Petersburg and the Crater, Virginia

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Visitor Center

After emerging from the Battle of the Wilderness in May, 1864, Grant headed south. As historians had noted, it was not a defeat simply because Grant refused to ackowledge it as one. Grant kept sidestepping to the left but the Confederates kept pace with him. They sidestepped past Richmond, then both sides realized that the rail junction at Petersburg held the key to cutting Richmond off. The seige of Petersburg wasn't a classic seige where the objective was isolated, but rather a period of prolonged trench warfare that lasted until Lee withdrew in March, 1865. Eventually the Confederate defenses were stretched too thin.

Camp Life

Above: a small-scale representation of field fortifications. Below: Artillery posts.
Above: Mortars

Left: Camp Gear

Below: a re-enactor demonstrates rifle drills.

Around the Battlefield

There was something grimly humorous about seeing these guys foraging on a 150-year-old battlefield.
Left: Once Grant began his side-stepping, the Civil War developed into a rehearsal for World War I. The map at left shows the trench systems. The red ring at top is the onfederate defenses of Richmond, and Petersburg is at the black marker near the bottom.

Red is traditionally used on military maps for the enemy, and sorry, CSA fans, but that's how it was. (After the Soviet Union broke up, US exercises shifted to orange to avoid any implication that we were specifically targeting Russia.)


A Pennsylvania officer, a mining engineer in civilian life, proposed tunneling under Confederate lines and setting off an explosion. His superiors were skeptical but agreed to the operation, if only as a diversion to keep the troops occupied.

From across the valley, Union officers had a good view of the operation, which was concealed from Confederate observation.
Left and below: the entrance to the tunnel.
Left and below: a vertical shaft on one side of the tunnel provided ventilation. A fire burning in the shaft drew stale air upward while sucking in fresh air. Traces of the shaft are visible.

The Crater

During a much larger mining operation in World War I, a British officer said "We may not change history but we will certainly change geography." The mine here, consisting of four tons of explosives, was set off on July 30, 1864 and worked perfectly, but nobody was prepared to exploit the breach and soldiers milled around aimlesly before being driven back.
Left and below, the crater. It has actually been re-excavated several times. The Confederates filled it in immediately, then it was re-excavated several times in search of human remains.

Instead of bypassing the crater, many soldiers not well versed on the plan thought it made an ideal rifle pit. Which it did until the Confederates counterattacked and the shelter turned into a death trap.
Below: The Confederates suspected that tunneling was going on, and dug counter-tunnels, but were never able to find the Union tunnel. However, the commander of the strong point that was the target took the threat seriously enough to build back-up positions.

Confederate Earthworks


Return to Virtual FieldTrips Index
Return to Historic Sites Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 22 June 2007, Last Update 04 June 2020