150 Years Ago This Week: The world explodes

July 1864

Marching north on the Valley Turnpike (Route 11 today), Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s entire Confederate army was headed to Kernstown, just south of Winchester, where Gen. George Crooke’s Federal troops were posted — the same ground where Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s men sustained their only defeat in the 1862 Valley Campaign.

On Sunday, July 24, Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s troops hit the Federals hard and threw the Union ranks into confusion. The Federal lines broke and the Union troops filled the turnpike with men, horses, equipment and wagon trains. They raced north and passed through the streets of Winchester, ending the second Battle of Kernstown.

Gen. Crook’s troops kept going to Bunker Hill, W. Va., on their way to Harpers Ferry. This time Gen. Early’s troops were in pursuit, and there were additional skirmishes as the two opposing troops went north. In a rainstorm the next day, there was fighting at Bunker Hill, Martinsburg and Williamsport, Md., when the Union troops finally stopped and encamped on the banks of the Potomac River.

In Georgia, Maj. Gen. William Sherman decided to lay partial siege to Atlanta on July 27. He sent some contingents of his cavalry around the environs of Atlanta to destroy railroads; his men deployed what has been called “Sherman’s neckties,” in which his men built up piles of railroad ties, set them ablaze and placed the rails removed from the trackbed on the burning piles. Once heated, the rails were bent like paperclips around telegraph poles or fence posts, rendering them unable to be restored to the track beds.

Gen. Early was also doing some railroad destruction of the B&O Railroad in and around Martinsburg, W. Va., the same day, and then marched his troops across the Potomac into Maryland. With Gen. Crook’s Federals well to the east, Gen. Early ordered his men north, and crossed into Pennsylvania. Panic spread throughout the North for the second time in a month.

The fighting in Georgia erupted in a serious battle at Ezra Church on the western side of Atlanta on July 28. Several strong attacks by Confederate forces failed to overcome the Federal troops, and by dark, the Confederates withdrew into the fortifications around Atlanta. Federal losses numbered about 600, while the Southerners sustained as many as 5,000 casualties, turning the city of Atlanta into one vast hospital.

In Pennsylvania, Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. John McCausland headed toward Chambersburg. In the front at Petersburg, Va., the tunnel being built by Pennsylvania coal miners of the 48th Penna. Infantry under the Confederate lines was nearing completion, and plans were made to explode the mine early in the morning on July 30. The plan was for the Union forces under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside to attack the Confederates once the mine had exploded, driving the Southerners back and destroying a substantial number of their forces.

The mine was set to explode at 3 a.m.; when it failed, a soldier found that the fuse had gone out. It was relit, and, at 4:45 a.m., one of the largest explosions ever witnessed on the American continent went off. Some 270 Confederates were killed outright, and the blast left a crater 180 feet long by about 80 feet wide and some 30 feet deep.

Through an error in executing orders, the first of some 15,000 Union troops in the attack in the crater were U.S. Colored Troops, who were slaughtered in the Confederate counterattack led by Maj. Gen. William Mahone. A Confederate soldier who participated in the fighting said of the Federals in the crater, “it was like seeing worms crawling all over each other.”

The immediate Federal commander of the assault, Brig. Gen. James Ledlie, a hard-drinking political general from New York, was reported to be cowering drunk inside of a bombproof shelter behind the Union lines; his actions this day ended his military career, and he was soon dismissed from the army. After the heavy fighting raged most of the day, the Union assaults failed, leaving some 5,000 dead and wounded; Confederate casualties numbered about 1,500. The Federal troops withdrew; the Battle of the Crater was over, and the second major frontal assault on Petersburg had failed. The siege of Petersburg continued.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.