Skip to comments.Chilling secrets of Cold Mountain
Posted on 02/23/2004 4:18:07 AM PST by stainlessbanner
THE American Civil War was known for its ferocity and bloodshed, but one event, the Battle of the Crater, was unique in its ferociousness.
Now its site -- one of a massive explosion followed by mass butchery and slaughter -- is becoming a new highlight on the tourist trail of Civil War memorials and battlefield guided tours. Much of this is because of the horror depicted by the graphic opening scenes of the film Cold Mountain, co-starring Nicole Kidman.
It tells how the event unfolded when Union soldiers blasted a gaping crater beneath a Confederate camp outside Petersburg, Virginia, in July, 1864, as the war neared its end. The blast was followed by the charge of hundreds of Union troops who rushed unwittingly into the hole to their eventual slaughter, with more than 5600 casualties, during the bloody eight-hour siege. Today the crater is a grassy divot on a quiet hillside that belies what Jimmy Blankenship, the historian at the Petersburg National Battlefield, calls the "worst human behaviour of the war".
Like other battle sites of the nine-month Petersburg Campaign that ended the war, its story is one largely relegated to history -- mainly, Blankenship says, because those who fought in it wanted to forget.
But park officials have taken advantage of the Cold Mountain film to offer special guided tours of the site -- although they have now been closed for winter but will resume in June for the summer season.
Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the crater any time before then. The guided tour starts with a brief explanation of the Union's battle plan, such as it was. With thousands of troops camped for weeks behind fortifications on opposite sides of a field near Petersburg, a regiment of Union soldiers from Pennsylvania was directed to dig a tunnel under the Confederate army's main battery and blow it up. The Union would then advance around the hole and capture the Confederate line on top of the hill. The 1.5m-tall tunnel took four weeks to dig, and was nearly discovered by Confederate soldiers digging a tunnel of their own just above it.
On the morning of July 30, 1864, the Union side lit the fuse and exploded 3600kg of gunpowder beneath what they hoped was the main battery.
The explosion sent body parts, cannons and chunks of earth the size of a four-room schoolhouse 60m into the sky. The resultant crater was enormous -- 51m long, 18m wide and 9m deep.
Union troops charged the hill, but hadn't counted on resistance from Confederate General Robert E. Lee's four remaining batteries behind the crater.
Only one in five Union soldiers survived the dash across the field; those who made it dived into the crater for cover.
Panic spread among the Union regiments, which included black troops for the first time in a major Civil War battle.
Though outnumbered, the Confederate troops were galvanised by the North's disorganisation and the sight of the black enemy troops, and managed to capture half the crater by noon. The artillery fire was some of the most awesome of the war, Blankenship says.
Confederate soldiers stood on the edge of the crater and shot the Union troops at will.
Bayonets were tossed into the hole like harpoons, mortar rounds were lobbed in like grenades. American Indian soldiers in the crater began a death chant.
With blood running ankle-deep, the remaining Union troops surrendered about 1pm. In all, 4000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded, compared with 1600 for the South.
The crater today is about half its original size because of erosion.
At one point after the war, the US Army turned the battlefield into a golf course and the crater became one of the holes.
Other interesting facts emerge on the tour, such as the discovery of a woman's remains among those of the Union troops, suggesting some women did fight alongside the men. People on tours of the site immediately following the war were told to bring bags for all the relics they would collect.
Much documentation on the crater battle remains today thanks to a congressional inquiry that was launched following the war.
Union Major-General Ambrose Burnside, whose ranks had previously suffered heavy casualties at Fredericksburg and Antietam, received the brunt of the blame, and was forced to take an extended leave from the army. He was never recalled.
Union General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant wrote that the Battle of the Crater was a stupendous failure considering the federals could have captured Petersburg.
The Civil War dragged on for eight more months until the North was finally able to break through Southern lines in April, 1865, and drive Lee from Richmond. The crater is one of many battlefield sites at the Petersburg National Battlefield. There are two driving tours of the park, as well as several other guided walking tours during the summer. Other popular attractions
# Petersburg National Battlefield is on Interstate Highway 95 in Petersburg -- take the Wythe St exit and follow Route 36 east about 4km to the park entrance on the right.
# The park is open from 9am to 5pm daily, except Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
# Admission is $US10 ($A12.86) a car from June to August; $US5 ($A6.43) a car from September to May.
# For details, hit the website www.nps.gov/pete/ or phone 0011 1 804 732 3531
The battlefields around Richmond are a wonderful place to visit.