A View of the Crater in 1867

The first time I took my wife to visit the Crater she was less than impressed.  If I remember correctly she said something along the following lines: “This is it?  This is what you’ve been spending your time on?”  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but not by much.  There are a number of points in the broader history of this site that I would of liked to have visited.  Of course, to see the actual battle would have been interesting, but I also find the 1903 and 1937 reenactments to be attractive as well.  Perhaps a round of golf in the 1920s would have been enjoyable.  The only other time that I find attractive is right after the war.  From all the reports I’ve read the battlefield was still an absolute mess, littered with weapons, bones, and other signs of the horrific fight.  I’ve collected a number of accounts from various sources that are included in my manuscript, but nothing comes close to the following description from The Southern Opinion on June 29, 1867:

The crater was between twenty and twenty-five feet deep before it was closed over the dead, but now the average depth of the cavern is not more than eight feet or ten feet, with walls of slippery clay, in which has lately been discovered some valuable properties, equal in every respect to meerschaum clay.  Tim Griffith, youngest son of the proprietor, has become a very artistick worker in the material, and has taken many impressions of relicks, such as United States belt plates, the eagle, and the corps mark of Burnside’s army corps, of which great numbers were to be found.  Colonel Moore, of one of the government departments, Washington, has examined the clay, and pronounced it unequaled for modeling purposes–the best in the world.  Some visitors affirm that the clay received its moulding and adhesive qualities from the blood of the slain buried there, which assertion seems to receive some support from the fact that veins of red permeate the compost.  One fact has been demonstrated, which is undeniable, that the soil possesses great preserving qualities.  On the 30th of July, 1866, three hundred bodies were taken out of the crater, and the corpses were as perfect in flesh as the day they were consigned to the pit, two years before.  They were fresh and gory, the blood oozing from their wounds, and saturating still perfect clothing.

I have numerous accounts of bodies being re-interred into the 1930s, but nothing comes close to the descriptive quality here.  The Griffith family, which owned the land on which the battle was fought, took full advantage of public interest in the site following the war.  They kept a register book, which in 1866 alone includes the names of 8,000 visitors, which suggests that the number was even higher – a testament to its early popularity as a tourist site..  A visit to the Crater today really is a walk in the park.

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9 comments… add one
  • James F. Epperson Jun 8, 2010 @ 3:13

    There is a fascinating document about the history of the Crater itself on the Petersburg NPS website. I’m sure Kevin is familiar with it, but other readers may want to see it:


  • Emmanuel Dabney Jun 7, 2010 @ 19:11

    Kevin and I have walked over the battlefield numerous times. Me because it’s my job to give tours there; him, because of his on-going interest in memory of the event.

    I can say that it is an on-going interpretive matter to convince people that the Crater was larger BUT that it was not DRAMATICALLY larger in terms of how it is depicted in Cold Mountain for example. One on-going challenge I am convinced of is that we live in the on-going (and as far as I can tell forever til the end of time) nuclear age. When the WW2-era generation and subsequent generations witness the leveling of places by air-dropped bombs and of course the notorious atomic bomb drops in Japan in 1945, the world’s understanding of destruction was forever changed.

    Of the variety of descriptions, the Crater is generally accepted as approximately 150-170 feet in length; 60 feet wide; and about 25-30 feet in depth. However, as Kevin hints at here changes occurred. The one very few people take into account that the Confederates reestablished their defenses in the aftermath of the explosion.

    The Griffith family as Kevin points out operated a Civil War tourist destination and images show civilians walking down in the Crater. The dead also later extracted in various stages from 1866 into the 1930s. Then there were the years of the Crater golf course and natural erosion which has also led to changes in the dimensions of the Crater.

    See yall on the field!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2010 @ 1:57

      I especially appreciated the large siege guns and observation towers that were included in Cold Mountain.

  • Margaret D. Blough Jun 7, 2010 @ 14:23

    The ability of the earth to heal itself is remarkable. It is amazing when you look at photos taken of the Flight 93 crash site just after 9/11 and now how little is visible in recent photos.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2010 @ 15:18

      I agree. The Crater site definitely had some help with the leveling that took place for the golf course in the early twentieth century.

  • Andy Hall Jun 7, 2010 @ 12:16

    The preservation of the remains is undoubtedly due to the dense and anaerobic nature of the clay — that would greatly retard decomposition. The 1680s wreck of the explorer La Salle’s ship, La Belle, revealed some astonishing preservation — coiled rope, sail cloth, and skeleton with soft tissue preserved in the skull — when it was excavated more than 300 years later, because those parts of the wreck were quickly and fully buried in anaerobic sediment.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2010 @ 12:31


      Thanks for the reference.

  • James F. Epperson Jun 7, 2010 @ 10:25

    My wife had a similar reaction when we visited the site a few years ago. “I thought it would be bigger.”

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2010 @ 11:01

      I suspect that most people are disappointed. If you venture into the woods just north of the Crater you can find remnants of the earthworks occupied by troops from North Carolina.

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