MHSM Papers V5: The Petersburg Mine by Brevet Brigadier-General Stephen M. Weld

   

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THE PETERSBURG MINE1

BY

BREVET BRIGADIER-GENERAL STEPHEN M. WELD

Read before the Society March 27,1882

THE PETERSBURG MINE

For some weeks prior to July 30, 1864, rumors had been flying about our camps of a mine which was being constructed on the front of the 9th Corps. The camp story was that the negro division was to lead the charge which would follow the explosion of the mine. The first definite information we had of this mine was on the afternoon of July 29, when the regimental commanders of our brigade (1st Brigade, 1st Division, 9th Corps) were summoned to brigade headquarters, when our commander, General [W. F.] Bartlett, told us that the mine was to be exploded at 3 1/2 o’clock the next morning, and that our division, consisting of two brigades, was to lead the assault, the 2d Brigade under Colonel Marshall leading.

Orders were given, as I now remember them, to push through the gap made by the mine and rush for the crest in rear, which was said to be 400 yards distant. In fact, it was almost a mile. We were told that our works would be so fixed that we could advance in line, that the abatis would be removed, and everything would be made ready for an unobstructed advance, as far as our lines were concerned. Strict and very proper orders were given to allow no talking or noise of any description, or fires. This was, of course, necessary in order to make the affair a surprise, which was our only chance of success.

Our brigade was relieved from the front of our corps line by the 18th Corps about 10 P. M. and marched to the rear, and then to the front again, where we took position at about 3 A. M. in column of brigade wings ready for the charge. Colonel Gould was assigned to the command of the right wing

of the brigade, and the writer to the left wing, and the 2d Brigade was placed in front.

We passed two hours of wearisome waiting and suspense, but with no explosion of the mine. As it afterwards turned out, the fuses, of which there were three, had gone out. No wire with galvanic battery was provided, although apparently promised. Finally, at sixteen minutes before five, a heavy shaking of the earth, with a rumbling, muffled sound, was our notice of the explosion. Looking to the front, timbers, sticks, and debris of all kinds were seen in the air, accompanied by a vast mass of dust and earth, followed by the white smoke from the powder, which rolled out in immense volumes hiding the dust and everything else. It seemed as if a portion of this mass must fall on us. Instinctively the troops rose and tried to fall back to avoid this danger. The disorder was but momentary. Artillery in the rear and on both flanks opened fire on the enemy’s lines almost simultaneously with the explosion. Still, there seemed to be no movement forward of the troops in front of us.

Soon, however, say in five minutes from the time of the explosion, instead of a line of battle, a straggling line of men by twos and threes(1) was seen running over the space between the two lines towards the crater. When our turn came, we found the only chance to get over our line of breastworks was a space not over ten feet wide, where sand-bags had been piled up by the troops who preceded us. I tried to climb the parapet in two or three places, but was unable to do so. Soldiers with muskets and accoutrements could not get over. As I recall our line, there was a ditch some eight feet deep, with a step two feet up to enable our men to fire. In front of our line were abatis, which were practically no impediment. In front of the enemy’s lines were chevaux-de-frise fastened together with wire. These wires were speedily cut and the chevaux swung to the front.

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(1) Marshall’s 2d Brigade, 1st Division. 80 W. R. 527. — Ed.

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When the troops first started, there was absolutely no firing from the Confederates. When two thirds of my wing of the brigade was over, I crossed, the fire being then only moderate and from musketry. The interval we had to cross was about 125 yards over slightly ascending ground, open and free from woods. On reaching the crater, we found an immense hole 25 feet deep, 50 wide, and 100 long. Several Confederates were lying here mangled and bruised, one man buried to his waist, another with feet only projecting out. Several prisoners were taken here and on each flank. Two hundred and seventy-six Confederate officers and men were killed by this explosion.

Here, in the crater, was a confused mob of men continually increasing by fresh arrivals. Of course, nothing could be seen from this crater of the situation of affairs around us. Any attempt to move forward from this crater was absolutely hopeless. The men could not be got forward. It was a perfect mob, as far as any company or regimental organization was concerned, and that necessarily from the way we went forward, and not from any fault of the officers or men. To ask men to go forward in such a condition was useless. Each one felt as if he were to encounter the whole Confederate force alone and unsupported. The moral backing of an organized body of men, which each one would sustain by his companions on either side, was wanting.

As soon as possible I got my men out of the crater into the works on the right, and tried to re-form there. A second line or parapet, some feet higher than the enemy’s front line, led from the crater obliquely to the rear. This would have given us a good line of defence had it not been taken in rear by the enemy’s front line, which was occupied by them some 200 yards from the crater. The intervening space between this rear line and the front line was cut up in every way by bombproofs, traverses, and pits. I pushed my regiment down to the right, and endeavored to clean out the pits still further.

The fire was too hot to do much, and the ground too broken. The enemy by this time was using artillery, chiefly canister.

Meanwhile our Second and Third Divisions had moved forward. The fire was so hot that the men in many cases swerved to the right and left, seeking the shelter of the line already held by us, of which the crater was about the centre. Still, some ground was gained, to the right by the Second Division and to the left by the Third Division. The original plan was for the First Division to rush through this gap, or crater, and charge straight ahead for the crest of Cemetery Hill, when the Second Division was to follow and cover our right, while the Third covered our left flank, following after the Second Division.

All this time our division commander, General Ledlie, was nowhere to be seen.

At about half-past eight o’clock we were startled by a mass of negro troops rushing over the breastworks from our side and through the crater. Their officers mounted the parapet of the second line, and in some cases were followed by a few of their men. Most of them, however, were shot dead as they stood there, calling to their men to come on. I have never seen greater bravery shown than that displayed by a large number of these officers of the colored division. Although almost certain death to mount this parapet, they showed no shrinking or hesitation. It was of no use. Those that got over alive were driven back in a few minutes.

Those of us between the first and second lines were packed so closely together that it was impossible to move, and what little organization we had was completely destroyed. I literally could not raise my hands from my side. Our troops were mingled in a confused mass with the negroes. In a few minutes there was a shout and a yell from the Confederates. On looking up over my head, I saw a Confederate flag hanging over the parapet of the second line, so near me that I could almost grasp it. Muskets were pointed over the parapet, and

discharged into the confused mass of our men below, who could do nothing in defence.

A rush everywhere took place. Those nearest the first line of Confederate works rolled or tumbled over and made for our lines. Several of us near the second line were surrounded and cut off. A negro soldier by my side was shot dead, the enemy calling out: “Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man.” The two muskets that killed the poor fellow were not three feet from him. He was unarmed, and had surrendered. A few enterprising Confederates had my hat, haversack, etc., in about two seconds. “Come out of that, you Yank,” was yelled at me, as my hat was taken, and a gray, flat, home-made article put on me like an extinguisher. We were ordered to the rear, and had to climb over the second parapet amidst a shower of bullets from our own men. A wounded negro, shot through the body, was just in front of me. While hardly able to stagger along, two Confederate soldiers in succession ran up to him and shot him, the last one killing him.

This charge captured only the works to the right of the centre. In an hour the works on the left were taken, and an hour later, the crater itself. Throughout the whole of the fight there was no officer(1) present to lead and direct us, each regiment fighting on its own account with the few men that could be gotten together. The broken condition of the ground made it impossible properly to supervise any body of men of any size. Between the traverses there would be a group of men who would push forward to the front or down the pits, as occasion offered, sometimes successfully. Those going to the front were invariably repulsed by the hot fire. Some of the white and colored troops advanced perhaps 100 yards beyond the crater, but only held their ground a few minutes.

The next morning the prisoners were marched through

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(1) That is, division or corps commander. General [W. F.] Bartlett commanding brigade was most active. 80 W. R. 555. — Ed.

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Petersburg. There were about 200 negroes among the prisoners. Each officer as far as the supply held out had a negro prisoner by his side.

A history of this “miserable failure,” as General Grant called it, shows the blame to have been largely due to Generals Burnside and Ledlie.

The mine was suggested, planned, and constructed by Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants and his regiment, the 48th Pennsylvania. Colonel Pleasants was an engineer before the war, and had been connected in the line of his profession with coal-mining. His regiment was largely composed of coalminers from Schuylkill County, Penn. General Meade and his engineers did not approve of the location of the mine, which was under Elliott’s Salient, a reentering angle in the Confederate works. From its- position it was subjected to a flank fire from the Confederate lines on both sides. Still, for the purpose for which it was intended, for an entrance or gateway into the Confederate lines, it was perhaps as good a place as could be found, as our lines at this place approached within 130 yards of the enemy’s works, and were so situated on a declivity that work could be performed there to the best advantage, and without the knowledge of the enemy. General Meade gave his consent, at all events. The work was begun June 25, and the mine finished and charged with four tons of gunpowder July 28. The main tunnel was 510.8 feet long, with two lateral galleries running under the fort, 38 and 39 feet long respectively. From the beginning Colonel Pleasants met with but little encouragement from the engineer officers of the army. He could obtain no proper tools or instruments for his work, and had to improvise what he needed as best he could from materials at hand. Colonel Pleasants showed remarkable energy and perseverance, and deserves great credit for what he did. No blame or censure can fall upon him for the want of success that ensued.

There does not seem to have been any settled plan as to

when or how the mine was to be used until the last week in July. In response to a circular sent to the various corps commanders as to the practicability of an assault in each one’s front, General Burnside alone gave any hopes of such an attack being successful.

General Grant was determined to have two strings to his bow. His plan was to cross the James River at Deep Bottom, and endeavor to surprise the enemy on the north bank of the James. If unsuccessful in this, he would succeed in drawing a large part of the Confederate force to the other side of the James, and then, by rapidly moving his force back to Petersburg, he would have his whole army to attack a portion of the enemy through the breach made by the mine. All of this part of the plan of operations worked successfully. The 2d Corps and two divisions of cavalry crossed the James and drew over five of the eight divisions of Lee’s army, leaving only Mahone’s Division of Hill’s Corps, and Johnson’s and Hoke’s Divisions of Longstreet’s Corps (13,000 men in all) to defend Petersburg. The 2d Corps and Sheridan’s Cavalry were withdrawn to Petersburg on the night of the 29th of July without the knowledge of the enemy.

General Meade had issued a battle order for this attack. Particular orders were given for preparing our lines for the advance of the attacking force, and verbal instructions were also given all the division commanders of the 9th Corps as to the necessity of not halting at the breach, but of pushing straight for the crest in rear. This order of General Meade’s was explicit and very full as to its details of what was to be done. If it had been carried out fully, there is no doubt but that the undertaking would have been successful. General Grant says: “General Meade . . . made his orders most perfectly. I do not think that now, knowing all the facts, I could improve upon his order.”(1)

A court of inquiry was ordered to investigate this unfor-

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(1) C. W. 1865, vol. i, p. 110. [BTC Editor’s Note: This must be a misprint or a different edition.  Grant’s quote is found on page 124 of the book.]

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tunate affair. It was composed of Generals Hancock, Ayres, and Miles. The conclusions reached by this court seem just. They were as follows:(1)

“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 9th Corps.”

“4. That some parts of the assaulting columns were not properly led.”

“5. The want of a competent common head at the scene of the assault, to direct affairs as occurrences 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 9th Corps lines for troops, and especially for field artillery, as ordered by Major-General Meade.”

General Grant’s opinion as to the cause of the disaster is as follows:(2) first for ” allowing Ledlie to lead the assaulting column ;”…”then to the neglect of Burnside to prepare the parapets, . . .” and lastly “to the absence of the corps

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(1) C. W. 1865, vol. i, p. 215. [BTC Editor’s Note: This must be a misprint or a different edition.  This quote is found on page 230 of the book.]     80 W. R. 127.

(2) Badeau, vol. ii, p. 486, and C. W. 1865, vol. i, pp. 110, 111. [BTC Editor’s Note: This must be a misprint or a different edition of the findings of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.  Grant’s quote is found on page 124 and 125 of the book.]

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and division commanders from their troops.” He says: “I think if I had been a corps commander and had had that in charge, I would have been down there, and would have seen that it was done right; or, if I had been the commander of the division that had to take the lead, I think I would have gone in with my division. . . .”

“Question. What, then, do you think was the cause of the disaster ?”

“Answer. I think the cause of the disaster was simply the leaving the passage of orders from one to another down to an inefficient man. I blame his seniors also for not seeing that he did his duty, all the way up to myself.”

Badeau, in his Military History of Grant, quotes him as saying: “Such a chance to carry fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.” Badeau also says:(1)

“It was the absence and incapacity of the division general (Ledlie) that occasioned the conduct of the men, and was in consequence the cause of the catastrophe. Fault, however, must be found with higher officers than Ledlie.

“Burnside seems to have had no idea whatever what to do when he found that the troops did not proceed; he neither handled them with skill, nor was able to infuse any spirit into them, nor did he attempt to extricate them when the favorable moment was past. Indeed, long after all hope of victory was gone, and every one else saw plainly that in withdrawal lay the only chance of salvation, he still urged his superiors to allow the troops to remain. He did not even supply the proper information to Meade; his despatches were so few and insufficient that a correct idea of the battle was not conveyed. Meade was not informed that the troops had halted in the charge, and did not know of this important circumstance till nearly an hour after it had occurred. Had he been aware of it, other orders would doubtless have been issued, and much of the subsequent loss and suffering might have been avoided.

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(1) Badeau, vol. ii, p. 484.

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Indeed, if Meade had been nearer the front, the entire result would probably have been different; but he had appointed his headquarters in advance, and feared to leave them afterwards, lest greater confusion should follow from a change; he therefore never saw the field. Both Meade and Burnside lost their tempers, and an unseemly correspondence was carried on between them in the middle of the battle. Though the latter was chary of his reports, and failed more than once to reply to peremptory inquiries from his superiors, he found time to send despatches which he himself afterwards described as inexcusable and insubordinate.”

“Woodbury, in his history of the 9th Corps, says the trouble was in not carrying out Burnside’s plans. The Committee on the Conduct of the War arrived at the same conclusions.

In addition to the reasons given by the court, there are some others worthy of consideration, one of which is the condition of the 9th Corps at the time of the assault. General Burnside and the Committee on the Conduct of the War, and also Woodbury in his history, mention this fact. Since the 20th of June the 9th Corps had been under fire night and day without cessation. The close proximity of the two lines made it almost necessary in places. In addition to this, the colored troops were known by the Confederates to be in our corps, which excited an unusual degree of bitterness, and hence there was no truce between the pickets and no relief from constant firing. On the other corps fronts there was a friendly feeling existing between the pickets, and a freedom from the excessive strain of constant watching. Out of 9500 men in the 9th Corps, 1150 were killed and wounded from June 20 to July 30 from picket and shell firing. In my own regiment the losses were almost two men per day. Unceasing vigilance and caution were the order of the day. On certain portions of the front it was almost sure death to show one’s head. The men were ordered, and compelled, to keep under

cover. All this was demoralizing to a great extent. The strain on the nervous system was tremendous.

Then, to aggravate the evil still more, the worst division commander was taken to lead the assault. The habits of General Ledlie, commanding the 1st Division, were well known to all officers and men, and ought to have been known to Burnside. They were such as to cause grave apprehension to all serving under him, and to impart lack of confidence in the success of any fight of which he might have the management.

Another cause was the failure of the 5th Corps to attack on our left. During the morning two separate signal stations reported that the enemy had weakened their right and were sending these troops to their centre. General Warren, commanding the 5th Corps, reported that none of the enemy had left his front. From Confederate reports, written since the war,(1) it is evident that the enemy had weakened their right very much. Mahone’s Division, which attacked and recaptured the crater, was drawn from Warren’s front. By Mahone’s order the men dropped back one or two at a time, as if going for water. If the 5th Corps had attacked at any time between 6 and 10 A. M., it is very probable that they would have carried the works in their front, and have relieved the troops in the crater, and possibly have changed the fortunes of the day. On our right, in front of Hancock, no forces were withdrawn. Hancock made several feints, which showed the enemy in full force. By General Meade’s order the corps commanders were ordered to attack in their front, if they found the enemy’s forces very much weakened.

I think that any military critic will coincide in the main with the verdict given by the court of inquiry.

Their report gave the first cause of failure as the injudicious formation of troops. The troops were formed properly enough, but could not go forward in this formation owing to the parapets, etc., on our side. This was undoubt-

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(1) McCabe’s Defence of Petersburg, p. 35.

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edly one of the most serious of all the causes of the failure. Half an hour’s labor by a hundred men, working under cover from the enemy’s fire (as they could), would have made our works passable for a line of battle. The abatis could have been removed by an engineering party in a minute’s time. Had we got over our own line in any sort of organization, it would have been an easy matter to have kept that organization unbroken. As it was, the advance was a straggling flank movement, not worthy even to be designated by a name.

As to the second cause given by the court: A competent general officer might have succeeded in reorganizing the demoralized mass in the crater, but it would have been a difficult task. The fire was quite heavy and well sustained by the time the division was over, and re-forming in the open would have been a hard thing to accomplish.

As to the third cause: There is nothing to be said in addition to the finding of the court.

It would be false delicacy not to state the plain truth here as to the character of the general leading, or rather not leading, the assaulting column. The testimony before the court of inquiry shows that this man was in a bomb-proof in the rear, soliciting and obtaining whiskey to stimulate his courage, while his division was fighting at the front. He was a drunkard and an arrant coward. In every fight we had been in under Ledlie he had been under the influence of liquor, and on the 17th of June so much so as to be lying on the ground in a drunken stupor. He knew enough even then to seek a safe place at the bottom of a ravine free from shells or bullets. It was an absolute crime to let such a man head so important an undertaking. It was wicked to risk the lives of men in such a man’s hands, and no troops could be asked or expected to fight, even decently, under the orders of such a man. General Grant did not hesitate to blame himself for allowing such an officer to lead in this enterprise. His excuse was that he had interfered in Burnside’s plan in not allowing

the negro division to lead, and he did not like to interfere any more. A competent division commander would have seen to the parapets himself before the charge, would have gone in with his division, and would have made the attack a success. Where so much was at risk, it would perhaps have been advisable to have a picked body of men, a forlorn hope, to lead this charge. I hardly think this latter was necessary. Any troops, decently led, would have made a success of this attack, had General Meade’s distinct orders been carried out. The presence of any officer in command of all the troops at the front might have remedied these matters even at the last moment.

Generals Beauregard and Lee were 250 yards in rear of the crater, at the Gee house. Undoubtedly Generals Burnside and Meade could have directed the battle better had they been nearer. General Burnside was 600 yards in rear, at the 14-gun Battery, and General Meade at 9th Corps headquarters, half a mile further to the rear. General Meade had chosen this location the day before, and did not dare to change it. He would have probably accomplished what he was trying to do better in a place nearer the scene of the fight, and his presence at the immediate front would have undoubtedly changed the result. As it was, it was a most disgraceful failure, — discreditable to the officers and men of the 9th Corps, but chiefly to Generals Burnside and Ledlie.

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NOTE

The record of the Mil. Hist. Soc. of Mass. (vol. 4, p. 344) states that when the foregoing paper was read, “Colonel [T. L.] Livermore stated that he was on General Ord’s (18th Corps) staff that day and that General Ord and he rode up to Burnside’s headquarters at 3.30 A. M. (the mine was to be sprung at 4) to report the arrival of supporting troops, and they found everybody sound asleep.” — Ed.

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ABBREVIATIONS USED IN REFERENCES IN VOLUME 5 OF THE PAPERS OF THE MILITARY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MASSACHUSETTS

Source:

  1. Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 205-219

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