My own first understanding of the Battle of the Crater at the Siege of Petersburg, came from reading Slotkin's The Crater: A Novel of the Civil War, published more than three decades ago. This event has evidently haunted Slotkin all this time, for he published a non-fiction study of this terrible battle in in 2009, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. Today, he observes the anniversary of the meatgrinder for everyone that the Crater was, as well as analyzing the frenzy of massacre in which the confed troops indulged themselves upon the African American troops.
There is another novel I've read, that features the Battle of the Crater. It's the opening of Charles Frazier's 1997 best-selling novel, Cold Mountain. The senseless horror pushes confederate soldier, W. P. Inman, over the edge. Wounded, Inman deserts, to search for Ada, love, peace, and life, rather than continue killing. The before, during and after of the battle are the opening sequences of the film (2003), directed by Anthony Minghella.
It may say something about us (whoever we are), that cold googling images for the film, Cold Mountain, does not bring up a single scene from the battle. One must specifically request images of the battled from the film, and there are few enough of those.
Most of the images are of a feisty Renée Zwillenger with a two-barreled shotgun (in the only good role I could ever stand to watch her as an actress -- even though in the novel her character, Ruby, is a woman of color. Would that have been changed if the film was made today?), dressed in mens clothing,
or, in contrast, Nicole Kidman, in frilly southern bell dress. And, of course, the appealing Jude Law as W.P. Inman.
The Battle of the Crater
By RICHARD SLOTKIN
July 29, 2014 6:33 pm
Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
By the end of July 1864, Union forces were entrenched outside Petersburg, Va., a major city south of Richmond. To break the siege, commanders in the IX Corps came up with a novel idea: A regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners dug a tunnel 511 feet long, right up under a Confederate strongpoint, and packed four tons of blasting powder into galleries at its end. When the mine was touched off it would blow a huge breach in the Rebel lines, through which infantry could attack and seize the high ground that commanded Petersburg.
The so-called Petersburg Mine was an extraordinary technical accomplishment, and its detonation on July 30 produced what was then the largest man-made explosion in history. But federal commanders bungled the infantry attack, which never got beyond the gaping hole left by the explosion. The Union army suffered 4,000 casualties, turning what came to be known as the Battle of the Crater from a spectacular opportunity to capture Petersburg to an unmitigated disaster.
But there is more to the Battle of the Crater than the ironic contrast of technological brilliance with military incompetence. Its real significance lies in its exposure of the depth and complexity of the racial animosities that underlay the Civil War.
Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who led the IX Corps, had planned to use his Fourth Division, which was comprised of nine regiments of United States Colored Troops, to spearhead his assault. Unlike his white divisions, the Fourth had not been weakened by heavy battle losses. Its morale was high, and it would be trained in the maneuvers required to pass the crater and debris field left by the mine explosion and seize the high ground.
Beyond the tactical problems of leading so large an assault, black soldiers and their white officers had to prepare for a combat in which they could expect no mercy if they were captured or left wounded on the field. Col. John Bross, who commanded the 29th U.S.C.T. at Petersburg, told the press, “When I lead these men into battle, we shall expect no quarter, and shall not ask for quarter.”
The Confederate government had declared that officers of the U.S.C.T. would be treated as criminals fomenting slave rebellion, an offense punishable by death. Fear of federal retaliation prevented open enforcement of that policy, but Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon had encouraged field commanders to apply its principles unofficially, “red-handed on the field or immediately thereafter.” Black prisoners not disposed of on the field were treated as slaves: returned to former masters, sold, hired out by the government or set to labor with other slaves on Confederate fortifications.
Seddon’s injunction reflected, and lent official sanction, to the racial animosity endemic to a slavery-based society. If anything, it had grown worse during the war. White supremacy was the social and emotional cement of Southern society, and when internal class conflicts and battlefield defeats shook popular morale in the summer of 1864, Confederate leaders rallied their people by reminding them that a Union victory would enable blacks to break the bonds of subjection that kept them in their place. Black soldiers were the incarnation of that threat, and Southern soldiers affirmed their racial identity by declaring their intention to show no mercy.
Union officers used that fact to their benefit. During their assault training, Fourth Division troops were enjoined to use “Fort Pillow! No Quarter!” as their battle cry. However, for the division’s officers the battle cry was not intended as a command. In the battle itself they took pains to see that their troops did not harm rebel wounded or P.O.W.s. Rather, it was a motivational ploy that reflected their own racial prejudice: They believed that Negroes, as a race, were timid and needed the stimulus of desperation to make them fight hard against white Southerners. That same prejudice would cost the Union dearly when, on the eve of the battle, Gen. George Meade – commanding the Army of the Potomac – forbade the use of the “Colored Division” as the spearhead, because he did not think black soldiers were good enough.
General Burnside went into a funk. Instead of making a new plan, he had the other division commanders draw straws for the mission. Chance decreed that Gen. James Ledlie’s troops should lead – a division unprepared for its assignment and exhausted by weeks of fighting, and whose commander was known to get falling-down drunk when faced with combat.
At 4:45 a.m. on July 30, the earth below the rebel strongpoint bulged and broke, and an enormous mushroom cloud, “full of red flames, and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, mounted towards heaven with a detonation of thunder,” one witness recalled. The explosion blasted a crater 130 feet long, 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep, with nearly sheer walls of jagged clay, “filled with dust, great blocks of clay, guns, broken carriages, projecting timbers, and men buried in various ways.”
The crater itself was an impassable barrier, and there were debris-clogged trenches to either side. The black troops had been trained to avoid the crater and drive for the high ground. Ledlie’s men, abandoned by their drunken general, drifted into the crater and stayed there.
The explosion had killed one-third of the South Carolina brigade defending the strongpoint, but behind it was a labyrinth of communication trenches where rebel infantry rallied. Confederate engineers, anticipating an attack, had planted a ring of artillery batteries on the high ground. They laid down a crossfire of canister shot that pinned Ledlie’s division in the breach. As more federal troops advanced, a terrible logjam formed in and around the crater.
In a last attempt to redeem this disaster, Burnside ordered the United States Colored Troops to attack. After four hours of fighting, the advantages of surprise and shock were lost, and the black soldiers would have to force their way forward through the mass of demoralized whites around the crater. Nevertheless, they accomplished far more than could have been expected: The commanders of the two leading regiments, utilizing their units’ training, improvised a pincer attack that captured 150 prisoners and a clutch of battle flags. The following regiments also worked their way through the mob and (with some rallied white regiments) tried to charge the high ground.
But by now rebel reinforcements had arrived. A brilliantly timed counterattack by Gen. William Mahone routed the attempted federal advance, and most of the federals fled. About a thousand gathered in and around the crater, but their position was untenable: Under crossfire by rifles and artillery, and vulnerable to mortar shells dropped among the helpless, they packed the crater bottom like fish in a barrel. Officers who commanded in the crater testified that black troops were the mainstay of its last-ditch defense, a thin line of riflemen defending the crater berm. One private of the Confederate 12th Virginia gave them the accolade, “They fought like bulldogs and died like soldiers.”
When Mahone’s Confederates finally closed in, the battle degenerated into a combination massacre and race riot. Rebels killed wounded blacks as they retreated to the crater. “The cry was raised that we would all be killed if we were captured among the negroes,” recalled one white soldier; some desperate whites killed their black comrades-in-arms to show they shared the Confederates’ abhorrence of race-mixing.
Finally a call went up: “The Yanks have surrendered.” Confederate troops clambered into the crater, and the first men down, one soldier wrote, “plunged their bayonets into the colored wounded lying there.” Col. John Haskell of Virginia observed, “Our men, who were always made wild by having negroes sent against them … were utterly frenzied with rage. Nothing in the war could have exceeded the horrors that followed. No quarter was given, and for what seemed a long time, fearful butchery was carried on.” Confederate officers eventually stopped the killing, but many black prisoners were murdered as they passed, under guard, through the Confederate reserves. Pvt. Dorsey Binyon of the 48th Georgia regretted that “some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.” Capt. William Pegram of Virginia took satisfaction in the belief that fewer than half of the blacks who surrendered on the field “ever reached the rear … You could see them lying dead all along the route.” He thought it “perfectly” proper that all captured blacks be killed “as a matter of policy,” because it clarified the racial basis of the Southern struggle for independence.
It is impossible to establish precisely the extent of these killings. In the average Civil War battle the ratio of wounded to dead was 4.8 to one. For black troops at the Crater it was 1.8 to one. Engaged Confederate troops also suffered a two-to-one wounded-to-killed ratio; but those losses include the 278 killed by the mine explosion – an extraordinary loss, beyond what infantry combat could be expected to produce. Thus it seems likely that more than 200 blacks were killed after they had ceased fighting.
Most eyewitness accounts of the massacre were written by Confederates, who saw the killings as something to boast of, consonant with the values of Southern society. Yet at every rank and in every Confederate unit there were also men who were appalled by the murders. Ultimately, moral responsibility for the massacre rests on Confederate leaders, whose racial polemics and military instructions gave official sanction to the motives for massacre, and not those of mercy.
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Sources: Richard Slotkin, “No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864”; Bryce Suderow, “The Battle of the Crater: The Civil War’s Worst Massacre,” in Gregory J. W. Urwin, ed., “Black Flag Over Dixie”; Edward Porter Alexander, “Fighting for the Confederacy,” ed. by Gary W. Gallagher; George S. Burkhardt, “Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath: No Quarter in the Civil War”; Peter S. Carmichael, “Lee’s Young Artillerist: William R.J. Pegram”; Keith Wilson, ed., “Honor in Command: Lt. Freeman S. Bowley’s Civil War Service in the 30th United States Colored Infantry.”
Richard Slotkin is the author of “No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864” and “Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution.” He is an emeritus professor of American studies at Wesleyan University.