The Crater on PBS

Published:May 27, 2010 by Brendan Wolfe

The Battle of the Crater will be examined on a PBS series:

The tunnel that Union soldiers dug to blow a crater under Confederate defenses at Petersburg, Va., is not usually juxtaposed with, say, the Great Wall of China.

But the Battle of the Crater makes the cut in the new PBS series “Ground War,” thanks to a professor who examines the Civil War from the perspective of a physicist.

Charles Ross, dean of Longwood University’s College of Arts and Sciences, had been a Civil War buff as a boy and found his interest renewed when he came to Longwood as a physics professor in 1992.

He began looking at ingenious uses of technology in the Civil War, he said, and “seeing things with a different eye than I did as a kid.”

Our entry on the Civil War battle explains why Ross might be interested in the science of that tunnel:

Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, in Burnside’s corps, commanded a regiment of anthracite miners from Schuylkill County. One of his men looked out at the Confederate position from his trench and declared, “We could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.” The army’s professional engineers thought this to be “claptrap and nonsense,” largely because the tunnel would need to be longer than four hundred feet, a distance that would preclude proper ventilation. As such, they refused to lend any assistance or expertise to the project. Pleasants got the go-ahead anyway, and on June 25 his men started digging, using improvised tools.

A sketch of the tunnel can be seen here.