The siege of Petersburg, Virginia, dragged on for 10 months, the longest siege in American military history. Beginning in March 1864, Union forces tried and failed to break the entrenched Confederate forces. By July, the Federals believed that they had seized on a plan that just might break the Rebel lines––they would dig a tunnel underneath the Confederate fortifications, then detonate a massive bomb, allowing their forces to rush into the breach and break the stalemate.
The engagement was catastrophe, as black and white Union soldiers would end up trapped in the crater fighting for their lives, while white soldiers turned on their comrades and sought mercy from the Rebels. Black Union soldiers were fighting for a Republic whose principles did not yet apply to them.
Black Union soldiers were meant to be key to the operation from the beginning. The decision to recruit them was controversial––many white Union soldiers did not want to serve alongside blacks. But the Civil War had become a fight for abolition, and black Americans were eager to prove themselves. As historian Richard Slotkin writes in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, recruiters told black men that valor on the battlefield would “sink the opprobrious epithet nigger into eternal oblivion.” Black men chose to fight for the Union while many of their white counterparts––such as those Irish Americans in New York City who reacted to the draft with a massive pogrom targeting blacks in Manhattan––resisted putting on the blue by any means available.