Battle of Crater's 150th anniversary draws a crowd
By James Peacemaker Jr., Managing Editor
Jul 30, 2014, 09:49
PETERSBURG — With faces barely recognizable in the early morning darkness, the booms of cannons in the distance overpowered the clicks of cameras.
Hundreds of people gathered around a large depression in the earth, a spot where many soldiers died exactly 150 years ago on July 30, 1864.
A solemn ceremony marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, the most well known battle during the nine-month Siege of Petersburg. It was also one of the Civil War’s most unique, and has been depicted in Hollywood movies such as “Cold Mountain.” It was a story told many times here before, but this time was special.
Cars lined the paved road at the battlefield as far as the eye could see. License plates showed that people came from New York, Florida, Indiana, Ohio and even as far away as Texas.
The battle was an effort to break the stalemate that had formed, with soldiers heavily entrenched on both sides.
Union troops dug a 511-foot tunnel and placed a massive explosive charge directly under the Confederate fortification. The idea was to open a massive hole in the defenses and cause confusion so soldiers could charge through.
The initial explosion killed 278 men and sent shockwaves through the Confederate defenses.
As the sun slowly rose over the open field at Stop 8 of the Petersburg National Battlefield on Wednesday morning, park rangers read quotes from Civil War soldiers who experienced the horror.
While the initial blast was quite effective, the battle did not go as planned.
Initially, a group of well-trained black Union soldiers was picked to lead the charge at the enemy. But due to political reasons, there was a last-minute decision to send in a group of white soldiers in their place.
Union leaders were worried it would look bad for President Abraham Lincoln in an election year if the black soldiers were sent in first and butchered. Others felt it would dishonor white soldiers by having them fight alongside black soldiers.
The last-minute change was disastrous. Instead of running around the massive crater left by the blast, they ran into it and became trapped, becoming easy targets for Confederate guns. It also gave time for the Confederates to rally and retake the fortification.
Part of the earthworks still remain at the Petersburg National Battlefield and a large depression marks where the blast went off. There are even smaller depressions where Confederate tunnels were built in an effort to head off the plan. They caved in during the blast.
The failure of the attack forced Union leaders to resume trench warfare.
On Wednesday morning, a moment of silence and a bugler playing “Taps” paid tribute to the soldiers on both sides who lost their lives that day.
Events to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater continue this weekend.
On Saturday, there will be a variety of events from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but parking will not be allowed at the battlefield due to the large amount of visitors expected. A free shuttle service will be provided from the Farmer’s Market located at 9 Old St. in Petersburg.
For a list of events and more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/pete/.