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Battle of the Crater



Who Wants to Die? General Grant Has Got a Mission for You!

These guys all died

In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace and his Scottish warriors showed us what hand-to-hand combat is all about. Battles in the 16th century were giant brawls where fighters used axes, long swords, and the occasional deer antler.


Lassie came home!

From the battlefields of the 16th century, let's fast-forward four centuries to the battles of the American Civil War. The invention of the rifle and canon made hand-to-hand combat obsolete, but soldiers were still being instructed to run at their enemies in open fields. It seemed fairly idiotic since a soldier's instinct would tell him to stay in the trenches, but when their commanders ordered them to race into the battlefield they obeyed. Wave after wave of men would sprint forward into a blizzard of flying metal, and would either die on the battlefield or be severely wounded. The injured soldiers were likely to suffer for many days from infection before dying. In those days, doctors did not know how to stop infections from spreading. In fact, more soldiers died from dysentery (that is really awful diarrhea) than from fighting in battles during the entire Civil War. In total, over 600,000 soldiers died during the Civil War which was a significant amount of people based on the total population of that time. In fact, the 600,000 deaths during the Civil War are the equivalent of 11 million deaths today.

These crude tools were used to amputate limbs in battlefield hospitals

Why did so many have to die? Well, we often hear that the Civil War was fought in order to free the slaves. This is only partly true. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the Southern states that were still under Confederate control, and did not include states occupied by the Union. The real reason behind the war was based on fundamental differences between the economies of the North and South. The North had a growing manufacturing sector and small farms using free labor, while the South's economy was based on large farms (plantations) using slave labor. The Northern states wanted to prohibit slavery in the Western territories that would eventually become new states, and some Northerners called for the abolition of slavery. In order to protect their right to keep slaves, the Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America after Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the antislavery Republican Party, was elected president. So it was time for battle.

Free black men were given the hardest, dirtiest jobs in the Northern army like unloading boats at the docks

The Union appeared to have a huge advantage because the large urban populations of the North provided more soldiers and the North had the incredible ability to manufacture weapons. The only advantages the South had were the will of their people and knowledge the terrain they would be fighting on.

General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the troops and later became president

General Ulysses S. Grant, who headed the Union army, had a pretty simple plan. General Grant decided to march his troops to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, with the hope of a quick victory. The key to the Union army winning the war would be to conquer Richmond, Virginia because in addition to being the capital, it was a major manufacturing center that contained tons of medical and ammunition supplies. Both sides knew that if the Union army took Richmond, the war would be over.

Lincoln near the front lines posing with top generals

In 1862, the Union army got within 6 miles of Richmond before being called back to Washington, D.C. by President Lincoln who was worried that Washington, D.C. would be sacked by the Confederates because the majority of the Union army would be engaged in battles in the South and unable to protect it. Despite the Union's hasty retreat, the Confederates chased after the Union army with fierce persistence. The two warring sides ended up engaging in intense battles east of Richmond, Virginia. The Union army was on the verge of defeat when Union gunboats stormed up the James River to save them.

Meanwhile, the city of Richmond was left alone for two years. During that time, the citizens and the army dug out fortifications to protect their homes. Richmond was going to put up one heck of a fight.


In 1864, Grant assumed control of the entire Union forces. To avoid directly battling the well-protected city of Richmond, Grant directed his army to attack Richmond's surrounding towns. However, the Confederate army was able to dig in and wreak havoc on the Union forces as they traveled through unfamiliar territory. The Union army suffered many casualties at the battles of Spotsylvania, Totopotomoy Creek, and North Anna River before getting into its biggest disaster at the battle of Cold Harbor. It was at Cold Harbor that Grant proceeded with the immensely unwise plan of conducting full frontal attacks on the heavily entrenched Confederate troops. Thousands died as Grant continued to order his Northern boys to a fruitless death at the hands of their brothers from the South. After 12,000 troops were lost Grant finally decided to call off his lunatic attack.

Many folks decided to leave town for the countryside

Grant reasoned that if the Confederates defended the town of Cold Harbor so well, then seizing the capital would cost more lives then he was willing to lose.

Therefore, Grant's tactic to defeat the Confederates was to cut off Petersburg, Virginia which was the main artery leading into Richmond. Petersburg is located about 50 miles south of Richmond and was the hub for all the major train lines leading into the capital. If the Union army cut off Petersburg, then Richmond would slowly starve and weaken to a surrender.

Richmond meant business

Grant's first attack on Petersburg had horrific results, with more then 10,000 of his men becoming casualties. For ten months, Confederate General Robert E. Lee held his troops steady while Northerners surrounded the city and cut off supplies. One of the most dramatic events occurred at the Battle of the Crater. The leaders of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers infantry came up with a controversial plan to shorten the standoff. Their plan was to dig a tunnel beneath Confederate lines, pack it with tons of explosives, and detonate the explosives beneath the ground to create a giant hole in the Confederate defenses.

Nick stands in the infamous crater

On June 30, 1864, the Union soldiers detonated the explosives that were packed into the tunnel. For a moment, the entire sky was filled with dirt, bodies, and trees. The blast created a huge crater that measured 60 feet wide, 170 feet long, and 30 feet deep. The Union soldiers began to advance and ran into the huge crater instead of around it. The troops found that the crater from the blast was so steep that they could not climb out of it. The Union soldiers became sitting ducks for Confederate soldiers who systematically killed over a thousand Union soldiers in a nightmarish mosh pit.

Despite that victory over the Union, the 60,000 Confederate troops suffered through a cold winter with minimal supplies and thousands of them died. However, the 100,000 Union soldiers were well fed with constant supplies coming in from the port cities. Once the weather thawed out, the Union army began ferocious attacks on the eastern side of Petersburg. On April 2, 1865, Grant ordered an all-out assault on Petersburg and General Lee evacuated the city that night.


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - If it takes every chicken in the Confederacy…
Neda - Harriet Tubman kicks some butt
Teddy - How easy is it to assassinate the President?
Stephanie - The role of African Americans in the Civil War