The Horrid Pit

by Alan Axelrod

Carroll and Graf, 2007

TheHorridPitCoverThe Horrid Pit is the detailed, engaging account of the Union Army’s plan to tunnel under Confederate lines at Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864, with the objective of blowing up the Confederate center, terminating a long, painful siege and thereby, hopefully, ending the Civil War.

The tunnel was the mastermind of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, who commanded a regiment of a hundred Pennsylvania coal miners with the skills to build the tunnel.  Pleasants first had to sell his plan up the chain of command.  Ultimately he obtained the approval of Ambrose Burnside, General George Gordon Meade, and Ulysses S. Grant himself, but their commitment to the mission was tenuous and half-hearted.

The 500-foot tunnel was constructed under constant threat of cave-in, detection by the enemy, flooding, and explosion.  What happened after its construction was a disaster for the Union, a product of failures of leadership at many levels:  confusion of authority among Burnside, Meade, and Grant; Meade’s disengagement (he never even visited Union lines); and Grant’s last-minute decision to withhold Edward Ferrero’s colored troops from leading the advance through the tunnel.  Ferrero’s division was fresh, rested, and ready to go, but Grant – with understandable justification – feared the political repercussions for the Union if the mission were to fail.  At the last moment, James Ledlie’s weary division was substituted for Ferrero’s; the problem was, Ledlie was drunk during the Union advance.

Axelrod writes brilliantly and authoritatively, with rich detail.  He brings the tragedy of the Petersburg Crater to life for us a hundred-fifty years later.  I was fortunate to visit the Petersburg battlefield last summer with Axelrod’s account fresh in my mind.  This is history at its best.

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