After the mine under Confederate lines at Petersburg was exploded in late July, 1864, the Northern assault into the crater was to be led by black troops, ordered by Gen. Ambrose Burnside, though criticized by Gen. George Meade as they were inexperienced. The black troops were not committed until after the initial assault, but intense defensive fire routed them and their white counterparts caught in the crater. It was reported that black troops were the most visible participants in the retreat and an observer recalled being brought to a halt by “terror-stricken darkies who came surging over [us] with a force that seemed almost irresistible. They yelled and groaned in despair and when we barred their progress” (Army of Amateurs, Longacre, pg. 190). Gen. Grant later stated that he was confident that the black troops would have carried the assault if they had led it, though agreeing that they were inexperienced troops.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Grant’s Sable Arm at The Crater
“Lieutenant Colonel Charles Loring, a [General Ambrose] Burnside aide who had been observing matters [at the Crater battle] all morning, was so appalled by the prospect of the black soldiers’ advancing into the confusion that he countermanded the order and raced off to report directly to [Burnside, who simply restated his previous order to attack].
The officers commanding the black troops now discovered that it was nearly impossible to advance their men in any orderly fashion. Confederate artillery ranged all surface approaches to the jump-off point . . . [but the] 30th [US Colored Troops] was the first black regiment to advance toward the crater. “The slaughter was fearful,” one [young regimental officer] later wrote home . . . “bullets came in amongst us like hailstones . . . Men were getting killed and wounded on all sides of me.”
[Northern commander U.S. Grant] found Burnside in a small fieldwork overlooking the front. Grant wasted no time. “The entire opportunity has been lost,” he said, rapidly. “There is now no chance of success. These troops must be immediately withdrawn. It is slaughter to leave them here.” Burnside . . .”was still hoping something could be accomplished.”
[At a court of inquiry, Grant stated that] “I blame myself for one thing, I was informed . . . that General Burnside . . . trusted to the pulling of straws [as to] which division should lead [the attack]. It happened to fall on [who] I thought was the worst commander in his corps . . . I mean General [James] Ledlie.”
[Grant continued:] “General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front [to lead the initial assault], and I believe that if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan [that the colored division was “a new division, and had never been under fire – had never been tried . . .”].
General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front . . . and it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them.”
(The Last Citadel, Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865, Noah Andre Trudeau, Little, Brown and Company, 1991, excerpts, pp. 115-117; 126)