This morning was gray and cool with patchy fog when we left the Walmart parking lot for the short drive to the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. We made the turn into the Park and the road continued in a right hand curve toward the ranger-manned gate. Orange traffic cones lined the right lane, forcing you to drive close to the window of the small ranger kiosk. I could see that it would be difficult not to run over several of the orange cones as I continued in the curve so I began slowing to a stop. Apparently, the ranger must have had the same thought because he darted out of the kiosk and began snatching his cones from the road. Apparently not many 40-foot motorhomes towing vehicles come through their gate. I showed my Golden Eagle National Parks pass to the ranger and asked about parking. I had pictured in my mind a large parking lot with space for motorhomes and 18-wheelers. Why, I don’t know. It was obvious that I had been overly optimistic after we passed through the gate and the parking lot came into sight.
There were four rows of parking spaces, each row a little longer than our coach/car combination. Luckily, the skies were threatening and very few of the spaces were occupied. We selected the rightmost row of spaces and took it, the entire row. Literally. We left one space in front of the coach to allow room to pull out when we left. We unhooked the car, which freed up 3 or 4 spaces, parked it in another row, and walked across the parking lot to the visitors’ center that contained a few exhibits, a gift shop, and a small auditorium where we watched a short video giving us an overview of Petersburg’s role in the Civil War. After the video we took the car for the self-drive tour through the park. One of the stops was the site of a Confederate artillery battery. The earthworks had been reconstructed. Pointed stakes, about 6 or 8 feet long, placed only inches apart projected from the earthworks at an angle that would certainly make an advancing infantryman hesitate.
Next to this artillery position was a half-mile loop trail through the woods. A sign announced that we would see 3 examples of something (I forget what kind of examples as I did not pay much attention to the sign) as we walked the trail. A comfortable walking speed is about 3 miles an hour. Therefore, a half-mile walk should have taken 10, surely no more than 15, minutes. The woods were thick with hardwoods and green ground cover. The trail was smooth and hard-packed. I should have paid more attention to the sign at the trailhead because the trail branched several times and there were no signs or markers offering any indication of which trail or direction we should take. After several turns I did notice that every so often a tree would be marked with either yellow or red paint. I suppose these colors may have meant something to me had I bothered to read the sign.
We kept walking and turning where we thought we should. We met an occasional hiker of whom we would ask, “Is this the way back to the parking lot?” They all replied in the affirmative except for one young man who said this was only his second time on the trail and he really didn’t know (I wonder how long he had been out there!) We stopped a bike rider who told us to keep going and we would eventually get to the parking lot. I began to follow his tire tracks, which made several turns along the trails. I had some peppermints in my pocket but thought I had better save them as they might just keep us alive in the event we were lost in the woods for several days.
Finally, after an hour of steady walking (which meant that we had walked closer to 3 miles rather than the expected half-mile) we did make it to the parking lot and our vehicle. We were hot and soaked in sweat as the humidity was extremely high. I saw another couple starting out on the trail so I stopped them and related the story of our hike to them. The woman looked at me, dripping with sweat, then looked at her companion and told him that a walk in the woods wasn’t really necessary.
We got in the car and cranked the A/C to its coldest setting and then continued the driving tour. Within a few minutes we came to the place on the battlefield that I had really wanted to see. It was where the “Battle of the Crater” had taken place.
As I mentioned yesterday, the battle for Petersburg was actually a siege that lasted from June 1864 through March 1865. Petersburg was the back door to Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. Since 1861 the Union had attempted numerous times to capture Richmond, only 106 miles south of Washington. In the defense of Richmond, Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had faced, and beaten, 5 Union commanders – Pope, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade – each with an army twice as large as Lee’s. Remember, the Confederates were protecting their homes and their backs were to the wall. They were not going to make it easy for the Union army.
A frustrated President Lincoln, impressed with Gen. U.S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, MS, finally went against his advisors and appointed Grant to lead the Union army in March 1864.
Grant’s predecessors had all tried to overwhelm Lee with large-scale frontal attacks in attempts to run over and through Lee’s army. Grant’s strategy was to outflank Lee’s army (fake a move in one direction and then make an end sweep in the opposite direction). His first attempt was known as the “Battle of the Wilderness,” which took place May 5 and May 6, 1864. Grant had crossed the Rapidan River and his army was halted on the south bank waiting for their wagon train of supplies to cross the river and catch up. The area in which the Union army had stopped was called “The Wilderness”, a thicket of bushes and briars. Skeletons of men killed a year earlier in the Battle of Chancellorsville still littered the ground where the Union army waited. It was here that Lee attacked. Instead of Grant out-flanking Lee, Lee turned his army on the night of May 4 and came at Grant from the West on the morning of May 5. By the night of May 6, the battle had ended in a draw, however Grant lost 18,000 men while Lee lost about half as many. Both armies withdrew in order to regroup and rest.
On May 8, Grant marched East in another attempt to go around Lee’s army and reach Richmond. Lee had anticipated this move and on May 10, at Spotsylvania, VA, met Grant again. The fighting was especially vicious and lasted until May 18 with 2 major battles amid numerous skirmishes and smaller fights. In a letter, a Confederate soldier said, “The fighting was horrible. The breastworks were slippery with blood and rain, dead bodies lying underneath half trampled out of sight.” A Union officer later wrote, “Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.”
Each side lost nearly 10,000 men without either side claiming victory. The armies once again withdrew to rest and reorganize. They would meet once again at the end of the month. Union losses could be replaced. Confederate losses could not be. It had become a war of attrition.
Once again, Lee anticipated Grant and constructed 6 miles of earthworks with artillery covering every possible approach by Grant’s army, which would have to make a frontal assault after slogging through swamps. The battle of Cold Harbor began on June 3 when more than 50,000 Union troops marched into a wall of rifle fire as fierce as any they had ever faced. One Union soldier said, “that dreadful storm of lead and iron seemed more like a volcanic blast than a battle.” In less than an hour, Grant lost 7,000 men, bringing his total losses over the past month to 50,000 men! As a result of this loss, Grant gave up his plan to capture Richmond and decided to bypass the Confederate capital, capture Petersburg, and then take Richmond from the South. On June 15 Grant’s army had made it to Petersburg. The siege of Petersburg had begun.
Now we can get back to the “Battle of the Crater” that I mentioned earlier as part of the driving tour. The Confederates were well entrenched around Petersburg and the siege was into its second month. The 48th Pennsylvania Infantry was composed mainly of coal miners and their commander came up with a plan. His men would dig a tunnel from behind the Union lines to the Confederate lines. The tunnel would be 511 feet long and end beneath a heavily fortified artillery battery called Fort Elliott. In the predawn hours of July 30, 8,000 pounds of gunpowder were detonated beneath the fort. A plume of fire, smoke, artillery pieces, and bodies shot into the air revealing a hole about 30 feet deep, 60 feet wide, and 170 feet long. One Confederate soldier shouted, “Hell has opened!” The hole was filled with smoking timbers, broken gun carriages, chunks of clay, and bodies and body parts buried in various ways, according to a Union officer, “some up to their necks, others to their waists, and some with only their feet and legs protruding from the earth.” About 300 Confederates were killed in the blast.
The plan was for the Union troops to rush through the resulting gap in the Confederate earthworks. However, the plan was not well conceived and the troops were poorly led. Their commander was well behind the lines in a bombproof shelter with a bottle of rum. Instead of charging around the crater, the Union troops descended into it and began scrounging for souvenirs and pulling survivors from the rubble. As more and more troops moved forward in the attack, the hole became filled with troops who found it almost impossible to escape from the crater. The sides were steep and slippery and the rim of the crater was lined with Confederate troops shooting and bayoneting those trapped in the killing ground below. This slaughter went on for 2 hours and nearly 3,500 union troops were lost in the “Battle of the Crater.” Gen. Grant called it “the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war.” All that is left now, is a lumpy depression in the ground, about 5 to 10 feet deep in places.
Thus ends tonight’s lesson. Bear in mind that as Carol Ann and I visit these historical sites of the Civil War that they will not be in chronological order. To do so would require our crisscrossing of Virginia many times. You’ll have to take it as we get to it.