One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a group of Pennsylvania coal miners nearly brought an early end to the Civil War.
The miners stood with the rest of the Army of the Potomac outside Petersburg, Va.
Five Confederate railroads passed through Petersburg. Capture this city, Ulysses S. Grant knew, and the war would soon be over. Of course, Robert E. Lee knew it too.
The siege of Petersburg became a grim preview of World War I. Rats scuttled through miles of squalid trenches. Mortar shells and sniper bullets claimed new victims hourly. The stench of death and dysentery was a soldier’s constant companion.
The coal miners of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment endured a special torment. Their trenches lay just 100 yards from a cannon-packed Confederate fortress.
The miners came from Schuylkill County, where they chased fleeting veins of anthracite deep into the earth. Now, between blasts from the big Confederate guns, they indulged in a vengeful fantasy: Tunnel beneath no man’s land, plant a load of gunpowder and blow that godforsaken fortress into oblivion.
Their commander, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, thought it could work. Pleasants was a mining engineer before the war, a meticulous man known for clever solutions. He went to his tent and drafted a plan, then sent it up the chain of command.
The Army’s chief engineer, Maj. James Duane, scowled at the proposal. A West Point graduate, Duane had little time for military amateurs like Pleasants. He predicted the miners would be buried alive or discovered by the enemy. With a scoff, Duane dismissed the idea as “claptrap and nonsense.”
Grant knew his engineer’s opinion, but was desperate. The miners offered him a rare chance to pierce Petersburg’s iron defenses. Grant imagined his divisions rushing through the gash torn by the exploding mine, spilling into the city as Lee scrambled to learn what was happening.
The miners tunneled in secret throughout July 1864. They carried away dirt in cracker boxes and raided a nearby train trestle for lumber supports. The work was backbreaking, but it reminded them of home. Each man received a shot of whiskey at his shift’s end.
Spies learned of the project, and soon Confederate engineers were digging 10-foot listening holes, trying to detect the Yankee miners.
After three weeks, the tunnel stretched 500 feet to its target. Timber creaked and dust fell whenever the big guns overhead fired. In silence, the miners carried in four tons of gunpowder, and Pleasants reported the massive weapon ready.
Shortly after midnight on July 30, Grant rode to the front with great anticipation. Across the way, the fort’s garrison settled in for the night. Meanwhile, thousands of Union troops crept into position. Their attack was scheduled for 3:30 a.m.
All eyes remained fixed on the fortress as 3:30 came and went. By 4 a.m., it seemed Duane was right. Then, two exceptionally brave miners entered the tunnel. They discovered the long fuse had sputtered at a splice. They re-lit it and ran like hell.
A thunder rumbled, followed by a tremor that stretched for miles across the Virginia countryside. An enormous fireball launched itself into the night, blossoming into a mushroom cloud.
Hundreds of Confederates died instantly. Hundreds more staggered away in terror. Once the shower of boulders, cannon carriages and body parts subsided, the Union army had an open path into Petersburg. The war’s end was in sight.
Missed opportunity is a staple of all conflicts. Nobody knew this better than Grant. But the blunder that followed dismayed even him. He later cabled Washington that the Battle of the Crater was “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”
The battle’s name hints at its outcome. No fighting should have taken place in the smoldering 200-foot pit. Union troops were supposed to dash past it and head into the city. But weeks of trench warfare had conditioned them to seek shelter above all.
They could not imagine an uncontested advance, nor could they help thinking of the crater as a place to be defended. They clambered down its soft earthen walls and remained there.
With ears still ringing, the Southerners returned to find a teeming mass of disorganized enemy troops, and happily slaughter them.
The only person more disgusted than Grant was Henry Pleasants. He and his men had defied the naysayers to achieve an unprecedented military feat. The army and Congress showered them with praise, but it hardly lessened the sting. Pleasants resigned a few months later, and returned to Schuylkill County to resume his civilian career.
The rest of the 48th Pennsylvania stayed at Petersburg until it finally fell in March 1865. Two weeks later, Robert E. Lee surrendered and the war was over.
No one knows for certain history’s path had the miners’ efforts not been squandered. But we do know this: During the nine months that followed the Battle of the Crater, an estimated 238,000 soldiers from both sides were killed, maimed, captured or lost to disease.