But first, here’s another excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, relating the aftermath. Meade’s account follows, and then Lyman’s.
The attack had been a fiasco. Union casualties numbered around thirty-eight hundred, mostly from the IX Corps. Meade requested that Grant relieve Burnside from command. Grant did just that following a court of inquiry that parceled out the blame to Burnside, Ledlie, Ferrero, and others.
Ambrose Burnside left the Army of the Potomac on August 13. Officially he was on furlough, but his active role in the war was over. He later became the governor of Rhode Island and served in the U.S. Senate. Maj. Gen. John Parke, like Meade a Philadelphian and a West Point-trained engineer, took over command of the IX Corps.
There was plenty of blame to go around for the fiasco. Some must be attributed to Meade for interfering with Burnside’s preparations at the last minute. Apparently he realized that. According to Col. Joshua Sigfried, “Had the original plan been adhered to, I am PERFECTLY satisfied Petersburg would have been in our possession before 10 o’clock. Generals Grant and Meade both admitted that to me afterwards.”
Why did Meade order Burnside to replace Ferraro’s division? Was it because of their inexperience or their race? Lyman once noted that if Meade had a bias regarding black soldiers, “it is towards and not against them, and indeed it would go to the heart of the best Bob to see the punctilious way in which he returns their salutes.” “The best Bob” referred to Lyman’s Harvard friend Robert Gould Shaw, who took command of the 54th Massachusetts and died with the regiment’s African American soldiers fighting to capture Battery Wagner outside Charleston. Matthew Broderick portrayed him in the 1989 movie Glory. “I can say with certainty,” Lyman continued, “that there is not a General in this army from whom the nigs might expect a judicious helping hand more than from Meade.”
In a letter dated February 1863 Meade told his wife about a somewhat ambiguous encounter he had had in Washington. He had dropped by George McClellan’s after dinner and found the ex-commander of the Army of the Potomac dining with a number of politicians and soldiers. One of them was Andrew Porter, a general who had served on McClellan’s staff. For some reason he and Meade did not get along. Porter, apparently miffed over Meade’s recent promotion to major general, decided to needle him. He said he had heard that Meade would receive command of “an Army Corps of Niggers,” as Meade related it. “I laughingly replied I had not been informed of the honor awaiting me, but one thing I begged to assure Porter, that if the niggers were going into the field and really could be brought heartily to fight, I was ready to command them, and should prefer such duty to others that might be assigned to me.”<+>48 It was a polite thrust and parry, no doubt conducted behind tight smiles and with icy cordiality. We may find the language offensive today, but it was common parlance in 1863. Still, there is a mystery at the heart of this encounter. As a McClellanite, Porter certainly would have been opposed to waging a war of “servile insurrection,” much less arming black soldiers. Meade was certainly no abolitionist, so I’m not sure whether he was expressing his real opinions or just saying something he knew would irritate Porter.
Meade was essentially conservative, as were many in the army, especially the officers who owed their positions to McClellan. It’s probably not surprising that two of the generals with whom Meade had bad relationships were Birney and Doubleday, two men who sided with the abolitionists. Certainly he was not the only Union general who doubted the black soldiers’ fighting abilities. H. Seymour Hall, who had served on the staff of the abolitionist Emory Upton before leaving to take command of the 43rd United States Colored Troops, noted that there was a “strong prejudice” against the use of African American soldiers. Said one general to Hall, “I am sorry to have you leave my command, and still more sorry that you are going to serve with negroes. I think it’s a disgrace to the Army to make soldiers of them.”
Such attitudes were probably more common than otherwise. In July 1864 Grant suggested Andrew Humphreys for command of the X Corps in the Army of the James, which included African American soldiers. Although Humphreys was eager to receive a corps command, he declined this offer because he did not want to command blacks, telling Grant, “I confess that while I have the kindliest feelings for the negro race and gladly see anything done that promises to ameliorate their condition, yet as they are not my own people, nor my own race, I could not feel towards negro troops as I have always felt towards the troops I have commanded, that their character, their reputation, their honor was a part of mine, that the two were so intimately connected that they could not be separated.” And Lyman wrote, “I say, as I always have, that you never, in the long run, can make negroes fight with success against white men.”
By the end of the war, more than 186,000 African American men had joined the army to fight for the Union in a war that had started because of slavery and that Lincoln had turned into a war to end slavery. Great men rise above the accepted wisdom. When it came to the role of African American soldiers in his army, Meade, along with many of his fellow generals, fell short of greatness.
Here’s Meade’s letter:
Our attack yesterday, although made under the most advantageous circumstances, was a failure. By a movement to the north bank of the James, Lee was completely deceived, and thinking it was a movement of the whole army against Richmond, he rushed over there with the greater portion of his army, leaving his works in our front held by only three out of the eight divisions of his army. When this was ascertained, it was determined to spring a mine which had been dug under one of the enemy’s batteries on their line, assault the breach, and push the whole army through to the Appomattox River. The mine had been dug by a Pennsylvania regiment of coal miners in Burnside’s Corps, and to this officer was entrusted the assault. At 5 A. M. yesterday the mine was most successfully exploded, throwing into the air, and subsequently burying, four guns and a South Carolina regiment. Our column immediately took possession of the crater and the adjacent part of the enemy’s first line; but instead of immediately pushing on and crowning the hill in front, which was the key to the whole of the enemy’s position, our men crouched in the crater and could not be got forward. Burnside and myself had a dispute, he not being willing to admit his men would not advance; at the same time it was evident to all no progress was being made. In this manner, after a delay of five hours, finding it impossible to get an advance, the thing was given up and Burnside ordered to withdraw. In the meantime the enemy, seeing we did not come forward, rallied, and massing on the point held by our troops, drove them back, with confusion and the loss of a number of prisoners.
The affair was very badly managed by Burnside, and has produced a great deal of irritation and bad feeling, and I have applied to have him relieved. In one of my despatches I asked if the difficulty was the refusal of his officers and men to obey his orders to advance, and I said I wanted to know the truth, and to have an immediate answer. This he chose to construe into an imputation on his veracity, and replied that the charge on my part was unofficer-like and ungentlemanly. Of course this has brought matters to a focus, and either he or I has got to go. It was a real misfortune, because we can hardly expect again to have such a good chance, and a failure at this time is most unfortunate. Grant was on the field with me all the time, and assented to all I did. I am afraid our failure will have a most unfavorable influence on the public mind, prone as it is to despondency. I was not much in favor of the plan, but it being determined on, I wanted to try everything for success.
Grant went last night to see the President. What the result will be I cannot tell; but what with the re-advance of the enemy into Pennsylvania, and the failure to accomplish anything here, matters are becoming complicated.
Theodore Lyman continues his account of the Battle of the Crater, which he started on July 30:
I will continue now my letter that broke off last night, and confide to you in all honesty, that I went fast to sleep on the bed and never woke till it was too late for more writing! The fact is, it was a day of extraordinary heat, and remarkably close also. I had been up at half-past two that morning, and I felt a great deal depressed by the day’s work. Well, I had got my fuse to the mouth of the gallery. You must know that all the time they were putting in the powder they could hear the enemy digging pretty near them, over their heads; for they had suspected we were mining, and had begun digging, to try to find it: they sunk a “shaft” or well inside their bastion, and then ran a gallery outside, from which they dug each way, to cut our gallery. But they did not go deep enough and so missed their object. The enemy had lately sent a large part of their force to head off Hancock at Deep Bottom, across the James, a movement that had seriously alarmed them. So the forces in our front were much weakened and the moment was favorable. . . .
On the 29th Hancock was ordered to withdraw, hold two divisions in reserve, and relieve the 18th Corps on the line with the third. The 18th Corps was then to move up in the night, and take position to support the 9th Corps in the assault. The 5th Corps was to be held in readiness on its part of the line, and to open with musketry as soon as the mine was sprung, in order to keep down the enemy’s fire on the assaulting column. New batteries of heavy mortars and siege guns were put in position and the whole artillery was ordered to open on the enemy’s batteries, the moment the mine was blown up. The 9th Corps was arranged to make a rush to the gap, the moment the explosion took place, and then one column was to keep on, and occupy the crest beyond (the key of the whole position), and others were to look out for an attack on either flank. The hour for springing the mine was 3.30 A.m.
General Hunt had been everywhere and arranged his artillery like clockwork; each chief of piece knew his distances and his directions to an inch. We were all up and horses saddled by 2.30. . . . We were to go to Burnside’s Headquarters to wait — an arrangement that I regretted, as you can see nothing from there. It was near half-past three when we got there, and only a faint suspicion of daylight was yet to be noticed. It was an anxious time — eight thousand pounds of gunpowder to go into the air at once! I had considered all I had read about explosions and had concluded it would make little noise and be very circumscribed in its effects. Others, however, thought it might be a sort of earthquake, overturn trees, etc., which idea was founded on the fact that even a dozen pounds confined would pretty nearly blow a house down. However, we were something like a mile away and would not be likely to get the worst of it. General Burnside with his Staff had gone to the front. Presently General Grant arrived, I think after four o’clock. He said, “What is the matter with the mine?” General Meade shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know—guess the fuse has gone out.” Which was a true guess. Where the fuse was spliced, it stopped burning; upon which Colonel Pleasants coolly went into the gallery and fired the new end! At ten minutes before five there was a distant, dull-sounding explosion, like a heavy gun, far away; and, in an instant, as if by magic, the whole line of batteries burst forth in one roar, and there was nothing but the banging of the guns and the distant hum of the shells! My back was turned at the moment, but those that had a good view say that a mass of earth about 50 feet wide and 120 long was thrown some 130 feet in the air, looking like the picture of the Iceland geysers. The explosion made a crater some 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 25 deep (so it was described to me). The mine blew up about under the bastion and rather on one side of it.
[The description of what followed, is copied from Lyman’s “Journal.”]
So astounded was the enemy and so covered was their position by our augmented artillery, that their reply was weak indeed and was soon almost silenced. Meantime, after incomprehensible delay (usually described as at least twenty minutes), the assaulting column moved forward, in a loose manner. This was ]Elisha G.]Marshall’s brigade of Ledlie’s division, a brigade composed of dismounted cavalry and demoralized heavy artillery (!), the whole good for nothing, over which Marshall, a severe, courageous man, had been put, in the vain hope of beating in some discipline! Burnside, with inconceivable fatuity, allowed the troops for leading the assault to be selected by lot! The Corps was enough run down to make it hard to get a good forlorn hope with the most careful picking. Then no gap had been made in the parapet, which, next the mine, was at least eight feet high — all in disobedience to orders. All this time there was more or less cannon and musketry. Orders were sent to take the crest: to push on at once! But plainly there was a hitch! Colonel de Chanal, who was standing with me, was frantic over this loss of precious moments. “Mais, cette perte de temps!” he kept saying. In fact Marshall’s brigade had gone into the crater and had filled it, and now were utterly immovable and sullen! The supports, brought up by the flank in bad order, crowded into the crater and the neighboring bomb-proofs and covered ways. There was some fighting, and the Rebel breastworks for 200 or 300 yards were taken, with a few prisoners; but advance to the crest the men would not. Our own covered ways were jammed with supporting troops that could do no good to anyone. 7 A.m. A lull. At a few minutes after 8 A.m. the troops of the 18th Corps and the black division of the 9th attempted a charge. Sanders, who saw it, said the troops would not go up with any spirit at all. The negroes came back in confusion, all mixed with the whites in and about the crater. Their officers behaved with distinguished courage, and the blacks seem to have done as well as whites — which is faint praise. This attack was over three hours after the springing of the mine. Meanwhile, of course, the enemy had strained every nerve to hold their remaining works and had made all preparations to retake the lost ground. They got guns in position whence they could play on the assailants without fear of getting silenced; and they brought a heavy musketry to bear in the same direction. The space between our line and the crater now was swept by a heavy fire, and made the transit hazardous. 9.15 A.m. or thereabouts; a charge by a brigade of the 18th Corps and a regiment of blacks; a part of one white regiment got to, or nearly to, the crest, but of course could not stay. During the morning a despatch had come, by mistake, to General Meade. It was from Lieutenant-Colonel C. G. Loring, Inspector of 9th Corps, who reported that the troops jammed in the crater and could not be made to advance. Loring had himself gone into the crater. This was the first news from the spot that showed Meade the hitch in affairs; because Burnside’s despatches had been of a general and a favorable character. Hereupon Meade telegraphed Burnside that he wanted the full state of the case, which B. took to mean that he had not told the truth! and at once flew into one of his singular fits of rage. Grant mounted his horse and rode down towards the Taylor Battery to try and see something. Meade remained, receiving despatches and sending orders. Grant is very desirous always of seeing, and quite regardless of his own exposure. 10.30 A.m. Burnside and Ord came in. The former, much flushed, walked up to General Meade and used extremely insubordinate language. He afterwards said he could advance, and wished of all things to persist; but could not show how he would do it! Ord was opposed to further attempts. Meade ordered the attack suspended. As Ord and Burnside passed me, the latter said something like: “You have 15,000 men concentrated on one point. It is strange if you cannot do something with them.” Ord replied angrily, flourishing his arms: “You can fight if you have an opportunity; but, if you are held by the throat, how can you do anything?” Meaning, I suppose, that things were so placed that troops could not be used. Burnside said to one of his Staff officers: “Well, tell them to connect, and hold it.” Which was easy to say, but they seem to have had no provision of tools, and, at any rate, did not connect with the old line. Poor Burnside remarked, quite calmly: “I certainly fully expected this morning to go into Petersburg!”1 At 11.30 A.m. Headquarters mounted and rode sadly to camp. 3.30 P.m. Harwood, of the Engineers, said to me: “They have retaken that point and captured a brigade of our people!” Indeed, the Rebels had made a bold charge upon the huddled mass of demoralized men and retaken the crater, killing some, driving back others, and capturing most. And so ended this woeful affair! If you ask what was the cause of this failure to avail of one of the best chances a besieging army could ask for, I could answer with many reasons from many officers. But I can give you one reason that includes and over-rides every other—the men did not fight hard enough.
Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 217-18. Available via Google Books.
Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 196-201. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.