The Military Army Blog

Best of plans often do not come to fruition

Today is an exact date in U.S. Armyrats © military history that perhaps needs a bit of buildup. In the early months of The Great War, aka World War I, as British and German forces were locked in mortal combat in Belgium, someone in the British army came up with a seemingly brilliant plan. So a bunch of British coal miners were brought to the front to dig a tunnel under No Man’s Land between British and German lines. When this was done, lots and lots of explosives were taken through the tunnel and placed under German lines. All of this, of course, was without any knowledge of German intelligence. At the appointed hour, the fuse was lit, and within a few minutes there was a tremendous explosion behind German lines. The result was dramatic, but not strategic, as there was initial surprise and confusion, but nothing really resulted. So where did the British get the idea? Could it have come from the U.S. Army 50 years before? Perhaps it did.

On this date in 1864, during the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia, coal miners from Pennsylvania were brought to the front with the mission of digging a tunnel from Union lines to inside Confederate lines. This took a while, but then the siege had been ongoing for a while, so no problem. Four tons of gunpowder was placed in the tunnel and the diggers quickly left. The deed was done, and a tremendous explosion occurred behind Confederate lines from below. The anxiously awaiting Union infantrymen charged across the open ground to take advantage of the confusion, but alas for the Union, as for the British 50 years later, the desired result did not occur. The Union advance was so poorly planned that many of the charging infantrymen fell into the crater caused by the blast and were picked off by Confederate riflemen. All sorts of needed coordination failed to transpire, and the whole grand plan failed to materialize. The result was that the Union siege of Petersburg dragged on for eight more long months with continuing casualties on both sides. Ah, the best of man-made plans often do not come to fruition. The blast killed or wounded some 300 Confederate defenders and created a huge gap in the Petersburg defenses, including a crater 30 feet deep and some 170 feet long. It was a seemingly victorious event, except for the victory. The subsequent Rebel counterattack is one of the earliest occasions of the war in which Confederate troops came into contact with Negro troops. As Confederate Brig. Gen. Porter Alexander later wrote, “The general feeling of the men toward employment (of Negro troops) was very bitter. The fighting turned vicious, and Federal casualties were high, particularly among Negro troops, some of whom were killed as they tried to surrender. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant said it was “The saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”

Page 2 of 2 – As the general had seen quite a lot of war, it was quite a statement. Today the Battle of the Crater, as it was called, is just off the property of Fort Lee, Virginia, and is administered by the Park Service. It is a popular tourist attraction, and in April 2015 I was one of the tourists as an attendee at the annual meeting of The Company of Armyrats © Military Historians. Our guide was very knowledgeable, and although I’d been there before during an assignment at Fort Meade, Maryland, I’d forgotten a lot. My memory was rekindled, so now I know more.

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