Facial Hair Friday: Battle of the Crater


Oddly enough, Facial Hair Fridays is teaching this former medieval art historian a fair amount about the Civil War. (Teachers, take note!) Many of  the images in ARC are portraits of Civil War soldiers, and I’ve had to go and look up these generals to put them into a context beyond their finely groomed faces.

I wanted to feature Burnside after finding this picture of him. His mustache and sideburns create an amazing lasso of hair around his face.  A quick poke around the Internet suggests that he may have been the inspiration for the phrase “sideburns” but I soon became curious about one of the disastrous battles that he was involved in: the Battle of the Crater.

At the Battle of Crater, Union soldiers decided to dig a tunnel under the Confederates at Elliott’s Salient in Virginia and blow them up.

The idea seems a little less crazy when you consider that among Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was the 8th Regiment, the Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry, many of whom were coal miners.

The actual digging of the tunnel and the explosion were successful.The 586-foot-long tunnel was started on June 25 and was completed on July 23.

But the original plan, which was to send in a large number of African American troops, was scrapped the night before. According to nps.gov, “Meade opposed this on the grounds that if the attack failed the Union commanders could be accused of wanting to get rid of the only Negro troops then with the Army of the Potomac.” So an additional three divisions of white troops were also sent in.

The explosion at 4 a.m. destroyed 2 of the 4 guns in the battery. But the battle was a disaster.

Union soldiers went into and around the crater, but confusion quickly took over.

The Union soldiers became mired in the crater, where they were vulnerable to mortar and sniper fire. General Mahone of the Confederate army repelled the Union troops. Eventually, the Union troops lost 4,000 (killed, wounded, or captured) while Confederates suffered a loss of 1,500.

Burnside resigned in 1865 after an inquiry placed much of the blame of the disaster on him.

And I had never heard of this battle—or this kind of use of explosives in the Civil War—until I looked at Gen. Burnside’s sideburns. Thank you, Facial Hair Friday.

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