Retracing Hallowed Grounds From the Battle of the Crater

Retracing Hallowed Grounds From the Battle of the Crater

For Black men during the Civil War, military service in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) offered a hopeful pathway towards citizenship and equality. Freedom would be theirs by the sword. However, to temper prejudicial Northern attitudes concerning the arming of black men, the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Colored Troops instructed white officers to lead these segregated units. Among the approximately 7,000 USCT wartime officers was William Welsh. “I passed an examination…and received an app[ointment]t as Captain in the 19th U.S.C. Troops Feb’y 21st 1864,” Welsh journaled.[1]

A schoolteacher in the Buckeye State before the war, Welsh mustered into the Fourth Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI). “I entered the service April 15th 1861 as a Private solider,” he penned in an antebellum letter to an Ohio Congressman.[2] Welsh distinguished himself in more than two dozen battles, attained rank promotions, and earned bravery citations. “I received the brevets of Major and Lieut-Colonel…for gallantry in battle at Fredericksburg [and] gallantry in battle at Gettysburg.”[3] Like all prospective USCT commanders, Welsh’s application and credentials underwent review.

Portrait of William Welsh standing with hand over breast in uniform.
Wartime photo of William Welsh in Mount Vernon, Ohio. (Courtesy of author)

Very few white officers of black regiments hailed from abolition or political networks such as the lauded Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment commander Robert Gould Shaw. Interestingly, college students and schoolteachers like Welsh comprised a sizeable portion of USCT officers. Their educational aptitude endowed them with a more enlightened bearing on matters such as race.[4] Indeed, some opportunistic USCT officer applicants sought only increased pay and rapid promotion. Others, recognizing the expansion of black regiments for the Federal war effort, saw an opportunity to mentor and mold new recruits.[5]

Whatever Welsh’s motivation for joining the USCT, it is undeniably rooted in his profound sense of patriotic duty. “I have served my country in the field since the commencement of this war and want to remain there until the end,” he penned in February 1864 to his USCT commander, Henry G. Thomas.[6] On March 22, 1864, Welsh assumed command of the Nineteenth USCT’sCompany K whose ranks, like most of the regiment, were comprised of freed slaves from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coastal regions.

While no stranger to combat, Welsh’s USCT appointment posed a new threat. “The Confederate Congress issued a statement that any black man captured fighting against the South would be subject to immediate execution for servile insurrection, as would their white officers.”[7] Notwithstanding these dangers, Welsh and his USCT men stood resolute.

Organized and trained at Camp Stanton in Benedict, Maryland throughout the winter of 1863-1864, the Nineteenth USCT initially performed guard duty in Baltimore until assigned to the Army of the Potomac in mid-April 1864.[8] The regiment fought throughout the entirety of the Overland Campaign in Virginia, receiving their baptism by fire at the Battle of Wilderness. By June 1864, the Nineteenth USCT were among the Federal units entrenched roughly a mile from the city of Petersburg.

Faced with a prolonged siege, one Pennsylvania Lieutenant Colonel suggested tunneling underneath the Confederate frontlines, detonating explosives, sending thousands of Federal troops over the destroyed rebel trenches, and seizing Petersburg to end the stalemate.[9] Nine black regiments of roughly 4,500 men, to include the Nineteenth USCT, were selected to lead the attack. However, just hours before the scheduled assault, the U.S. Army’s high command ordered three white divisions to lead the charge; the USCT men would accompany them in the rear. “Both our officers and men were much disappointed, as it was an opportunity to show what they could do,” reflected a crestfallen Nineteenth USCT officer.[10]

In a sense, the USCT soldiers and officers were robbed of their chance to demonstrate their fighting prowess and dispel pervasive discrimination in the Federal ranks. “There was a prevalent feeling in the higher echelons of the army that black troops were best utilized as laborers and not as soldiers.”[11] In additional to these racial biases, political sensitivities underpinned the last-minute troop substitution. As Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant later explained, “if we put the colored troops in front and [the attack] should prove a failure…it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything for them.”[12] Notwithstanding, Grant later pronounced the ensuing battle as the saddest affair of the war.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, 1864, the Federals detonated 8,000 pounds of gunpowder within the makeshift mine. “Imagine a pile of earth the size of a half acre going up,” one soldier described, “with cannon, horses, human beings and all, and then the whole falling together in a mass of ruins…”[13] Due to incompetent and disorderly planning, the first echelons of Federal soldiers rushed into the gaping hole–some two hundred feet long, fifty feet wide, and thirty-feet deep–and were met by merciless Confederate gunfire. The USCT men, once the vanguard who drilled for weeks to spearhead the assault, now assumed the herculean task of salvaging the ever-worsening calamity.[14]

Four hours after the mine explosion, the USCT men advanced under the most inhospitable conditions. “Our men were not only exposed to the terribly musketry fire in front,” recounted one Nineteenth USCT Captain, “but to an enfilading fire of shell, grape and canister that no troops could withstand, and the charge was made through a line of white troops going to the rear.”[15] All but one USCT regiment bypassed the suffocating crater which, as the Second USCT Brigade commander described, “was so full that no man could get through.”[16] The last Federal regiment marshaled into the fray, the men of Nineteenth USCT–with Welsh’s Company K in the rear–could not advance beyond the sunken landscape. Instead, many were swept into the depths of the crater.

Further ahead, the leading USCT regiments incurred staggering casualties in their attempts to press forward on the crater’s left and right flanks. “One regiment had already lost so many officers the men were demoralized…officers were shot down trying to coax their companies forward.”[17] Coupled with the maelstrom of shot and shell, the trenches into which the men were sent “were entirely occupied by dead and dying rebel troops and our own,” the Second USCT Brigade commander described. “There was no room for us to move up.”[18]

Battle scene with men fighting and holding flags
Artistic rendering of USCT men engaged with Confederate troops during the Battle of the Crater (Courtesy of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities)

The First USCT Brigade advanced farther than any other Federal unit, but soon encountered rebel resistance. “Our men, inflamed to relentless vengeance by their presence,” retold one Virginia officer, “disregarded the rules of warfare…and butchered the blacks until the slaughtering was sickening.”[19] From the Confederate’s perspective, Petersburg’s defense–and, by extension, the preservation of slavery–justified the unspeakable wrath against this armed slave uprising incited by white officers.[20]

As the rebels rallied in their rage, those Federal troops with hard-won territorial gains hastily fell back, with most pouring into the horrid pit. One New England soldier recalled these men jumping into the crater, “forcing the soldiers already in it further up against the steep walls of the pit and touching off a terrific frenzy of shoving and pushing and cursing for space to fight.”[21]

The hellish and Sisyphean fighting conditions remain the most inexorable part of the Battle of the Crater, as it became known. One Federal soldier likened the crater to “a mighty whirlpool, whose suction drew in and engulfed all who came near…”[22]There, an estimated one hundred men of the Nineteenth USCT remained for hours “expending all their own ammunition and all they could take from the cartridge-boxes of the wounded and dead men that lay thick together…”[23] Unrelenting mortar and musket fire, as well as bayoneted muskets hurled like spears from Confederates around the lip of the depressed earth, befell the trapped bluecoats. “Men were being torn and mangled by the hundred every moment” described one Nineteenth USCT Captain.[24]

So intense were the thundering guns that Welsh himself “incurred deafness of both ears from concussion while exposed under heavy and continuous cannonading.”[25] So lethal were the exploding shells that, per the account of one Federal soldier, “men’s clothes were covered with blood and fragments of human flesh and brains to a degree never seen…”[26]

Modern battlefield with photo of Welsh in foreground
L-R: The Federal’s mineshaft entrance, remnants of the crater, and a wartime photo of William Welsh placed near the crater during a visit to the Petersburg National Battlefield (Courtesy of the author, May 2021)

The Battle of the Crater ended in humiliating defeat for the Union. USCT regiments accounted for forty-one percent of Federal casualties incurred, though they constituted only a fifth of the total forces engaged.[27] An estimated half of the Nineteenth USCT’s men experienced casualties. Within Welsh’s Company K, fourteen men were killed, nineteen wounded, and three captured. Two of whom – Privates Alfred Carter and Mildey Finnick – were subsequently sold into slavery.[28] Despite their gauntlet, the USCT’s fighting spirit made immediate impressions. “These black men commanded the admiration and respect of every beholder,” penned the Second USCT Brigade commander.[29] Major General Ambrose Burnside even noted that “no officers or men behaved with greater gallantry than they did.”[30]

Sadly, most USCT contributions were overlooked, amplified by the Lost Cause narrative, and all but erased from collective memory for generations. “While lauded by their leaders at the time for their bravery and martial skill, USCT soldiers were given little to no formal recognition during or after the war…”[31] Fortunately, their contributions have experienced a renewed sense of appreciation and research, best chronicled in Muster by William Kurtz, Holly Pinheiro, and Melissa Stuckey.

Two monuments
L-R: USCT monument at the Petersburg National Battlefield (Kyle Nappi photo, May 2021) and the African America Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

“Without the military help of the black freedmen,” President Abraham Lincoln decreed, “the war against the South could not have been won.”[32] As one USCT chaplain summarized, “the historian’s pen cannot fail to locate us somewhere among the good and great, who have fought and bled upon the altar of their country.”[33] Most notably, the Nineteenth USCT were among the first Federal soldiers to enter the fallen Confederate capitol of Richmond on April 3, 1865. By then, Welsh had attained the ranks of Major and Brevet Brigadier General, having served the entirety of the Civil War. “I was in fifty battles and engagements,” he penned in an antebellum letter to an Ohio Congressman.[34]


[1] “Welsh, William – Age 28, Year: 1864 – 19th US Colored Infantry”, Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Volunteer Organizations During the American Civil War, Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers who served with the United States Colored Troops: infantry organizations, 14th through 19th, Record Group 94, Microfilm 1822, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.,, Accessed May 18, 2021.

[2] William Welsh, Letter to John A. Bingham, September 31, 1889, Grand Valley State University Special Collections and University Archives, RHC-89, William Welsh papers, 1855-1908.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 16.

[5] Joseph Glatthaar, “The Civil War’s Black Soldiers”, National Park Civil War Series, National Parks Service,, Accessed June 5, 2021.

[6] “Welsh, William.”

[7] “The United States Colored Troops”, American Battlefield Trust,, Accessed June 1, 2021.

[8] L. Allison Wilmer, J. H. Jarrett and Geo. W. F. Vernon, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-5, Volume 2(Baltimore: Guggenheimer, Weil, & Co., 1899), 206.

[9] William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (Washington, D.C., Center of Military History, 2011), 355-356.

[10] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives of Events in the War of the Rebellion, Fifth Series, No. 1 (Providence: Snow & Farnham Printers, 1894), 26-27.

[11] John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), 94.

[12] William S. McFeely, Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), 178.

[13] Dobak, Freedom by the Sword, 359.

[14] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives, 27.

[15] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives, 27.

[16] U.S. Department of War, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 40, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1892), 104.

[17] Michael A. Cavanaugh and William Marvel, The Petersburg Campaign, The Battle of the Crater, ‘The Horrid Pit’, June 25-August 6, 1864, Second Edition, (Lynchburg: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1989), 57.

[18] The War of the Rebellion, 104.

[19] John Sergeant Wise, The End of An Era, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1899), 366.

[20] Kevin M. Levin, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012), 29.

[21] Warren Wilkinson, Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen: The Fifty-seventh Massachusetts Veteran Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac, 1864-1865, (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 254.

[22] John Anderson, The Fifty-Seventh Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, (Boston: E.B. Stillings & Co Printers, 1896), 180.

[23] The War of the Rebellion, 599.

[24] Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island, Personal Narratives, 28-29.

[25] Robert Summers, Maryland’s Black Civil War Soldiers: 19th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops (Middletown, 2021), 11-12.

[26] John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009), 251.

[27] Levin, Remembering the Battle of the Crater, 19.

[28] Wilmer, Jarrett and Vernon, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, 230-232; Summers, Maryland’s Black Civil War Soldiers, 418-469.

[29] Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater, 222.

[30] The War of the Rebellion, 64.

[31] Mark Herbert, “The Most Heroic Day You’ve Never Heard Of”, Muster, The Journal of the Civil War Era, October 27, 2020,

[32] “USCT History”, African American Civil War Memorial & Museum,, Accessed May 25, 2021.

[33] William R. Forstchen, We Look Like Men of War, (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2003), 9.

[34] William Welsh, Letter to John A. Bingham.

Kyle Nappi

Kyle Nappi is a descendant of the brothers Samuel Kael Groah and Andrew Jackson Groah and the great-great-great-grandnephew of William Welsh. An alumnus of The Ohio State University, Kyle serves as a national security policy specialist in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. He is also an independent researcher and writer of military history (chiefly the World Wars), having interviewed ~4,500 elder military combatants across nearly two-dozen countries. Kyle would like to acknowledge the archival assistance of Grand Valley State University's Leigh Rupinski and Tracy Cook.

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