Today, the Petersburg Crater. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Those of us who read Cold Mountain, or saw the
fine movie version, carry a mental image of Earth suddenly erupting before our
eyes at the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia. The movie recreated the real-life
Petersburg blast with stunning and chilling accuracy. Now, I find an 1887
Century Magazine with four articles about that day in July, 1864.
They're by survivors of war, struggling to sort out this terrible experience,
just 23 years earlier -- this Union Army disaster of epic proportions.
Grant had surrounded Petersburg, a supply hub twenty miles south of Richmond.
Nine months later, he would take the town, but only after a series of ghastly
battles; and his victory would lead to the surrender at Appomattox. In the
early days of the blockade, a mining engineer, Henry Pleasants, now a Union
colonel, went to General Burnside with a plan to tunnel under the Confederate
trenches, blow them up, and open a hole for the Union forces.
Burnside agreed, but Generals Grant and Meade didn't take it seriously. They
provided no extra resources. Pleasants had his troops dig a 500-foot tunnel
that fanned out in a T-shape, fifty feet below Confederates lines. An air
shaft, just out of enemy sight, provided an exhaust draft driven by a fire in
the tunnel. They loaded four tons of gunpowder in the T-section and waited.
Pleasants also trained a division of Black soldiers. They were to charge around
the sides of the crater after the blast. Then, just before the explosion,
General Meade told Burnside, Don't use the inexperienced Black troops; replace
them with untrained white troops. He feared the Black troops would suffer huge
casualties and he would look bad in the Northern press. It was a very poor decision.
The blast went off at dawn, and it was horrific. Hundreds of Confederate soldiers
died -- but far more survived. The replacement Union assault force fell back from
the flying mountain of dirt, then surged forward in a confused mass to stare into
the crater. While they milled about in disorder, the South regrouped.
The Union soldiers were finally ordered to charge -- not around the pit, but straight
into and across it. The scene was hellish chaos -- those in back pushed those in front.
They were trapped in debris while the Confederates shot them to bits. Thousands died
in what's been called The Great Turkey Shoot. The Black soldiers were finally ordered
into the mess. Over nine hundred of them joined the tally of 5300 Union troops lost.
Century Magazine's four articles remind me of watching the movie Rashomon. Each writer formulates his own tale of horror and heroism, and they all conflict. Well, of course they do. War is confusion. Blame touches everyone and no one. Grass may've grown over the crater, but the scars, the claims, and the distortions still lingered then -- and they continue to hover over the unsettling story of the Petersburg Crater, even now.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
W. H. Powell, The Tragedy of the Crater;
G. L. Kilmer, The Dash Into the Crater;
H. G. Thomas, The Colored Troops at Petersburg;
G. L. Kilmer, Assault and Repulse at Fort Stedman.
The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol XXXIV,
No. 5, September, 1887, pp. 760-790. All images from this source,
including This mural of an artist's conception of the Battle.
See the Wikipedia article on
"The "Battle of the Crater".
C. Frazier, Cold Mountain. (New York: Grove Press, 2006 paperback).
The opening scene of the movie Cold Mountain,
the explosion re-enactment,
is on You-Tube.
My thanks to Bobby Marlin, UH Library, for his counsel. The musical tag in the audio is taken from the Cold Mountain movie
soundtrack, Tim Eriksen playing Am I Born to Die? (Columbia Records, CK86843, Track 7).
The Century articles include so much more: Stories came back from Andersonville prison
about Union soldiers who'd curried Southern favor just, before they were captured, by
bayoneting their Black comrades in the crater. Or a different kind of chilling scene,
shortly before dawn, when the Black troops were told they'd been pulled from the charge:
The news was followed by a long, long silence. Then a single voice lifted in song --
more voices entering in harmony. Soon all were singing:
"We looks like men a marchin' on, we looks like men-er-war."