Warfare History Network
Crater of Doom: Union Soldiers Tried to Tunnel Beneath Confederate Positions (Bad Idea)
The fresh Crater, which would soon become a horrendous death trap for thousands of Union soldiers, first entombed half of Pegram’s guns and crews and entire companies of Elliot’s command, as well as damaging part of the cavalier trench. A total of 278 Confederates were sent to their graves by the huge blast. Great clods of dirt, some as large as houses, littered the floor of the Crater along with the torn bodies of its erstwhile defenders. Some defenders were seen running from the trenches, but most of the South Carolinians remained at their posts in the smoky haze. It would take a full half-hour for the stunned defenders to reorganize and put up any type of effective defense. “The way was completely open to the summit of the hill,” recalled a Union observer, “which was protected by no other line of works.”
It was just after 3 am on Saturday, July 30, 1864. A month of relative quiet along a two-mile stretch of Union and Confederate trench lines immediately east of Petersburg, Virginia, was about to come to an explosive end. In the aftermath of several earlier Federal attacks on the strategically vital city in mid-June, a portion of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps picket line lay only 400 feet from Elliot’s Salient, a highly fortified position on high ground that formed an angle protruding out from the main Confederate line, commanded by Maj. Gen. Bushrod Rust Johnson.