The U.S. Colored Troops were trained to lead the attack and come up behind the Confederate lines following the explosion of July 30 at the Crater in Petersburg. They were excited for the opportunity to prove themselves.
But on the eve of the explosion, Union officers had second thoughts. Gen. George Meade contacted Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero and ordered him to pull his regiment of black Union soldiers from their lead position. Ferrero who had commanded and trained the U.S.C. T. soldiers, was disappointed, but obeyed the command. Meade put white soldiers, not trained for the assignment, in the lead position, fearing that if the U.S.C.T. failed, he would not be able to handle any political repercussions that he would hear from Washington.
When the explosion went off, it was disastrous for the Union. They could not climb out of the huge crater left by the blast, and were sitting ducks. Confederates stood around the rim of the Crater and shot them at point-blank range. There were 3,798 casualties (killed, wound, missing in action and prisoners of war).
The U.S.C. T. soldiers followed their white brethren, and got slaughtered as well. The biggest losses by unit and their number of casualties follows: 4th USCT – 6; 6th USCT – 6; 19th USCT – 130; 22nd USCT – 6; 23rd USCT – 269; 27th USCT – 76; 28th USCT – 78; 30th USCT – 175; 31st USCT –105; 39th USCT – 125; and 43rd USCT – 135. Their total casualty count was 1,111 or nearly 30 percent of the Union casualties at the Crater. The U.S.C.T. lost nearly 10 percent of those who participated.
On August 16, as part of the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the siege of Petersburg, a program will be presented on the U.S.C.T. soldiers at Petersburg and the Crater at the Petersburg National Battlefield.
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