The battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor had been fought. Lee was defending the Confederacy behind a line of earthworks stretching from Richmond to Petersburg. Against this wall pressed the tremendous forces of the Union. In the summer of 1864 Grant concentrated his efforts against Petersburg, regarding it as the key to Richmond. He planned to capture Petersburg and to divide Lee’s army, and thus end the war then and there.
The Confederates held the heights beyond Petersburg around Blandford Church, the Federals being, in places, only seventy-five yards down the slope and in possession of the valley and hills beyond the James. Acting on the suggestion of Colonel Pleasants of Pennsylvania, a mining engineer, Grant determined to plant a great mine under Elliott’s salient in the Confederate defenses and open a breach through which to rush a tremendous force for the capture of Petersburg. Beginning in the valley behind his advanced positions he ran a tunnel 510 feet to a point under the salient which was in reality an artillery fort of great strength. Here two mines of four thousand pounds of powder each were laid. Sixty-five thousand men and 161 guns were massed for the thrust.
The defenders, however, had secured information of the design, and prepared somewhat to frustrate it. Efforts were made to locate the mine by counter-shafts, still plainly visible, and several batteries were placed to sweep the corner.
On the night of July 29, 1864, all was ready, and regiment after regiment waited for the zero hour. At 3:30 the fuse was lighted, but after a fearful hour no explosion had occurred. Two privates entered the tunnel and relighted it, and shortly thereafter the greatest battlefield explosion in history, prior to the World War, rent the fort, forming a gigantic crater between the outer and inner lines and bringing death to the defenders within and near by. Up the slope, wave upon wave advanced the Union soldiers, only to plunge headlong into the abyss, victims of its depth and the deadly fire of the rallying defenders. Four Confederate batteries secured perfect adjustment on the point and swept it with a terrific cross fire. Regiment after regiment pushed up the hill until the Crater was literally filled with dead and dying, over whom the later attackers passed across the main line and into the Confederate territory.
Meanwhile, Mahone’s Brigade, Petersburg troops, had been brought up, and in the famous Crater charge cleared the field, driving the enemy back into the fort. A dreadful fire was concentrated on this inferno until Saunders and his Alabama brigade reestablished the original lines, cutting the Crater off from further fire.
Within a few hours five thousand men perished on this tragic point of earth. Because some. one failed in his duty-a magnificent chance to end the war resulted in a stupendous failure.