Fact Finding Behind the Petersburg Mine Failure
Pursuant to Special Orders No. 258 from the Adjutant General's Office dated August 3, 1864; The Secretary of War by order of the President of the United States directed a court of inquiry to be convened on the 5th of August of that year at 10 am before Petersburg, Virginia to report the facts and circumstances behind the failure of the July 30th 1864 assault immediately following the explosion of the mine. The detail of the court, Major General Winfield Hancock, Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres and Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, were chosen to preside; much to the disappointment of Major General Ambrose Burnside, subject of most of the investigation; concerned that the officers chosen were of his own peer group allowing no opportunity for impartiality had three judges been chosen from another theatre of the war.
The order generated from Headquarters Army of the Potomac on the 29th of July, detailing the tactical plan of assault by lead and support columns including those of Army of the James was read before the court. The court was adjourned until 10 am the 8th of August so that Colonel Edmund Schriver, the Inspector General and United States Army Judge Advocate could notify all witnesses pertinent to the case. The court wished them assembled and ready to be called upon for testimony.
Major General George Gordon Meade was called upon that first day to give testimony revealing to the court that the day previous to the assault he had met with three of the division commanders of which he emphatically mentioned the operation was one of time. It had been imperative that immediately following the explosion the ground troops were to rush forward to exploit the breech and take advantage of a confused enemy, with an objective of reaching the hill five hundred yards to the rear as soon as possible.
Five days prior to the explosion, the major general commanding had visited Ninth Corps headquarters, with a view from a signal station erected at the top of a pine tree, could see beyond the Confederate line adjacent to General Burnside, no second line of defense was detected outside of some isolated batteries. It was enough to convince army headquarters as well as the general in chief that an assault should be made along the lines of Ninth and Fifth Army Corps. It had been about this time during the campaign that Second Army Corps had been located mostly north of the James River; and with it a significant portion of the Army of Northern Virginia. General Grant therefore instructed the Army of the James participate by having Major General Edward O. C. Ord, commanding Eighteenth Army Corps occupy the trenches once, the assault began.
Disappointed in the delay of the explosion resulted in new orders issued to Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, Major General Henry Hunt and Brigadier General Gershom Mott to open with the artillery as the desire for some sort of active operations was expected. Before this order had reached these headquarters, the earth shook and the mine was sprung. Shortly thereafter, the Inspector General for Ninth Corps; Colonel Charles Loring, sent a dispatch to Burnside to his old headquarters, with the corps commander absent the dispatch wound up in the hands of General Meade, then looking for his field commander. Brigadier General James Ledlie's troops occupied the crater, but the troops could not be induced to advance beyond it There was an apparent failure to carry out the orders.
On the third day of the hearing, as evidence began to mount pertaining to the subsequent events surrounding the failure of the assault, Major General Burnside protested against the board accepting such. On grounds that all beyond the assault itself was not pertinent and ought to have had no bearing. It became the court's ruling for the army commander's protest; that he could not have been responsible for the manner in which the withdrawal of the troops had been made from that region; having not been furnished with any information to make such a judgment, and the evidence of the subsequent events was therefore allowed.
The testimony of the army commander, went on into the fourth day, in which he informed the court that on or about 9 am, he notified the general in chief that the time had passed for the army to have gained the success it had hoped for, and suggested that the troops be withdrawn, of which he ascended to. This had proved not immediately forthcoming however.
When Major General Burnside took the stand on the fourth day of the hearing, he stated that approximately fifteen or twenty days before the assault he had called upon Brigadier General Edward Ferrero who showed him a plan of action for the desired assault which had been approved by corps in the movement of troops to the left and right of the breach when opened. It had been given that the division commander had drilled his troops for such an operation and appeared most confident of its success.
General Burnside discussed with General Meade the casualty rate of Ninth Corps prior to this proposed assault in and about Petersburg since the siege began and recommended that the division of Edward Ferrero, the negro troops, were the best prepared and less used up to spearhead the coming assault. The army commander did not feel they should have been called upon for such an important task as this, and made known that he could not approve of such troop selection. In comparison to the number of casualties in each division, Burnside convinced Meade to make mention of it to the general in chief and would return word of its acceptance. No word of it came, and as a result, the fourth division was placed in advance under the assumption that it had been.
It was the day before the assault was made; Meade along with Major General Edward O. C. Ord paid a visit to Ninth Corps headquarters when the announcement was made the general in chief agreed with his subordinate that the negro troops were not to be used. Much discussion later with the division commanders; brought the suggestion to cast lots for the honor of the assaulting division, of which Brigadier General James Ledlie drew the advance.
The assault itself became one of time as General Meade had been initially concerned with, and the passing of the federal columns of the right and left of the breach to clear the way had thus been dispensed with. It was the army commander's view that an immediate rush ought to be made for the Cemetery Hill beyond, so instructions were sent out to simply break through and make a rush for that place.
It was some time after 2 o'clock the morning of July 30th, that Ninth Corps received word from General Meade that due to the darkness of the hour, if he wish to postpone the explosion a while longer, he was permitted. General Burnside informed army headquarters instead that it would be sprung at the hour previously designated.
After the explosion of the mine, the anxiety of the army commander in learning the progress of the assault sent the message that the entire Ninth Corps was to be moved forward at once and charge for the crest beyond. This order produced a little reluctance on the part of General Burnside, in that, should the white troops falter in their progress he'd be very hard pressed to get the black division to move at all. He only learned afterwards, as he could wait no longer that they fought with dogged tenacity.
Burnside testified before the judge advocate that his point of observation had been roughly two thousand feet from the crater itself, and felt the halt of the advance from inside the crater had been the result of the troops protecting themselves by any obstruction that would shield them from the enemies projectiles; the timidity, coming from the inward desire not to repeat the Cold Harbor experience.
The soldiers had been ordered in by regimental column, however to augment the difference of muskets from one reduced regiment to another possessing greater numbers, the corps commander thought it best to deploy in such a fashion as to command a column into line of battle as rapidly as possible.
It was confirmed by the testimony that the initial order for withdrawal was set at about the 9:30 am hour, yet troops were still deep within the crater fighting as late as 2 o'clock. Although Major General Burnside was the senior ranking commander on the field, the realm of command he felt was restricted to that of Ninth Corps and was under the impression that he had no authority to order in other support troops, even though there were plenty in the area.
The Ninth Corps loss, reported at the inquiry, was three thousand eight hundred twenty eight sustained once the enemy recovered from the initial shock of the blast and rushed to the scene to meet the assault; the vast majority taken during the withdrawal.
Major James C. Duane, an army engineer at the time of the explosion was posted in the lines of the Fifth Army Corps directing the artillery fire. He was asked his opinion as to the causes for failure. He testified there was a move to the front by flank instead of maintaining a divisional front. The other, was that the troops once inside the crater stopped and did not push forward towards the objective the army set for the assault that day. He felt that the divisional front would have work had sufficient working details been sent forward to knock down the abatis blocking their paths; but did not know of any sent. Indeed an oversight on Ninth Corps part. Due to the explosion, the enemy did not have sufficient troops to actually defend the area; therefore knocking any obstacles down should not have caused great concern. The artillery fire had taken care of the rest, silencing the batteries in the immediate vicinity.
He was asked if he had considered the position a judicious one to assault, in his opinion it was not based on the probabilities of flanking fire upon an attacking column of troops. He had made his complaint of this known, often verbally, but two days before the assault, submitted it in writing to Major General Meade. His opinion on the assaulting troops ordered to take the ridge five hundred yards beyond, Major Duane felt that the only success that could have come from it was to have them entrench. To go any further beyond, would have sent them into Petersburg proper where the area was well commanded by the enemy.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com