General Ulysses S. Grant
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: Continue reading
By far the most unusual event during the siege of Petersburg was the attempt by Grant to take Petersburg by a huge mining operation.
The idea of the tunnel was devised by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, the 33 year old commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania. Pleasants was a mining engineer in civilian life and many of his men were coal miners. He became convinced that his men could dig a tunnel under the Confederate fort known as Elliot’s Salient, then fill a mine under the fort sufficient to blow it to kingdom come, along with nearby Confederate trenches. Pleasants took the idea to his corps commander Major General Ambrose Burnside. He and his men had received permission, but he received virtually no assistance from the rest of the Army in the digging of the tunnel, he and his men having to improvise everything they used. Engineering officers told Pleasants that he was crazy and at 511 feet the tunnel would be too long and his men would die of asphyxiation digging the tunnel long before it could be completed.
The tunnel was elevated as it advanced toward the Confederate fort to prevent moisture clogging it up. Fresh air was pumped in by air-exchange mechanism near the entrance. Pleasants had constructed a ventilation shaft located well behind Union lines, and connected it to the mine with canvas. At the shaft’s base, a fire was kept continuously burning. A wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel which protruded into the outside air. The fire heated stale air inside of the tunnel, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance via the wooden duct which transported the fresh air to the digging miners.
The took took a bit over two weeks to dig and the mine fifty feet under the Confederate fort took almost another two weeks to construct. It was filled with four tons of gunpowder. The Confederates attempted some desultory countermining operations, but the Union tunnel troops went about their work undiscovered. By July 28, 1864 the mine was ready to explode whenever the high command gave the word. That word would be given on July 30, 1864.
Here is a portion of an article on the tunneling operation that led up to the Battle of the Crater, written by Major William H. Powell, United States Army, which appeared in volume 4 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Continue reading
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: Continue reading
On July 10, 1864 Jubal Early’s men were approaching the outer suburbs of Washington and panic was seizing the city. Lincoln’s telegram to Grant does not indicate any panic on the part of Lincoln, but worry about whether Early would take the city: Continue reading
Generals Lee and Grant were two of the finest generals in American history. However, they both had off days, and few episodes in the Civil War cast both of these men in a poorer light than the failure of the Union attempt to seize Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864.
Grant inexplicably assigned to Butler’s Army of the James the task of spearheading the Union effort to take Petersburg. Considering the poor performance of this army during the Bermuda Hundred campaign and the assault on Petersburg on June 9, this was a poor choice. Smith’s corps and the cavalry of Kautz would attack over the same route followed on the June 9 attack. Hancock’s corps of the Army of the Potomac would follow up after the initial assault.
The attack didn’t get under way until 7:oo PM with Smith then taking 3.5 miles of entrenchments from the almost unmanned Confederate defenses. Smith then decided to wait until dawn before advancing further. Hancock, demonstrating yet again that he was no longer the aggressive battlefield commander he had been earlier in the War, agreed with Smith’s decision to wait until dawn.
Beauregard, commanding the defenses of Petersburg, having no other troops, stripped the fortified Howlett line that kept most of Butler’s army of Confederate troops bottled up at Bermuda Hundred. Butler could then have smashed through the Howlett line with ease, but he did nothing. Beauregard now had 14000 men to hold Petersburg while he awaited reinforcements from General Lee.
He now confronted three corps of 50,000 men, Burnside’s corps having come up to join Smith’s and Hancock’s. Hancock, in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac until Meade arrived, launched a three corps attack at 5:30 PM on June 16. Beauregard and his men hanging on just barely, constructing entrenchments behind their lines to contain Union breaches.
June 17 was a day of uncoordinated Union assaults which gave Beauregard the opportunity to construct a new defensive line around Petersburg to which he and his men withdrew on the evening of June 17-18.
Throughout the struggle for Petersburg Beauregard had frantically been asking Lee to send him reinforcements. Lee denied all such entreaties until his son General Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry finally confirmed that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the James and was attacking Petersburg. At 3:00 AM on June 18, Lee dispatched two divisions to shore up the Petersburg defenses.
Beauregard now had 20,000 troops against 67,000 Federals. The Union attacks on June 18 were repulsed with heavy loss and the siege of Petersburg began. The Union had sustained 11000 casualties against 4000 Confederate casualties during the fighting of June 15-18, and the last opportunity to end the War quickly had vanished.
Here is an account of the fighting from June 15-18th by General Beauregard that he wrote for the North American Review in 1887: Continue reading
After the attack on Lee’s Cold Harbor line was bloodily defeated on June 3, Grant realized that trying to bull his way through Lee’s fortified line was useless. As he had throughout the Overland Campaign Grant decided to move again south and east around Lee’s left. He chose to not only cross the Chickahominy River but also the James River, a move he hoped would take Lee completely by surprise and allow him to seize Petersburg, the rail hub supplying Richmond.
To divert Lee’s attention he sent Sheridan and most of his cavalry on a raid to the West. Grant then began the construction of an entrenchment line behind his Cold Harbor position. On the night of the 12th Hancock’s and Wright’s corps withdrew to the new entrenchments. Warren’s corps crossed the Chickahominy River and headed south. Burnsides corps followed with Hancock and Wright’s corps taking up the rear. Smith’s corps marched to White House on the Pamunkey River and were shipped by the navy to Bermuda Hundred.
At 4:00 PM on June 15th Union engineers began work on a 2200 feet pontoon bridge on the James between Windmill Point to Fort Powhatan and completed it seven hours later. Grant then crossed his army over the James during the next two days with Lee still unsure as to his intentions, in one of the most daring, and successful, maneuvers of the War. Grant in his Memoirs describes why he decided to take his biggest gamble of the War: Continue reading
And, after that, the chunky man from the West,
Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved
As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,
Takes you and uses you as you could be used,
Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.
You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,
But at the last you can trust him. He slaughters you
But he sees that you are fed. After sullen Cold Harbor
They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,
But you have had other butchers who did not win
And this man wins in the end.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
The main Union assault at Cold Harbor went in on the foggy morning of June 3 at 4:30 AM, the three corps of Smith, Wright and Hancock hitting the Confederate left. Some of the Union veteran troops, in those pre-dog tag days, pinned white notes with their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms so their bodies could be identified, they having learned the hard lesson that assaulting fortified lines held by Confederate infantry was bound to cause huge casualties among the attacking force. The attack went in blind, as, stunningly, no had bothered to reconnoiter the Confederate lines and draw up maps. One Union soldier in Gibbon’s division had an apt comment on this military malpractice: “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.”
Smith’s attack on the right quickly bogged down, his men being funneled through two ravines where they were cut down in large numbers. Wright’s men in the middle, still weary from their attacks on June 1, made little effort, and their attack was pinned down almost as soon as it started. Hancock’s attack on the Union far left pierced the Confederate lines, but the breach was sealed and the Confederates repulsed Hancock with heavy loss. The attacks were all over by 7:30 AM. Grant wanted attacks to resume, but by 12:30 PM he had become convinced that further attacks were simply impossible.
The Union casualties from the assault have been estimated from 3,000-7,000. I believe the upper estimate is more likely correct. The Confederates incurred about 1500 casualties. The armies would remain confronting each other at Cold Harbor until June 12, but there would be no further attacks. Total Union casualties from all the fighting at Cold Harbor were around 12,000 to 5,000 Confederate, the same disparity as at Fredericksburg, the Cold Harbor assault of June 3, resembling the futile Union assaults of that battle.
Cold Harbor represented the nadir of Union fortunes during the Overland Campaign. After huge casualties, 55,000, the Army of the Potomac still confronted an Army of Northern Virginia that could hold any position it chose to defend. Grant seemed at loose ends for a while after the defeat of June 3, uncertain what to do next. However, during the Civil War Grant never allowed any setback he suffered to remain final. A failure all of his life except for war, matrimony and his last gallant race with the Grim Reaper at the very end to complete his Personal Memoirs to restore the family fortunes, he was determined that neither the Union nor he was going to lose this War. Here are his comments in his Memoirs about the assault at Cold Harbor of June 3: Continue reading
As May 1864 faded into June, Grant’s Overland Campaign was clearly headed for some sort of climax. Grant had forced Lee back to the outskirts of Richmond. With Lee’s lines along, and south east of, Totopotomoy Creek being too strong in Grant’s estimation, he moved yet again south and east to flank Lee’s right. On May 31, Union cavalry took Old Cold Harbor while Confederate cavalry held New Cold Harbor. Both locations were only ten miles from Richmond.
Lee planned to seize New Cold Harbor on the morning of June 1 from the Union cavalry holding it. Bungled command arrangements and a fierce defense from the entrenched Union cavalry gave sufficient time for the infantry of Wright’s corps to come up and hold New Cold Harbor. Continue reading
Lee realized that he was reaching a limit to how he could respond to Grant’s continual movement to the southeast. Protecting Richmond was nailing his army in place, depriving it of the ability to maneuver as Grant used his superior numbers to outflank Lee’s defense. Lee’s left and center along the Totopotomoy were relatively easy to defend, but his right was at a right angle tot he creek as the Union forces were continuing their push south to outflank him. It was for this reason that Lee ordered Early, now in command of the II corps after Lee had relieved Ewell, attack Warren’s V corps.
The Confederate attack, although pressed heroically by the men of Ramseur’s division, proved a costly failure with 1500 Confederate casualties to 700 Union, the Union troops cheering the valor of the Confederate troops they repulsed and captured. Continue reading
Grant, after the fruitless skirmishing on the North Anna, decided to resume his drive by once again heading east and south, around Lee’s left, the same type of movement he had been making since the outset of this campaign. However, he had a tricky problem to resolve: How to cross to the north bank of the North Anna without Lee becoming wise to his intentions, and launching an assault on the Union army as it straddled the North Anna? To divert Lee’s attention, Grant sent two divisions of cavalry west to convince Lee that Grant was going to move west instead of east. The ruse worked, and Grant quietly moved his infantry corps successfully across the North Anna on the evening of the 26th-27th.
Lee on the 27th instantly realized what Grant was doing, and sent his army hurtling south to take up a strong defensive position at Atlee’s Station, only nine miles north of Richmond, where he could guard the railroads that supplied Richmond and his army.
Grant sent his cavalry ahead to blaze a path across the Pamunkey River for his infantry marching southeast. On May 27th Union cavalry established a bridgehead over the Pamunkey at Dabney Ford with a Union engineer regiment building a pontoon bridge. General Custer’s cavalry beat off a Confederate counterattack and Union infantry and Cavalry passed over the Pamunkey on the pontoon bridge.
On the 28th Union and Confederate cavalry fighting dismounted, clashed at Haw’s Shop while the remainder of Grant’s army crossed the Pamunkey, except for Burnside’s corps that was guarding the army’s wagon train.
Lee now knew that Grant was across the Pamunkey but was unsure what Grant’s next move would be, and for now held his position behind Totopotomoy Creek at Atlee’s Station. Here is Grant’s account of this movement in his Personal Memoirs: Continue reading
We can lie about him,
Dress up a dummy in his uniform
And put our words into the dummy’s mouth,
Say “Here Lee must have thought,” and “There, no doubt,
By what we know of him, we may suppose
He felt—this pang or that—” but he remains
Beyond our stagecraft, reticent as ice,
Reticent as the fire within the stone.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Ultimately the North Anna portion of the Overland Campaign produced little in the way of fighting. Four skirmishes fought over four days with total casualties of 2600 for the Union and 1500 for the Confederacy, high enough for the men killed and wounded and their families but as nothing compared to the casualties amassed at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania. However, one tantalizing question emerges from this section of the campaign: did the Confederates miss a golden opportunity to defeat Grant on May 24 due to the illness of General Lee. The armies now were closer in size than they would be at any time before or later during the campaign: 68,ooo in the Army of the Potomac and 53,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee having received reinforcements, consisting of Breckinridge’s Valley force, fresh from their victory at New Market and three out of four brigades from Pickett’s James River defense force, Butler and his Army of the James now being safely bottled up. If the Confederates were to go over on the offensive, this was their window of opportunity from a numerical standpoint.
After skirmishing on the 23rd, Lee confronted an interesting strategic situation. Warren had his corps ready to cross the North Anna on his left at Jericho Mills. Wright, Burnside and Hancock’s corps were still north of the North Anna confronting his center and right. In the face of this Lee fortified his line in an inverted V with its apex on Ox Ford. Lee hoped that Grant would assume that he was retreating and cross, allowing Lee to use his inverted V fortifications to divide Grant’s force and allow him to attack the Union troops crossing on his right while his left held off the Union troops crossing the North Anna on the left side of the inverted V. Continue reading
Extricating himself from the Spotsylvania battlefield, Grant moved southeast, with Lee moving to keep ahead of him, ultimately stopping Grant with defensive lines south of the North Anna river and north of Hanover Junction. Grant was now just a little over 25 miles from Richmond, and Lee’s options regarding maneuver were becoming limited if he was to keep Grant from taking the city. Grant’s account below of the movement is interesting for two reasons.
First Grant states that the army had no maps of the area, which is stunning after three years of war that highly detailed maps of Virginia from Richmond and its environs north had not been prepared and distributed throughout the army. Even elementary staff work was sometimes missing in the Civil War.
Second Grant believes that Lee missed a golden opportunity to defeat Union corps separately during this march.
Here is Grant’s account: Continue reading
You see him standing,
Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.
You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer
But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.
Ulysses is all right.
He can finish the job.”
And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review
And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
One hundred and fifty years ago the battle of Spotsylvania was drawing to a close. Since the attack at the Bloody Angle on May 12, Grant had been shifting towards his left and he assumed that Lee would be weakening Ewell’s lines as a result to move forces over to his right. Grant had Hancock’s corps move back into position to attack Ewell during the evening of May 17, with the attack to go in at dawn. Lee had not weakened Ewell’s position however, and Ewell’s artillery alone was sufficient to break up Hancock’s attack before it got past the abatis in front of his lines. Grant’s reaction was to decide that no further attacks could succeed at Spotsylvania, and to continue to move to the southeast to drive Lee back towards Richmond. Casualties at Spotsylvania were 18,000 for the Union and 12,000 for the Confederacy. Adding in the Wilderness casualties, in less than two weeks the Union had lost 35,000 casualities and the Confederacy 23,000. Northern public opinion was appalled at the shocking casualty lists in such a short period, but the Union could easily replace every man lost, while Lee was losing the veterans that his outnumbered army needed to maintain an essential combat edge.
Grant in his Personal Memoirs recalled this time as one of the low points for the Union of the Campaign of 1864:
But that night Hancock and Wright were to make a night march back to their old positions, and to make an assault at four o’clock in the morning. Lee got troops back in time to protect his old line, so the assault was unsuccessful. On this day (18th) the news was almost as discouraging to us as it had been two days before in the rebel capital. As stated above, Hancock’s and Wright’s corps had made an unsuccessful assault. News came that Sigel had been defeated at New Market, badly, and was retreating down the valley. Not two hours before, I had sent the inquiry to Halleck whether Sigel could not get to Staunton to stop supplies coming from there to Lee. I asked at once that Sigel might be relieved, and some one else put in his place. Hunter’s name was suggested, and I heartily approved. Further news from Butler reported him driven from Drury’s Bluff, but still in possession of the Petersburg road. Banks had been defeated in Louisiana, relieved, and Canby put in his place. This change of commander was not on my suggestion. All this news was very discouraging. All of it must have been known by the enemy before it was by me. In fact, the good news (for the enemy) must have been known to him at the moment I thought he was in despair, and his anguish had been already relieved when we were enjoying his supposed discomfiture, But this was no time for repining. I immediately gave orders for a movement by the left flank, on towards Richmond, to commence on the night of the 19th. I also asked Halleck to secure the co-operation of the navy in changing our base of supplies from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, on the Rappahannock. Continue reading
“It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as [Nathaniel P.] Banks, [Benjamin F.] Butler, [John A.] McClernand, [Franz] Sigel, and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”
General Henry W. Halleck, letter to General William T. Sherman, April 29, 1864
Butler during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May of 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.
While Grant was occupying Lee in the Overland Campaign, Butler was to take his 33,000 man Army of the James and strike at Richmond.
The above map is of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, but it is useful for understanding the geography of the 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Butler’s army steamed up the James to the fishing village of Bermuda Hundred and disembarked on May 5, 1864 the same day that fighting began in the Wilderness. Richmond was only a short distance away and it appeared to be merely a matter of marching for Butler to take it.
Butler was opposed by General P.G. T. Beauregard who now had the finest hour of his mixed record during the Civil War. Stripping the Richmond garrison and bringing into his ranks militia consisting of men too old, and boys too young, to be conscripted into the Confederate Army, he assembled a force of 18,000 men. After a week, Butler’s slow motion advance on Richmond came to an end at the Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, also known as the battle of Proctor’s Creek, where Beauregard’s ragtag force launched an attack which convinced the demoralized Butler to withdraw to Bermuda Hundred.
Beauregard constructed the Howlett Line, a series of Confederate fortifications that kept the Army of the James bottled up at Bermuda Hundred until Lee withdrew from Richmond on April 2, 1865. In the Civil War there were defeats, debacles and the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, where Butler made bad generalship almost an art form.
Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers: Continue reading
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. Continue reading