General Bushrod Johnson had anticipated a Union attempt to breach his lines through a frontal assault. Nothing had prepared him or his men for this. The earth shook for miles around. Then the ground burst like a volcano beneath the Confederate artillerists and infantrymen in the trenches in what Johnson’s official report called an upheaval “of an immense column of
more than 100,000 cubic feet of earth.” Cannon, timbers and men rose with it, flipping end over end in the air. Nine infantry companies simply vanished. As the column rose some 200 feet up, 170 feet of Confederate entrenchment disintegrated, leaving a crater 135 feet long, 97 feet wide and 30 feet deep, littered with twisted pieces of iron, shattered wheels, broken cannon, human fragments and half-buried figures screaming for help. Nearly 150 pieces of Union artillery opened fire upon the Confederate positions in what Johnson later called “the heaviest artillery fire known to our oldest officers in the field.”
Ledlie’s incompetence began bearing fruit from the first moment. He had failed to provide for ladders or steps: his men had to struggle to get out of their own trenches. His officers did not know where they were going once they reached the Crater because Ledlie had not briefed them on their new goal, Cemetery Hill, and their route to it. The explosion and the enormous pit had struck Ledlie’s troops with awe. As they stumbled forward from the dust and smoke, they could not resist the temptation to crowd forward to look into the hole. The attack slowed and stopped. The various units mingled together, breaking the lines of command. Literally, the officers could not find their men in the crowd. Then, instead of advancing around the Crater, Ledlie’s men began moving into it to seek cover from Confederate fire.
Good troops recover from the shock of disaster and Johnson’s men were very good. His surviving infantry and artillery began firing on the flanks of the advancing Federal columns.
At a depth of 30 feet, getting into the Crater was easy. Getting out of it was not. Half an hour after they had stepped off, Ledlie’s command was huddled in a confused, leaderless mass at the bottom of the pit. Unit after unit backed up after them, leaving thousands of men either crammed into the Crater or stalled in no man’s land—useless as combat troops, but excellent targets.
Even the Confederates found the slowness of the Union’s advance inexplicable. One observer noted that Johnson’s division had been so shaken that “there was nothing on the Confederate side to prevent the orderly (advance) of any column through the breach which had been effected, cutting the Confederate army in twain.”
Of course, the advance stalled. Its commander was not present to restore order, clear the trenches and resume the advance. Gen. Ledlie was huddled “in a bombproof shelter ten rods (165 feet) in the rear of the main line,” plying himself with a bottle of rum borrowed from a regimental surgeon. He couldn’t observe the fighting or pass instructions to his officers. A court of inquiry later found that “Had the division (been) led by a resolute, intelligent commander, it would have gained the crest in fifteen minutes after the explosion, and before any serious opposition could have been made to it.”
Within minutes of the explosion, Johnson had dispatched his aides to the Confederate divisions on his flanks for reinforcements. On his right flank was Mahone’s Virginians. Johnson’s aide, an English volunteer named Smith, promptly galloped back to report Mahone was on the march.
Brigadier General William Mahone was not yet 38 years old when Smith charged up to his headquarters. Though the son of an innkeeper, Mahone was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, having paid his tuition from the proceeds of a card game at his father’s tavern. He had been a college professor and professional railroader before entering the Confederate army in 1861. And his handsome and strong-willed wife Otelia Butler, mother of their 13 children and a “character” in her own right, was nearly as famous as Mahone.
Mahone had transformed his command into what the authors of the encyclopedic Confederate Military History have described as “a remarkably spirited and unified organization, which was inspired with a strong esprit [de] corps, and distinguished for readiness to take all chances in either defense or assault.” Moreover, Petersburg was Mahone’s hometown. (As Grant had quipped of Meade defending his native Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, “A rooster fights for his own dung hill.”)
Burnside sent in two more divisions. They either froze in no man’s land or took cover in the Crater. Then Burnside sent in Ferrero’s Fourth Division. They had to stop in the front line of the Federal trenches because other troops were blocking their way. Then Ferrero was ordered to advance. Then he was ordered to halt. Then he was ordered to advance. By now, his men were taking enemy fire and unable to protect themselves. They rushed forward. Some obeyed their orders, charging around the pit. Others stopped in no man’s land. Still more rushed into the Crater, hopelessly entangling themselves with the mob that had once been Ledlie’s command.
Ferrero was not there. He was back in the bombproof with Ledlie, sharing the bottle. Burnside, still farther in the rear, had been so sure of success that his baggage had been ordered packed for the advance into Petersburg. He disbelieved the bad news about the assault and kept sending troops up to the Crater. His attention was further distracted by Meade, a remarkably temperamental and profane man who began squabbling with him over the failure of the attack. It must have been interesting: the only fly on the wall, Horace Porter, one of Grant’s staff officers, later claimed their argument “went far towards confirming one’s belief in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute.” At 9:45 a.m., Grant and Meade flatly ordered Burnside to break off the offensive and withdraw. He did not forward the order to his troops for nearly three more hours.
In the meantime, though, Mahone had come to the Crater. His division filled the breach in the Confederate lines created by the explosion. Then, at 9 a.m., while Mahone was redeploying his command—moving them into place for a counterattack—part of Ferrero’s Fourth Division, having passed the Crater as originally planned, advanced upon him in line of battle. Only half of Mahone’s command was in place. He charged anyway. The Virginians came boiling up out of a ravine, smashing head on into the Federals, and in a series of ferocious charges, drove them and any other Federal troops who had gotten past the Crater out. Johnson’s artillery encouraged them on their way with canister—shells filled with musket balls that scattered in all directions after exploding.
Between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., as Johnson reported, Confederate artillerists began using mortars—small, short-range artillery with high trajectory—to drop explosive shells “with remarkable precision” into the mass of men huddled at the bottom of the pit. Then the rebel infantry pressed to the Crater’s rim, firing into the nearly helpless Federal troops floundering in “their huge, earthen barrel.” Around noon, Mahone and his men charged into the pit, driving out the survivors in hand-to-hand fighting. Many Confederates had been told Ferrero’s division was under orders to take no prisoners. Now they returned the compliment, shooting and stabbing every black soldier they could find. By mid-afternoon, the fighting was over. Bodies lay four and five deep on the floor of the Crater.
The Union had 3798 to 5300 casualties. Of these, half were from Ferrero’s division. Despite extraordinarily high black losses, the New York Times falsely reported that the black soldiery had fallen “out of the range of fire after several advances forward,” an evasive means of saying they had run away. Indeed, Northern journalists seem to have gone out of their way to blame them for the defeat. An unnamed special correspondent wrote that their conduct “was as disgraceful as it proved disastrous to themselves.” This would have been news to one of Ferrero’s men, Sergeant Decatur Dorsey of the 19th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, who won the Medal of Honor for saving his company colors and rallying his men to advance.
The Confederacy had lost from 1032 to 1500 men. The assault had been, as Grant wrote, a “stupendous failure.” The siege of Petersburg lasted another eight months.
The U.S. Army convened a court of inquiry, which heard testimony for 16 days. They found Burnside and Ledlie at fault. Only now, after Antietam and Fredericksburg and the Crater, was Burnside finally relieved of command. Ledlie resigned his commission in January 1865, having been literally read out of the service on Grant’s orders. Ferrero was found responsible for having been “where he could not see the operation of his troops [or know] the position of the two brigades of his division or whether they had taken Cemetery Hill.”
Robert E. Lee promoted Mahone to major general before sundown on the day of battle. He surrendered only at the very end, at Appomattox. His neighbors elected him mayor of Petersburg and his fellow Virginians to the U.S. Senate, where he dominated the politics of the Old Dominion. His Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railway is a direct ancestor of today’s Norfolk Southern. Once, when Mahone was standing beside one of its locomotives, someone asked him the meaning of the initials “A. M. & O.” painted on its side. “All Mine and Otelia’s,” he replied.
Ambrose E. Burnside resigned his commission on April 15, 1865. Rhode Island welcomed him as a hero. His warm, charismatic personality overcame the obstacles posed by his history of remarkable military incompetence to the extent that he was three times elected governor and, in 1874, U.S. senator, which office he held until his death on Sept. 13, 1881.
James Ledlie, that “arrant physical coward,” made a fortune in building and promoting Western and Southern railroads. In 1882, he died of dropsy and jaundice at St. Mark’s Hotel, New Brighton, Staten Island. His New York Times obituary does not mention the Battle of the Crater. Ledlie, NV, which was named for him in 1880, became a ghost town after his Nevada Central Railroad was torn up in 1938. At last report, all that remained was a collapsed wooden building and a solitary telegraph pole.
Edward Ferrero never failed to praise his men for their courage under fire at the Crater. Despite the court of inquiry’s finding, he was brevetted major general on Dec. 2, 1864, for “meritorious service.” After he was mustered out of the army in 1865, Ferrero returned to New York and, over the next three decades, operated a succession of splendid ballrooms and catering halls that, from their descriptions in the contemporary press, seem precursors of such institutions as Leonard’s of Great Neck. He died at his residence, 111 W. 78th St., on Monday, Dec. 11, 1899. His New York Times obituary does not mention the battle, either. He lies in Green-Wood Cemetery. His most enduring work, The Art of Dancing, has been reprinted and may be found on Amazon.com.