Battle of the Crater | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Battle of the Crater at the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia

Civil War Battle Summary

Battle of the Crater | Wisconsin Historical Society


EnlargeA drawing of the siege of Petersburg, VA, April 2-9, 1965. From a sketch by James Kiness.

The Siege of Petersburg, 1865 ca.

A drawing of the siege of Petersburg, VA, April 2-9, 1965. From a sketch by James Kiness. View the original source document: WHI 70624


On July 30, 1864, one of the Civil War's most dramatic battles occured. Wisconsin troops, including the only unit of Black soldiers and a number of Menominee warriors, played a prominent role.

In the summer of 1864, Union forces surrounded Petersburg, Virginia. A stalemate followed in which about 100,000 entrenched troops faced off against one another. At strategic points along the line, fortresses with cannons, mortars, and other artillery were erected by the Confederates.

Creating the Crater

At one place, Union troops with previous mining experience secretly dug a long tunnel from their trenches all the way to the enemy lines. They planted a huge mine underneath one of the most powerful Confederate forts. As the sun rose on July 30, 1864, they detonated it.

Lt. Solon Pierce of Friendship, Wis., reported that "clods of earth weighing near a ton, and cannon, and human forms, and gun-carriages, and small arms, were all distinctly seen shooting upward in that fountain of horror, and fell again in shapeless and pulverized atoms. The explosion fully accomplished what was intended. It demolished the six-gun battery and its garrison of one regiment of South Carolina troops, and acted as the wedge which opened the way to the assault."

Major Robert Eden of Oshkosh was also there. He wrote that "a vast column of smoke mingled with earth, fragments of guns and platforms, logs, sand-bags, gabions and human beings shot towering into the air to an immense height, gradually subsiding again and followed immediately by a dull, smothered roar which shook the ground for miles round, and was said to have been felt even to City Point.

"A pause, in which one might count, perhaps a dozen beats at the wrist, and 85 pieces of heavy artillery opened almost simultaneously on the rebel lines. The enemy was not slow in replying, and soon the light artillery and musketry chimed in, making the noise completely deafening, and the very ground under our feet to vibrate. From 6 till 12 this hellish uproar continued unabated."

EnlargeThis detailed map of the area between Richmond and Petersburg shows fortifications, roads, railroads, towns, street patterns of Petersburg and Richmond.

Region Embraced in the Operations of the Armies Against Richmond and Petersburg,1865

This detailed map of the area between Richmond and Petersburg shows fortifications, roads, railroads, towns, street patterns of Petersburg and Richmond, drainage, relief by hachures, and houses and names of residents in outlying areas. View the original source document: WHI 90861

Into the Breach

After the dust settled, Union generals sent thousands of soldiers into the breach. "The sight which there met them," wrote Lt. Pierce, "must have been appalling. Bodies of dead rebels crushed and mangled out of all resemblance to humanity, writhing forms partly buried, arms protruding here and legs struggling there -- a very hell of horror and torture."

Among the soldiers who charged into the crater made by the explosion were companies from Wisconsin's 37th and 38th Infantry regiments, including a number of of Menominee Indian warriors, and Wisconsin's only African-American unit, Co. F of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops.

But instead of immediately breaking on through the enemy lines, the advancing Union troops were delayed by bungling commanders. Confederate reinforcements quickly surrounded the crater. Trapped in a crossfire, Union soldiers who could not take cover amid the rubble were mercilessly cut down. "The whole place soon become a perfect slaughter house," reported Maj. Eden.

In the Aftermath

Of the 250 men from the 37th Wisconsin Infantry who charged ahead after the blast, 155 were killed or wounded. Among the dead were Menominee Corporal Hahpahtow Archiquette and privates Kenosha, Jeco, Nahwahquah, Nashahkahappah, and Wahtahnotte. The 29th Colored Infantry entered the crater with 450 men. Only 128 came out. Of the 85 African-Americans in Co. F, 11 lost their lives in the day's action.

E.B. Quiner, in his 1866 book on Wisconsin in the Civil War, wrote that "In this assault five thousand were killed, wounded or made prisoners on our side. The dead lay on the field thirty-six hours, when they were removed under a flag of truce. The Thirty-seventh Regiment and the five companies of the 38th were engaged in this bloody struggle. Of the former regiment only ninety returned, out of two hundred and fifty-five."

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