1864: “Blew Up A Fortification In Front Of Petersburg”

Sunday, August 7

….The Rebs. are still raiding around up in Maryland and Pa. Grant blew up a fortification in front of Petersburg last Saturday (a week) &, but for the bungling way it which it was done, the result might have been glorious. As it was, it was a failure. The engineer had a powder fuse which went out twice, and delayed the blowing up an and a half. Who would have supposed, in these days of galvanic batteries & copper wire, that anyone would have been so behind the age as to depend on a powder fuse put in a wooden box, when a sure thing could have been made of it at any instant with a galvanic battery & wire! I wish I had been down there to advise! But the thing is over – we were defeated, & all I hope is “better luck next time” – or, at least more science next time!….

(Source: Witness To the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, 1828-1870, by Benjamin Brown French, edited by Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough. Hanover, The University Press of New England, 1989. Page 454-455

Battle of the Crater

In the dark morning hours of July 30, 1864, a huge explosion shook the ground near Petersburg, Virginia. A mine, dug underneath the Confederate lines, had been purposely ignited and 8,000 pounds of gunpowder blew a hole in the Southern entrenched line. Union infantry rushed forward, supposed to exploit the confusion and breakthrough the enemy position.

A sketch of the explosion as seen from the Union lines (by A. Waud)

Unfortunately, the troops had not received adequate instructions, and many ran directly into the deep crater that had been carved out as the earth exploded. The Confederates rallied and rushed to the edge of the crater; there, they saw Union troops – most of them black troops – struggling to get out of the pit and continue the attack.

As the Confederates counterattacked to fill the breach in their line, some units lined the top of the crater, shooting into the pit and keeping up their fire even as the pinned troops tried to surrender.

Ultimately, the Battle of the Crater cost the Union 3,798 casualties and the Confederates losses numbered 1,491. General Ulysses S. Grant wrote about the fight: “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.” He also said that it ended his hopes of taking Petersburg quickly, and he settled that Union army for “siege” operations.

The Crater as it appeared in 1865.

Raiding Rebels

From the safety of his comfortable home, Mr. French kept tabs on the war. In this journal entry, he also noted that the Confederates under Jubal Early still roamed in northern states. In fact, earlier in July 1864, they had burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, when that county seat refused to pay a ransom.

Early’s raiding signaled the last major Confederate offensives north of the Virginia line in the Civil War’s eastern theater.

Historical Musings

Science and the war. Benjamin French was most perturbed that the army was using out-dated technology and wished he had been there to advise. So…what exactly was he advising and venting about in his journal?

Galvanic Batteries and Copper Wire for a start. A Galvanic Battery was a simple form battery that could have sparked the ignition for the explosion while the copper wire could have carried the current to the gunpowder. Instead, the miners set up the charges with a long powder fuse running into the mine shaft; they did pack the entrances to the gallery with 11 to 30 feet of dirt (depending on which entrance) for safety and to ensure that the mine blew up and not back into the Union lines.

Interestingly, the Civil War used lots of science. From ironclads to rapid firing weapons, medical advancements, telegraph, balloon observation, and more, science played its role in the conflict, just not the way Mr. French wanted in this particular battle.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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