well told. Thanks for these interesting and informative posts. Have a great trip across the US.

    • We sure will do – thanks so much for coming by and for your nice compliments! 🙂

  9. I sent this to my son to read since he is very interested in the Civil War and lives near Petersburg. Thank you for this article that is so informative.

    • Thank you very much – I do hope that he enjoys it! I really enjoyed touring around Petersburg, how lucky for him that he lives so close to all that stuff. I’d like to go back and see even more!

      • Virginia has tons of historical sites. I also enjoyed going to Gettysburg in PA.

      • Oh yes, Gettysburg is fantastic. They’ve done such a wonderful job with preservation there.

  10. Tremendous images! My mind was constantly visualizing what those locations must have been like. So much history in those fields.

    • You are right about that! When we visited those fields, I couldn’t believe how much is still there. Lots of the trenches are still visible, as are many artillery emplacements and forts. They do a lot of talking!

  11. I just finished reading about the Ypres salient in G.J. Meyer’s book “A World Undone”, and didn’t realize this plan had been tried before during the American civil war. Thanks, as always, for sharing your hard work and these valuable lessons from history.

    • You are most welcome, thank you for coming by for a read. “A World Undone,” sounds like I should add that to my reading list! 🙂 So many books, so little time.

  12. Sometimes, we just don’t learn the lessons very well, do we?

    Probably because we keep thinking, “But this time, we will get it right.”

    An historical side note: One of the most common critiques of the WWI leadership was that they didn’t understand the impact of trench warfare, machine guns and barbed wire, resulting in horrific casualties.

    History is more complex than that. The truth is, they learned only too well that human wave attacks could over power a dug in enemy who employed modern means of defense. They learned this during the siege of Port Arthur in 1904 when the Japanese launched wave after wave of infantry against the dug in Russians and sadly, tragically, it worked.

    Watching from the hills were military observers from almost every European nation and the U.S. They all saw the slaughter, but also observed the victory.

    • It is always more complex, isn’t it? I think the Russo-Japanese war was a pretty big eye opener to what WWI would really be like, it always kind of amazes me that it is relegated to a side note in a lot of WWI and even general histories. It’s also always sad when something works once so people try it over and over again, even when it’s completely unsound!

      • We don’t learn at all, MB. Just take a look at all the mass shooting, at all the countries threatening this or that. How will it end? The world is at the cusp of a third war.

      • It does feel very shaky and tense out there these days 🙁 Especially after the horrible events over the weekend.

  13. This is yet another part of the Civil War I knew nothing about. You tell it very well. It was heart wrenching to picture those black soldiers coming to a horrible death. I hope we do learn from all the carnage brought by war….someday.

  14. Although I knew of the explosion, I did not know these harrowing details of the event. My g-grandfather was positioned along the siege line and survived with heavy casualties to his company. It is still a shaky time, as you say. My husband happened to be in Dayton at the time of the horrible weekend event. So sad….

    • Oh dear… 🙁 How awful. I’ve spent a lot of time in Dayton so that hit extra close to home for me as well. I don’t even know what to say with these mass shootings anymore. Don’t even know what to say 🙁

  15. In looking back at the Civil War and WWI both seem like fights compared to wars of these current times. But the Civil War and WWI territories are interesting a historical trails.

    • Oh yes we’ve traveled around both and it is very interesting walking through those fields. I also agree that both were especially gruesome wars, since technology was advancing fast but medicine lagged behind. Thanks much for giving this a read and sharing your thoughts!

  16. Some other big comparisons with fights vs wars are yesterday’s fights using canons, fires and guns,, mostly on land and lastlly on land air and sea. A Third World War would be a devistating engagement using missles, nuclear tech, germs warefare, satellites, on every front and spheres. The past wars were dark. Scary. Thanks MB for the journey and the thought that you provoked.

    • We really don’t! 😥 it’s always the big struggle of reading and writing about history. I’m so glad you liked it, I’m looking forward to catching up on your blog when we get back to town!

    • Yay! Glad we are instagram buddies. Don’t worry, I’m working on a post that I will hopefully have up very early next week. I think you will like it! 🙂

    • It sure does seem that way, doesn’t it? No matter how much we wish it wasn’t so!

    • Time is just just flying by this year! Fall is already already upon us. So crazy. Definitely stay tuned, lots more to come come about the summer travels!

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