The Battle of the Crater, part of the Petersburg Campaign, was the result of an unusual attempt, on the part of Union forces, to break through the Confederate defenses just south of the critical railroad hub of Petersburg, Virginia, during the American Civil War (1861–1865). For several weeks, Pennsylvania miners in Union general Ambrose E. Burnside‘s Ninth Corps worked at digging a long tunnel, packed the terminus with explosives, and then on the morning of July 30, 1864, blew it up.
In the words of a Maine soldier, the sky was filled with “Earth, stones, timbers, arms, legs, guns unlimbered and bodies unlimbed.” Burnside had initially planned to send a fresh division of black troops into the breach, but his superiors, Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade, ruled against it. That role—literally via a short straw—went to James H. Ledlie, a hard-drinking political general who spent the day well behind the lines as his white soldiers piled into the explosion’s deep crater rather than go around it. Unable to escape, and followed by Burnside’s other three divisions, they turned into what one New Hampshire soldier described as “a mass of worms crawling over each other”—easy targets for Confederates.
The battle was a Union disaster and marked by particularly cruel treatment of the black troops who participated, many of whom were captured and murdered. Although Congress later blamed Meade for the loss, it was Ledlie and Burnside who lost their commands.