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 Simple Matter of Justice (August 13, 1864)

George Gordon Meade confronts General Grant about the question of who should command the new military division, and remains baffled by his superior officer.

Grant was here yesterday to transact some business. I immediately asked him, how, after his promise to me, that if a military division was organized, I should be assigned to the command, he has placed my junior, Sheridan, there. He said Sheridan had not been assigned to the division, that no one was yet assigned to it, and that Sheridan had only been put in command of the troops in the field belonging to the different departments. I referred him to the order constituting the division, and assigning Sheridan temporarily to the command, and observed that temporarily I supposed meant as long as there was anything to do, or any object in holding the position. I further remarked that I regretted it had not been deemed a simple matter of justice to me to place me in this independent command. To which he made no remark. I really am not able to ascertain what are his real views. Sometimes I take the dark side, and think they are intentionally adverse to me, and at others I try to make myself believe that such is not his purpose. In confirmation of the last theory, I am of the opinion that he does not look and has not looked upon the movement in Maryland and the Valley in the important light it deserves, and that he considers it merely a raid which a display of force on our part will soon dissipate, when Sheridan and the troops will soon return here. But in this he is greatly mistaken. Already we have positive news that Lee has sent large reinforcements into the Valley, and there is no doubt it is his purpose to transfer the principal scene of operations there, if it can be accomplished. To-morrow we are going to make a move to test his strength here, and endeavor to make him recall his troops. Should this fail, we will be obliged to go up there and leave Richmond.

The weather continues intensely hot.

The court of inquiry was going on, but this move will stop it, and I fear it will never come to an end. I have given my testimony, which I will send you to preserve as my record in the case. I have insisted on Burnside’s being relieved. Grant has let him go on a leave, but he will never return whilst I am here.

"Dutch Gap Canal, the commencement of the work" (Library of Congress).

“Dutch Gap Canal, the commencement of the work” (Library of Congress).

In his letter of August 13, Theodore Lyman remains bemused by African American soldiers. Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts had been captured during the Battle of the Crater.

… I rode over to make some enquiry about Colonel Weld, of Loring, at Burnside’s Headquarters. As I drew near, I heard the sound as of minstrelsy and playing on the psaltry and upon the harp; to wit, a brass band, tooting away at a great rate. This was an unaccustomed noise, for Burnside is commonly not musical, and I was speculating on the subject when, on entering the circle of tents, I beheld a collection of Generals — not only Burnside, but also Potter, Willcox, and Ferrero. Speaking of this last, did you hear what the negro straggler remarked, when arrested by the Provost-Guard near City Point, on the day of the assault, and asked what he was doing there. “Well, saar, I will displain myself. You see, fus’ I was subjoined to Ginral Burnside; an’ den I was disseminated to Ginral Pharo. We wus advancing up towards der front, an’ I, as it might be, loitered a little. Presently I see some of our boys a-runnin’ back. ‘Ho, ho,’ sez I, ‘run is your word, is it?’ So I jes separates myself from my gun and I re-tires to dis spot.”

Well, there was “Ginral Pharo” taking a drink, and an appearance was about as of packing. Whereat I presently discovered, through the joyous Captain Pell (who asked me tauntingly if he could “do anything for me at Newport”), that Burnside and his Staff were all going on a thirty-day leave, which will extend itself, I fancy, indefinitely, so far as this army goes. On my return I found two fat civilians and a lean one. Fat number one was Mr. Otto, Assistant Secretary of the Interior; Fat number two, a Professor Matile, a Swiss of Neufchatel, and friend of Agassiz (you perhaps remember the delicious wine of that place). The lean was Mr. Falls, what I should call Mr. Otto’s “striker,” that being the name of an officer’s servant or hanger-on. Mr. Falls was very chatty and interrogative, following every sentence by “Is it not?” So that finally I felt obliged always to reply, “No, it isn’t.” I scared him very much by tales of the immense distances that missiles flew, rather implying that he might look for a pretty brisk shower of them, about the time he got fairly asleep. Professor Matile was bright enough to be one of those who engaged in the brilliant scheme of Pourtales Steiger to seize the chateau of Neufchatel on behalf of the King of Prussia. Consequently he since has retired to this country and has now a position as examiner at the Patent Office. Mr. Otto was really encouraging to look at. He did not chew tobacco, or talk politics, or use bad grammar; but was well educated and spake French and German. General Butler, having a luminous idea to get above the Howlett house batteries by cutting a ship canal across Dutch Gap, has called for volunteers, at an increased rate of pay. Whereupon the Rebel rams come down and shell the extra-pay volunteers, with their big guns; and we hear the distant booming very distinctly. I think when Butler gets his canal cleverly through, he will find fresh batteries, ready to rake it, and plenty more above it, on the river. The Richmond papers make merry, and say it will increase their commerce.

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. 221-22. 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. 211-13. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Inside Petersburg (August 12, 1864)

Theodore Lyman writes about a curious incident of the war. War may be hell, but it does have its rules. Colonel Henry G. Thomas of Portland, Maine, commanded a brigade in Edward Ferrero’s IX Corps division. You can read his account of the situation Lyman describes here.

I did not yet mention that I had seen Colonel Thomas, who commands a negro brigade. A singular thing happened to him. He went out during the truce to superintend, and, when the truce was over, he undertook to return to the works, but took a wrong turn, passed inside the Rebel picket line, and was seized. He told them they had no right to take him, but they could not see it and marched him off. But he appealed to the commanding General who, after eighteen hours, ordered him set free. He was in and about Petersburg and told me the flower-patches were nicely cultivated in front of the houses, the canary birds were hung in cages before the doors, and everything looked as if the inhabitants meant to enjoy their property during their lives and hand it quietly down to their children. Little damage seemed to have been done by our shells, which I was glad to hear, for I hate this business of house-burning. Next time, I fancy the warlike Thomas will make no mistakes about turns.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 211. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

The Mine (July 30, 1864)

A depiction of the Battle of the Crater by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

A depiction of the Battle of the Crater by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater. The attack started with one heck of a bang when the Union exploded 8,000 tons of gunpowder at the end of a tunnel dug beneath the Confederate defenses. Things went downhill from there. Ulysses S. Grant called  the end result “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”

Here’s a rather lengthy excerpt from Searching for George Gordon Meade: the Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg (If you don’t have the book already, you can buy it here). Following that is the letter Theodore Lyman wrote on July 30.

Gen. Robert Potter. His men came up with the idea for the Petersburg mine (Library of Congress).

Gen. Robert Potter. His men came up with the idea for the Petersburg mine (Library of Congress).

The plan behind the crater was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the IX Corps’ 48th Pennsylvania. Like Meade, Pleasants had cosmopolitan origins, born in Buenos Aires of a Philadelphia Quaker and his Spanish bride. His regiment included many miners from Pennsylvania’s coal country, men who knew a thing or two about digging. Some of them told Pleasants they could dig a tunnel beneath the Confederate breastworks, stuff it full of gunpowder, and blow a huge gap in the rebel defenses. Pleasants told his division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter, about the idea. Potter told corps commander Ambrose Burnside, who approved the scheme.

Meade entertained no great hopes for the idea; according to Pleasants, Meade told Burnside “it was all clap-trap and nonsense” and predicted that the tunnel would collapse or the men would suffocate. He also was not happy about the location, which would expose attackers to fire from the flank and rear as they moved forward. Meade could not summon any more enthusiasm when he summarized the plan for Grant. “I am not prepared to say the attempt would be hopeless” was the best he could manage. Still, he allowed it to move forward, although Pleasants complained about the lack of support he received.

After scrounging what equipment they could, the Pennsylvania miners set to work on June 25. Over the next few weeks they dug a tunnel that stretched more than five hundred feet to a point beneath a Confederate fort in front of Burnside’s position. At the end they dug two shorter tunnels to each side, one thirty-seven feet long and the other thirty-eight. The coal miners drew on all their experience not only to dig shafts to provide air to the men inside, but also to hide the dirt they removed so the Confederates would not suspect that something was going on beneath their feet. In fact, the rebels did suspect something but could not determine the tunnel’s location. At the battlefield today you can still see the shallow depressions left behind by the countermines they dug.

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Excitement grew as it became more apparent that Pleasants’s crackpot scheme might actually work. Grant had already made plans to have Hancock attack the Confederates north of the James River, and he decided that movement would also provide a perfect way to draw troops from the site of the mine explosion. Burnside, in the meantime, prepared a plan of attack. He assigned Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division of African American troops the mission of leading the assault on the enemy’s lines after the explosion. Ferrero’s men began training for their role.

Burnside preferred Ferrero’s soldiers because, unlike the rest of the IX Corps, they had not seen any serious fighting, so they remained fresh. At the last minute, Meade decided that having the black soldiers lead the attack was not wise. He advised Grant that this was not a good time to give untested troops their first combat experience. Furthermore, Meade continued, if the attack should fail, it would be said “that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them.” Grant agreed. On the day before the mine explosion, Meade told Burnside to pick a different division to lead the attack.

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

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

Rather than choosing the second-best men available, Burnside had his division commanders draw straws. The winner–or loser, depending on how you look at it–was Brig. Gen. James Ledlie. This was the same Ledlie who had been visibly intoxicated at the North Anna. (“Ledlie was a wretched, incapable drunkard, not fit to command a company, and was the ruin of his division,” said Lyman.) Meade also interfered with Burnside’s tactics. Burnside wanted the first wave of attacking soldiers to swing left and right to roll up the Confederate lines on each side of the crater. Meade overruled him. He wanted the first troops to charge forward and take the high ground occupied by Blandford Cemetery, about four hundred yards away and off to the right. The divisions following would then turn to the sides to cover the leaders’ flanks, with Ferrero’s 4th Division taking up the rear. Ord’s XVIII and Warren’s V Corps would wait in support.

Soldiers quietly lugged bags of powder down the long, cramped tunnel and placed them in galleries along the lateral extensions at the end. Pleasants had planned to use twelve thousand pounds, but after consultation with his engineers, Meade decreed that eight thousand pounds would be sufficient. The miners strung a long, spliced-together fuse down the tunnel. The schedule called for the explosion to happen at 3:30 a.m. on July 30. In the predawn darkness Ledlie’s division quietly filed down protected trenches to the front lines, and then they waited. The fuse was lit; time ticked by; the sky began lightening in the east; nerves were on edge as all ears strained for the sound of the explosion . . . and nothing happened.

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Carrying powder into the mine. The soldiers detailed for this duty carried the power a keg in either end of a grain bag thrown across the shoulder. A portion of the c̀overed way' along which they had to pass, was exposed to the enemies fire. At the dangerous points they would watch their oppartunity[sic] and dash over the exposed ground into comparative safety (Library of Congress).

Artist Alfred Waud’s description of his drawing: Carrying powder into the mine. The soldiers detailed for this duty carried the power a keg in either end of a grain bag thrown across the shoulder. A portion of the c̀overed way’ along which they had to pass, was exposed to the enemies fire. At the dangerous points they would watch their oppartunity[sic] and dash over the exposed ground into comparative safety (Library of Congress).

Meade waited impatiently at IX Corps headquarters. Burnside had gone forward to observe from a gun battery, later named Fort Morton, but remained in communication with Meade by telegraph wire.

Grant arrived around 4:00. “What’s the matter with the Mine?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” said Meade, but he figured rightly that the fuse had gone out. Sgt. Henry Rees took on the unnerving duty of going into the tunnel to determine the problem and set things right. He found that the fuse had indeed been extinguished at one of the splices. With the help of Lt. Jacob Douty, he fixed the splice, relit the fuse, and hightailed it out of the tunnel.

The result was everything its planners hoped it would be. “The explosion was the grandest spectacle I ever saw,” wrote Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts, part of Ledlie’s division. “The first I knew of it, was feeling the earth shaking. I looked up and saw a huge mass of earth and flame rising some 50 or 60 feet in the air, almost slowly and majestically, as if a volcano had just opened, followed by an immense volume of smoke rolling out in every direction.” It looked as though the debris would rain down on the Union soldiers, and some of them broke and ran. It required twenty minutes or so to re-form the lines for the attack. (Imagine what would have happened had the mine used the full twelve thousand pounds of powder.) Then the men had to clamber over entrenchments and through abatis, further delaying them.

The explosion had created a crater indeed, one that was 60 feet wide, 170 feet long, and 30 feet deep. When Weld and his men reached the pit, he recalled, “The scene inside was horrible. Men were found half buried; some dead, some alive, some with their legs kicking in the air, some with the arms only exposed, and some with every bone in their bodies apparently broken.”

The Confederates had been surprised by the explosion, which wiped out some 150 feet of their defensive line. But the attacking troops seemed equally stunned. With Ledlie taking shelter behind the lines in a bombproof, drunk, there was no one in authority to spur the Union soldiers forward. The men moved into the crater and milled about in confusion as the defenders began to recover from the initial shock and turn to the business of killing their attackers. Back at IX Corps headquarters, Meade intercepted a message intended for Burnside that said the men would not advance. He telegraphed Burnside and demanded information. “I wish to know the truth and desire an immediate answer,” he said.

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress).

Meade’s implication enraged Burnside. “I have never in any report said anything different from what I conceived to be the truth,” he telegraphed back. “Were it not insubordinate I would say that the latter remark of your note was unofficerlike and ungentlemanly.”

Meanwhile, the situation at the front was going from bad to worse. At 6:00 Meade told Burnside to push his entire command forward. Burnside interpreted that to mean he should order Ferrero’s men to the crater, even though it was already crowded with soldiers who would not move forward. “It was a perfect pandemonium,” Weld recalled. “The negroes charged into the mine, and we were packed in there like sardines in a box. I literally could not raise my arms from my side.” Some of the black soldiers did advance beyond the crater, but the intense Confederate fire soon drove them back in disorder.

The attack had clearly failed. Sometime before 10:00 Meade ordered Burnside to recall his men. Burnside rode over to protest in person. He said his men could still take the hill. At the very least, he did not want to withdraw them until nightfall. Horace Porter described the encounter as “peppery” and said it “went far toward confirming one’s believe in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute.” Meade repeated his order for a withdrawal, but it remained unclear how the men could leave without being gunned down during the retreat. For hours the Union soldiers remained trapped within the crater under a sweltering sun, enemy fire making it impossible to move forward or backward. “It was a sickening sight,” recalled one soldier: “men were dead and dying all around us; blood was streaming down the sides of the crater to the bottom, where it gathered in pools for a time before being absorbed by the hard red clay.”

Confederates under Brig. Gen. William Mahone finally charged to retake their lines. “Over the crest and into the crater they poured, and a hand-to-hand conflict ensued,” recounted Maj. William H. Powell. “It was of short duration, however; crowded as our troops were, and without organization, resistance was vain.” Some of the Confederates were enraged to see the black soldiers and slaughtered them without mercy when they tried to surrender. Weld was standing next to a black soldier when they both were captured. “Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man,” one of their captors yelled, and the rebels gunned down the black man. As Weld climbed out of the crater, rebels shot another black man in front of him, killing the man after three shots. Afterward A. P. Hill had the Union prisoners, white and black, marched through Petersburg so the residents could jeer and abuse them.

Theodore Lyman began a letter about the crater debacle on July 30. I will print that letter today and then continue with letters from both Meade and Lyman tomorrow.

My spirits to-night are not very high; our project of attack, which in the beginning promised well, has not been a success in the result. You must know that there has always been a point on Burnside’s line that was quite near that of the enemy, say 250 feet. A mine was begun there over a month since, and has been quite finished for a week. It was at first rather an amateur affair, for the policy of the future operations had not then been fixed. However, it was steadily pushed, being in charge of Colonel Pleasants, who has a regiment of Pennsylvania coal-miners. He first ran a subterranean gallery, straight out to the enemy’s bastion, where they had four guns. Then three lateral passages were made, each terminating in a chamber, to be filled with gunpowder. These chambers or magazines were about twenty feet underground. The final springing of the mine was delayed, in order to build heavy batteries and get the guns and mortars in. A couple of days ago orders were given to charge the chambers with 8000 pounds of gunpowder (four tons).* The powder was laboriously carried in in kegs (the gallery was so low, the men were forced to double themselves over in passing), and the kegs were packed in, after removing their heads. When a chamber was charged, loose powder was poured over the whole. The magazines were connected by a wooden casing filled with powder, and this was also run along the gallery for some distance, where it was connected to a fuse which ran to the mouth of the gallery. To-morrow I will continue, but now it is rather late.

*”[James] Duane had sent for the mining records before Sebastopol and got me to read them to learn the proper charge; for, what with malaria, and sunstroke, and quinine, whiskey, and arsenic, he can hardly see, but clings to duty to the last! Finding nothing there, he said the book was a humbug, and determined on 8000 lbs. The charge was tamped with twenty-five feet of sand bags.” — Lyman’s Journal [Note: Major Duane was the army’s chief engineer.]

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 195-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Visit to Ferrero (July 1, 1864)

Edward Ferrero sitting in front of his headquarters tent at Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Edward Ferrero sitting in front of his headquarters tent at Petersburg (Library of Congress).

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg. One hundred and fifty years ago John Buford and his cavalry began delaying the advance of Henry Heth and his division of A.P Hill’s corps. Soon John Reynolds and the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps arrived, to the great relief of Buford and his men, but Reynolds soon fell dead with a bullet in the back of his neck. The great battle had begun.

Today at Gettysburg the Civil War Trust will hold a press conference to announce its acquisition of Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. The little stone building stands on the grounds of a Quality Inn and has a small museum inside. The Trust plans to tear down the hotel and the adjoining ABC brewpub, restore the headquarters to its 1863 appearance, and donate the land to the park. That’s big news for the battlefield.

My wife and I visited the battlefield last weekend. We parked at Devil’s Den and then took a long walk over to the Wheatfield, up by the Peach Orchard, down past the Trostle barn (which is undergoing restoration), and then down Sedgwick Avenue and back to Devil’s Den. The coolest thing about the walk happened as we walked down Crawford Avenue back to our car. A little bridge just past Samuel Crawford’s statue crosses Plum Run’s swampy residue there. As I peered down into the murky waters I spotted something I thought was a large boulder. Then I spied a pair of reptilian eyes staring back at me from just above the waterline. This was no boulder! The boulder turned out to be a huge snapping turtle! And, as everyone reading this must know, George Meade was known as “the old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

Now let’s jump back 150 years ago to a letter Theodore Lyman wrote on July 1, 1864. Be warned: It does represent his nineteenth-century views on race but there’s also the sense of a growing, if grudging, respect Lyman is feeling for the fighting abilities of the Union’s African-American soldiers.

Lyman is taking the visiting French officers to see the men of Edward Ferraro’s division. Ferrero had been born in Spain and, like his Italian father, became a dance instructor. He taught West Point cadets how to dance and when war broke out he joined the Union army. At Antietam Ferrero’s men, part of the IX Corps, helped force the passage over Burnside Bridge. In 1864 he was given command of a division of black soldiers. For many Union officers, commanding African-Americans was not something to be held in high esteem. His past as a dancing master also opened Ferrero to ridicule. As Lyman noted in his July 1 journal entry, “people laugh at him rather—perhaps too much.” (The General Carr Lyman mentions is Joseph Carr.)

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Edward Ferrero (Library of Congress).

Nothing very new to-day. I took advantage of the propinquity of the nigger division (which had come to fill part of the 6th Corps’ line, during its absence) to show the unbleached brethren to my Imperial commissioners. We rode first to General Ferrero’s Headquarters. This officer, as his name hints, is an Italian by birth, his papa being of Milan. He is quite a well-looking man, and, like unto General Carr, was a dancing-master before he took to soldiering. He speaks Italian and some French and sputtered along very successfully with the visitors. There was turned out for them a regiment of darks. The sun was intense and the sable gents looked like millers, being indeed quite obscured except when they stood perfectly still. They did remarkably well, and the French officers, who were inclined to look favorably on them beforehand, were in ecstasies over their performances.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 180. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

USCT (May 18, 1864)

You can suffer from chronological whiplash when reading Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox. For instance, the opening of the letter he wrote on May 18 (150 years ago today), opens with interesting observations about the recent fighting in general he noted during a lull at Spotsylvania. It includes some especially interesting observations about the use of breastworks. He then jumps back to May 7 to continue his narrative of the Overland Campaign.

"Make Way for Liberty!" by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

“Make Way for Liberty!” by illustrator Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863 (Library of Congress).

Lyman’s comments on the use of African-American soldiers are also interesting, if less insightful. Lyman was certainly not alone in wondering if black soldiers could fight. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln also opened the door for black men to fight for the Union, but many white soldiers did not accept the new arrivals with open arms. Lyman either was unaware of the irony in his words or refused to acknowledge that Lincoln had transformed the war into more than a crusade to restore the Union. It was now a war to end slavery as well. By the end of the war Lyman had gained a grudging respect for the African-American soldiers, but he never abandoned his conservative views on race.

When I was researching Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg I spent a day exploring Spotsylvania with historian John Cummings. He had recently started a reenactment group to commemorate the 23rd United States Colored Troops, a regiment from Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division that fought here on May 15. These were some of the black soldiers that so distressed Lyman. “By 2014 I think it’s vitally important to do something to commemorate the first time that black troops actually fired on the Army of Northern Virginia,” Cummings told me then. I’m pleased to say he helped make that happen, as you can read here.

I have no right to complain: I have less hardship, more ease, and less exposure than most officers, and, if I must be with the army in the field, I have as good a place as one can well expect. I did hope (though there was no proper ground for it) that we might have the great blessing of an overwhelming victory. Such things you read of in books, but they do not happen often, particularly with such armies to oppose as those of the Rebels. . . .

The great feature of this campaign is the extraordinary use made of earthworks. When we arrive on the ground, it takes of course a considerable time to put troops in position for attack, in a wooded country; then skirmishers must be thrown forward and an examination made for the point of attack, and to see if there be any impassable obstacles, such as streams or swamps. Meantime what does the enemy? Hastily forming a line of battle, they then collect rails from fences, stones, logs and all other materials, and pile them along the line; bayonets with a few picks and shovels, in the hands of men who work for their lives, soon suffice to cover this frame with earth and sods; and within one hour, there is a shelter against bullets, high enough to cover a man kneeling, and extending often for a mile or two. When our line advances, there is the line of the enemy, nothing showing but the bayonets, and the battle-flags stuck on the top of the work. It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good rifle-pit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first twenty-four hours. Our men can, and do, do the same; but remember, our object is offense—to advance. You would be amazed to see how this country is intersected with field-works, extending for miles and miles in different directions and marking the different strategic lines taken up by the two armies, as they warily move about each other.

The newspapers would be comic in their comments, were not the whole thing so tragic. More absurd statements could not be. Lee is not retreating: he is a brave and skilful soldier and he will fight while he has a division or a day’s rations left. These Rebels are not half-starved and ready to give up — a more sinewy, tawny, formidable-looking set of men could not be. In education they are certainly inferior to our native-born people; but they are usually very quick-witted within their own sphere of comprehension; and they know enough to handle weapons with terrible effect. Their great characteristic is their stoical manliness; they never beg, or whimper, or complain; but look you straight in the face, with as little animosity as if they had never heard a gun.

Now I will continue the history a little. But first I will remark that I had taken part in two great battles, and heard the bullets whistle both days, and yet I had scarcely seen a Rebel save killed, wounded, or prisoners! I remember how even line officers, who were at the battle of Chancellorsville, said: “Why, we never saw any Rebels where we were; only smoke and bushes, and lots of our men tumbling about”; and now I appreciate this most fully. The great art is to conceal men; for the moment they show, bang, bang, go a dozen cannon, the artillerists only too pleased to get a fair mark. Your typical “great white plain,” with long lines advancing and manoeuvring, led on by generals in cocked hats and by bands of music, exist not for us. Here it is, as I said: “Left face—prime—forward!”—and then wrang, wr-r-rang, for three or four hours, or for all day, and the poor, bleeding wounded streaming to the rear. That is a great battle in America. Well! to our next day.

Saturday, May 7

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African American soldiers (Library of Congress).

Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. A former dancing instructor, he commanded a division of African-American soldiers (Library of Congress).

At daylight it would be hard to say what opinion was most held in regard to the enemy, whether they would attack, or stand still; whether they were on our flanks, or trying to get in our rear, or simply in our front. However, it was not long before they were reported as fallen back — a good deal back from the left and right and somewhat from our centre on the pike. Reconnaissances were at once thrown out; and the General sent me to the front, on the pike, to learn how matters stood; where I found, on the most undoubted evidence, that we were throwing solid shot and shell at the rebels, and they were throwing solid shot and shells at us. . . . There was heavy skirmishing, with some artillery, all that morning, until we determined that the enemy had swung back both wings; and shortened and straightened his line. There lay both armies, each behind its breastworks, panting and exhausted, and scowling at each other. At five this morning a novel sight was presented to the Potomac Army. A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them! . . .

As General Grant sat under a pine tree, stoically smoking his briarwood pipe, I heard him say: “To-night Lee will be retreating south.”* Ah! General, Robert Lee is not Pemberton; he will retreat south, but only far enough to get across your path, and then he will retreat no more, if he can help it. In fact, orders were out for the whole army to move at dark on Spotsylvania Court House. But Lee knew it all: he could see the waggons moving, and had scouts besides. As night fell, his troops left their works and were crowding down the Parker’s Store road, towards Spotsylvania—each moment worth untold gold to them! Grant had no longer a Pemberton! “His best friend,” as he calls him. And we marched also. . . .

We [Headquarters] did not start till nearly nine o’clock. … It was a sultry night—no rain for many days; the horses’ hoofs raised intolerable clouds of dust, which, in this sandy region, is fine almost like flour. I never saw—nobody could well see—a more striking spectacle than that road as we passed slowly along. All the way was a continuous low breastwork behind which lay crowded the sleeping infantry. They were so close as almost to be on top of each other; every man with his loaded musket in his hand, or lying at his side. A few yards outside stood a line of sentries, their muskets cocked, and others sat on top of the breastwork. Few of the officers allowed themselves any rest, but paced up and down, in their great coats and slouched hats, looking sharply after the sentries. That looked like war, I do assure you. By the roadside was Gibbon, and a tower of strength he is, cool as a steel knife, always, and unmoved by anything and everything. There we lay down, literally in the dust, after a drink of iced water (for all the farms have ice-houses in this region, which our men are not slow to hunt out), and then we waited for General Meade, who had waited behind to speak with Hancock. By and by he came, with more clouds of dust, and then on again, past more sleeping men, and batteries in position, losing the road, finding it again, tearing our clothes among trees and bushes, then coming to cavalry pickets and finally to Todd’s Tavern, where General Gregg had his Headquarters, with his division of cavalry camped about there. . . . There was a porch in front with a dirt floor, and there I lay down, with my head on a timber, and got some sleep. On Sunday morning, May 8th,—it was not much like a Sabbath,—we were all staring sleepily about us, forlorn with dust and dirt. The road was full of the infantry, passing at a rapid rate; in light order they were, many without knapsacks, or coats: most had thrown away all baggage but a blanket and haversack. Then came batteries, then more infantry, all of the 5th Corps; the Second had not yet begun to pass. An old nigger made us some coffee and hoe-cake — very acceptable. . . .

*In a footnote taken from his journal entry of May 6, Lyman noted that on the day before, “Grant told Meade that Joe Johnston would have retreated after two such days’ punishment. He recognized the difference of the Western Rebel fighting.”

Theodore Lyman’s letters are from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 99-104 . Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.