Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s plan for what would become known as the Battle of the Crater was fairly simple. At a point about a half mile southeast of Petersburg, where the Confederate works were only about 125 yards away from those of the Federals, a mine would be dug underneath the works of the enemy, The mine would be filled with black powder and exploded. Before the debris had even settled, a well-trained assault force would rush toward the breach and establish a foothold within the enemy lines that would then be exploited by tens of thousands of additional troops held at the ready.
Pennsylvania miners employed their brawn and skills in digging a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath the Rebel works. At the end of the tunnel chambers were dug to the right and left, large enough to accommodate six tons of black power. The assault force was drilled over and over. They would rush forward in three columns, passing to around the edge of the crater, rather than running down into it. Once inside the Confederate works, they would split into three sections. The first would engage the enemy to the left while the second did the same on the right right. The third column would drive straight ahead toward the Jerusalem Plank Road. In the words of their commanding officer, the men “practiced these movements till they could have been executed as perfectly in the dark as in the light.” The men were also trained in the use of the weapon of choice for this assault—the bayonet.
Late in July 1864 the tunnel was completed. The mine was scheduled to explode at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 30th. The black powder arrived and was carried keg by keg down the long tunnel and stacked in the two chambers. But there was only four tons rather than six, and the fuse, which should have been a single continuous strand from powder chamber to tunnel mouth, was supplied in short sections. Many splices were required to achieve the required distance.
two days before the scheduled explosion, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, made a decision that doomed the entire operation to failure. The troops chosen to lead the assault were the 43rd U. S. Colored Troops, and Meade thought it “impolitic” to trust these men with so important a job. They were a new division, untried in battle, but the real reason behind Meade’s decision to shelve the 43rd USCT was because casualties would likely be high in the lead units, and he feared the political and racial criticisms he would be subject to because of the loss of more black soldiers than whites in the assault.
The lead division was then chosen by lot, not by ability. The lot fell to Brig. Gen. James Ledlie’s Division. The explosion was delayed over an hour by the faulty fuses. And when it finally did explode, Ledlie’s untrained men, led by a man whom Gen. Grant considered the worst commander in the Ninth Corps, surged forward into the pit created by the explosion. Unable to climb out, they were trapped there, and what the Confederates called a “turkey shoot” was on.
The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, along with the rest of Second Corps, stood ready to go forward should any success be achieved by Burnside’s Ninth Corps. But there was only abject failure and the Second Corps took no part in this disaster. Total Ninth Corps casualties were 3,800, with over 500 men killed, many of whom were black soldiers from the 30th USCT. Gen. Grant said it best—”the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war.”