Scene of the explosion, Saturday, July 30th. Artist: Waud, Alfred R., 1828-1891. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Spring 1864. Our nation, divided into warring halves, was entering the fourth year of bloody civil war. Nearly half a million had given the last full measure of devotion in battles such as Shiloh, Second Manassas, Antietam and Gettysburg, or in the fever-ridden hospitals that were more dangerous than any battlefield.

It is nearly impossible to put a modern perspective on the level of suffering and loss in a conflict that is too often romanticized, or play-acted before cheering audiences at “reenactments” on sunlit weekends. But here is one statistic to contemplate: America was a nation of approximately 30 million souls when the conflict started. Today we number over 310 million. Imagine us trapped in a conflict, entering its fourth year, with over 5 million dead, 5 million maimed and in hospitals, another million languishing in the squalor of prison camps, a million addicted to drugs and far more suffering from post-traumatic stress, not to mention property damage into the trillions. And no end in sight.

This was the harsh face of our Civil War in the spring of 1864. By June of that fateful summer, the newspapers were reporting more than 2,000 casualties a day, a loss rate higher than that of the Battle of the Bulge 80 years later.

The Northern offensive to take Richmond stalled in the fetid trenches in front of Petersburg, Va., where the hard-bitten veterans of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had fought Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac to a standstill. Union troops refused to try yet more futile frontal assaults after debacles such as Cold Harbor, where nearly 7,000 men fell in a single charge lasting little more than 20 minutes on June 3, 1864. Morale was shot — except for one group of recruits who were now putting on the Union blue.

A year earlier, as recruitments to “fill the vacant ranks” all but dried up in the face of the daily casualty rolls, one group cried out to step forward, claiming that this was indeed their war as well. A spokesman declared that once such men held a musket in hand, wore the Union blue and had on their hips a cartridge box stamped “U.S.,” he defied any power on earth to deny their right to full citizenship. Men of African descent, free-born or escaped slave in the North and slave in the South, came forward to pick up the tottering banner of the Union cause. Nearly 200,000 would serve by war’s end.

The Battle of the Petersburg Crater: The Crater, as seen from the Union side. From a sketch made at the time, ca. 1887. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

With the Army of the Potomac locked in siege warfare in front of Richmond and Petersburg, one of the few generals eager to accept the men designated as the U.S. Colored Troops was the eccentric Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the XI Corps. New black troops became his fourth division. Stuck on the toughest part of the siege lines, some of Burnside’s men had conceived a daring plan that Burnside believed would not just win a battle but perhaps even end the war in one gallant rush.

The plan was ingenious. Three bitter years of experience had taught the veterans of both sides that to storm trench works and fortifications was a bloody exercise in futility. This plan offered a forlorn hope. A 500-foot tunnel would be dug under the Rebel lines that blocked the Union advance into Petersburg. The tunnel would be packed with explosives. Detonation would blow a gap in the enemy line 200 yards wide and sow panic for hundreds of yards more in either direction. Timing in the minutes after the explosion would be everything. A lead division of 4,000 men would sprint forward even before the debris had rained down, storm around the giant crater left by the blast, seize the heights behind the shattered enemy line, then push straight into downtown Petersburg, taking the railroad yards.

If they could accomplish that within the first hour, Burnside’s troops would cut General Lee’s army in half, pinning them to the banks of the Appomattox River, seizing their supplies and cutting off Richmond, the Confederate capital, from nearly all rail connection to the South. The plan required dash, bold leadership and troops with the nerve to face the challenge.

Tragically, only the last element was in place, and even that disappeared in the opening minutes of the battle.

History records the event as the Battle of the Crater. It is not an action recalled alongside Gettysburg, Antietam and Shiloh — battles that, grim and terrible as they were, carry with them a memory of honor and, for some, even a dash of glory. Read about the Battle of the Crater and you soon sense that you are looking into a darker realm of warfare.

When Burnside accepted the division of African American troops into his formation, he tasked them with leading the assault, which was planned to take place within a month. To a man, white officers and black enlisted troops embraced the challenge and — unique in Civil War battles — trained extensively for this one mission. They saw it as a chance to prove their mettle to the world, and many speculated that perhaps here they would win the war and a glorious place in history.

And then, less than a day before the action, Burnside’s superior, Maj. Gen. George Meade, ordered a complete shake-up of the order of attack, pulling the “colored” division out of the front ranks and placing it in a reserve position. He stated that he did not want to be blamed for a “massacre” of colored troops. A weak argument, indeed, when nearly any assault during the Civil War, by modern definitions, was little better than a massacre. Many speculate that Meade made this fateful decision so that if the assault did succeed it would be white troops who gained the glory. Some historians go so far as to argue that the politics of the Army of the Potomac were so poisonous that Meade made the fateful decision because he did not want the acclaim to go to Burnside, a hated rival.

The decision doomed the attack before it was launched. By analogy, imagine if, on the evening of June 5, 1944, Eisenhower had thrown a tirade at Omar Bradley, denounced the plan of battle and ordered the lead assault waves destined for Normandy’s Omaha Beach to be replaced with troops who had not been trained and were clueless about their mission.

Beyond the rearranging of the order of attack, no proper orders were given to the units sent in as replacements, equipment was not issued, and the wrong types of fuses and only half the powder requested was sent forward for the tunnel. At least two generals in command would later be found drunk in rear-line bunkers while their men were slaughtered.

What ensued on July 30, 1864, at the Battle of the Crater was one of the most mismanaged tragedies of the war. The assault waves that did go in, leaderless and without orders, sought safety in the massive crater left by the explosion rather than pushing forward, thus giving Lee precious time to organize a defense and seal the breach. The brave men of the colored division watched with helpless rage and frustration as the chance to win an overwhelming victory was tossed away. In a final suicidal bid, they were ordered in anyway. Never in American military history have men gone forward into an attack that was so preordained to bloody failure. Yet they did go forward, and more than half were killed, wounded or captured in that last useless gesture.

Perhaps the darker horror of it all was what transpired behind the lines. Meade and Burnside turned on each other with bitter recriminations and accusations even while the battle still raged, any hope of rational command collapsed. In the weeks after the tragedy, a court inquiry was convened. Even the most unbiased readers today would find its conclusions a coverup full of blame-shifting — something that reads more like current events than we might expect.

The months ahead mark the 150th anniversary of some of the most bitterly fought battles of that tragic war — the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Peachtree Creek and the Crater. Memory of the Crater should stand at the forefront for a number of reasons. While it was an unmitigated tragedy of a fight and a lost opportunity to end the war perhaps nine months earlier than it finally concluded, there is something worthy in that action. The men of the 4th Division, IX Corps, 4,000 strong, who went forward that day were but months earlier either slaves or “freemen,” who in nearly every state held no true rights of citizenship. Yet they rose to the cause. They believed the promise of Frederick Douglass that with rifle in hand and in Army blue, they would forever win full citizenship for themselves and their descendants. For each, it was an act of noble idealism to believe this, to believe the words of a solemn man who at Gettysburg declared that this war was a struggle for that most fundamental declaration that “all men are created equal.” Few recall these men now, and even fewer know their names.

But in remembering them, and honoring all those who gave the last full measure of devotion on July 30, 1864, we can see today, 150 years later, that they did not die in vain.

William R. Forstchen, a faculty fellow in history at Montreat College in North Carolina, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation about the 28th U.S. Colored Troops, one of the regiments decimated at the Battle of the Crater. Newt Gingrich is the former speaker of the House of Representatives and a co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.” They are
co-authors of “To Make Men Free,” a novel about the Battle of the Crater.