September 23, 2006

To the Crater
NPS Curator and Historian Jimmy Blankenship explains the Confederate attack on Fort Stedman began at 4:00 A.M. and was initially a victory until the Union counterattack, much of it punishing crossfire, succeeded by 8:00 A.M.

Dictator Site
The site of the famous Dictator, a 17,000 pound artillery piece that had a range of 2 1/2 miles for its 200 pound shells. The populace of Petersburg referred to the flying shells as the "Petersburg Express."

Crater tunnel entrance
This is the original site of the opening and tunnel constructed by Union soldiers under the Confederate line. The Union army placed 320 kegs of gunpowder containing 8,000 pounds in the tunnel and lit the fuse July 30, 1864.

Crater after explosion
The explosion created a crater 170 feet by 70 feet and 30 feet deep. Several hundred Confederate soldiers were killed instantly. Great pieces of earth, boulders, ordnance, trees and horses and humans fell from the sky for several minutes. Confederate artillery bombarded the Union soldiers who sought cover within the crater. A monument to Confederate General William Mahone can be seen in the background.

Mahone's objective
General Mahone estimated the number of Union soldiers he faced by counting Union regimental flags at the crater's rim. Since many of the Union soldiers had taken cover within the crater's walls, Confederate troops formed up around the crater firing both artillery and rifles at the enemy. General Mahone later referred to the aftermath as a "turkey shoot." Union losses were 5,300. The Confederates loss was 1,032.


Site of the Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864On June 15, 1864, the Union army commanded by General Grant encircled the city of Petersburg, Virginia, thus beginning a 10-month siege. Although the Union soldiers had open supply lines between City Point and Petersburg which brought ordnance, sustenance, medicine, clothing and fresh troops to Grant's army, they wished to end the siege and the war quickly.

Using the expertise of former Pennsylvania mining engineers who were serving in the Union army, officers devised a plan to construct a tunnel from their lines to a Confederate fortification about 500 feet away and place explosives inside. The Battle of the Crater followed the spectacular explosion.

After eight grueling months under siege in Petersburg, General Lee formulated a strategy that might allow most of his army to break through Union lines and join General Joseph Johnston's army in North Carolina in an effort to create a more formidable opponent for Grant. Lee's plan pitted a concentration of Confederate soldiers against one of the Union's closest positions, Fort Stedman. General Grant would respond by pulling his forces from other areas, thereby allowing General Lee to break through the federal line on either side of Stedman. On March 25, 1865, General John B. Gordon was entrusted with executing Lee's plan. The Union army was quick to realize that the Confederates, posing as deserters without loaded guns, were merely a ruse. Fort Stedman changed hands three times that day.

Fort GreggOne week later after General Lee's outnumbered line at Five Forks collapsed, General Grant ordered an assault against all Confederate lines around Petersburg. General Lee telegraphed President Jefferson Davis, advising him to evacuate the Confederate capital in Richmond immediately. General Lee needed time to reorganize his army to begin an orderly withdrawal west towards Appomattox. A small group of Confederate soldiers gave Lee's army the time it needed. They made their stand in a partially completed fort southwest of Petersburg known as Fort Gregg.

Fort Gregg Map & Trees

On April 2, 1865 63,000 Union soldiers charged 18,500 Confederate defenders along the Petersburg lines. General Nathaniel H. Harris left 214 men at Fort Gregg, an unfinished earthwork west of the city, with orders to hold as long as they could to provide Lee's army an opportunity to form up and retreat towards the west. "Men, the salvation of the army is in your keep. Don't surrender this fort," is the final order Gen. Harris gave them. The Washington Artillery from Louisiana as well as men from Mississippi and Virginia stood their ground for nearly two hours, the last 30 minutes in hand to hand combat against more than 2,000 Union soldiers. The Union losses far exceeded Confederate losses. A Union soldier wrote, "They fought like demons." The earthworks today are fairly intact as is the moat around them.


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