What If…USCT Led The Attack at the Battle of the Crater

Battle of the Crater

Pondering our Emerging Civil War series about “What Ifs…?”, I thought about the many what if situations that I have been asked at either tours or talks that I have given. A visitor who knew that I was an author with Emerging Civil War, recently asked me what was the most asked “what if” question that I had been asked? Easily, I replied that it was what-if Stonewall Jackson had lived? I think that is the most asked what if question for anyone who has worked at Chancellorsville. I then thought of the what if question that I would like to hear about, what if the 4th Division of the IX Corps had led the attack at the Battle of the Crater, following General Ambrose E. Burnside’s original plan!

General Burnside’s original military plan called for the 48th Pennsylvania regiment to dig a mine under Elliott’s Salient and plant explosives under it. The mine would explode, and his 4th Division would make the lead assault after the mine explosion. They would go around the crater and fight their way to the crest of the cemetery in Petersburg. His other divisions would follow the 4th and fight against the Confederates who were expected to try to repulse the lead attack. He would then draw enough soldiers from in front of the V Corps, so that they could attack a weakened line. If it worked, the other corps could mount a major assault against the defenses of Petersburg.

General George Gordon Meade and his chief engineer, Major James Duane, did not think this was a good plan from the outset. Meade thought that Burnside was trying to take authority for the operation and wanted to direct the V Corps to assist in the attack. Duane did not think the 48th Pennsylvania and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants could build a tunnel the length to the salient. Pleasants had been a mining engineer before the war.  Burnside thought that he could manage the situation better if he could manage the V Corps with his attack and Pleasants knew that he could build the mine, both Meade and Duane thought this was a mad plan and they provided little or no assistance to assure its success.

Most of the Army of the Potomac did not care for the fact that they had African American troops with them. They had  been used for very little combat, mainly the two skirmishes at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. General Burnside knew that they had not been involved in the trench warfare in which his other three divisions had fought. His other three divisions were tired and depleted. He knew that General Benjamin Butler, commanding the Army of the James had used his two black divisions in combat – and that Butler wanted Burnside’s black division to be transferred to the Army of the James.  Butler’s black divisions fought well during the opening attacks of the Battle of Petersburg, capturing several batteries and fortifications of Petersburg’s Dimmock Line. Since Fort Pillow, African American soldiers had been fighting under the black flag, giving no quarter to Confederates and expecting none from the Confederates. Butler and his army believed in the fighting ability of black troops, General Meade and his army did not.

On July 27, 1864, Generals Grant and Meade approved Burnside’s plan for the mine explosion. Pleasants went into action and by July 28 the mine was ready.  However, earlier on the 28th, Meade ordered changes. Historian Ed Bearss stated in his book, The Petersburg Campaign Volume 1:The Eastern Front Battles June – August 1864, “…ordered Burnside to make a change in plans that would have severe repercussions.” Not only did he want the black troops, who had been training for leading the attack, not to lead it, he did not want the troops to protect their flanks – they were to proceed directly to cemetery. Meade went to Grant and convinced him not to use the black troops first because of the political fallout to President Abraham Lincoln, if the black troops were slaughtered leading the attack. He agreed to order Burnside not to use the black troops first.

On July 30, 1864, the mine exploded around 4:30 am, and the attacks did not start directly after the explosion. The hesitation lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, then there were no provisions made to get through the Union trenches, nor the Confederate obstacles, or the debris from the explosion. When the white troops reached the crater, they went inside a 30 foot deep crater. Some of the men assisted the wounded Confederates, others seemed amazed and bewildered with what they saw. Then a second division went into the Crater, however, now they faced fire from the Confederates who recovered from the shock of the explosion. At 6 am, the third division went into the fight and tried to work their way around the crater. Finally, at 7 am, the 4th Division went in and tried to do what they were trained, and they went further than the other IX Corps divisions but by 9 am, General Mahone’s Virginians lead a counterattack forcing all of the soldiers in the Crater.  When the Confederates saw black troops, they fought more ferociously than ever. They killed many black soldiers and executed black prisoners after they were captured. There were several reports of the white IX Corps soldiers killing or wounding black IX Corps soldiers in and around the Crater. They did not want to be seen helping black soldiers, as the Confederates yelled that they would kill white soldiers assisting blacks. Black soldiers had been fighting back the Confederates, however, it seemed that they had two enemies that day.

There had always been an undercurrent of racism against the black soldiers in the Army of the Potomac and it manifested itself, as the black soldiers took the blame for the loss at the Crater. A Joint Committee blamed Burnside and General James Ledlie for the Union defeat. Later the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War blamed Meade for the defeat. The Committee thought that if Meade had not interfered then the black troops would have probably won the battle.

What if the blacks led the assault at the Crater, first of all, Meade did not give all of the assistance that Burnside needed? However, the black troops were motivated to attack, they thought that if they were first they could win the battle. The 4th Division probably knew about the black soldiers who captured several batteries on June 15. They wanted the opportunity to prove that the men of the 4th Division were soldiers. The USCT were trained, and they were disciplined enough to still try to carry out their objectives – even if they were the last to attack. Could they have won the battle if they led? We will never know. Many of them fought strongly and violently although they faced the enemy and some of their “supposed” comrades.

Although dazed and shocked, the Confederates recovered pretty quickly, when the first Union soldiers got to the Crater. We do not know whether the black troops would have acted like the white troops, who went to the Crater and tried to help some of the wounded. The black troops were trained to go around the Crater, and they would usually follow their training.

How would the white troops feel about following the black troops in an attack? We know from what happened in the Crater that they did not want to fight with the black troops while facing enraged Confederates. We would think that there were many white troops would have fought to try to get the victory. Most of the soldiers in the white divisions had been in decimated regiments, who had been fighting in trench warfare for the past two months. The trench warfare made them think that they could fight from the Crater. That led too many of the soldiers going into the Crater instead of fighting the Confederates that were on their flanks. The soldiers milling around in the Crater prevented some of the other waiting regiments to provide back up to attack.

If the black soldiers made headway in the first assault and the white soldiers did or did not follow them, would the black soldiers from the X and XVIII Corps, have tried to help them? We know that the field was too crowded for them to help. When the retreat happened many of the retreating soldiers ran through their lines, forcing them to fall back. When the Army of the Potomac V Corps did not go on the attack when the soldiers in their front went to the attack the soldiers in the Crater, would their inaction cause the Army of the James soldiers not to react? By the way, in December 1864, the USCT Division of the IX Corps was transferred to the XXV Corps of General Butler’s Army of the James.

In reality, I would answer all of the what ifs, just like I answer the one about Stonewall Jackson. I say that I have my opinions based on various questions that were posed to me, but what actually happened is what was supposed to happen. We can think about alternate realities but they all would be fiction. As historians, we must deal with the actual history and not fiction. We can debate what we think would happen, but the war has been over for 157 years and we cannot change it now – it has already happened!

About Steward T. Henderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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9 Responses to What If…USCT Led The Attack at the Battle of the Crater

  1. Interesting discussion, and frank about the racial tensions within the Union army, but fails to mention that not only did Burnside lose the 4th Div, he also lost his entire command and was censured along with others, by Meade. Burnside was never reassigned to command. The censure was later overturned and Meade himself took heat, but survived. Grant later said they didn’t send in the IVth first because they didn’t want to look as if they were sacrificing USCT in case it didn’t work. He was concerned with appearances, not the reality of possible decimation of first-in USCT troops. All in all, an amazing debacle that overshadowed the heroism and sacrifices of many on both sides. My immediate source on this is Wikipedia, but their article is well documented and verified from other sources.

  2. mjoslin says:

    It is my understanding, from the research I did for my first historical novel, the USCT were instructed to go around the crater, after the blast, rather than down into it. Would they have succeeded? I guess we will never know, but I think it may have been less of a debacle had they stuck with the original plan.

  3. Meg Groeling says:

    Excellent article–this particular part of the war has always seemed such a puzzle to me–going down into the Crater is obviously wrong! This is one “what if” I can really get behind.

  4. fernandobastidastamayo says:

    In my opinion, the original plan was good but the changes at last hour changed everything for worse.That division of USCT did not have a real combat experience, but they were trained for that specific purpose for an entire month. The results would be better than it actually happened. At least, if it was succesful, Henry Pleasants would be better known in the country where He was born, Argentina. And maybe, the story of Cold Mountain would be a little bit different.

  5. mark harnitchek says:

    unfortunately, i don’t think the outcome would have been any different with USCT troops in the lead … they would likely have gone beyond the crater per the tactical plan and their training … however, the rest of operation was a fiasco caused by absent leaders, fouled-up execution and lack of coordination

    unfortunately, fiasco’s were nothing new for the AOP in 1864 … and the Crater just another example of a brilliantly conceived plan undone by disinterested and negilent general officers — that includes Meade and to a lesser extent Grant.

  6. Charles S. Martin says:

    What if racism was so prevalent in 1864 that a concern that Black troops would break the Petersburg defenses created an undercurrent of worry that their success at the Crater would destroy the idea that they were inferior to the white troops. Just a thought

  7. Chris Kolakowski says:

    This is a good discussion, Steward, and one I’ve always wondered about. Then again, even if the 4th Division led the attack, Ferrero and Ledlie would still have been drunk. The leadership and coordination breakdowns would still likely have happened, which would have increased the odds of failure – albeit one that may have been less a fiasco than historically.

    It is one thing to fail while putting your best effort in, but another when you for some reason don’t perform your best. The latter is more humiliating.

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  9. Zach says:

    Seeing as the USCT had practiced in thr rear for weeks maybe even a month in advance in the day and THEN night non-stop, with scaling ladders, markers, ever increasing obstacles, etc. I think they would have totally succeeded. Burnside, while not a great Army Commander (a job he didn’t want in 62), and the majority of his men in the IX loved him. Spending his own money and sending officers of the 48th back to DC and even PA for mining equipment, special sighting tools etc., he took great care to make the operation a success.

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