In June of 1864, members of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry who had been coal miners prior to the war, devised a plan to dig a tunnel filled with explosives under the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg, Virginia. The idea was to set off an explosion behind enemy lines and attack the rebel forces from the rear.
Their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer himself, took the idea to his commanding officer Major General Ambrose Burnside. General Burnside in turn got approval from his superior officers, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant and Major General George Meade. Neither Grant nor Meade were very supportive of the idea, but thought it might serve the dual purpose of lifting Union moral and keeping the men busy during the long siege.
Members of the 48th Pennsylvania dug a tunnel under the Confederate fortification. The tunnel reached its goal on July 17. It was measured at 511 feet long. At that point the men dug a lateral tunnel parallel to the earthworks. The second tunnel, 75 feet in length, was finished on July 26. Within the next four days, the shaft was filled with 8,000 pounds of black powder.
During the time the tunnel was being built, General Burnside ordered Brigadier General Edward Ferro to train his division of U.S. Colored Troops to deploy through the tunnel following the explosion and assault the unsuspecting Confederate forces. They were instructed in the use of ladders and a schooled in the plan of attack.
The explosion and attack were scheduled for the early morning hours of July 30.
On July 29, General Meade intervened, pulling the U.S. Colored Troops from their assignment and ordering General Burnside to replace them with other Union soldiers. The division of Brigadier General James H. Ledlie, who had not been trained or prepared, was to lead the attack.
Lt. Colonel Pleasants lit the fuse at 3:15 a.m. on July 30. The ensuing explosion rocked Petersburg, killing around 300 Confederate soldiers and blowing a crater 60-80 feet wide, 30 feet deep and 170 feet long in the fortification. Ledlie’s men attacked by charging down into the crater instead of around it and were slaughtered. General Burnside sent in General Ferraro’s division to follow Ledlie’s division resulting in almost the same results.
Although the idea may have been a good one, the results were disastrous to the Union. The federal casualties amounted to 3,793. The Confederates lost 1,500 men. And the stalemate at Petersburg lasted another eight months.
Generals Ledlie and Burnside were both removed from command as a result of the disaster. General Grant later testified that he thought if General Ferrero’s trained U.S. Colored Troops would have led the charge, the Union would have been victorious that day.
The site of the explosion, now known as The Crater, is part of the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.
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