1864. In my view, this was the most brutal year of the war—the year in which Lincoln finally found a general who understood that “awful arithmetic” of superior Union numbers.
The opposing armies fought their way to a standstill in Petersburg, Virginia, just south of the Confederate capital in Richmond. The armies began fortifying their positions—they dug trenches and settled in for a long siege. No one was going anywhere. Stalemate.
The men of the 48th Pennsylvania had an idea. Before they marched through Virginia in search of Confederates, they had been miners in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. Why not put their peculiar talent to good use? Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants proposed a bold plan—his men would construct a tunnel stretching from the Union line to the Confederate position. Once they reached enemy territory, they would ignite a huge cache of gunpowder underground, causing a massive explosion—and massive casualties.
On this date in 1864, the men of the 48th Pennsylvania began digging the tunnel. They were able to complete about 40 feet per day. Finally, after five weeks, the 500 foot long shaft was complete.
They lit the gunpowder on July 30th. The plan worked. You can still see the crater today, measuring 170 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Between 250 and 350 Confederate soldiers were killed instantly. Though the explosion worked and a huge gap was blown in the Confederate line, Union forces were unable to capitalize. The Battle of the Crater was a Confederate victory. Confederates reported losses of 1,032 men, while Union losses were eventually estimated at 5,300.
The movie Cold Mountain contains a dramatic depiction of this battle.