Photo Essay by Kevin M. Hymel
The crater that punched a hole in the Confederate lines and threw a 200-foot umbrella of dirt, men, and guns into the air on July 30, 1864, could today be mistaken for a gentle dip in the rolling, slight hills of the Petersburg countryside. In fact, the tunnel itself is still intact as are the surrounding Union batteries that supported the attack.
There is no smoke emanating from the crater today—much to the disappointment of many a visitor—but the hole is still impressive, measuring 152 feet in length, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. The crater, formed from the detonation of 320 kegs of gunpowder, is uneven and lacks the symmetry of a hole blasted by modern heavy artillery or bombs.
The Union tunnel, which leads to the crater, belies the privations with which the Pennsylvania soldiers who dug it had to contend. It is only four and a half feet high with a width of four feet at the bottom and two feet at the top. Most of its 510-foot length still leads to the crater, though several spots have caved in. The Park Service has rebuilt a section of the square tube that provided fresh air and can be seen in the tunnel entrance.
Nearby, the Taylor Farm gives an excellent view of the crater from the Union lines. It was here that the Union artillery batteries opened up on the Confederate line as the men in blue rushed forward, and later, when the rebels counterattacked. Across the road from the farm, a gun battery of four cannons still points in the direction of the crater.
The true measurement of the Crater’s cost can be found approximately eight miles away at the Poplar Grove Cemetery where most of the 504 Union soldiers are buried. Most of the 361 Confederates who fell during the fight are buried in the Blanford Cemetery inside Petersburg.
Over a century and a half ago, the Yankees thought they could enter Petersburg with a thunderclap, but it was not to be. Despite the destruction wrought and the viciousness of the fighting, nothing changed and the battle for Petersburg became a siege that would last nine months. The crater will always stand for Union ingenuity and Confederate tenacity.