......they hesitated. The Unions plan was to move quickly forward once the mine was exploded and pass through the breach in the Confederate's works made by the explosion. What they hadn't counted on was was that the bottom and sides of the crater was covered with a loose, light sand, furnishing scarcely foothold, and it was for this reason, as well as that as the narrowness of the place, it was only with great difficulty that the troops could pass through it.
Another unexpected obstacle confronting the first troops to enter the pit was the steep perimeter wall and they could find no footing except by facing inward, digging their heels into the earth, and throwing their backs against the side of the crater, or squatting in a half-sitting, half standing position......
Spiteful Confederate fire chewed into the flanks of the barely controlled Federal mass occupying the crater, and valuable time was lost as officers deployed men to try and counter the threat. The ragged Rebel force lacked the weight to be effective, however, and only served to provide a ready target for the confused Federal riflemen. "Our men were literally mowed down," one dazed South Carolinian later remembered. About two hundred survivors stumbled back into trenches, where they stubbornly hung on, blocking any easy Union advance toward Cemetery Hill.
Word of a breakthrough reached Robert E. Lee at his headquarters, just across the Appomattox River from Petersburg and now he reacted quickly. He dispatched his aide to General Mahone's headquarters with orders for the doughty Virginia officer to pull two brigades out of the line south of the breach to help plug the gap. Lee then mounted his horse, Traveller, and rode toward Petersburg.
More Confederate troops were brought in and the fighting in and around the crater pit was chaotic and violent. "This day was the jubilee of fiends in human shape, and without souls," one southerner later asserted. "Most of the fighting was done with bayonets and butts of muskets," added a North Carolina soldier. "Blood ran in the trenches all around."
Conditions in the crater were deteriorating rapidly. One Michigan soldier noted, "The day had been intensely hot, and the men had been exposed in the boiling sun without food or drink since the night before. Many were completely used up." "By the middle of the afternoon," a Maine soldier noted bitterly, "the affair was over....the enemy had recovered positions of all the ground we had taken in our first advance, and except for the ugly gap where the demolished redan had stood, their lines were intact, and as strong as before the explosion of our mine." One New Hampshire diarist ended his July 31 entry, "A sad day for our corps. The old story again...a big slaughter, and nothing gained."
At 5:00 a.m. on August 1, a truce was declared so both sides could retrieve their wounded and bury their dead. Not a shot was heard all along the line. A New Hampshre man remembered that is was "a beautiful Sabbath morning. Officers and men of both armies mingled there, where we were caring for the dead, or sat upon the breastworks on our left and right and engaged in friendly conversation." During the time of removing the dead the Confederates brought a brass band and posted it on their front lines of the works," continued Pennsylvanian J. R. Holibaugh. "We had a band on our line. So for two hours the bands played alternately, the Federals playing National airs and the Confederates playing Southern airs."
Union losses at the Crater, among the Ninth Corps and the Army of the James troops and associated artillery engaged, were officially reported as 504 killed, 1,881 wounded, and 1,413 missing, for a total of 3,789.
The most recent estimate of Confederate losses at the Crater, among the troops of Mahone's, Johnson's and Hoke's divisions, Elliott's Brigade, and associated artillery, suggests these figures as miniums: 361 killed,727 wounded, and 403 missing, for a total of 1,491)
A Soldiers account of the Battle.
As it looked in 1864 and Present Day
An Alabama Rebel recalled that the heat was exessive, there was no protection from the rays of the sun; the trench was so narrow that two men could scarcely pass abreast, and the fire of the enemy was without intermission." On top of this , the men were tormented by swarms of flies, lice, ticks and chiggers and suffered from the lack of good water near the front. Death sought them out in innumerable ways; from sickness, accident, a sniper's bullet, or the burst of a mortar shell. "This life in the trenches was awful, beyond description a Confederate officer declared."
The spade now came into play as miles of entrenchments were dug. a Connecticut chaplain remembered the deadly routine, "lying in the trenches; eyeing the rebels; digging by moonlight; broiling in the sun; shooting through a slit, shot at if a head is lifted."
The opposing trenches were especially close along the section of the lines near the Taylor farm, where a Confederate redoubt known as Elliot's Salient was just 400 feet from the Federal outposts. By coincidence, these Yankees belonged to a Pennsylvania regiment recruited in the Schuylkill County coal mining district. The officer in command, Lt. Colonel Henry Pleasents got the idea to tunnel under the enemy position and blast it with gun powder.
After approval from higher command work began on the the mine at noon on the 25th of June, and after over coming several obstacles such as water, quicksand, ventilation and how far to dig, it was completed on 23 July. Now all that remained was the packing of the mine with explosives.
The loading of the mine began at 4:p.m. on July 27th. It was large course blasting powder, and was placed in kegs of twenty-five pounds each. These kegs were then placed in bags and carried to the mouth of the mine where the minors carried them into the magazine under the Confederate lines. In all, 320 kegs of gunpowder were placed in the galleries, which lay some twenty feet below the enemy trenches. By 11:00 p.m., the work was done. It was then decided to explode the mine at 3:30 a.m. on July 30. The fuse was lit, but due to a wet or broken fuse that had to be repaired, the explosion did not take place until 4:44 a.m.......
"First there came a deep shock and tremor of the earth and a jar like an earthquake," recalled Byron Cutcheon,with the 20th Michigan," then a heaving and lifting of the fort and the hill on which it stood; then a monstrous tongue of flame shot fully two hundred feet into the air, followed by a vast column of white smoke, resembling the discharge of an enormous cannon; then a great spout or fountain of red earth rose to a great height, mingled with men and guns, timbers and planks, and every other kind of debris, all ascending, spreading, whirling, scattering and falling with great concussion to the earth once more.
Confederates were no less awed. "The earth seemed to tremble," noted one Alabama officer, "and the next instant there was a report that seemed to deafen all nature," A Virginia soldier stationed along the lines southwest of the explosion later wrote, "A deep rumbling sound, that seemed to rend the very earth in twain, startled me from my sleep, and in an instant I beheld a mountain of curling smoke ascending towards the heavens."
Of the 300 South Carolina troops manning the trenches directly above the mine gallery and the 30 gunners serving in Captain Richard Pegram's four gun battery, 278 were killed or wounded in the explosion.
"The explosion produced a crater from one hundred fifty to two hundred feet in length, about sixty feet in width, and thirty feet deep." In the pit, powder smoke issued from from the crevices; guns were seen half buried; the heads or limbs of half buried men wriggled in the loose earth.
The Jerusalem Plank Road ( Crater Road) lay just 1,600 feet beyond the crater, and only half a mile along it to the north was Cemetery Hill (Blandford Church), overlooking Petersburg. Victory for the Union forces was that close, but..........