July 30, 1864: Debacle at the Crater

battle-of-the-crater-

When looking at the battle of the Crater, it is a study in contrasts.  The digging of the tunnel and the explosion of the mine at dawn on July 30, 1864, go here to read about the tunnel construction, was a tribute to the ingenuity and sheer compentence of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants and his men of the 48th Pennsylvania, who, with almost no help from the rest of the army, gave the Army of the Potomac a golden opportunity to take Petersburg and bring the War to a rapid conclusion.  That this opportunity was missed was largely attributable to criminal incompetence on the part of the generals involved.

Here are the generals who contributed to the debacle:

1.  Grant and Meade-Burnside, the commander of the IX corps making the assault, had trained a division of United States Colored Troops to lead the advance after the explosion of the mine.  The day before the battle Meade, concerned that the attack would fail and that their would be political repercussions if black troops incurred heavy casualties as a result, ordered Burnside to assign a white division to lead the attack.  Burnside protested this decision, but Grant backed Meade up.

2.  Burnside-Burnside had the white division chosen by lot rather than picking the best division.  Burnside made no effort to make certain that his attacking divisions had access ways cleared of debris and fortifications so they could rapidly advance after the explosion.  He made no effort to inform the new white division leading the assault that it was to go around any crater created by the explosion instead of going down into it, which is precisely what the attacking divisions did, making themselves sitting ducks at the bottom of a large hole when the Confederate counter-attack began.  Rather than calling off the attack after it became obvious that no breakthrough was possible, Burnside kept feeding troops into the Crater with the only effect being to lengthen the list of Union dead and wounded.

3.  James H. Ledlie-Brigadier General James H. Ledlie earned a notable distiction during the battle.  It was not unusual for Civil War generals to make bad decisions, and to not infrequently show a distinct lack of common sense, however almost all of them were very brave men.  Ledlie was not.  In addition to being a very bad commander as indicated by his failure to inform his division of what was expected of them after his division was chosen by lot to lead the assault, he spent the battle drunk and well behind the lines, safe and secure as his men went into the meat grinder.  He richly earned his dismissal from the Army after the battle.

4.  Edward Ferrero-Brigadier General Edward Ferrero was the foremost dance instructor in the country prior to the War.  He should have stuck to that trade.  The commander of the black division involved in the battle of the Crater, he spent the battle in the same bomb proof dugout behind the line as Ledlie, and he shared Ledlie’s bottle with him. Ferrero’s behavior is somwhat incomprehensible as he had shown extreme valor in other battles.  Astonishingly he was not cashiered from the service, and in December of 1864 he received a brevet promotion to Major General of Volunteers for “bravery and meritorious services”.

With this type of leadership it is no wonder that the attack failed.  The initial mine explosion killed 278 Confederates and wounded hundreds of others.  For 15 minutes the stunned Confederates did not fire at the attacking Union units.  Union troops went down into the Crater and within an hour were receiving heavy fire from Confederate troops at the top of the side of the Crater facing Petersburg.  Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone, in charge of the Confederate counterattack, called it a turkey shoot.  Instead of calling off the attack  when it became clear that the Confederates had sealed the breach caused by the explosion, Burnside kept sending divisions, including the black division, down into the Crater where they were quickly slaughtered.  Some Confederate troops murdered black troops who were trying to surrender.  When General Lee heard of this he supposedly sent a message to General Mahone telling him to put a stop to this or he would be removed from command.

Union casualties were 4000 to 1500 for the Confederates.  The whole debacle was the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Here is Grant’s assessment of the fiasco from his Personal Memoirs:

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July 27, 1864: First Battle of Deep Bottom Begins

Deep_Bottom_July

Unbeknownst to the Confederates, on July 27, 1864 the Union forces around Petersburg were putting the finishing touches on a huge mine under a fort in the Confederate defenses known as Elliot’s Salient.  To divert Confederate attention from this sector of the line, Grant ordered Hancock and Sheridan to cross the James River at Deep Bottom and make a lunge towards Richmond.  Grant assumed this would cause a weakening in the Confederate defenses around Petersburg and he was correct in that assumption.  Lee in response to Grant’s move pulled some 16,500 men out of the Petersburg lines and into the Richmond fortifications.

In fighting on the 27th and 28th which resulted in 488 Union casualties to 679 Confederate, Hancock and Sheridan’s drive toward Richmond was stopped, but Grant had achieved his goal of drawing Lee’s men to the north side of the James, as Grant noted in his Memoirs: (more…)

Grant Puts a Stop to Treason Trials

 

It is little remembered now, but in 1865 there was a brief attempt to conduct treason trials against Confederate generals. On June 7, 1865, U.S. District Judge John C. Underwood in Norfolk, Virginia issued indictments against Lee, Longstreet, Early and other Confederate generals on charges of treason. Lee wrote to General Grant asking if the terms granted at Appomattox were still in effect. Furious at this attempt to undo his work, Grant immediately wrote to Secretary of War Stanton:

In my opinion the officers and men paroled at Appomattox Court-House, and since, upon the same terms given to Lee, cannot be tried for treason so long as they observe the terms of their parole. This is my understanding. Good faith, as well as true policy, dictates that we should observe the conditions of that convention. Bad faith on the part of the Government, or a construction of that convention subjecting the officers to trial for treason, would produce a feeling of insecurity in the minds of all the paroled officers and men. If so disposed they might even regard such an infraction of terms by the Government as an entire release from all obligations on their part. I will state further that the terms granted by me met with the hearty approval of the President at the time, and of the country generally. The action of Judge Underwood, in Norfolk, has already had an injurious effect, and I would ask that he be ordered to quash all indictments found against paroled prisoners of war, and to desist from further prosecution of them. (more…)

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June 11, 1864: Battle of Trevilian Station

Sheridan's_Trevilian_Station_Raid

The largest all cavalry battle of the War, the battle of Trevilian Station occurred during a raid by Major General Philip Sheridan leading 9000 Union troopers.  Grant ordered the raid with a two-fold purpose:  first to draw off Confederate cavalry as he prepared to disengage from Cold Harbor and cross over the James River to attack the Confederate rail road hub at Petersburg south of Richmond, and, second for Sheridan to tear up as much as he could of the Virginia Central railroad that connected the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond.

The second goal was reached as Major General Wade Hampton, now commander of the Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps after the death of Major General Jeb Stuart, set off in pursuit of Stuart with 6,000 Confederate cavalry, with Hampton traveling west south of the North Anna river, while Sheridan traveled west north of the North Anna.

Sheridan planned to destroy the railway station at Trevilian Station.  Both forces converged on Trevilian on June 10, with the fighting raging on for two days from June 11-12.  Although Sheridan claimed a victory, the outnumbered Confederates actually inflicted more casualties on the Union force than they sustained, 1000 to 800, and Sheridan only damaged six miles of the Virginia Central railroad.  Sheridan had made certain however that when Grant crossed the James, General Lee had very little cavalry to determine what Grant was up to, and Lee was operating blind for a precious few days. (more…)

May 19, 1863: First Assault at Vicksburg

First Assault at Vicksburg

After his successes at Jackson, Champion Hill and Big Black River, Grant assumed that Confederate morale might be low enough that Vicksburg could be taken by assault and avoid a time consuming siege.  In that he was mistaken.  The Confederates lacked the strength to defeat him in open battle. but they had both the strength, and the morale, to hold Vicksburg.  The first assault by Grant occurred on May 19, 1863 and was aimed at the Stockade Redan. (more…)

May 12, 1864: The Bloody Angle

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_12

After his attacks on May 10, 1864, Grant used May 11 as a planning day.  Impressed by the initial success of Upton’s charge on May 10, 1864, Grant decided to use Upton’s tactics of a swift attack along a narrow front, by troops with unloaded rifles, on a much larger scale.  Hancocks II corps was to attack the mule shoe salient using Upton’s tactics, while Burnside launched a supporting attack on the Mule Shoe from the east and Wright attacked the Mule Shoe from the west, while Wright launched decoy attacks on the Laurel Hill sector of the Confederate lines west of the Mule Shoe.

Attack preparations showed a complete break down in elementary staff work.  Hancock’s corps was completely ignorant of the configuration of the Confederate position they were to attack, the obstacles in their way, or indeed the basic nature of the ground to be covered.  Hancock had his attack columns assemble in torrential rain.  The attack was to begin at 4:00 AM. Hancock wisely delayed the attack until 4:35 AM, fearing that his men could not find the Confederate position, let alone attack it, in the rainy dark.

Now luck began to shine on the Union.  The rain stopped and dawn broke with a mist to conceal the Union attack.  Unbeknownst to the Union attackers, the Confederate division holding the section of the Mule Shoe they were going to attack, had been denuded of its artillery due to a false report received by Lee that the Union army was going to withdraw to Fredericksburg.  If this occurred, Lee wanted his artillery to be withdrawn and readied for an attacking that he planned to make on the withdrawing Federals.  Confederate Major General Allegheny Johnson, commanding the target division of the Union assault, became fearful of a forthcoming attack and appealed to his corps commander Lieutenant General Ewell for the return of his artillery.  Ewell granted the request at 3:30 AM, too late for the artillery to be put back into place before the start of Hancock’s assault.

Hancock’s 15,000 men attacking on a half mile front crashed into the Mule Shoe and overran Johnson’s division.  The rain had made useless much of the Confederate and Union gunpowder and the fighting was grim hand to hand combat.  Hancock’s men, fighting on such a narrow front, quickly lost all unit cohesion and became an armed mob, wading through the mud to battle the Confederates.  General Lee swiftly sent reinforcements to attempt to plug the breakthrough made by Hancock. (more…)

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Palm Sunday 156 Years Ago

 

 

It is poor business measuring the mouldered ramparts and counting the silent guns, marking the deserted battlefields and decorating the grassy graves, unless we can learn from it some nobler lesson than to destroy.  Men write of this, as of other wars, as if the only thing necessary to be impressed upon the rising generation were the virtue of physical courage and contempt of death.  It seems to me that is the last thing we need to teach;  for since the days of John Smith in Virginia and the men of the Mayflower in Massachusetts, no generation of Americans has shown any lack of it.  From Louisburg to Petersburg-a hundred and twenty years, the full span of four generations-they have stood to their guns and been shot down in greater comparative numbers than any other race on earth.  In the war of secession there was not a State, not a county, probably not a town, between the great lakes and the gulf, that was not represented on fields where all that men could do with powder and steel was done and valor exhibited at its highest pitch…There is not the slightest necessity for lauding American bravery or impressing it upon American youth.  But there is the gravest necessity for teaching them respect for law, and reverence for human life, and regard for the rights of their fellow country-men, and all that is significant in the history of our country…These are simple lessons, yet they are not taught in a day, and some who we call educated go through life without mastering them at all.

Rossiter Johnson, Campfire and Battlefield, 1884

I have always thought it appropriate that the national nightmare we call the Civil War ended during Holy Week 1865.  Two remarkably decent men, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began the process of healing so desperately needed for America on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 at Appomattox.  We take their decency for granted, but it is the exception and not the rule for the aftermath of civil wars in history.  The usual course would have been unremitting vengeance by the victors, and sullen rage by the defeated, perhaps eventually breaking out in guerilla war.  The end of the Civil War could so very easily have been the beginning of a cycle of unending war between north and south.  Instead, both Grant and Lee acted to make certain as far as they could that the fratricidal war that had just concluded would not be repeated.  All Americans owe those two men a large debt for their actions at Appomattox.

Grant in his memoirs wrote, “When Lee and I separated he went back to his lines and I returned to the house of Mr. McLean. Here the officers of both armies came in great numbers, and seemed to enjoy the meeting as much as though they had been friends separated for a long time while fighting battles under the same flag.”

Lee so appreciated the generosity of the terms of surrender given by Grant, that for the remainder of his life he would never allow a word of denigration about Grant to be spoken in his presence.

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March 12, 1864: Dramatis Personae

grant-and-lincoln

 

With the ending of winter, the campaign of 1864 was coming close, as careful observers could tell by two executive orders issued by Lincoln.  The first on March 12, 1864 detailed the new command structure, with Grant made General-in-Chief, Sherman placed in command in the West, and McPherson commanding the Army of the Tennessee.  Grant was depending upon his command team from the Army of the Tennessee to win the War in the West, while he took command of the Army of the Potomac.  The useless Halleck was demoted from General-in-Chief and made Chief of Staff.  It is characteristic of Lincoln that he spared the feelings of Halleck by indicating that the demotion was at his request and thanking him for his completely barren services.  The second executive order, calling for a draft of 200,000 men, was issued on March 14, a sure sign that the fighting this year would likely dwarf what had come before.  Here is the text of the executive order of March 12:

 

 

GENERAL ORDERS, NO. 98.

WAR DEPARTMENT,

ADJUTANT-GENERAL’S OFFICE,

WASHINGTON , March 12, 1864.

The President of the United States orders as follows:

I. Major-General H. W. Halleck is, at his own request, relieved from duty as General in Chief of the Army, and Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant is assigned to the command of the armies of the United States. The headquarters of the Army will be in Washington and also with Lieutenant-General Grant in the field.

II. Major-General H. W. Haileck is assigned to duty in Washington as chief of staff of the Army, under the direction of the Secretary of War and the Lieutenant-General Commanding. His orders will be obeyed and respected accordingly.

III. Major-General W. T. Sherman is assigned to the command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, composed of the departments of the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee and the Arkansas.

IV. Major-General J. B. McPherson is assigned to the command of the Department and Army of the Tennessee.

V. In relieving Major-General Halleek from duty as General in Chief, the President desires to express his approbation and thanks for the able and zealous manner in which the arduous and responsible duties of that position have been performed.

By order of the Secretary of War:

E. D. TOWNSEND,

Assistant Adjutant-General.

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January 11, 1863: Battle of Arkansas Post

One of the more effective combined operations of the Civil War, the battle of Arkansas Post was fought January 9-11, 1863.  The Confederates constructed Fort Hindman at the mouth of the Arkansas River to prevent the Union from steaming up the river from the Mississippi and taking Little Rock.  The garrison consisted of about 5500 men under Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill.

Union Major General John McClernand, a War Democrat political general from Illinois.  He convinced Major General William Tecumseh Sherman to join him in landing 33,000 troops at Fort Hindman, bombard the fort with Union gunboats and take Fort Hindman.  McClernand informed Lincoln of his plans but did not tell Grant or Henry W. Halleck, the General in Chief.

McClernand began the movement on Hindman on January 4.   Troops landed at Hindman on January 9.  After two days of naval and land bombardment, most of the artillery at Fort Hindman was silenced and Churchill surrendered.  The Confederates put up a fierce resistance in those two days, with Union casualties exceeding a  thousand with 134 killed.  The entire Confederate garrison was captured, a true disaster for the Confederacy.  Grant was furious, ordering Sherman and McClernand back to the Mississippi and taking personal command of the stalled Vicksburg campaign.  Here is General Sherman’s comments on the Arkansas Post campaign from his memoirs: (more…)

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September 16, 1864: Meeting of Grant and Sheridan

 

Sheridan and Generals

In the aftermath of the fall of Atlanta and the ongoing stalemate at Petersburg, the crucial theater of the War became the Shenandoah Valley, crucial because of the upcoming presidential election, which was now just over a month and a half away.  Union victories or defeats could have a great impact on that election, and it was the Shenandoah Valley which was the most likely venue for such battlefield successes or failures.  Grant recognized this, and on September 16th he conferred with Sheridan.  Here is his account of the meeting in his Personal Memoirs: (more…)

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