Trip to the Crater

My work on the Crater project is moving along, though I am still having some difficulty focusing.  Today I decided that it might be worthwhile driving down to Petersburg and re-connecting with the Crater battlefield.  I jumped into my car, popped in Bob Dylan’s Live 1966 and I was set.  I enjoy driving alone as it gives me time to think about things and solve the world’s problems.  The clouds were out, but the weather report suggested that it might clear by early afternoon.  I know, I should have been more realistic.  As I got closer to Richmond the clouds increased and right before Petersburg it started to rain.  I didn’t really mind that it rained.  The weather was cool, which made for a pleasant tramp across the battlefield.

I stopped off at the PNBP Visitors Center to pay my entrance fee and headed directly to the Crater.  My first stop was the Union lines by the Taylor Ruins and Fort Morton where Ambrose Burnside made his headquarters.  The view of the Crater is direct though it takes a bit of imagination to block out thePicture_023_1 trees.  This first photograph is from Fort Morton looking towards the Crater.

From there I headed over the Norfolk and Petersburg R.R. – which was surveyed by William Mahone before the war – and parked next to the trail that winds over to the tunnel.  Rather than head straight for the tunnel I decided to walk up the Baxter Road to where it intersects with the Jerusalem Plank Road.  There is a monument to Massachusetts soldiers, who served in the Petersburg Campaign, that was erected at the turn of the century.  Massachusetts veterans traveled Picture_024to Petersburg, and specifically to the Crater on a number of occasions.  Their close interaction with the local A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans fueled interest in preserving the battlefield for future generations that stretched beyond the Commonwealth.  Right across from the monument are two guns that are positioned to represent Henry B. Flanner’s Battery which saw a great deal of action on the morning of July 30, 1864. They were situated directly behind the Crater right along the Jerusalem Plank Road.  Federal units that managed to advance beyond the confines of the crater felt the full force of this particular battery.  This is a photograph taken from the position of the battery and looking towards thePicture_025 Crater.  I then walked along the Jerusalem Plank Road towards Blandford Cemetery to locate the entrance to the Covered Way that Mahone’s division used in their counterattack which took place some time around 9:00a.m.  It’s not easy to find and the actual path is difficult to follow since it winds through the woods.  For some reason I decided to wear sneakers and shorts today and needless to say I ruined the former.  It is indeed a strange feeling to follow the route used on that particular day knowing the result of the movement.  The walk was very quiet, but for the sighting of two young fawns.  I came out in the shallow area that David Weisiger’s Virginia brigade used as cover while they Picture_026organized their ranks.  It is difficult to get a feel for the topography of the battle since the landscape was transformed dramatically following the war.  The property remained in the hands of the Griffith family until it was purchased by the Crater Battlefield Association and turned into an 18-hole golf course.  Here is a view of the Crater from a point just beyond where the counterattack formed.  Notice the tree line on the left and you will see the shallow area that was used.  Beyond that you can see another slope and the Mahone monument.  I used to think that it was this further slope that was used, but that would put Mahone’s men too close to the advanced Federal units. 

The Mahone monument is a fairly prominent marker on the battlefield.  Visitors sometimes wonder whyPicture_028 there aren’t more monuments, but it should be remembered that the field remained in private hands until it was incorporated into the Petersburg National Military Park in 1936.  While many are familiar with Mahone’s name in connection with the battle, it is important to keep in mind that his postwar political career landed him in a great deal of trouble not only with his fellow Virginians, but with members of this own command.  Mahone’s Readjuster Party constituted one of the most successful bi-racial parties in the postwar South.  The monument was originally supposed to be located in a more prominent location, but owing to the protests of various groups it was decided to place the monument on the battlefield.  The monument is located at roughly the Virginia brigade’s right as it advanced towards the Crater.  Along the path of the counterattack I veered off to the left to walk part of the Confederate line that was occupied by McAfee’s North Carolinians.  Although they are covered by woods you can still make out the outline of the position. 

The only part of the battlefield that I did not photograph was the actual crater.  I guess if you’ve seen one hole you’ve seen them all.  Not quite, but for some reason I failed to snap a shot.  Sorry about that, but I am sure you can find one on the Internet somewhere.  On my way out I noticed one of the NPS Rangers leading a tour so I joined to get a sense of what people walk away with.  The guide focused a great deal of time on the actual digging of the tunnel – time that could have been better spent.  At the actual crater the guide suggested that the soldiers who fought within its confines were not fighting for union or secession, but for their comrades.  I don’t really know what to make of this.  Perhaps it was an attempt to steer clear of divisive topics or offered for some kind of dramatic effect.  All in all I had a great day.  The weather could have been nicer, but I do feel better for having gone.    

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