The Mine, Again (March 13, 1865)

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

Back in Philadelphia, Margaretta Meade is stiff grieving over the death of her eldest son, John Sergeant, the previous month. The general suggests she come and visit the army. He also writes home yet again about the official inquiry in the disastrous Battle of the Crater. The report from the Army and Navy Journal that he mentions appears after Theodore Lyman’s letter from today. Meade’s mention of Wade Hampton and Judson Kilpatrick is a reference to the North Carolina Battle of Monroe’s Crossing, also known as “Kilpatrick’s Shirttail Skedaddle.” Surprised by the Confederate cavalry, Kilpatrick had fled in his nightshirt, barely escaping capture. Kilpatrick had earlier served in the Army of the Potomac and led the disastrous raid on Richmond in February 1864.

I wish you would think favorably of my proposition to take a trip to the army. I think it would arouse you and distract your mind.

You do not do justice quite to the court of inquiry. The finding is a complete vindication of my part in the operation. I enclose a slip from the Army and Navy Journal, which gives in full the “Finding of the Court,” the papers having only published that portion in which individual officers are censured by name. On reading this you will see the court states that, had my orders been carried out, success was certain, and that failure was due to the neglect of my orders by Major General Burnside and others. It is true the court might have amplified this much more than it did, and not ignored altogether Burnside’s extraordinary course, in the withdrawal of his command, which was the cause of our great loss. The Richmond papers say Hampton has whipped Kilpatrick, and we have a despatch from Sheridan reporting the occupation of Charlottesville and destruction of the James River Canal.

Both Meade and Lyman mention Sheridan’s successful efforts in their May 13 letters. Neither man cared personally for the Sheridan (especially Meade) but both were willing to acknowledge his successes.

We have a long telegram from Sheridan, dated Columbia (a small place on the James, between Lynchburg and Richmond). His raid has been a complete surprise. After defeating Early utterly at Waynesboro’, he met with no further opposition, but entered Charlottesville and destroyed the rail and bridges; then struck south and got to the James, where he destroyed all destructible parts of the Lynchburg canal, and continued the work as he marched down the river. If you will look at the map, you will see how important it is to break these routes, for they leave only the road via Burkeville Junction open to their great base, Lynchburg. The canal was especially important for transportation of supplies,s just as the Erie Canal is so essential tomarket the grain of the West. . . .

NEWSPAPER ARTICLE, FINDINGS OF THE COURT OF INQUIRY IN THE INVESTIGATION OF THE PETERSBURG MINE EXPLOSION, MENTIONED IN LETTER OF MARCH 13, 1865.
(Army and Navy Journal, of March 11, 1865)
THE PETERSBURGH EXPLOSION Decision Of The Court Of Inquiry Into The Cause Of Its Failure

The following is the finding and opinion of the court ordered to investigate the circumstances attending the failure of the explosion of the mine before Petersburgh:—

Finding

After mature deliberation of the testimony adduced, the court find the following facts and circumstances attending the unsuccessful assault on the 30th July:

Ambrose Burnside. (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside. (Library of Congress).

The mine, quite an important feature in the attack, was commenced by Major General Burnside, soon after the occupation of his present lines, without any directions obtained from the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. Although its location—and in this the engineers of the army concur—was not considered by Major General Meade a proper one, it being commanded from both flanks and reverse, the continuance of the work was sanctioned.

It was not the intention of the Lieutenant General Commanding, or of the Major General commanding the Army of the Potomac, it is believed, to use the mine in the operations against Petersburgh, until it became known that the enemy had withdrawn a large part of his forces to the north side of the James River, when it was thought advantage might be taken of it as an assault. All the Union troops sent north of the James had been recalled in time to participate in the assault, so that the whole of the forces operating in front of Petersburgh were disposable.

The mine was ordered to be exploded at 3.30 a.m., but owing to a defective fuse, it did not take place till 4.45.

The detailed order or plan of operations issued by Major General Meade is in accordance with General Grant’s instructions, and was seen and approved by the latter previous to its publication. (It is marked K in the appendix of the report of the Court of Inquiry.)

It is the concurrent testimony that had the order been carried out, success would have attended the attack. Also it is in evidence that General Meade met General Burnside and three of his division commanders the day before the assault, and impressed upon them that the operation was to be one of time; that unless prompt advantage were taken of the explosion of the mine to gain the crest, it would be impossible to get it, or the troops to remain outside of their lines.

That order directed that General Burnside should “form his troops (the Ninth corps) for assaulting,” and that General Ord commanding the Eighteenth corps, and General Warren commanding the Fifth corps, should support the assault on the right and left respectively.

Brig. Gen. James Ledlie (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. James Ledlie (Library of Congress).

Major General Burnside’s order (No. 60 Appendix) directed Brigadier General Ledlie’s division, immediately on the explosion of the mine, to be moved forward and crown the crest known as Cemetery Hill. Brigadier General Wilcox was to move his division forward as soon as possible after General Ledlie’s bearing off to the left, and Brigadier General Potter was to move his (colored) division next, and pass over the same ground that General Ledlie did.

Five minutes after the explosion of the mine, General Ledlie’s division went forward, and it was followed by those of Generals Wilcox and Potter, though it is in evidence that the latter did not move in the prescribed order, and that they were not formed in a manner to do the duty assigned them.

General Ledlie’s division, instead of complying with the order, halted in the crater made by the explosion of the mine, and remained there about an hour, when Major General Meade received the first intimation of the fact through a dispatch from Lieutenant Colonel Loring, Assistant Inspector General of the Ninth corps, intended for General Burnside, in which he expressed the fear that the men could not be induced to advance.

The crater was on the enemy’s line of works, and was fifty to sixty yards long, twenty yards wide and twenty to twenty five feet deep. It was about five hundred yards from the cemetery crest.

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero.  (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. (Library of Congress).

General Burnside was then (5.40 A. M.) ordered to push forward to the crest all his own troops, and to call on General Ord to move forward his troops at once. It is in evidence that when the order was communicated to General Ferrero, commanding the colored division, he said he could not put in his troops until the troops already in front should be moved out of the way. They did go forward, however, after some delay, but only to be driven back, and in their flight to rush impetuously against other troops, destroying their formation and producing disorder.

At 6.10 a.m., inquiry being made of General Burnside if it would be an advantage for Warren’s supporting force to go in at once on the left, the answer was, “there is scarcely room for it in our immediate front.” The importance of the utmost promptness and the securing of the crest at once, at all hazards, were urged upon him at 6.50 a.m.

At 7.20 a.m. General Burnside reported to General Meade that he was doing all in his power to push forward the troops and, if possible, carry the crest, and also that the main body of General Potter’s division was beyond the crater. It does not appear in evidence, however, that they ever got any considerable distance, not exceeding two hundred yards, beyond the crater, toward the crest, whence they were driven back immediately. This was also the fate of the few colored troops who got over the enemy’s line for a moment.

At 9 o’clock a.m., General Burnside reported many of the Ninth and Eighteenth corps were retiring before the enemy, and then was the time to put in the Fifth corps. It having just been reported, however, by two staff officers (not General Burnside’s) that the attack on the right of the mine had been repulsed, and that none of the Union troops were beyond the line of the crater, the commanding General thought differently; and the Lieutenant-General concurring, General Burnside was directed, at 9.10 a.m., to withdraw to his own entrenchments immediately or at a later period, but not to hold the enemy’s line any longer than was required to withdraw safely his men. This order brought General Burnside to General Meade’s headquarters, where he remonstrated against it, saying by nightfall he could carry the crest. No other officer who was present, and who has testified before the court, concurred in this opinion. The troops in the crater were then ordered to retire; but before it could be effected they were driven out with great loss at 2 a.m. These troops, however, were making preparations to retire, and but for that would probably not have been driven out at that time.

The Fifth corps did not participate at all in the assault, and General Ord’s command only partially, because the condition of affairs at no time admitted of their co-operation, as was contemplated by the plan of assault.

The causes of failure are:

  1. The injudicious formation of the troops in going forward, the movement being mainly by flank instead of extended front. General Meade’s order indicated that columns of assault should be employed to take Cemetery Hill, and that proper passages should be prepared for those columns. It is the opinion of the court that there were no proper columns of assault. The troops should have been formed in the open ground in front of the point of attack, parallel to the line of the enemy’s works. The evidence shows that one or more columns might have passed over at and to the left of the crater without any previous preparation of the ground.
  2. The halting of the troops in the crater instead of going forward to the crest, when there was no fire of any consequence from the enemy.
  3. No proper employment of engineer officers and working parties, and of materials and tools for their use in the Ninth corps.
  4. That some parts of the assaulting columns were not properly led.
  5. That want of a competent common head at the scene of assault, to direct affairs as concurrence should demand.

Had not failure ensued from the above causes and the crest been gained, the success might have been jeopardized by the failure to have prepared in season proper and adequate debouches through the Ninth corps lines for troops, and especially for field artillery, as ordered by Major General Meade.

The reasons why the attack ought to have been successful are:

  1. The evident surprise of the enemy at the time of the explosion of the mine, and for some time after.
  2. The comparatively small force in the enemy’s works.
  3. The ineffective fire of the enemy’s artillery and musketry, there being scarcely any for about thirty minutes after the explosion, and our artillery being just the reverse as to time and power.
  4. The fact that some of our troops were able to get two hundred yards beyond the crater toward the crest, but could not remain there or proceed farther for want of supports, or because they were not properly formed or led.

Opinion

The court having given a brief narrative of the assault, and “ the facts and circumstances attending it,” it remains to report, that the following named officers engaged therein, appear from the evidence to be “answerable for the want of success” which should have resulted:

  1. Major General A. E. Burnside, United States Volunteers, he having failed to obey the orders of the commanding General.
  2. In not giving such formation to his assaulting column as to insure a reasonable prospect of success.
  3. In not preparing his parapets and abatis for the passage of the columns of the assault.
  4. In not employing engineer officers who reported to him to lead the assaulting columns with working parties, and not causing to be provided proper materials necessary for covering the crest when the assaulting columns should arrive there.
  5. In neglecting to execute Major General Meade’s orders respecting the prompt advance of General Ledlie’s troops from the crater to the crest, or in default of accomplishing that, not causing those troops to fall back and give place to other troops more willing and equal to the task, instead of delaying until the opportunity passed away, thus affording the enemy time to recover from his surprise, concentrate his fire, and bring his troops to operate against the Union troops assembled uselessly in the crater.

Notwithstanding the failure to comply with orders, and to apply proper military principles, ascribed to General Burnside, the court is satisfied that he believed the measures taken by him would insure success.

  1. Brigadier General J. H. Ledlie, United States Volunteers, he having failed to push forward his division promptly according to orders, and thereby blocking up the avenue which was designed for the passage of troops ordered to follow and support him in the assault. It is in evidence that no commander reported to General Burnside that his troops could not be got forward, which the court regards as a neglect of duty on the part of General Ledlie, inasmuch as a timely report of the misbehavior might have enabled General Burnside, commanding the assault, to have made other arrangements for prosecuting it, before it became too late. Instead of being with his division during this difficulty in the crater, and by his personal efforts endeavoring to lead his troops forward, he was most of his time in a bomb-proof ten rods in rear of the main line of the Ninth corps, where it was impossible for him to see anything of the movements of troops that were going on.

III. Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, United States Volunteers—

  1. For not having all his troops found ready for the attack at the prescribed time.
  2. Not going forward with them to the attack.
  3. Being in a bomb-proof habitually, where he could not see the operations of his troops, showing by his own order issued while there, that he did not know the position of two brigades of his division, or whether they had taken Cemetery Hill or not.
  4. Colonel Z. R. Bliss, Seventh Rhode Island Volunteers, commanding first brigade, Second division, Ninth corps:—

In this, that he remained behind with the only regiment of his brigade which did not go forward according to orders, and occupied a position where he could not properly command a brigade, which formed a portion of an assaulting column, and where he could not see what was going on.

  1. Brigadier General O. B. Wilcox, United States Volunteers:— The court are not satisfied that General Wilcox’s division made efforts commensurate with the occasion, to carry out General Burnside’s order to advance to Cemetery Hill, and they think that more energy might have been exercised by Brigadier General Wilcox to cause his troops to go forward to that point.

Without intending to convey the impression that there was any disinclination on the part of the commanders of the supports to heartily co-operate in the attack on the 30th day of July, the court express their opinion that explicit orders should have been given assigning one officer to the command of all the troops intended to engage in the assault when the commanding General was not present to witness the operations.

Winfield S. Hancock, Major General United States Volunteers, President of Court.
Edward Schriver,
Inspector General U. S. A., Judge Advocate. The court then adjourned sine die.
Winfield S. Hancock, Major General United States Volunteers, President of Court.
Edward Schriver, Inspector General, U. S. A., Judge Advocate.

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), p. 267. Newspaper account from pp. 345-9. 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. 320-1. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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A Hard Day (December 20, 1864)

Ambrose Burnside. The Battle of the Crater provided a good reason to get him out of the Army of the Potomac once and for all (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside. The Battle of the Crater provided a good reason to get him out of the Army of the Potomac once and for all (Library of Congress).

Members of Congress arrive to investigate the Battle of the Crater. War is politics, and politics is war.

I have had a hard day to-day. This morning Messrs. Chandler and Harding, of the Senate, and Loan and Julian, of the House, all members of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, made their appearance to investigate the Mine affair. They gave me a list of witnesses to be called, from which I at once saw that their object was to censure me, inasmuch as all these officers were Burnside’s friends. They called me before them; when I told them it was out of my power, owing to the absence of my papers and official documents, to make a proper statement; that this whole matter had been thoroughly investigated by a court ordered by the President; the proceedings of which court and the testimony taken by it, were on file in the War Department, and I would suggest their calling for them as the best mode of obtaining all the facts of the case. I then read them my official report, and after numerous questions by Mr. Loan, who evidently wished to find flaws, I was permitted to leave. Mr. Chandler promised me to apply for the testimony taken by the court, and to let me know the answer given. In case the Department refuse, I shall then submit to the committee a copy of my testimony, as my statement of the case. I asked the committee to call before them General Hunt and Colonel Duane, two of my staff; but these officers came out laughing, and said as soon as they began to say anything that was unfavorable to Burnside, they stopped them and said that was enough, clearly showing they only wanted to hear evidence of one kind. I don’t intend to worry myself, but shall just let them take their course and do as they please; but I must try and find some friend in the Senate who will call for the proceedings of the court, and have them published. Mr. Cowan, from Pennsylvania, is the proper person, but I do not know him, and, moreover, do not want to run against Mr. Stanton, so perhaps will wait till I see the Secretary and can talk with him before I take any action. I presume their object is to get some capital to operate with, to oppose the confirmation of my nomination in the Senate.

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. 253-4. Available via Google Books.

Looking for that perfect holiday gift? What could be better than Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg? (You can order the book from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.) Or maybe a 2015 George Gordon Meade calendar–the perfect way to commemorate the general’s bicentennial year! You can get the calendar right here.

A Look at the Field (August 1, 1864)

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a "covered way" used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Sometime in July or August 1864 Alfred Waud sketched a “covered way” used by the V Corps outside Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides an interesting description of Union fortifications at Petersburg and takes advantage of a truce to examine the aftermath of the mine explosion. He spares his wife a description of what he saw, but he included one in his journal (edited by David W. Lowe and published in 2007 as Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt.Col. Theodore Lyman). “In the moderate space between us and the enemy—some 110 yards—lay perhaps 200 bodies,” he wrote. “The heat and intense sun of 48 hours had so swollen and blackened them that negroes were not to be told from whites, save by the hair! The faces and hands of many were actually white with a moving layer of maggots!”

I waked at about six in the morning and heard the General say, “Very well, then, let the truce be from five to nine.” Whereby I knew that Beauregard had agreed to a cessation of hostilities for the burial of the dead and relief of the wounded. After struggling awhile with my indolence, I tumbled out of bed, waked Rosencrantz and ordered my horse. We speedily got ready and sallied forth to look at the field. We rode into a piece of pine woods, at the corner of which I was during the assault of the 18th of June. Some of the advanced camps were here, the danger of their position being plainly marked by the banks of earth put up by each tent. Getting out of the wood, we came on an open tract, a good deal elevated. Here, on the left, and by the ruins of a house was a heavy battery, known as the Taylor house battery. And here too begins the “covered way.” Before I saw real operations I never could understand the management of cannon. On the principle of your battle on “the great white plain,” I had an idea that all the guns were put in the front line: else how could they hit anybody? But really there are often no cannon at all there, all being placed in a second or a third line, or in isolated batteries in these relative positions. One of our heavy siege guns would sometimes have to fire as many as 1700 yards to hit the enemy’s breastwork. You see that cannon-shot must rise high in the air to go any distance; so they fire over each other’s heads. In practice this system is not without its dangers, owing to the imperfections of shells. In spite of the great advances, much remains to be done in the fuses of shells; as it is, not a battle is fought that some of our men are not killed by shells exploding short and hitting our troops instead of the enemy’s, beyond. Sometimes it is the fuse that is imperfect, sometimes the artillerists lose their heads and make wrong estimates of distance. From these blunders very valuable officers have lost their lives. Prudent commanders, when there is any doubt, fire only solid shot,which do not explode, and do excellent service in bounding over the ground.

We got off our horses at the edge of the wood and took to the covered way (we might better have ridden). A covered way is singularly named, as it is open on top. It is simply a trench, about four feet wide, with the dirt thrown up on the side towards the enemy. It should be deep enough to cover a man standing upright. The great thing is, so to run it that the enemy cannot get a sight of it lengthwise, as they could then enfilade it. To this end the way is run zig-zag, and advantage is taken of every hollow, or knoll, that may afford shelter. I was not impressed with the first part of our covered way, as it could be shot into in many places, and was so shallow that it covered me no higher than the shoulders. Probably it was dug by a small officer who was spiteful against men of great inches. . . . We scrambled up the opposite steep bank and stood at the high breastwork of Burnside’s advanced salient. The parapet was crowded with troops, looking silently at the scene of the late struggle. We got also on the parapet and at once saw everything. Opposite, and a little above us, distant about 350 feet, was the rough edge of the crater, made by the mine. There were piles of gravel and of sand, and shapeless masses of hard clay, all tumbled on top of each other. Upon the ridge thus formed, and upon the remains of the breastwork, stood crowds of Rebel soldiers in their slouched hats and ghostly grey uniforms. Really they looked like malevolent spirits, towering to an unnatural height against the sky. Each party had a line of sentries close to his works, and, in the midst, stood an officer with a white flag, where the burial parties were at work.* I jumped down and passed towards the enemy’s line, where only officers were allowed to go, with the details for work. I do not make a practice of describing disagreeable spectacles, and will only say that I can never again see anything more horrible than this glacis before the mine. It did not take long to satisfy our curiosity, and we returned to camp, getting in just as the General was at breakfast. He takes his disappointments before Petersburg in an excellent spirit; and, when the “Herald” this morning said he was to be relieved and not to have another command, he laughed and said: “Oh, that’s bad; that’s very bad! I should have to go and live in that house in Philadelphia; ha! ha! ha!” The papers will tell you that Grant has gone to Washington. As I don’t know what for, I can make Yankee guesses. I presume our father Abraham looks on his election prospects as waning, and wants to know of Ulysses, the warrior, if some man or some plan can’t be got to do some thing. In one word he wants to know—WHY THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC DON’T MOVE. A month since there was a talk of putting Hancock at the head: that is, losing the most brilliant of corps commanders and risking (there is always a risk) the making of a mediocre army commander!

*“The Rebels were meanly employing their negro prisoners in this work.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 201-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

 

Aftermath (July 31, 1864)

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Explosion of the mine under the Confederate works at Petersburg July 30th 1864. The spires in the distance mark the location of the city; along the crest, in front of them are the defensive works, it was an angle of these that was blown up, with its guns & defenders. The explosion was the signal for the simultaneous opening of the artillery and musketry of the Union lines. The pickets are seen running in from their pits & shelters on the front, to the outer line of attack. In the middle distance, are the magnificent 8 & 10 inch Mortar batteries, built and commanded by Col. Abbott. Nearer is a line of abandoned rifle pits, and in the foreground is the covered way, a sunken road for communication with the siege works and the conveyance of supplies and ammunition to the forts. The chief Engineer of the A. of P. is standing upon the embankment watching progress throw [sic] a field glass (Library of Congress).

George Meade and Theodore Lyman write home about the explosion of the mine and the failed attack afterwards.

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.”]

Elisha G. Marshall commanded a brigade in Ledlie's division (Library of Congress).

Elisha G. Marshall commanded a brigade in Ledlie’s division (Library of Congress).

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.