Petersburg/Richmond The Crater assault at Petersburg

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
There is plenty of blame to go around. Burnside. The drunk Colonel laying in bed as his troops attacked willly nilly. But as I understand it both Grant and Meade were on the battlefield. Saw what was happening and neither intervened. To do so would violate chain of command. IF SO there is not a place in Hell hot enough for either of them.

I know that military procedure regards chain of command as inviolate. To breach it is to invite chaos. However to stand by and let neglect result in needless casualties while simultaneously allowing defeat to snatch victory out of clueless attacking soldiers was criminal.
Exactly what do you think Grant, from his HQ miles away, could have done to intervene? He was in command of the entire Union Army. Tactical command was Burnside’s. Grant had no means of knowing what the tactical situation was. Don’t forget that Burnside knew that the same colonel was drunk & hiding in the magazine during Longstreet’s attack on FT Sanders in Knoxville. It was Burnside’s operation & the blame for the failure rests squarely on him.
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
Exactly what do you think Grant, from his HQ miles away, could have done to intervene? He was in command of the entire Union Army. Tactical command was Burnside’s. Grant had no means of knowing what the tactical situation was. Don’t forget that Burnside knew that the same colonel was drunk & hiding in the magazine during Longstreet’s attack on FT Sanders in Knoxville. It was Burnside’s operation & the blame for the failure rests squarely on him.
Years ago I read an account that Grant had in fact come to observe the assault on the Crater, seen what was happening but failed to intervene. I don't recall the specifics but it did strike me that if this is true then the responsibility for the failure ultimately falls on him. Of course none of this absolves Burnside in the slightest.
 

Jamieva

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 7, 2006
Location
Midlothian, VA
I will have to go back and look, I don't recall any accounts that Grant was on site at the Crater at any point during the assault. Meade may have been but the dye was cast and the attack had to move forward.

The drunk was Brigadier General Ledlie, not a colonel. He had been drunk when he blundered into a disasterous assault at the North Anna. You know it's bad when the historical marker at the battlefield site says you were drunk, which it does at North Anna. Documentation strongly suggests that Burnside was well aware of this, and did nothing. And you get him in charge of the initial attack at the Crater. it's like karma took over because his division was not supposed to be in that position.
 

Umbagog

Cadet
Joined
Dec 20, 2008
Location
California
Grant considered it one of the worst battles ever fougt, but the project was potentially the most brilliant military idea of the war, according to James M. McPherson. With the U.S.C.T. spreading throughout the confederate line, led by competent officers and supported by enough reserve troops, Grant can fight Lee out of the trenches with a huge numerical advantage.
The main problem was Meade's (and Grant's) decision to replace the Colored Division, which was well-drilled to execute the manoeuver, by another division, poorly led and not trained to achieve such a tactical move.
The second problem was Burnside's indecision as a commander, when leading his troops in action.
This subject interests me quite a bit, and this is my first post. I consider the Crater the greatest blunder of the Civil War. I feel for Burnside. He had planned this battle for weeks. On showing it to Meade, Meade trashed it and ordered different means of removing Confederate obstacles and changing the order of battle. Burnside was very upset and asked to consult with their superior, General Grant. Grant sided with Meade and they sent Burnside back to his headquarters to make up a completely different set of orders to conform to Meade's changes. What could any commander have been expected to do? Meade and Grant trashed a plan weeks in preparation, and they did this at around 11 at night, six hours before the attack was to begin. In his diary, Gideon Welles puts the blame on Meade. Later, at an inquiry Grant admitted that Burnside's plan was a good one.
 

Rio Bravo

First Sergeant
Joined
Oct 6, 2013
Location
Suffolk, U.K.
Inman was there but luckily survived only to be shot later on Cold Mountain !

8C0A58F8-A100-4794-9A85-DA4AC0931D6E.jpeg
 

R. Porter

Private
Joined
Oct 6, 2020
This subject interests me quite a bit, and this is my first post. I consider the Crater the greatest blunder of the Civil War. I feel for Burnside. He had planned this battle for weeks. On showing it to Meade, Meade trashed it and ordered different means of removing Confederate obstacles and changing the order of battle. Burnside was very upset and asked to consult with their superior, General Grant. Grant sided with Meade and they sent Burnside back to his headquarters to make up a completely different set of orders to conform to Meade's changes. What could any commander have been expected to do? Meade and Grant trashed a plan weeks in preparation, and they did this at around 11 at night, six hours before the attack was to begin. In his diary, Gideon Welles puts the blame on Meade. Later, at an inquiry Grant admitted that Burnside's plan was a good one.
The Battle of the Crater the greatest blunder of the War? Certainly there were other worse blunders. What about Lee's charge on the third day at Gettysburg, or Grant's charges against entrenched positions at Cold Harbor? What about the finding of the Confederate plans for the Maryland campaign? I think I see the need for a new topic on the worst blunders of the war.
 
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
The Battle of the Crater the greatest blunder of the War? Certainly there were other worse blunders. What about Lee's charge on the third day at Gettysburg, or Grant's charges against entrenched positions at Cold Harbor? What about the finding of the Confederate plans for the Maryland campaign? I think I see the need for a new topic on the worst blunders of the war.
Maybe there were other blunders of greater magnitude, but I dont think G'burg was one of them. A mistake of course but not a blunder. Granted using perfect 20-20 hindsight, not only day 3 but day two as well would have been more profitably spend maneuvering around Meade's position using the Confederate's superior mobility to draw them off of a superb defensive location into an open position where maneuver might trump numbers.

On the other hand, G'burg was the only occasion in the war where Lee faced his opponent essentially 1-1. For once he faced an essentially equal opponent. He judged that his attacks the first two days had weakened the Union flanks--which they indeed had and that the Union center was the weakest position on the field--which indeed it was, they had reinforced the flanks with fresh troops and had moved the most weakened units to the center.

There is another line on this forum discussing the effectiveness of the barrage on day 3 prior to the charge. Who is to deny that had the artillery preparation been as effective as Lee assumed it would be, would the charge up the center been able to break the Union line, split them in two and send them reeling back in retreat.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Maybe there were other blunders of greater magnitude, but I dont think G'burg was one of them. A mistake of course but not a blunder. Granted using perfect 20-20 hindsight, not only day 3 but day two as well would have been more profitably spend maneuvering around Meade's position using the Confederate's superior mobility to draw them off of a superb defensive location into an open position where maneuver might trump numbers.

On the other hand, G'burg was the only occasion in the war where Lee faced his opponent essentially 1-1. For once he faced an essentially equal opponent. He judged that his attacks the first two days had weakened the Union flanks--which they indeed had and that the Union center was the weakest position on the field--which indeed it was, they had reinforced the flanks with fresh troops and had moved the most weakened units to the center.

There is another line on this forum discussing the effectiveness of the barrage on day 3 prior to the charge. Who is to deny that had the artillery preparation been as effective as Lee assumed it would be, would the charge up the center been able to break the Union line, split them in two and send them reeling back in retreat.
Doesn't the word 'greatest' mean anything anybody wants it to mean... this is the greatest online post I have ever written!
 

R. Porter

Private
Joined
Oct 6, 2020
Theoretically, the Petersburg mine seems a sound tactic. As was mentioned earlier, this approach was tried at Vicksburg. I found a brief article that indicated that it was done at least twice at Vicksburg, with the second mine containing 1,800 pounds of black powder. Perhaps that is why at Petersburg they used 8,000 pounds of black powder. There was a unit that trained for the attack but they were pulled off and the lead was given to an untrained unit. Even if this had not happened human nature may have derailed the attack. People are easily distracted by large explosions and big holes and this might not have been something that the attacking unit could prepare for. From my reading about the Crater I got the impression that a lot of the negative attitude towards the project was because it required constructing a shaft unlike what was typically encountered in coal mining. In order for the whole thing to work they needed to supply fresh air to the shaft as it was being dug and after it was finished. This problem was overcome and in the process advance mining technology for the future. So, even if it didn’t succeed as a military operation during the War, it did spin off technology that benefited future generations. Of course, I know nothing about mining history so I don’t know if what I read is accurate or if mines already operated with air pumps to allow longer and deeper shafts.

Just a small aside, apparently when the Union was trying to tunnel under Confederate lines at Vicksburg, the Confederate were trying to counter-mine to find the shaft. Instead of using soldiers to do this, they used slaves. There was a group of 8 slaves digging a countermine when the second Union mine was exploded. Seven of the 8 slaves were killed instantly, but the eighth on was flung 150 feet through the air and into the Union lines. He was able to pick himself up and dust himself off. The soldiers that he landed among installed him in a tent and then charged other soldiers a small fee to look at him; like a sideshow exhibit. The article is at url:

https://emergingcivilwar.com/2019/02/06/blowed-to-freedom-abraham-and-the-vicksburg-mine/
 

bschulte

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 31, 2005
This subject interests me quite a bit, and this is my first post. I consider the Crater the greatest blunder of the Civil War. I feel for Burnside. He had planned this battle for weeks. On showing it to Meade, Meade trashed it and ordered different means of removing Confederate obstacles and changing the order of battle. Burnside was very upset and asked to consult with their superior, General Grant. Grant sided with Meade and they sent Burnside back to his headquarters to make up a completely different set of orders to conform to Meade's changes. What could any commander have been expected to do? Meade and Grant trashed a plan weeks in preparation, and they did this at around 11 at night, six hours before the attack was to begin. In his diary, Gideon Welles puts the blame on Meade. Later, at an inquiry Grant admitted that Burnside's plan was a good one.
Not pick the worst division commander in the entire Army of the Potomac to lead the assault, for starters. Clear the obstructions in front of the trenches, for a second thing. Burnside's plan was pretty good. His execution, as almost always seemed to happen when he was in charge, was atrocious. He had a few good campaigns, North Carolina 1862 and Knoxville. The rest was decidedly below average, at best.
 

bschulte

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 31, 2005
Theoretically, the Petersburg mine seems a sound tactic. As was mentioned earlier, this approach was tried at Vicksburg. I found a brief article that indicated that it was done at least twice at Vicksburg, with the second mine containing 1,800 pounds of black powder. Perhaps that is why at Petersburg they used 8,000 pounds of black powder. There was a unit that trained for the attack but they were pulled off and the lead was given to an untrained unit. Even if this had not happened human nature may have derailed the attack. People are easily distracted by large explosions and big holes and this might not have been something that the attacking unit could prepare for. From my reading about the Crater I got the impression that a lot of the negative attitude towards the project was because it required constructing a shaft unlike what was typically encountered in coal mining. In order for the whole thing to work they needed to supply fresh air to the shaft as it was being dug and after it was finished. This problem was overcome and in the process advance mining technology for the future. So, even if it didn’t succeed as a military operation during the War, it did spin off technology that benefited future generations. Of course, I know nothing about mining history so I don’t know if what I read is accurate or if mines already operated with air pumps to allow longer and deeper shafts.

Just a small aside, apparently when the Union was trying to tunnel under Confederate lines at Vicksburg, the Confederate were trying to counter-mine to find the shaft. Instead of using soldiers to do this, they used slaves. There was a group of 8 slaves digging a countermine when the second Union mine was exploded. Seven of the 8 slaves were killed instantly, but the eighth on was flung 150 feet through the air and into the Union lines. He was able to pick himself up and dust himself off. The soldiers that he landed among installed him in a tent and then charged other soldiers a small fee to look at him; like a sideshow exhibit. The article is at url:

https://emergingcivilwar.com/2019/02/06/blowed-to-freedom-abraham-and-the-vicksburg-mine/
Will Greene covers this in his first of a planned three volumes on Petersburg. The Fourth Division, Ninth Corps, which consisted entirely of United States Colored Troop regiments, the only such units in the entire AotP, received at best some slight training over a few days. It is mostly a now seemingly popular myth that they received any kind of dedicated special training for this attack. The lead was not given to an untrained unit. The lead was given to a division which was fought out and whose commander was a drunk and the worst division commander in the Army of the Potomac. That's on Burnside. Meade and Grant could not send in the only Black troops in the Army of the Potomac first only a few months before an election. The Democratic papers would have slaughtered Lincoln had anything gone wrong with the initial assault. They would have mocked him for freeing the slaves only to send them to die in a forlorn hope attack. It couldn't be risked politically. Grant and Meade were right to turn Burnside down.
 

Jamieva

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 7, 2006
Location
Midlothian, VA
I always thought it was dumb bad luck that the most optimal place in the lines to dig the mine shaft happened to be in the IX Corps sector. If you were ranking the corps of the AotP to carry out this attack, the IX would clearly be everyone's last choice for all the reasons we have talked about in this thread.
 

bdtex

Major General
★★ Sr. Moderator
Silver Patron
Annual Winner
Regtl. Quartermaster Chickamauga 2018 Vicksburg 2019
Joined
Jul 21, 2015
Location
Texas
I am aware of a number of books about The Crater. Threads like this remind me of my need to stay busy with my reading. Lot of ground yet to cover.
 
Top