GENERAL ORD had recently arrived from the West, where he had served up to this time. General Grant, knowing him to be an officer of merit, had transferred him to General Butler's army, where he took the place of General W. F. Smith, as commander of the Eighteenth Corps. For the time being he occupied the right of our lines, in front of Petersburg. His headquarters were on the top of a hill, whence the view embraced apart of our entrenchment's, and glimpses as far as the city of Petersburg, of which the steeples and some of the edifices could be seen. There we learned the cause of our sudden recall from Deep Bottom.
The mine dug under the direction of Burnside was finished and charged. The firing of it was fixed for the next day, July 30, and was to be followed immediately by a charge of the Ninth Corps, with the support of the Eighteenth. For this reason our division had been recalled, to relieve the troops of General Ord in the trenches.
A few details on the manner in which this work was carried out may be interesting here.
The engineer officers took no part in it. This will, without doubt, appear more extraordinary in Europe than in America. One must remember the universality of he Yankee genius, and that the men of that race, as intelligent as they are enterprising, are accustomed to undertake the most diverse tasks. No people ever attached themselves less to one single pursuit. Their principle is that intelligence can do everything. Thus they advance faster to success. Everywhere except in the United States the capabilities of the mind are marked off in categories. Aptitudes are considered as exclusive, and every one chooses his career according to his supposed bent. This is a great error.
Organizations well developed are capable of performing very different tasks. The same man, perhaps, may be at the same time a thinker and a man of action, a man of law and a man of war, a philosopher and a manufacturer, a merchant and an artist, a mathematician and a poet. He may not have all his faculties equally developed; but they are not exclusive of others. The Yankee understands this, and tries everything, ready if he fails in one pursuit to essay another. That is why he always ends by succeeding.
It is not that he is better endowed by nature than other men; it is due to education. In his infancy he has not been put into the swaddling-dothes of traditions -and prejudices; opinions ready made are not imposed upon him; neither the government nor the church has weighed down upon his young intelligence. He has grown up in free air; he has learned to rely, above all, upon himself, and he knows that on his own value depends the place he will take in the minds a people amongst whom everything starts from the initiative of the individual. Hence the breadth of all his faculties, and the variety of practical knowledge which makes such varied use of them.
But to return to. the mine: the first notion of it
occurred to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants, an old civil engineer, now commanding the Forty-eighth Pennsylvania. The most advanced point of our lines was upon the lower part of a hillside crowned by a sort of redoubt, behind which the cemetery hill commanded the city of Petersburg. Within our lines, in a deep ravine, ran the track of the Norfolk railroad, which was hidden from the enemy's view by our works. This formation of the ground suggested to Colonel Pleasauts the idea of opening a horizontal gallery under the enemy's works. He proposed it to General Potter, his division commander, who in turn submitted it to General Burnside. The latter approved of it without hesitation, and the next morning Colonel Pleasants set to work.
The first thing to do was to get the exact distance from the mouth of the mine to the redoubt which it was intended to blow up. The instruments necessary were at headquarters, but the use of them could not be obtained. The chief engineers of the army and other authorities declared ex cathedra that the project was senseless and foolish; that a mine as long as that had never been dug; that it could not be done; that the men would be stifled by the lack of air or crushed by the falling-in of the earth, etc. It resulted from this that the general commanding did not approve of the undertaking, but only tolerated it. One sees by this that esprit de corps is the same in every country. With specialists, the thing which has not been done cannot be done, and, if you propose to them any innovation not found in their books, nine times out of ten they will tell you that it is impossible or absurd.
General Burnside, who persisted in his idea, sent to Washington for an old theodolite, which, however, enabled Colonel Pleasants to determine that the length
of the direct gallery must be five hundred and ten feet at the end of which lateral galleries, curving in an arc of a circle, must be dug to the right and left, each thirty-eight feet long. It follows, of course, that all assistance was refused by the engineer corps, which did not wish to take any part in an enterprise of which it had proclaimed the absurdity. Following suit, the superior officers of the army were greatly amused by the pleasantry.
Colonel Pleasants, left to himself without other encouragement than that of Burnside and Potter, continued his work with an unshakable perseverance. He was refused timber; he sent for it to a sawmill out of the lines. They refused him mining picks; he had the common picks in the division fixed-over. They refused him wheelbarrows; he had the earth carried out in cracker boxes bound with iron taken from old fish barrels. 56 that he was equal to every requirement without employing a person outside of his own regiment of four hundred men, mostly recruited from among the miners in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
One important point was to conceal the removed earth from the view of the enemy, who, if suspecting anything, might Send some men to the tops of the trees on the hill, and (discover the works, which it was important to conceal from him. For that reason, every morning, before daylight, the pioneers covered over the earth brought out of the mine during the night with branches of trees. The amount of earth removed was in all as much as eighteen thousand cubic feet.
The work, begun June 25, was finished on July 23, without accident, in spite of all predictions and of all derision. It was then necessary to change the tone. The fact must be recognized that the thing was serious That which had been declared impossible was done.
The explosion, if it succeeded, and if we knew how to get the benefit of it, must deliver Petersburg to us.
The Deep Bottom expedition had given us the most favorable opportunity possible. In fact, General Lee, uncertain as to its real importance, and trusting to the protection of his lines, had sent more than half of his forces to the other side of the James. Hancock would keep them there with his two divisions; he would take advantage of the night, to return before Petersburg, and when, on the next morning, the rebels should discover his retreat of the night before, the assault would be made before they would have time to return across the river.
Everything, then, seemed to promise success, provided that the assault should be made with vigor and in unison. That was the great point, and, unhappily, the one as to which the measures taken gave rise to serious apprehensions. The choice of the Ninth Corps to lead the attack was far from being the best that could have been made. That corps, which had rendered good service in North Carolina, in the Army of the Potomac, and in Tennessee, had been so reduced by these various campaigns that it had been necessary to renew it almost entirely. Troops of all sorts, mostly newly raised, had been incorporated in it; which had not prevented their doing their duty in the positions where they had been placed.
Since their arrival before Petersburg, they had peculiarly suffered. In the affairs of June 17 and i8, they had lost three thousand men, and during the whole following month they had been subjected to a fatiguing and perilous service in the trenches, where the picket fire had cost them eleven hundred and fifty men. These incessant fatigues, and the habit of always keeping themselves under cover of the entrenchment's, were not
of a nature to predispose their divisions to push with vigor an open attack. It would have been much better to have trusted the assault to more hardy troops, such as those of the Second or the Fifth Corps. For myself, I am convinced that if Hancock or Warren had had charge of the affair we would have carried everything in a few hours. But Burnside, who had taken the lead in having the mine dug, held it as a point of honor to complete the work.
However, it was not without taking account of the real condition of his command. So he had concluded to put at the head of the column of attack his fourth division, composed of colored troops, who, more numerous and less fatigued than the others, were, taking all things into consideration, the ones on whom he could best depend. Immediately after the explosion, these two brigades were to pass through the opening made in the enemy's works, in two columns; the one to turn to the right, and the other to the left; sweep the inner side of the enemy's entrenchment's and cover the flanks of the three other divisions, who would charge directly for the summit of the hill. After them would advance the Eighteenth Corps, and our success was assured. For it must be remembered that Lee, having sent five divisions to the north of the James, had but three left at Petersburg. Once established on the hill, the city was ours; the enemy was cut in two; the left, with its back to the Appomattox, would find itself surrounded, and the right could do nothing but make a prompt retreat, leaving us all the guns in the entrenchment's.
Such was the plan which General Burnside submitted in writing for the approval of General Meade, on July 26. As a plan it would be difficult to find anything to object to it. As to its execution, it remained to see how the Ninth Corps would do the work, and how general officers of the corps would act. But the moment it was decided to intrust the execution to General Burnside, as he knew better than any one else the true condition of his troops and how to make the best use of them, it would have been wise to leave the details to him, and not interfere with the particular measures he had prepared long before. By not understanding this, General Meade committed an error which became the source of many others, and incurred also a direct share in the responsibility for the want of success. This error was in ordering the commander of the Ninth Corps to substitute one of his white divisions for the colored one in the part assigned to the latter. The general commanding communicated this decision directly to General Burnside, on July 28.
The latter states "that a long conversation succeeded, in which I explained to General Meade the condition of my white divisions. I insisted on the importance, in my opinion, of placing the colored division in advance, because I thought that at that time it would make the charge better than any of the three others. I reminded him that the latter had been in the trenches for forty days, immediately in front of the enemy, where a man could not show his head above the paipet without drawing out several shots; that during all this time they had been in the habit of coming out of the lines by covered ways, and taking all possible means to protect themselves against the enemy's fire; that, nevertheless, their losses had been continual, and had amounted to some thirty to sixty men a day; that the soldiers had not been able even to cook their meals, which had to be prepared in the rear and brought to them; that, not having been able to wash their clothes, they had not changed them, and, finally, they were not in a fit condition to make a vigorous charge," etc.
To these reasons Meade objected "that, without having any reason to believe that the colored troops would not do their duty as well as the white, yet, inasmuch as they formed a new division which had never been under fire, and that the work to be done was such as to demand the best troops, he judged it inadmissible to intrust it to a division whose courage had not been proved."
Evidently, the reasons were good on both sides; but what conclusion should have been drawn from them? Clearly, that the Ninth Corps, both black and white divisions, were equally unsuitable for the work to be done, and that it should be intrusted to others. This conclusion, so simple and so logical, did not appear, however, to present itself to the mind of either general, and, as neither succeeded in convincing the other, General Meade announced that he should refer the decision to the lieutenant-general.
General Grant, on being consulted, decided in favor of the superior officer, against the inferior. So that the question was decided more as a matter of discipline than as to what was the most suitable. The result showed that, and General Grant himself recognized it by saying before the court of inquiry: "General Burn-side wished to put his colored division in advance, and I believe that, if he had done so, success would have followed. However, I agreed with General Meade in his objections' to the proposal. He made the point that if we put the only colored division we had in the advance, and the affair turned out badly, it would be said, and with a show of reason, that we killed off those troops because we cared nothing about them."
The thought of considering "they said" on such an occasion is a circumstance curious and to be noted. One can guess by that the influence of the electoral campaign in the North. Neither Grant nor Meade wished to run the risk of furnishing to the opposition an arm which they would use against the reelection of President Lincoln. In any other circumstances, it is not to be believed they would have regarded any such consideration.
The final decision was announced to General Burnside on the 29th, twelve or fifteen hours before the time fixed for the explosion. It was a cause of great disappointment and embarrassment to him. Which of the three divisions should he choose to replace the fourth?
Such was his hesitation that, to get out of it, he resorted to the strange expedient of putting the result to lot.
The lot, which is of course blind, and sometimes is pleased to give us some severe lessons, fell up the very division which, if it was not worse than the others, was certainly worse commanded. From that instant all chance of success was gone. Petersburg would escape our grasp for yet a long time.
The whole night was devoted to the last preparations, the attacking divisions forming t their posts as they were relieved in the trenches. Our division, which had been massed in the woods, out of sight of the enemy, during the whole day, took the place of the Eighteenth and a part of the Tenth Corps, in that part of the lines which extended from Burnside's right to the Appomat tox. My brigade was the nearest to the mine, from which it was separated by a curtain of woods. My right occupied Fort Stedman, armed with ten guns, and near which were twelve mortars. My left was so near the enemy that the sharpshooters distributed along my front in a trench could easiy throw stones into his advanced works. The least noise in one line was heard in the other, so that on our arrival we were saluted with a shower of shells, which did us no particular injury.
The hour set for the mine explosion was half past three in the morning. I have stated that the principal gallery of the mine ended in a transverse gallery in the shape of an arc of a circle. In the walls of the latter eight narrow passages were made, facing each other (four on one side), leading to eight chambers, each containing thousand pounds of powder - in all, eight thousand pounds. That would make a fine explosion. So from three o'clock every one was up, the officers watch in hand, eyes fixed on the fated redan, or in that direction.
There were about two hundred men in that work, sleeping tranquilly a sleep from which they would awake in eternity. Perhaps they were dreaming of returning to their families, of the joys of the domestic fireside, at the instant when, beneath them, Colonel Pleasants (what irony in that name) was applying the fire to the match along with which they were about to consume the last minutes of their existence. Upon the parapet the motionless sentinels were watching the pale lights which began to brighten the horizon in the east. Silence reigned everywhere, but in our lines all eyes were open; in those of the enemy, nearly all were closed.
From half after three the minutes were counted. -It is still too dark, it was said. - At four o'clock it was daylight; nothing stirred as yet; at a quarter past four a murmur of impatience ran through the ranks. -What has happened? If as there been a counter-order? or an accident? Has the assault been deferred?
It had happened that the match, which was ninety feet long, had gone out at a splice about half-way of its length. It was necessary to be certain of it, and the risk was great. If the explosion took place, whoever was in the gallery was lost. Two intrepid men, Lieu-
tenant Jacob Douty and Serge ant Henry Rees, volunteered to see what was the cause of the delay, and to relight the match. Both returned safe and sound. The redoubt had a respite of a quarter of an hour.
Suddenly the earth trembled under our feet. An enormous mass sprang into the air. A mass without form or shape, full of red flames, and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, mounted towards heaven with a detonation of thunder. It spread out like a sheaf, like an immense mushroom whose stem seemed to b of fire and its head of smoke. Then everything appeared to break up and fall back in a rain of earth mixed with rocks, with beams, timbers, and mangled human bodies, leaving floating in the air a cloud of white smoke, which rose up in the heavens, and a cloud of gray dust, which fell slowly towards the earth. The redan had disappeared. In its place had opened a gaping gulf more than two hundred feet long by fifty wide, and twenty-five to thirty feet deep.
Immediately, as though the eruption of a volcano had poured out a torrent of lava upon our lines, they were on fire from one end to the other. All our batteries opened at once on the enemy's entrenchment's. The projectiles whistled, roared, burst. Through the deafening noise of the artillery firing was heard a cry, and the first division advanced to the assault.
It had nothing in front of it. The Confederate troops occupying the lines to the right and the left in the immediate vicinity of the mine had fled precipitately through fright and fear of further explosions. The others, stupefied, endeavored to see what was going on while awaiting orders. The way was completely open to the summit of the hill, which was protected by no other line of works.
The column marched directly to the crater, and,
instead of turning around it to pursue its way, it descended into it, in the midst of the torn-up earth. Once at the bottom, finding itself sheltered, it remained there. A part spread out to the right and the left behind the abandoned works. The general commanding (Ledlie) the division had remained within our lines, in a bomb-proof.
The second division, delayed at first by the obstructions, was soon mix-up with the other. Several regiments descended into the crater, the greater part extended towards the right without going beyond it. Only one brigade succeeded in making its way through, so as to advance beyond. It found itself then engaged in ground cut up by trenches, by covered ways, by sheltered pits dug in the ground. Worse than that, the enemy, recovering from his surprise, had already profited by the time we had lost, to place his guns in position, and form his infantry so as to throw a concentrated fire upon the opening made in his works. After having, with difficulty, advanced over the natural obstacles, the brigade, more than half in confusion, seeing that it was neither supported nor reinforced, was compelled to fall back with loss.
The third division had not even made a like attempt. In mingling with the first, it had simply increased the confusion, and crowded together on the left.
Time was flying; the opportunity was fast escaping us; the chances of success were disappearing as we were looking on. Nothing could force the troops, crowded together in the crater, or lying down behind the entrenchment's, to leave their positions. The officers of spirit amongst them exhausted themselves in vain efforts. The men would not move. Some officers ordered without purpose, and moved around without doing anything. The greater part remained, like the
men, motionless in a state of paralysis. The mine had been blown up two hours, and our forces had not made any advance.
Towards seven o'clock the colored division received orders to advance in its turn. The blacks advanced resolutely, passed over the passive mass of white troops, not a company of whom followed them, and, although their ranks were necessarily broken by the obstacle, they charged under a deadly fire of artillery and musketry, which reached them from all sides at once. They even reached the enemy, took from him two hundred and fifty prisoners, captured a flag, and recovered one of ours taken by him. But they were not sustained. They were driven back by a counter-charge, and returned, running in confusion, to our lines, where, by this time, a large number of the white troops were eager to return with them.
Until then the Confederates had limited their efforts to defending the hill. Encouraged by the feeble attempts which we had made to reach it, and by the ease with which these efforts had been repulsed, they began to draw near along the entrenchment's, and endeavor to retake from us the part of the lines they had abandoned. Their guns covered with their fire the space which separated the crater from our lines, where their mortars rained shell and shot. The troops which had taken shelter there found themselves so much the worse off that the cross fire of the skirmishers rendered the rear communication more difficult.
At this time, General Meade, seeing the day lost without hope of recovery, sent orders to retreat. General Burn side endeavored in vain to obtain a suspension of the order. He still hoped, with more obstinacy than reason, not only to maintain himself on the enemy's line until night, but even to carry the hill.
About noon the renewed order was promptly communicated to the troops concerned, without any manner prescribed of executing it. It was found that at this same instant the enemy, after having failed in several attempts, came out in force from a ravine where he had rallied his forces, and advanced to retake the crater. In a moment it was a general devil take the /hindmost, a confused rush, in which those who could run fast enough and escape the rebel fire returned to our lines. Those who endeavored to resist, or were delayed, were taken prisoners.
Thus passed away the finest opportunity which could have been given us to capture Petersburg, since the day when General W. F. Smith had presented himself in front of it before the arrival of the troops of General Lee. This terrible fiasco cost us forty-four hundred men, much more, certainly, than a complete success would have done, if the operation had been conducted as it should have been, and if the Ninth Corps had fought as it ought to have fought. All the supporting troops found themselves in a situation in which it was not possible to do anything. The Eighteenth Corps had not an opportunity to move. A few regiments passed beyond the abandoned entrenchment's, to take possession of the skirmishers' rifle-pits, where they held their position with difficulty for a short time. Ayres' division of the Fifth Corps, massed on the left, stood with its arms ready, with no opportunity to use them.
The enemy did not withdraw a man from in front of Mott's division, to assist in repelling the assault. It was not necessary. General Hancock, nevertheless, wished to be certain of the fact, and ordered a demonstration on the front of each brigade. It was sufficient for one of my regiments to leap over the parapet, to draw out a volley, which cut down one officer and fifteen men. Colonel McAllister resorted to a ruse. He caused the bugle to be sounded, and at the order "For-ward !" his men, as arrange beforehand, showed their caps on the points of the bayonets, above the entrenchment's. The fire drawn by this trick left no doubt as to the presence of the rebels in force in that part of their lines.
A double investigation of this unfortunate affair was made - one by the Congressional committee, the other by a court of inquiry. The conclusions drawn by the two bodies were very different. The Congressional committee declared: -
"That, in its opinion, the cause of the disastrous result of the assault of July 30 ought mainly to be attributed to the fact that the plans and suggestions of the general (Burn side) who had devoted his attention so long to this subject, who had brought the project of mining the enemy's works to a favorable issue, and who had chosen and drilled his troops with care, to assure every advantage which could be drawn from the explosion of the mine, had been completely put aside by a general (Meade) who had shown no confidence in the work while was going on, who had given it no assistance or declared approval, and who had assumed entire direction and control of it only when it had been completed, and the time arrived to reap all the advantages which could be derived from it."
The court of inquiry was in somewhat of a delicate position. It was composed of General Hancock, president, and of General Ayres of the Fifth Corps, and General Miles of the Second Corps. The judge-advocate, or, to speak more accurately, the reporter, was Colonel Schriver, attached as inspector-general to the army staff. I am very far from wishing to throw any doubt on the impartiality of any member- of the court of inquiry, but they might have been called upon, under certain circumstances, officially to censure the conduct of their general-in-chief, a position somewhat embarrassing for an inferior in regard to a supefior. Their inquiry, moreover, conducted from a point of view entirely practical, was more particularly directed to finding out the facts than the original causes. From their report the causes of the want of success were as follows: -
"First, the waht of judgment in the formation of the troops to advance, the movement having been made mostly by the flank instead of by the front. General Meade's order directed that columns of assault should be employed to take the cemetery hill, and that suitable passages through our works should be prepared for them. The opinion of the court is that, properly speaking, no columns of assault were formed. The troops should have been formed on the open ground in front of the point of attack, and parallel to the line of the enemy's works. The witnesses prove that one or several columns could have passed by the crater, and by its left, without any previous preparation of the ground; second, the stopping of the troops at the crater instead of advancing to the crest, although at the time the fire of the enemy was of no importance; third, the poor use made of officers of pioneers, of working parties, and of materials and tools for their service in the Ninth Corps; fourth, certain portions of the assaulting columns were not suitably led; fifth, the lack of a competent leader of high rank on the scene of operations, to order matters according as circumstances demanded.
If failure had not resulted from the above causes, and if the crest had been occupied, success would still have been put iii jeopardy1 from not having prepared in time in the lines of the Ninth Corps, suitable debouches for the troops, and especially for the light artillery, as prescribed by the orders of General Meade."
In conclusion, the court of inquiry ascribed the direct responsibility of the failure to General Burnside, commanding the Ninth Corps, Generals Ledlie, Ferrero, and Wilcox, commanding the First, the Fourth, and the Third Divisions, and Colonel Bliss, commanding the First Brigade of the Second Division; specifying the portion of blame and the responsibility attaching to each.
In comparing these two verdicts, one can easily see that, if they differ from each other, they are not contradictory. Either may be right without the other being wrong. The committee of Congress, composed of members who were not at all military men, did not enter into questions of detail, but paid attention principally to the primary causes. The court of inquiry, on the contrary, being composed of military men, did not go back to the original causes, but applied itself exclusively to considering the question from a military point of view.
Between the two conclusions, the first, the greatest, the true cause found no place. The committee could not have known it; the court of inquiry found no place for it. This cause, to which all the others were subsidiary, I have already indicated: it was the employment of the Ninth Corps to lead the assault. Had it been left in the trenches with the Eighteenth Corps, and had the Second and Fifth been put in advance, Petersburg was ours on the 30th of July, before noon.