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The Crater explosion at Petersburg, Virginia

The tunnel at the Crater
The tunnel at the Crater

Today commemorates the 150th anniversary of the famed tunnel explosion at The Crater in Petersburg, VA.

The explosion of a tunnel the Union had dug under the Confederate lines, was an attempt to dislodge the Confederate troops from their 30 mile long trenches. The idea of the tunnel came from the miners of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, from the coal mining areas in their state. They would fill the mine with explosives and detonate it, hoping to then send Union troops through the hole left by the explosion and entering behind the Confederate front.

Lt. Colonel Henry Pleasants delivered the idea to General Ambrose Burnside in June 1864. Burnside approved of the plot and digging began in late June.

The t-shaped tunnel extended under the Confederate lines. They were filled with 320 kegs of gunpowder totaling in excess of 8,000 pounds.

A division of U.S. Colored Troops were trained under the command of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero to go into the tunnel following the explosion and attack the Confederates. At the last minute, General Meade pulled the U.S.C.T. soldiers off the mission and replaced them with white soldiers. He feared if the U.S.C.T. failed, there would be political repercussions he was not willing to deal with.

The tunnel blew at 4:44 a.m. on July 30 creating a crater (still visible today) 170 feet long, over 100 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. The untrained Union soldiers were trapped by the steep sides of the crater and couldn’t get out. Confederate Brig. Gen. William Mahone, who commanded the Confederate response, called the ensuing action a “turkey shot”.

The event turned out to be a colossal failure which General Ulysses S. Grant called “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” The Union suffered 3,798 casualties with the Confederates having 1,491 casualties. About 1,000 of the Union casualties were U.S.C.T. men sent in behind the white soldiers in support. Grant also said in his report that he believed had the colored troops been sent in as originally planned, he believed the action would have been successful.

The opening scenes of the Hollywood movie “Cold Mountain” portray the battle of the Crater.

The crater today is part of Petersburg National Battlefield Park in Petersburg, VA.

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