The Battle of the Crater to Ream's Station

Last updated June 18th, 2007 by Jenny
William Mahone

The Petersburg siege became a constant daily struggle for the officers and men of both army, punctuated by an occasional larger scale battle. One of the campaigns major battles -- and one of the most famous actions of the Civil War -- involved Hill's Corps and was called, simply, "the Crater."

A regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners, bored by the inactivity of the siege, came up with the interesting plan to blow a hole in the Confederate lines by digging a mine shaft from their trenches to underneath the Confederate lines. The shaft would then be wired with explosives. The idea would be to breach the Confederate lines by blowing a giant hole in them and thus achieve a breakthrough that would be fatal. The Union carefully planned the assault which was organized mostly by Hill's old pal, Burnside. However, last minute changes by Meade and Grant would cause utter disaster for the attack.

At 4:44 AM on July 30, the great explosion occurred. The result was a crater -- 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep that blew a hole right in the middle of the Confederate lines. Hill heard the explosion at his headquarters 4 miles distant. He quickly mounted Champ and galloped towards Mahone's camp. Mahone's Division was positioned nearest the crater. When the explosion occurred, Mahone -- realizing the potential disaster and without waiting for orders -- rushed his men into the breech.

The Battle of the Crater

A brief description of the battle:

After weeks of preparation, on July 30 the Federals exploded a mine in Burnside’s IX Corps sector beneath Pegram’s Salient, blowing a gap in the Confederate defenses of Petersburg. From this propitious beginning, everything deteriorated rapidly for the Union attackers. Unit after unit charged into and around the crater, where soldiers milled in confusion. The Confederates quickly recovered and launched several counterattacks led by Maj. Gen. William Mahone. The break was sealed off, and the Federals were repulsed with severe casualties. Ferrarro’s division of black soldiers was badly mauled. This may have been Grant’s best chance to end the Siege of Petersburg. Instead, the soldiers settled in for another eight months of trench warfare. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was relieved of command for his role in the debacle.

There are several on-site resources for this battle including a 1905 newspaper article and account of Wilcox's Brigade written by Captain John C. Featherson.

The men were surprised by the sudden blast, and for a brief time it seemed as though the Federals would achieve what they had hoped for; but then they made the mistake of filing down into the pit and were trapped. In 1864, the Crater was so deep that the men needed ladders to climb out of it -- but no one on the Federal side had thought to provide them. The Union soldiers milled about in the crater. Hill's men were very angry -- at the "inhuman slaughter" caused by the "brutal manner" that their comrades had been killed in by the blast -- and in no mood to be sympathetic. Adding fuel to the fire and to their rage was the presence of black Union troops from one of Burnside's Divisions. The fighting turned and took on an ugly tone. By 3:25 in the afternoon, the Confederate lines were patched and the Battle of the Crater went down as yet another unforunate and sad affair for the Union Army. Lee noted simply in a report at 6:30 PM that night to the Secretary of War that:

General A. P. Hill reports that General Mahone in retaking the salient possessed by the enemy this morning recovered the four guns with which it was armed, captured 12 stand of colors, 74 officers, including Brigadier-General Bartlett and staff, and 855 enlisted men. Upward of 500 of the enemy's dead are lying unburied in the trenches. His loss slight.

A month of relative quiet on Hill's sector followed the Union's debable at the Crater. Then, in mid-August, Grant and Meade again made another attempt to cut the Weldon Railroad. On August 18th, Warren attacked Hill at Globe Tavern.

Warren was successful in driving back the Southern pickets. But Lee and Hill reacted quickly, sending Heth in for a counterattack. The Federals fell back but entrenched during the night. The next morning, August 19, Mahone, who had been hurried into position, attacked and rolled up much of the Union Fifth Corps. But then Warren counterattacked and took back most of the ground lost in Mahone's assault. The following morning, Hill attacked Warren. The Confederates bravely assaulted Warren's position, but found it too strong. They were forced to retreat -- having lost the major connection of the Weldon Railroad. A Union report from this battle reported Hill had been killed in battle from a bullet wound in his side but Hill survived the fighting unscathed. Not everyone was so lucky. One of Hill's brigade commanders, the boyish John C.C. Sanders of Alabama, was killed in the fighting. If Hill could take any consolation, it was that he had handled Warren roughly and inflicted almost 4,300 casualties upon him to only 1,600 Southern casualties.

Globe Tavern

A brief description of the battle:

While Hancock’s command demonstrated north of the James River at Deep Bottom, the Union V Corps and elements of the IX and II Corps under command of Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren were withdrawn from the Petersburg entrenchments to operate against the Weldon Railroad. At dawn August 18, Warren advanced, driving back Confederate pickets until reaching the railroad at Globe Tavern. In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division attacked driving Ayres’s division back toward the tavern. Both sides entrenched during the night. On August 19, Maj. Gen. William Mahone, whose division had been hastily returned from north of James River, attacked with five infantry brigades, rolling up the right flank of Crawford’s division. Heavily reinforced, Warren counterattacked and by nightfall had retaken most of the ground lost during the afternoon’s fighting. On the 20th, the Federals laid out and entrenched a strong defensive line covering the Blick House and Globe Tavern and extending east to connect with the main Federal lines at Jerusalem Plank Road. On August 21, Hill probed the new Federal line for weaknesses but could not penetrate the Union defenses. With the fighting at Globe Tavern, Grant succeeded in extending his siege lines to the west and cutting Petersburg’s primary rail connection with Wilmington, North Carolina. The Confederates were now forced to off-load rail cars at Stony Creek Station for a 30-mile wagon haul up Boydton Plank Road to reach Petersburg. Confederate general John C.C. Sanders was killed on August 21.

There would be more solace -- Hill was about to win a great victory. Just a few days later, on August 24, the Union Second Corps moved against another section of the Weldon Railroad still in Rebel hands and closer to Hill's positions. The Federals began to tear up the tracks and generally made a mess of things. Lee told Hill to "Do all in your power to punish the enemy."

Hill was fighting off sickness, but this time it would not inhibit him, although at one point he would turn formal command over to Cadmus Wilcox. Directing the plans for the fighting from his back while lying on a blanket on the battlefield, the battle of Reams Station would be perhaps Hill's finest hour at Petersburg and as a corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Ream's Station

A brief description of the battle:

On August 24, Union II Corps moved south along the Weldon Railroad, tearing up track, preceded by Gregg’s cavalry division. On August 25, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth attacked and overran the faulty Union position at Ream’s Station, capturing 9 guns, 12 colors, and many prisoners. The old II Corps was shattered. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock withdrew to the main Union line near the Jerusalem Plank Road, bemoaning the declining combat effectiveness of his troops.

On-site resources for the battle of Ream's Station include Hill's battle report and an account by Charles Stedman first published in 1890.

To "punish" Hancock's Second Corps, Hill launched an attack with Heth's Division. It was wildly successful. Hill was prominent in the Reams Station victory, rising up from his blanket and taking personal command of the fighting. "The sabre and the bayonet have shaken hands on the enemy's captured breastworks" he said. His only regret was "my weakness prevented me from following it up as I would have like to have done." Reams Station brought about a glimpse of the brilliant A.P. Hill of old. The defeat of the usually stellar and nearly unbeatable Federal II Corps was so great that one of Hill's division commanders, Henry Heth, a close friend of Hancock's, noted that "If Hancock's heart could have been examined there would have been written on it REAMS as plainly as the deep scars received at Gettysburg and other fields were visible." The II Corps, which up until Spotsylvania had never lost a cannon or color, surrendered 12 battleflags and 9 cannons to the Third Corps. Lee noted the extent of the victory, remarking that:

    General A. P. Hill attacked the enemy in his intrenchments at Reams' Station yesterday evening, and at the second assault carried his entire line. Cooke's and MacRae's North Carolina brigades, under General Heth, and Lane's North Carolina brigade, of Wilcox's division, under General Conner, with Pegram's artillery, composed the assaulting column. One line of breast-works was carried by the cavalry under General Hampton with great gallantry, who contributed largely to the success of the day. Seven stand of colors, 2,000 prisoners, and 9 pieces of artillery are in our possession. The loss of the enemy in killed and wounded is reported to be heavy, ours relatively small.' Our profound gratitude is due to the Giver of all victory and our thanks to the brave men and officers engaged.

Relative quiet again fell over Hill's sector. Happily, in September he was able to send for Dolly, who stayed relatively close with the children.

Fall also brought the return of an old Light Division brigade commander to the Third Corps. James Jay Archer, who had been captured at Gettysburg on the first day's fighting with the Iron Brigade, had spent quite a bit of time imprisoned at Johnson's Island, a Confederate officers prison located off Sandusky in Lake Erie. Archer languished in prison after Grant refused to exchange any prisoners. Finally, in the autumn of 1864 after being incarcerated for more than a year at Johnson's Island, Archer was exchanged. He rejoined the Third Corps in the trenches outside of Petersburg, but the stay was brief. Archer had never been particularly robust in health and prison had ruined his health beyond repair. After a brief stint with the 3d Corps, Archer went back to Richmond on sick leave. He never returned. On October 24, 1864, Archer died of illness in Richmond. Archer's death symbolized the end of an era. The Light Division had six brigades when formed. Archer was now dead of illness. J.R. Anderson had been wounded in the Seven Days, had never returned, and was now in command of the Tredgar Iron Works in Richmond, engaged in the important task of making weapons for the Confederacy. Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, the accomplished North Carolina congressman, had been shot through the head and instantly killed at Sharpsburg. Dorsey Pender had risen to succeed Hill to command of the Light Division, but he was wounded one too many times and had died at Gettysburg. Maxcy Gregg was killed at Fredericksburg. Field alone was still with the Army, recovered after being wounded severely at Second Manassas. Such were the fates of the original brigade commanders who started the War with A.P. Hill.

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