|Date(s):||June 20, 1864 to July 26, 1864|
|Tag(s):||Civil War, Battle of Petersburg, Battle of the Crater, Mining Operation, Mining, Mine|
|Course:||“American Civil War Era,” Furman University|
Both Union and Confederate leaders knew that a decisive battle at Petersburg could mean a decisive battle of the war; but, it is unlikely that Union leaders would have guessed that their best chance for victory would depend on constructing a mineshaft. There was a lot riding on the outcome of Petersburg, Virginia. Bryce Suderow, a Civil War historian, explains the Union’s strategy: Grant and his advisors believed that if they could break the Confederate defenses at Petersburg, then the last true southern stronghold would fall along with Richmond, the Confederate capitol, and the war would end. It was with this mentality that Union forces continuously assaulted the front lines. Northern forces continuously shelled the Confederate trenches that surrounded Petersburg; but, the Union made no real progress. The Union troops were not able to break the Confederate lines and thus were not able to execute their assault on the city! Hopelessness and despair were commonly felt emotions among the stagnant soldiers.
As Suderow, our historian explains, Grant continued to attempt to break the Southern lines with his straight-forward charges and large soldier concentrations. But again, because the Confederates were dug into the hillsides, eradicating the enemy was a seemingly hopeless task. Many Union soldiers were losing faith in the mission to capture Petersburg; their will to fight was waning. Many Union soldiers saw themselves as pawns in a chess game, waiting their turn to rush the hills in a suicide mission.
A few months into the battle, Grant was approached by a Colonel Cal W. Stevens who proposed a rather obscure idea to deal with the Confederate trenches. The Colonel explained to Grant that he could lead a team of soldiers to construct a T-shaped series of mineshafts directly underground, parallel to the Confederate trenches. Grant, who was looking for a way to occupy the minds of his depressed and unenthusiastic soldiers, gave the Colonel the order to commence with his obscure plan. Grant saw the plan as a way to bring the soldiers together and accomplish something positive: a welcome feeling for the soldiers who had experienced continuous defeats charging on the Confederate trenches at Petersburg.
With this knowledge, one can come to the conclusion that the mine shaft, which would eventually be packed full of explosives and produce the “Battle of Crater,” was constructed through busy-work, thought to be a meaningless task. Also, some scholars find it ironic that many of the men who were mining the hillside were digging their own graves. As our historian Suderow points out, it was not Grant’s wish to create such death and destructing with his mining operation; but, war never goes as planned as illustrated through this series of bloody events.