The First Battle of Deep Bottom and the Battle of the Crater are inextricably linked. General Grant used the demonstration against Deep Bottom as a diversion from the tunneling that preceded the attack at the Crater.
The First Battle of Deep Bottom
In late June Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, the commander of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry made a proposal through the chain of command for a tunnel from the Federal lines to the Confederate. Once there, Pleasants proposed to fill the end of the mine with gunpowder, blow a hole in the Confederate defensive line and rush the gap. His plan was approved and his men, many of whom were coal miners, began to dig.
As the time came to pack the mine with the explosives, the Federal high command determined that a diversion was needed in order to draw enemy troops away from the location of the proposed detonation. Grant ordered Hancock’s II Corps and two divisions of Sheridan’s cavalry to stage the diversion. They were to cross the river to Deep Bottom by pontoon bridge and advance against the Confederate capital of Richmond.
The plan called for Hancock to pin the Confederates at Chaffin’s Bluff while Sheridan’s cavalry was to advance into the city. If, however, that was not possible the cavalry was ordered to ride north and west of Richmond in order to cut the Virginia Central Railroad.
Somehow Lee deduced Hancock’s moves and reinforced his defenses to a point where 16,500 men manned the defensive lines. Both Hancock’s and Sheridan’s advances on July 27th were stymied by the formidable defenses.
Meanwhile, Lee reacted as Grant had hoped, bringing reinforcements to the front from Petersburg. On the morning of the 28th Grant committed one brigade from the XIX Corps to the attack. By the afternoon the attacks were recalled. Grant having felt that Lee was sufficiently distracted scheduled the explosion for July 30th. Federal casualties were 488, Confederates 689.
The Battle of the Crater
Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, the commander of the 48th Pennsylvania of Burnside’s Corps, had suggested a plan to dig a tunnel underneath the Confederate defensive line in late June. Pleasants who was a mining engineer in civilian life was the perfect man for the job. Many of his soldiers were coal miners from western Pennsylvania.
The tunnel that they dug was 511 feet long with a “T” at the end. Each leg of the “T” was 75 feet long. The tunnel was about 4 feet wide at the bottom and 2 ½ feet wide at the top. It was 5 feet high. The miners packed the two laterals with 8,000 lbs. of gunpowder just 20 feet under the Confederate lines.
In the meantime, Burnside was training a division of United States Colored Troops who were commanded by Brig. Gen. Edward Ferraro. Burnside’s plan was well thought out. Two regiments would lead the attack and spread out across the enemy line. The rest of the division would follow and head for the city of Petersburg. Burnside’s other two divisions would through the gap and protect the center columns flanks.
Fate struck in the form of interference from George Meade. Fearful of a tremendous outcry if the United States Colored Troops took unacceptable casualties, he ordered Burnside to use a white division. The three division commanders drew lots and Brig. Gen. James Ledlie’s 1st Division was selected. Ledlie, however failed to brief his men about how to perform the operation. He was drunk and in a bombproof during the operation. He was later dismissed from the army for his actions during the assault.
On July 30th at 4:44 AM the charges exploded creating a massive crater 170 feet long, 60 to 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. In an instant it annihilated Richard Pegram’s Battery, the 18th South Carolina and half of the 17th South Carolina.
It took a full 5 minutes for Ledlie’s troops to recover their composure and begin to advance. It took them another 5 minutes for them to clear away the abatis and other obstacles. Rather than circling the massive hole in the ground Ledlie’s soldiers climbed into it. They stopped to gawk and dig out enemy soldiers. Their formations were broken up by the rough terrain.
As the emerged from the area and prepared to move forward to the Jerusalem Pike Road, the Federal troops received scattered rifle fire from rifle pits and trenches on either side of the Crater. They were forced to take cover. Close-quarters fighting ensued.
Units from other divisions moved forward on either flank and cleared the Confederate trenches on either side of the Crater for several hundred yards. The crossfire of Confederate artillery forced the Federal troops into the Crater where they degenerated into a mob. Meade kept pushing troops into the gap in the defensive lines. Then Burnside ordered in Ferraro’s black division.
Lee ordered Brig. Gen. William Mahone to dispatch two of his brigades to plug the gap. By this point the artillery and rifle crossfire was murderous. Realizing that he was outnumbered Mahone called up yet another of his brigades.
At the sight of black troops Mahone’s Virginia Brigade became incensed. They combined Southern force annihilated one black brigade where they stood. Their intensity forced the Federal troops into a rout back to their own lines. In the Crater the fighting was hand-to-hand with a great slaughter on the Federal side. By 1:00 Pm it was all over. The Federal casualties were horrendous: 3,798 (504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured). A third of the casualties were from Ferraro’s black division. The Confederate casualties were also high: 1,500 (200 killed, 900 wounded, 400 missing or captured). Ambrose Burnside was relieved of his command and ordered to Washington. He was replaced by Maj. Gen John Parke who commanded the corps through the end of the war.
Second Battle of Deep Bottom
On the same day as the Federal fiasco at the Crater, General Lee detached a division each of infantry and cavalry. He sent them to Culpeper, Virginia in order to either support Jubal Early who on that day was burning Chambersburg, Pennsylvania or be recalled to the Richmond-Petersburg area if needed.
Grant, thinking that Lee had sent Anderson’s entire corps decided to attack Richmond again through Deep Bottom. He thought that the Confederates north of the James River numbered only 8,500. He assigned Hancock’s Corps to lead the attack again.
On August 13th and 14th David Birney’s X Corps accompanied by David Gregg’s Cavalry Division crossed the James on pontoon bridges and brushed away the enemy pickets. On the night of August 13-14 Hancock’s II Corps were ferried across by steamship.
The middle of August 14th the Federals made contact with the Confederates on the Darbytown Road. The Confederate force was much stronger than they anticipated. By a series of flanking attacks the Federals were able to move forward and occupy some of the Confederate trenches.
Lee poured more troops into the fight convinced of the danger to Richmond. He dispatched two infantry brigades and two cavalry divisions to counter the enemy assaults. Gregg’s cavalry swept to the right and headed for Richmond on the Charles City Road. They found Rooney Lee’s cavalry blocking the road and an all-day battle ensued.
The Federals were unable to take advantage of their superior position and by August 20th they withdrew across the James River again. The Federals suffered 2,900 casualties, the Confederates 1,500.