July 30 marked the 153rd anniversary of the battle of the Crater, one of the bloodiest battles of the nine month long Petersburg campaign, which became the lengthiest siege in American history. The Crater battle, fought on 1864 July 30 was historic for many reasons, but only recently have historians examined it at much length. Of the Confederate victory there, Robert E. Lee said of the enemy, “I trust he will succeed no better in his next than his last attempt.” The battle was arguably the last real victory for the Army of Northern Virginia.
On my trip to Petersburg last week, I revisited the Crater battlefield, which I had seen about ten years ago. I had the chance to reevaluate the place. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been there, and I wanted to check out some sites I had not known about the last time I visited the “Cockade City.” As is true of so many places, with PVA (to quote 19th century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphone Karr), the more it changes, the more it stays the same.
Petersburg is a city with major problems. It has had long standing issues with crime, financial solvency, political dysfunction, and public education. A discussion of these things goes beyond the scope of a fluff blog piece. When it comes to history tourism, though, anyone interested in the Civil War should visit the city.
Last week, I wanted to hit two museums I had not been in before: the Siege Museum, which is downtown, and Violet Bank, used by Robert E. Lee as his headquarters for a few months of the siege. My trip again highlighted for me the pleasures and frustrations involved in visiting Petersburg.
Unfortunately, my good camera’s battery went dead upon my arrival, so I was forced to take pictures with my Verizon flip phone.
To say Petersburg is historic is an understatement. Old Towne has a rich history that includes major events in the Revolution and the Civil War. The house on Bank Street, where Edgar Allan Poe stayed, still stands. Steven Spielberg chose Petersburg to film parts of his 2012 film Lincoln.
As is true of anywhere, I suppose, Old Towne follows national economic trends. When I taught college in Petersburg back in 2005-06, the economy was doing great and Petersburg’s downtown seemed to be coming back. But when I visited a few years after the economic depression of 2008-09, Old Towne had taken a noticeable turn for the worse. One coffee shop I had loved had closed.
Yet, based on what I saw on Tuesday, Old Towne seems on the rebound, and I hope it continues to improve. I had a “Dirty Banana” (a banana shake with a shot of espresso) at Demolition Coffee on Bank Street, a nice cafe that I want to revisit for breakfast with the family.
It’s easy to get around Old Towne on foot, and when I was last there, it was a good day for walking. The weather was warm, dry, and sunny. I had a good lunch at Longstreet’s, but unfortunately the Siege Museum (apparently still being renovated) was not open for visitors.
A short drive over the Appomattox River bridge brought me to Violet Bank, where Lee lived for several months in 1864. Lee often liked to live in a tent when he should have been indoors, but in Petersburg, he apparently came to his senses. His last headquarters was located at Edgehill, further west, but that building burned down a long time ago.
Violet Bank is next to an enormous magnolia tree, which is as impressive as the building itself. Since Violet Bank Violent Bank was not open, that left me with time to visit the battlefield again.
The Crater Battlefield
Getting to the Crater wasn’t easy. The area along Crater Road was a mess of roadwork, and there seemed no way to get inside the park without making a major flanking maneuver. I ignored the park’s Do Not Enter road sign. No ranger was there to arrest me, though, as I drove illegally onto the battlefield. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to get to the Crater site. I hope any Civil War buff would have forgiven me for butting my way into the park.
It is easy to see why Petersburg was so vital. Grant attacked Petersburg in June 1864 because of the city’s importance as a rail juncture. And sure enough, the railroad is still prominent. After being there only a few minutes, a train drove through the park, a few hundred yards away, along the Norfolk & Petersburg line.
The infamous Crater is not nearly as large as it was in 1864. Time and erosion has filled it in with earth and grass. As it is true of all the national parks, you have to use your imagination when viewing the grounds. The Crater is a shadow of its former self, but it’s clearly marked and you can still see the depressions in the ground where the Federals blew a huge hole in the Confederate defenses. I was one of only a few people in the area that afternoon, but one of them was English (as I could tell when he asked about the UDC). Like me, he was interested in exploring hallowed ground.
The battle signified a shockingly bad missed opportunity for the Union, whose commanders botched the assault and allowed the Rebels to win the day. Federals, chief among them Pennsylvania coal miner soldiers, spent weeks digging under the Confederate fortifications. They managed to get 500 feet under the Rebel lines and pack the mine with tons of explosives.
The explosion was felt in Richmond and blew a huge hole in the Confederate line. The blast could have been fatal to Lee’s army. And yet, the Federals took an hour to mount their assault. The delay gave the Confederates time to regroup. Poorly led Yankees went into the Crater rather than around it. Rebels under William Mahone (a Petersburg native) poured a withering fire into the huddled Yankee masses in the Crater. As Mahone noted, it became a “turkey shoot.” The film Cold Mountain features a fairly good recreation of the Crater battle, which featured vicious hand to hand combat.
The Union might have won the battle and the fight for Petersburg in July 1864 were it not for incompetent leadership. General Ambrose E. Burnside’s corps made up the attacking force. But at the last minute, the decision to let African American troops lead the attack was changed for political reasons. Union commanders feared a debacle might suggest northern generals were using black troops as cannon fodder.
Black troops fought well, but they charged into the fray after white forces had already been halted in the Crater. Union Colonel James Ledlie, who was supposed to manage the attack, chose to stay in a bombproof bunker with a bottle of booze rather than direct his men. The slaughter at the Crater became a no quarter fight.
Aftermath and Legacy
The fighting at the Crater was horrid and was the scene of the greatest massacre of African American troops of the war. Rebel troops were enraged at the sight of charging African Americans and they vowed to take no prisoners. Amid the carnage, even some white northern troops killed their black comrades in order to avoid Confederate retribution.
The debacle resulted in General Ambrose Burnside losing his job. Colonel Ledlie was dismissed from the army a few months later. The siege dragged on. And only in the past few years have historians such as Kevin Levin have examined the Crater battle at length: what it meant in the larger story of the Peterbsurg siege, our racial past, and Civil War memory.
The Petersburg siege was, as Shelby Foote once said, a “rehearsal for World War I.” During World War I, the Crater battle was repeated, so to speak, at the Somme and during the 1917 battle of Messines, where Allied miners blew a hole in the German defenses in Belgium. The shock was felt in London, and the explosion at Messines was the loudest man-made sound in history up to that time.
Many historians have walked the grounds of Petersburg, but one in particular stands out. In 1940, Life magazine featured an insightful story on Virginia born Civil War historian and Lee disciple Douglas Southall Freeman. Of all the battlefields Freeman could have chosen for the shoot, he went to the Crater. Freeman went into one of the tunnels, and one photo shows how much more of the original Crater was still there.
When I visited last week, I didn’t have any reporters with me (let alone a servant), but it was another enjoyable visit to the NPS and one that further educates me on the terrain, geography, and landmarks of the Civil War.
Some sources on the Crater and the Petersburg siege:
Axlerod, Alan. The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007.
Greene, A. Wilson. Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Hess, Earl J. Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.
Levin, Kevin. Remembering the Battle of the Crater: Was as Murder. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Slotkin, Richard. No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. New York: Random House, 2009.