The Regional Review

Volume III - No. 1

July, 1939


By Raleigh C. Taylor,
Junior Research Technician,
Petersburg National Military Park.

July 30 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg. The once raw, gaping hole which swallowed Grant's hopes of ending the war in Virginia in the summer of 1864, is now an innocent-appearing depression, covered with sod and pine-needles, not at all striking to those who read the dimensions of present-day shell-holes. A steam shovel could produce a cavity of like dimensions in a few hours, but such an observation, while all very true and valuable as a means of comparison between the technical resources of today and yesterday, shows a certain lack of imagination. No doubt an acetylene torch would have been a formidable weapon against armor at Agincourt, yet no one bothers to point that out in the study of English history. By the same token, a single shot from a good-sized modern gun would no doubt have merged the Monitor and the Virginia in one short-lived splash. Nevertheless, the combat of those vessels opened a naval era, and indirectly affected the pocketbook of every taxpayer in the world today, according to his share of the upkeep of steel navies.

In the same way the Battle of the Crater and the Petersburg campaign, in which it was an important chapter, go on affecting us today, not simply in the political and economic results of the long-ago sectional conflict, but also because in the history of that war all the principles and practices of twentieth century warfare are set forth in text-book form. It is true that war today would be far more specialized, fought with more efficient and complicated weapons than were available to Lee and Grant. Yet, so long as it is admitted that the foot-soldier is the final and indispensable basis for all the interlocking technical structure of a modern army, so long will the American Civil War be studied, not only by military men but by everyone who wants to learn, as nearly at first hand as possible, what would happen if this country were involved in war.

Beyond the imperative need for such knowledge, the War Between the States offers also a fascinating study in the behavior of Americans under extraordinary conditions. The soldiers of 1861 were nearly all citizens in uniform, just as were our soldiers of 1917, and both reacted to stress in much the same way. One important difference in the two situations, from the present-day point of view, is that the trenches of 1864, as in the case of the Crater battlefield, are to be found here in eastern America, so that it is possible in a comparatively small territory, to trace the footsteps, almost to follow the pick marks, of the men who left farm or factory in '61 to study for four years the curriculum of an absorbing if not exactly cultural institution.

If we trace their footsteps with understanding, it cannot be denied that our forefathers ware apt pupils. In fact, the American soldier of 1865 was not only the best-trained warrior of his own time - he knew a surprising number of things which had to be learned all over again in 1914 at considerable cost. In the same way, the nation at large knew more about the expense and the psychology of war than it has ever had to learn again. All these facts are written permanently on the face of Virginia, if we care to look with a little imagination at the battlegrounds. In doing so, it is well to remember that there is one important difference between an entrenchment and a drainage ditch: the latter is planned and understood with reference to natural laws, while the trench is the product and focus of a tremendous number of human causes. One man, if you shoot at him from cover, and if he does not wish to leave that neighborhood, will dig a hole where he is. The size and shape of the hole is some indication of his training, energy and future intent. When we multiply that hole by 100,000 (the number of men Grant had) and thus arrive at the trench system of an army, we have also to multiply the factors which produced it, and to consider the motives and actions of the pick and shovel men and each of his superiors, as well as of the government and people behind them. A large part of the story of a war, from enlistment office to firing line, may be read in the location of one trench.

The earthwork as history has the advantage that it is difficult to move or change, whereas the story of a battle may shift appreciably with the character of each historian. Certain of these considerations apply with particular force to the Crater battlefield, for although three-quarters of a century has passed since the explosion that destroyed the Confederate battery, the location is marked more impressively and appropriately than any memorial stone could do it. We can follow the tunneling of the Federals, now marked by cave-ins on the surface of what was once No Man's Land, over to the Crater itself, still a hole of notable proportions, dominated by the massive earthwork which the Confederates built behind it after their successful defense. Thus the story is told, not completely, it must be admitted, but very definitely by the earth itself. The Petersburg National Military Park, of which the Crater field is a part, attempts to interpret its particular segment of the American epic by every means available -- but the most impressive narrative is still the product of the Blue and the Gray soldier-excavators.

sketch of Battle of Petersburg

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Date: 04-Jul-2002