Written by Roger Micker
In March 1864, Grant had made the decision to deploy his troops to force Lee’s entire army into a total “unconditional surrender”. Part of his plan would be achieved by concentrating his eastern forces to deliver simultaneous attacks on Richmond and Atlanta. Success in one or the other would allow both to focus their combined efforts to force a surrender of the remaining city.
According to his overall plans, Grant’s assault on Richmond was to attack Lee’s forces at Richmond from the west, north, and south and cutting him off from his southern supply line by capturing Petersburg. This strategy would be carried out by 48,000 troops under the commanders: Ambrose Burnside; Ben Butler; William “Baldy” Smith; Gouvernour Warren; and Winfield Hancock (plus the availability of 55,000 troops in reserve) against the Confederate consisting of approximately 15,000 men under PGT Beauregard.
On June 14 Grant’s plan was put into motion. After crossing the Appomattox River Butler was amazed to see the fortifications of redans and breastworks of the Dimmock Line. In addition, the outside perimeter of the line was a deep trench filled with felled trees with knife – sharpened branches to discourage enemy charges.
After two days of fighting, the Union army had pierced the Confederate line, gaining approximately a two- mile stretch of land. The next morning Gen. Meade ordered an all out attack on Beauregard’s defense. Only desperate fighting prevented Dimmock Line from breaking. That night Beauregard’s men fell back one mile from their position and, using whatever tools they could find, dug new, higher entrenchments. Beauregard surveyed the situation and said, “Unless reinforcements are sent before 48 hours, God Almighty alone can save Petersburg and Richmond”.
Meade’s all out attack captured mostly vacated trenches. Many refused to continue to charge the new imposing position of Beauregard’s troops. Although 850 of the 1st Maine tried, three fourths would become casualties in thirty minutes. During the next few days, Union cavalry struck and tore up the southern railroad lines, intending to cut off the Confederate supply line.
On June 21 two Union divisions launched an attack and were shattered by A. P. Hill’s men. The blundering efforts, and casualties, brought public criticism on the ineptness of the Union efforts at Petersburg. By the end of June, Burnside proposed a plan to Meade to dig a mine towards the Confederate line. The idea came from Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania. He said, “We could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.” He envisioned a shaft running 500 feet to a point under a point beneath Beauregard’s line.
Meade approved the plan even though his engineers felt it would be impossible without a proper way to provide ventilation. To solve the problem a fireplace at the mine’s base and a wooden pipe would be used to pull fresh air into the mine and stale air out. Within a month the project was completed. The end of the shaft was 20 feet below the enemy along with a 75-foot long room to store gunpowder. Four tons of powder was arranged in order for the explosion to be vertical. A 100 feet long fuse was attached to the explosives. A combined explosion with an assault by Union troops would lead to the capture of Petersburg, so Burnside predicted.
Burnside’s original thoughts were to have two brigades of black troops, under the command of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero, to lead the attack. Three divisions of white troops would follow. Meade, concerned about public criticism if the plan fails, ordered that the black troops to be positioned last in the attack.
To determine which division would go first, straws were drawn among the other three division commanders. To the dismay of the troops James Ledlie drew the short straw. It was common knowledge among the men that Ledlie possessed a cowardice tendency and drinking issue.
Early in the morning of July 30 the fuse to the 4 tons of powder was lit. Lewis Bisell said, “We witnessed a volcano and experienced an earthquake.” Another described a cannon catapulted over the Union line. The explosion created a 200 feet long crater beneath the Elliot’s Salient. The earth, fire, smoke, and body parts were hurtled into the air. At the same time Union artillery fired away. Ledlie’s men launched their attack through empty trenches towards the crater. Amazed and curious, the men ventured in to it, instead of arching around it.
As Confederate troops ran from the explosion, a 500 yard gap gave Burnside’s men the opportunity to take Petersburg, if they hurried. The first brigades responded as if they were sightseers, funneling themselves into a confused mass in the hole. Their commander was secure several hundred yards behind in a shelter drinking rum and sending orders to push forward. All the while Beauregard started to plug the gap.
Burnside ordered two more regiments into the fray. The situation became even more hopeless, like “shooting fish in a barrel” by William Mahone’s counterattack. As Ferrero’s black troops reached the slope of the crater, many became easy targets, rather than prisoners. “This became Fredericksburg all over again.” (Bruce Catton) The fighting ended when Meade ordered Burnside to withdraw.
Union casualties numbered nearly 4,000. Approximately 300 Confederates were killed in the explosion. Grant said it was “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war”.
Seeing action in the siege of Petersburg were: 127th OVI (later the 5th Regiment Colored troops); 60th OVI; 13th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry; 9th and 10th Ind. Co. Ohio Vol. Sharpshooters.
For further reading:
Bruce Catton: A Stillness at Appomattox
Shelby Foote: Red River to Appomattox
James McPherson: Battle Cry of Freedom