On July 30, 1864, after months of preparation, Union engineers and former coal miners from Pennsylvania exploded a mine dug beneath the Confederate encampment on Elliott’s Salient outside Petersburg, blowing a hole in the Confederate line that was 170 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep, and sending two 1700-pound cannons hurling into the air and killing 274 Confederates. Union troops then charged to the crater caused by the explosion, but instead of attacking, stood on its rim gaping in disbelief. The Confederates began firing on the Union soldiers, who then, ironically, sought protection in the giant hole.

Confederate counter-attacks led by Confederate Maj. Gen. Mahone caused more lines of attacking Union troops to seek protection in the crater. The Confederates fired down into the crater on the Union soldiers in the manner of what was later described as a 'turkey shoot.' Disregarding Union surrender, Confederate troops continued the fight, including shooting and bayoneting the United States Colored Troops (USCT) that fought in the battle. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant reproached the battle as the 'saddest affair' he had witnessed in the war, and Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was relieved of his command for his role in the bloody fiasco.

Visiting The Crater Battlefield

Your best bet to tour The Battle of The Crater is to begin at the Eastern Front Visitor Center at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. Here there is a staffed visitor center, museum, film, and gift shop. The Crater is the last stop on the Eastern Front Driving Tour and features a trail with interpretive signs and audio stations that passes by The Crater, the mine entrance, the visible depression of the mine itself, the Confederate counter-mines, and the Mahone Monument.

An app is also available from Civil War Trust that features four tours that cover all of the major actions of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign including the Crater. This excellent resource contains driving directions to all stops as well as readings, photographs and interactive media describing the background and battle actions.

Visit Civil War Trust and National Park Service for battle details and information about the preservation of this battlefield.

Pictured at the top: A loop trail passes by The Crater, the mine, and the mine entrance. Union engineers packed the mine with four tons of gunpowder to create the massive explosion.

The Crater Cannon and Mahone Monument

Although still plainly visible, time and erosion have worn down The Crater. After the battle, the Confederates incorporated the giant hole into their own fortifications, and after the war the remains of over 600 soldiers who fought there were removed for burial.

The Crater and Mahone Monument

A monument is dedicated to Confederate Maj. Gen. Mahone at The Crater.

Historical Photo

the crater

Scene of the explosion Saturday July 30th, Alfred R. Waud, July 30, 1864 (Library of Congress)