One hundred forty-seven years ago Saturday, at 4:44 in the morning, Petersburg woke up to what at the time was the largest explosion ever detonated on the North American continent. Ground zero was directly beneath Confederate lines just outside the city, and about 278 South Carolinians and Virginians were killed instantly. Union miners had been digging for about five weeks, and this part of their plan went off perfectly; it was the rest of the battle—called the Battle of the Crater for reasons you can probably guess—that went to hell … if not literally, then close enough. For one it was really hot. For another, Union troops poured into the 30-feet-deep hole and there got stuck. It was like a turkey shoot, the Confederates later bragged.
From our entry:
One New York soldier tripped over the naked bodies of the South Carolinians originally blown up by the explosion on his way to what appeared to be “a large body of Union soldiers lying as though in line of battle waiting for the command to move forward.” To his horror, they were all dead.
Black troops were sent in, and the Confederates showed them no mercy. By some accounts it was a massacre. The former slaves and free blacks were looking to fight for something bigger than themselves, looking to make a sacrifice, and here it was. This was it, and as far as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is concerned, the horror experienced at the Crater is just a function of war, but more than that, a war that has made us all (or at least Coates) who we are today:
Now, after so much reading on the War, I don’t really know how to think of myself without it. I don’t know how to think of America without it. I can mourn the dead, but it’s very hard for me to mourn the War itself. It made me. And it made this country. This was the moment where all of that high talk of Enlightenment and Rights was made real. I guess I wish that could have happened in some other way. But I don’t really see the point. It strikes me as wishing that we weren’t human.
And come the next big war, the miners kept on digging …
UPDATE: For interesting discussion of who among the Union generals was most to blame for the debacle—in particular, Ambrose E. Burnside, George G. Meade, or Ulysses S. Grant—see this post at the blog Crossroads.
IMAGE: Entrance to the mine (Civil War Librarian)