Why Should We Remember the Battle of the Crater?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been putting together some thoughts for my talk next Friday in Petersburg to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. I’ve been re-reading sections of my book and thinking about how this particular battle fits into the major themes and direction of our ongoing sesquicentennial.

The initial explosion and its impact on the battlefield landscape certainly stands out as distinct feature of this relatively brief engagement, but the fight at the Crater was certainly not the bloodiest nor did it involve a particularly large number of soldiers on both sides. This was not the first time that a large number of USCTs was employed in battle nor was it the first time that a significant number were massacred by Confederates.

How would you approach the task of commemorating this particular battle? What are its salient features? Another way to approach the question might be to ask what would have been missed if we chose to overlook this particular battle entirely?

Update: Whatever I end up sharing with my audience next Friday will be recorded by C-SPAN and aired shortly thereafter.

26 responses... add one

“How would you approach the task of commemorating this particular battle?”

Easy: Tell it how it was, ensuring that all the participants receive the amount of attention that is owed to them.

“What are its salient features?”

As you said, the mine. Another that you also know was race: the race rioting by Caucasians of both sides against the USCT, and the initial refusal of some of the African American troops to grant quarter to their enemy. Indeed, it is the only occasion of which I am aware in which there was a race riot in the midst of a battle. No other incident in the history of warfare has Caucasian soldiers of both sides turn on soldiers with darker skins.

“Another way to approach the question might be to ask what would have been missed if we chose to overlook this particular battle entirely?”

The behavior of the Confederates helps to refute the Lost Cause bunk, that the Confederacy was largely founded on the basis of Caucasian supremacy and to perpetuate slavery. The conduct of the USCT demonstrates that they weren’t entirely innocent either. As for their Caucasian comrades, the battle shows that there were northerners who were just as bigoted as their southern brethren, or similarly so (I have to admit: the antebellum and wartime North resembled the postbellum Jim Crow South). Yet the engagement reveals the many shades, the ambiguity of war. There were compassionate troops, of both sides, that looked beyond race, who were revolted by the massacring and, depending on their level of authority, tried to stop it. The Battle of the Crater was war at its worst.

As for their Caucasian comrades, the battle shows that there were northerners who were just as bigoted as their southern brethren, or similarly so (I have to admit: the antebellum and wartime North resembled the postbellum Jim Crow South). Yet the engagement reveals the many shades, the ambiguity of war. There were compassionate troops, of both sides, that looked beyond race, who were revolted by the massacring and, depending on their level of authority, tried to stop it. The Battle of the Crater was war at its worst.

Nicely put, Ben. Thanks.

I think the battle of the Crater is significant for a number of reasons, above all symbolizing horrible waste as a result of inept leadership and lack of faith in the plan right from the top. The result is a disaster that could have easily been avoided but the reality is that a lot of lives were wasted in a relatively small area of the Petersburg siege line. Perhaps this is a bit too contrite and simple, but it is important to note and remember the reality of what occurred on that little piece of ground and the effect that events prior to July 30, 1864, had on the men involved from both sides. It’s questionable whether anything could have been salvaged by the time the USCT’s were sent into the attack and the result was combat at its most chaotic with men turning upon each other based solely on racial prejudices. That part of the Battle of the Crater was expunged from its legacy for many years after and it’s important that element be remembered and understood, if possible, by us today. You’ve achieved that with your book, Kevin, and I think you’ll do a great job in telling the story of that disastrous day to those in attendance. Good luck!

It’s questionable whether anything could have been salvaged by the time the USCT’s were sent into the attack and the result was combat at its most chaotic with men turning upon each other based solely on racial prejudices. That part of the Battle of the Crater was expunged from its legacy for many years after and it’s important that element be remembered and understood, if possible, by us today.

Hi John, – Thanks for the comment. This will certainly be one of the central points that I make in Petersburg. Thanks for the kind words re: the book.

Glad to do so. The article was on the front page of the printed version of the newspaper. Another slow news day while I’m on a mini-vacation in northern Michigan

Why Should We Remember the Battle of the Crater? Um… so you can sell more books?

Hopefully one day you will move beyond designing e-book jackets and actually sell one of your books. It’s a pretty good feeling.

Yeah, everybody knows that if you want to make bank, writing history for academic presses is the way to go about it. Dozens and dozens of dollars to be made.

Well Grant was trying to massacred Confederates but instead he created a fish in the barrel scenario. This was a result of a poorly planned and poorly executed strategic plan under Burnsides command. The USCT were lucky they were not the first/lead in as originally planned. The USCT can thank Meade for opposing this part of the plan on the grounds that if the attack failed the Union commanders could be accused of wanting to get rid of the only Negro troops with the Army of the Potomac. My gg grandfather (confederate corporal) survived this Atrocity

Well Grant was trying to massacred Confederates but instead he created a fish in the barrel scenario.

He was certainly trying to break what was quickly taking on characteristics of a siege, but I fail to see an intent to “massacre” Confederates. Perhaps you can define your terms. Thanks for the comment.

Massacre-an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people. By tunneling under the confederates and plotting and planning to blow them up killing them while they slept….yup that is a massacre. What they attempted to do was criminal, unethical warfare, plain MURDER.

Your 2nd paragraph uses massacred in a similar manner. “This was not the first time that a large number of USCTs was employed in battle nor was it the first time that a significant number were massacred by Confederates.”

Thanks for the follow up.

Massacre-an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people.

The mine was targeted specifically at Confederates so it could not have been “indiscriminate”. Confederate soldiers were legitimate targets in this war. It was certainly a very violent moment in the war, but I fail to see how it counts as murder. It was part of an early morning assault. The “murder” of USCTs by Confederates took place in cases where they were executed once they surrendered. This constitutes a crucial difference.

Mining has been a part of warfare for ages, particularly in seiges and against heavily fortified positions. It isn’t particularly nice, but warfare isn’t a parlor game.

A mine can compromise an entrenched or fortified position, benefitting the attacker in what would otherwise be a very costly and more often than not futile attack. It can also break stalemates, which is what Petersburg became.

Grant wasn’t trying to indiscriminately kill anyone, but if the mine attack worked it could’ve compromised the rebel lines. That part of the battle wasn’t murder or unfair. It was war. What happened later to the USCTs was murder. Big difference.

Kevin, the timing of the 150th anniversary of the Crater is propitious in my mind as it’s within a few days of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of military operations in the First World War which saw extensive use of mines on the Western Front. Some of those mines actually led to battlefield success such as at the Battle of Messines.

Did you find in your research if the Battle of the Crater was used as a lesson about mine warfare for later military leaders here and abroad?

Hi Jerry,

Great point re: mines and WWI. I may steal that one for my talk if you don’t mind. I didn’t find very much that specifically connected the Crater with WWI. Keep in mind that soldiers trained on the Petersburg battlefield before being shipped to Europe. You can still their fortification on the Eastern Front.

“I didn’t find very much that specifically connected the Crater with WWI.” But you can connect the Crater with the history of mine warfare, which spans from the AD 70 siege of Jerusalem (without the powder, of course) to the 1917 Battle of Messines, after which the small ones still in use today, the descendants of the Civil War “torpedoes,” were utilized almost exclusively.

I don’t mind if you use it at all! I’m delighted and honored I was able to help you.

I just wish I could be there to hear your presentation.

Connie,

Yes, so more books can be sold that actually contain historical fact about the Battle of the Crater vice the myth that always seems willing to hide those factual accounts. Kevin has done a service with his book by showing to any and all who want to truly know about history can do so by reading his book. And you could have made a response that actually had something to do with the historical event in question.

Sincerely,
Neil

Porter Alexander’s account of the Crater is quite important. Even though he wasn’t on the scene, he talked to friends who were very shortly after the event. He didn’t seem to have any doubts that (1) surrendering US soldiers who were black were killed by Confederate soldiers when a surrendering Union soldier who was white would not have been and (2) the reason for the difference was Confederate soldiers’ rage at seeing black men in US Army uniform.

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