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Headquarters and Service Battalion Marines attend the Seige of Petersburg Battlefield PME April 1 to promote morale and develop understanding of military history. The group also went to Fort Lee to learn about various MOSs produced there.

Photo by Lt. James Ackerman

The Battle for the Crater

14 Apr 2016 | 2nd Lt. James Ackerman Marine Corps Base Quantico

On April 1, 1865, the Siege of Petersburg closed, and with it the end of the American Civil War drew near. After 10 months of brutal trench warfare, Union forces finally managed to pierce the Confederate lines and drive them from their defense of the Confederate capital of Richmond. With its conclusion, Petersburg left an estimated 70,000 casualties, both Union and Confederate.

This battle was also a foreshadowing of the First World War 50 years later, showing in detail how deadly modern technology applied to warfare could be. So why does studying battles such as Petersburg matter to us in the modern era?

“It is our responsibility as leaders to educate and enlighten the next generation of Marines so that they may learn what worked and what did not for the next conflict. Conducting battlefield studies is an excellent way to analyze the decisions and circumstances of a battle and learn from the successes and mistakes of others,” said Maj. Christopher Smith, Headquarters and Service Battalion, MCB Quantico, about why conducting battlefield studies are so important.

When asked what lessons from the Siege of Petersburg are still important today, Smith said, “Ingenuity plays as much a factor in today’s Marine Corps as it did in 1865. Knowing who your Marines are can open opportunities that may lead to an ingenious solution to a problem....as the miners of the 48th Penn(sylvania) adeptly displayed.”

The 48th Pennsylvania is remembered for the literal hole they created in the Siege of Petersburg. The Crater, the hole the 48th Pennsylvania blew in the Virginia clay, was part of a plan to force a gap into the Confederate lines. The men of the 48th Pennsylvania were miners when they were civilians, and their commander imagined digging underneath the Confederate lines, burying explosives, and then detonating to create a gap through which Union forces could attack.

On July 30, 1864, at 4:44 a.m., the Crater was created when eight tons of gunpowder were detonated beneath the Confederate lines. While a sound plan, the execution faltered, and instead of being a Union victory, the Battle for the Crater became a bloodbath.

After the initial detonation, instead of rushing into the gap, Union forces waited for the dust to settle. This indecision by the commanding general allowed the Confederate forces to recover enough from the initial shock so that when the first Union forces entered the Crater, the Confederate forces cut down the Union troops with withering fire. Ultimately, 4,000 Union and 1,500 Confederates would be killed, wounded, captured, or gone missing by the end of the day.

Had the attack by Union forces succeeded in penetrating the Confederate lines that summer day of 1864 (which included troops who were once slaves), the war may have ended much earlier than it had. With Richmond’s main line of defense removed, Robert E. Lee and his army would have been forced to retreat. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would have pursued, as he actually did, until he managed to capture or defeat Lee decisively, as he did in 1865. It also would have guaranteed Abraham Lincoln reelection in a heavily contested electoral campaign with former Union general George McClellan.

In the end though, the Battle for the Crater became another memorable footnote of the American Civil War. The key lessons taken from the mistakes made, and applicable in 2016 as much as it was in 1864, were to be decisive when the advantage exists and to trust in the experience of the troops you command. Lessons that any leader, in any line of work, can apply to great effect.