Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg

Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg

5.0 1
by Earl J. Hess

The battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, was the defining event in the 292-day campaign around Petersburg, Virginia, in the Civil War and one of the most famous engagements in American military history. Although the bloody combat of that "horrid pit" has been recently revisited as the centerpiece of the novel and film versions of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain,


The battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, was the defining event in the 292-day campaign around Petersburg, Virginia, in the Civil War and one of the most famous engagements in American military history. Although the bloody combat of that "horrid pit" has been recently revisited as the centerpiece of the novel and film versions of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the battle has yet to receive a definitive historical study. Distinguished Civil War historian Earl J. Hess fills that gap in the literature of the Civil War with Into the Crater.
The Crater was central in Ulysses S. Grant's third offensive at Petersburg and required digging of a five-hundred-foot mine shaft under enemy lines and detonating of four tons of gunpowder to destroy a Confederate battery emplacement. The resulting infantry attack through the breach in Robert E. Lee's line failed terribly, costing Grant nearly four thousand troops, among them many black soldiers fighting in their first battle. The outnumbered defenders of the breach saved Confederate Petersburg and inspired their comrades with renewed hope in the lengthening campaign to possess this important rail center.
In this narrative account of the Crater and its aftermath, Hess identifies the most reliable evidence to be found in hundreds of published and unpublished eyewitness accounts, official reports, and historic photographs. Archaeological studies and field research on the ground itself, now preserved within the Petersburg National Battlefield, complement the archival and published sources. Hess re-creates the battle in lively prose saturated with the sights and sounds of combat at the Crater in moment-by-moment descriptions that bring modern readers into the chaos of close range combat. Hess discusses field fortifications as well as the leadership of Union generals Grant, George Meade, and Ambrose Burnside, and of Confederate generals Lee, P. G. T. Beauregard, and A. P. Hill. He also chronicles the atrocities committed against captured black soldiers, both in the heat of battle and afterward, and the efforts of some Confederate officers to halt this vicious conduct

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

In this most detailed account ever produced of the unusual July, 1864, battle at Petersburg, Virginia, Hess challenges several traditional beliefs. This is a must-have book for anyone who studies Civil War military history in depth.
James I. Robertson, Jr., Alumni Distinguished Professor in History, Virginia Tech

With impressive research and persuasive interpretation, Earl J. Hess paints a comprehensive picture of one of the most intriguing episodes of the Civil War. This book cuts through the confusion in the Crater with poignant clarity, surpassing all previous renditions of that fascinating story.
William Marvel, author of Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862

Hess has produced yet another Civil War classic—a compelling narrative and astute analysis of one of its most dramatic and most confusing battles. Using a vast array of unpublished and published accounts by combatants to craft a masterful moment-by-moment examination of the Battle of the Crater and its immediate aftermath, this is the clearest picture yet of how a Federal mine was built underneath the Confederate lines at Petersburg, how the assault against those lines was planned and executed, and why it ultimately failed. . . . Into The Crater is everything we have come to expect and appreciate from Hess’s previous landmark studies: authoritative, persuasive, accessible, and simply indispensable.
J. Tracy Power, author of Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox

Hess applies his many gifts as a historian to one of the Civil War's remarkable military incidents. The battle of the Crater combined impressive engineering, inept leadership, the first appearance of black soldiers on a large scale in the Virginia theater, and bitter combat—all of which Hess handles beautifully. Both enjoyable and instructive, the narrative amply rewards a careful reading.

Gary W Gallagher, author of The Confederate War

Library Journal
Here is yet another book on the Battle of the Crater, the devastating engagement of July 30, 1864, and a subject for which WorldCat lists over 240 titles (e.g., Richard Slotkin's recent No Quarter). The Union sought to penetrate enemy lines around the railhead at Petersburg, VA, by means of a tunnel that would be blown up, but confusion, poor leadership, and swift reaction by the defenders turned it into a Union debacle. This rendition is well written and flows well, with much detail. Hess (history, Lincoln Memorial Univ.) is particularly good on the role of the black Union troops, many of whom lost their lives that day. Those collections that already have the subject covered need not add this one, but recommended where there's need.

Product Details

University of South Carolina Press
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6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

Earl J. Hess is the Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Hess is the author of many studies of the Civil War, including Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the James I. Robertson Literary Prize, and Lee's Tar Heels: The Pettigrew-Kirkland-MacRae Brigade, winner of the Douglas Southall Freeman Award. His recent books include In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat and The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth.

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Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
James_Durney More than 1 year ago
Earl J. Hess is one of our best authors combining impeccable skills as historian and author. He has a unique ability to capture the utter chaos of battle while presenting events in a logical understandable narration. His extensive knowledge of the Civil War allows him to explore the linkage between and the background of events. His books will always be enjoyable and bring a unique view to the subject. This book is no exception. The Battle of the Crater or the Mine Attack is a bloody failure resulting in charges, counter charges and investigations. The results of the investigations had more to do with politics than the trying to find the truth. In time, a story emerged that most historians accepted and entered into our collective memory. This book is not challenging our collective memory but presenting the facts and allowing the reader to adjust their memory of event. The result is a powerful fact-filled narrative without an agenda making for an enjoyable learning experience. This action provides us with a look at the culture of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. Locked into a siege each is trying for any possible advantage. The Army of the Potomac forced into an offensive position must break the siege line. After the bloody Overland Campaign, the men will not accept endless frontal assaults. A mine is possible in a section of the line. We are walked through the approval process, seeing that the operation always has a "yes, but" attached. The digging of the mine and the counter mining looks at life under siege. When the mine explodes, we understand the investment and the hopes going with it. That this turns into a bloody fiasco turns on the culture of the armies. The AoNV reacts quickly, working to seal the breach without waiting for orders. The AOP allows itself to blunder around and be trapped in the immediate area of the crater. During the battle lack of senior officers at the front, poor planning and worse communications result in a nasty defeat and finger pointing. This is the first battle with Afro-American soldiers between these armies. In a close quarter hand-to-hand fight, racism occurs. The author spares no one in a close examination of this subject. He makes no statements but presents the facts allowing the reader to reach their conclusions about the why and how. The facts may surprise some readers. This is not a pleasant incident and reflects little credit on any of the participants. We watch the inevitable Court of Inquiry and Congressional investigation. The participates are punished, escape punishment and or extract revenge as the case may be. In the end, some commands are lost but the war goes on. What happened to the Crater? Anyone seeing it comes away with an impressed. The author follows the Crater from the end of the war until incorporated into a national park. This is a look at how we failed to preserve some of the most important areas from the war. Battle histories need more information on preservation and the history of the area after the war. This chapter is a real service to preservation and our understanding of how it happened. This is an excellent book! It is well written, informative and fun to read. It may not be the final word on this battle but it has set the bar at a great height for the next one.