Ken Burns’s Crater

Ken Burns’s short segment on the Crater reflects both continuity and change in accounts of the Crater.  Here is the transcript from the movie.

Title: The Crater

Union Soldier – In front of Petersburg: The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at.  It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege…

Narrator – For a month a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and pack it with four tons of gun powder. Burnside’s idea was to blow a hole in the Petersburg defenses, then rush through to take the town. Above ground, not far from the tunnel, the unsuspecting Confederate commander was General William Mahone, a veteran of almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.

At dawn on July 30, Union sappers lit the fuse.  A great crater was torn in the earth, thirty feet deep, seventy feet wide, 250 feet long. The stunned Confederates fell back. Then the plan began to fall apart. A precious hour went by before the Union assault force got started, and when it did three divisions stormed down the great hole, rather than around it.

Their commander, General James H. Ledlie, did not even watch the battle, huddling instead in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum. Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers found there was no way up the sheer 30-foot wall of the pit – and no one had thought to provide ladders. General Mahone ordered his men back to the rim to pour fire down upon them.

Scores of black troops were killed when tried to surrender at the Crater, bayoneted or clubbed by Confederates shouting, “Take the white man! Kill the Nigger!”

Ulysses S. Grant – "It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." General Ledlie was dismissed from the service; Burnside was granted extended leave and never recalled to duty.

Washington Roebling (July 30, 1864): "The work and expectation of almost two months have been blasted… The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we already imagined ourselves in Petersburg, but fifteen minutes changed it all and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl."

William Mahone was not in direct command of the units around the salient that was attacked.  Shortly following the explosion Lee ordered Mahone to bring his division, which was situated about two miles north of the salient, into the battle.  The emphasis on Mahone perhaps attests to the focus on his Virginia brigade during the postwar years in memoirs and public commemorations.  Another point to make is that there was only a 15-minute gap between the initial explosion and the order to attack.  The reference to 1-hour by Burns is completely off target.  The bulk of the Union force did in fact move into the crater and many of the units did become disorganized as a result; however, a number of units were able to advance beyond the physical contours of the crater.  The picture of the enitre Union attack bogged down in the crater is vividly reflected in the opening scenes of Cold Mountain.  On the positive side, Burns does acknowledge Confederate rage at having to fight United States Colored Troops and the use of Roebling does accurately reflect the drop in morale among the men of the Army of the Potomac as they assessed the battle specifically and the overall progress of the campaign.  Confederates, on the other hand, experienced a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to prevent Grant from taking Petersburg and perhaps win the war.

1 comment… add one

  • SGT Will Hickox Nov 30, 2006

    This reinforces my opinion that virtually nothing in the Burns series can be trusted. I personally don’t see how this 10-hour amber-colored ordeal has had such popularity. I find it simplistic, outdated (even in 1990) and just plain boring as heck.

Leave a Comment