Fact Finding Behind the Petersburg Mine Failure
Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's pessimism to the success of the assault, due to faulty preparations and the specific movement of troops thereafter; did not feel any body of troops could stand too long in an open plain with artillery raining down on them. He estimated fifteen minutes where the enemy's artillery fire was sporadic or completely non existent would have worked; which only confirmed the time constraint that General Meade mentioned in making a rush for the crest once the troops were committed.
The after action report of the Fifth Corps Commander submitted before the court, possessed his opinion into the failed assault. No, specific officer was assigned to direct further support troops in, or instruct them how to go in, or show them where to go in. He felt that the longer troops were committed to an assault that had long passed its time for success, the worse it became for them all. The casualty rate mounted excessively if the troops were not withdrawn at the proper time.
In cross examination, Major General Meade questioned General Warren's testimony, regarding his understanding of a wasted amount of time in sending the support troops and contending that nobody from army headquarters had been present to direct such action, in the event the time was indeed wasted. Warren felt that his orders were to support General Burnside and considered himself restrained from acting on his own accord. Even if he had acted, the assaulting troops of Ninth Corps had blocked the direction of the assault and feared that Fifth Corps would have been mixed in with the mob and helped cause the assault to lose its coordination. So the time lost in the effort, accordingly belonged to that of Ninth Corps.
Major General Edward Ord, commanding one division of the 10th Corps and another of Eighteenth Corps, was ordered by General Burnside about one hour after the explosion to send his command in. His corps did precisely what General Warren chose not to, yet experienced the same result that Fifth Corps had expected. Roughly seventy five hundred muskets added to break in the enemy's defenses and the breach had continued to grow smaller as troops began to tangle themselves up inside. By design, as it was understood by Ord; Brigadier General Robert Brown Potter's division was to precede that of his own command. Brigadier General John Wesley Turner, however reported that his division somehow wound up in front of Potter's cutting him off from the coordinated effort of Brigadier General Adelbert Ames' division. The confusion at the breach was indescribable.
Brigadier General Robert B. Potter took the stand and questioned on the success or failure of the operation, he could see it no other way than a failure. The preliminary plans of assault were anything but perfect. The lead division allowed itself to be bottled up inside the crater and failed in their orders to carry the assault beyond to the hill and no other contingency such as a diversion in the event of trouble had been considered. Some of the soldiers in his division proceeded forward from the right, however, and made it only half the distance before being driven back. The testimony once again proved that the short window of time provided to attribute to a successful operation had since past.
Surgeon Orville P. Chubb, accompanied the Second Brigade of Third Division, Ninth Army Corps to within ten rods of the enemy's breastworks. There according to testimony, he took position inside a bomb-proof which appeared to be an abandoned regimental headquarters and began to set up a dressing station. Shortly after his arrival there, both Brigadier General James Ledlie of the First Division and Brigadier General Edward Ferrero of the Fourth Division came in and took seats. The doctor placed the time as about thirty minutes past the explosion.
While in the bomb-proof, the doctor recalled verbal orders coming to Ledlie as best as he could recollect: "The general wishes you to move your troops forward to the crest of the hill and hold it." Shortly thereafter, another order came in for Ferrero to move his division through and charge down to the city itself. He replied to this that he would once the troops were out of his way. This order, as the doctor recollected had come to him two or three times, the last of which was to "move his troops at once!" The impression of the doctor was that the troops referred to were Ledlie's, for every time the order came in, Ledlie sent another aide out to move his own division along.
There was a time when both general officers had left the bomb-proof, but it was noted that Brigadier General Ferrero had come back a short time afterwards. Someone, the doctor couldn't recollect who, asked the division commander how the battle was going, the answer was simply that all was lost that the assault was repulsed. General Ferrero thought it nonsense to send a single body of troops, black or white forward to a single place, in front of lines held by us and have them slaughtered before a re-enforced enemy.
The court asked the doctor if he knew of any reason why Brigadier General James Ledlie sent aides to move the troops along from the crater, but had not gone himself to do so. It was remarked that he had complained about having been hit with a spent ball earlier in the action, this remark the doctor placed as sometime in the late forenoon.
As the testimony continued, regimental commander that gave testified to the whereabouts of division had likewise been seen hidden in the bomb-proof. None of which felt there was any advantage to personally see what was happening with the assault.
After seventeen days of testimony, the court of inquiry found that although Brigadier General James Ledlie's division moved out five minutes after the explosion, he failed in compliance to the order of the assault and halted in the crater. The latter divisions of Brigadier General Robert Potter and Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox had not moved in the prescribed order, nor formed to perform the duty assigned to them. One hour after the explosion, Major General Burnside was ordered to push his troops forward, and called upon Major General Edward O. C. Ord to move his troops to support, causing further confusion at the breach.
Brigadier General Edward Ferrero had not complied with his orders to move his colored division forward without much delay in waiting for engaged troops to clear out of their way. Shortly after six o'clock in the morning, the call for Major General Gouverneur K. Warren to move his troops forward was met with "scarcely room for it" in his immediate front. One hour beyond that, it was reported back to army headquarters that all was being done to move the forces to the crest; General Potter's division had cleared the crater, but after a two hundred yard advance had been driven back.
It was evidenced that after 9 o'clock in the morning, that many in the Ninth and Eighteenth Corps had retired and it became time to send the Fifth Corps in; however, both Major General George Meade and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant over rode the decision and ordered a withdrawal about fifty minutes later. The Ninth Corps commander protested in person at army headquarters having believed that he could still carry the crest of the hill by nightfall, but no other officer had concurred with that belief. It was only then, that the troops were ordered to withdraw. Before this could have been affected however, the entire assault force was driven out at approximately 2 o'clock in the afternoon.
Due to the surprise of the enemy at the timing of the explosion, the scarcity of the enemies return fire by musketry and artillery for nearly thirty minutes afterwards, along with some of the assault force making it past the crater should have attributed to its success.
The court's opinion found that Major General Ambrose Burnside had failed to obey the orders of the army commander, Major General George G. Meade. He failed to give specific formation instructions to the assaulting columns, and neglected to prepare his parapets and abatis for the safe passage of the troops involved. Furthermore, having knowledge of the delay inside the crater, the corps commander failed to instruct a division of troops bottled up inside to withdraw and allow other troops in who, perhaps could have done the job desired.
Brigadier General James Ledlie had left his troops bottled up inside the crater and that no one had reported back to corps his troops were unable to move forward; left the court no other belief than guilt for neglect of duty; having furthermore established his presence in a bomb-proof, ten rods away completely out of sight of his assaulting troops.
Brigadier General Edward Ferrero likewise failed to properly form his troops for the assault and was found guilty of neglect of duty likewise hiding in a bomb-proof. Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox was found wanting in that the court felt he could have done more to ensure the success of moving forward and carrying the crest of the hill beyond.
The court did not wish to convey the impression of any sort of disinclination on the part of the supports to heartily co-operate; but specific orders should have been given, assigning one officer, in the absence of the army commander to oversee the coordinated effort of all troops involved.
In the midst of the inquiry, Major General Ambrose Burnside had received permission from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to absent himself from the front at Petersburg. Command of the Ninth Army Corps was temporarily turned over to Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox. He along with his staff retired to await the result of the court to follow; although his staff was ordered to return to duty with Army of the Potomac, Burnside remained in Rhode Island awaiting the opportunity to return; which, would remain a matter forever pending. On the 9th day of December, Special Orders No. 333 were issued from Army of the Potomac, Brigadier General James Ledlie was directed to return home and await further orders, which also would never arrive.
Military justice had been served for those soldiers lost in the sanguinary confusion known as the Petersburg Crater. It could have only been hoped upon the next grand tactical, more able commanders would justly oversee the success of the operations. Clearly the mine will remain a mystery as to the apparent success it may have been.
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