Saturday Rebekah and I toured the Petersburg National Battlefield, just south of Richmond. It’s a tough stop to do justice to. Ten months of siege; more than 70 miles of earthworks; dozens of major engagements.
The first action came on the heals of the devastation of Cold Harbor, and – but for poor communications – the initial breakthrough would have been a major Federal victory after the first few hours. Then both sides shored up their defenses and dug in – and it was back and forth, give and take, Grant chipping away at Lee, the Union army working its way to the West until Richmond was eventually isolated.
For me the most interesting, and horrific, story was the infamous Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864. Union troops dug a secret tunnel, extending more than 500 feet beneath the Confederate defenses; it was packed with four tons of powder, and the explosives were detonated early in the morning. The effect was catastrophic, ripping a major breach in the line and creating a huge crater, 130 ft long, 60 ft wide, 30 ft deep.
The plan was for Union forces to go around the crater and get behind enemy lines, but confusion, poor leadership, and vainglory led the charge directly into the hole in the ground. More and more forces poured in, and the crater became a death trap, a shooting gallery, a killing field. The result was – to quote Grant – “The saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”
The following photographs were taken on and around the series of batteries and earthworks where the action was most intense. Again, a sobering day.