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
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).
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:—
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).
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).
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).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- No proper employment of engineer officers and working parties, and of materials and tools for their use in the Ninth corps.
- That some parts of the assaulting columns were not properly led.
- 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:
- The evident surprise of the enemy at the time of the explosion of the mine, and for some time after.
- The comparatively small force in the enemy’s works.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- Major General A. E. Burnside, United States Volunteers, he having failed to obey the orders of the commanding General.
- In not giving such formation to his assaulting column as to insure a reasonable prospect of success.
- In not preparing his parapets and abatis for the passage of the columns of the assault.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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—
- For not having all his troops found ready for the attack at the prescribed time.
- Not going forward with them to the attack.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.