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Thursday, January 7, 2016

"Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg" by Dr. Earl Hess

This book probably constitutes the state of the art on the history of the battle of the Crater, though the Marvel/Cavanaugh effort remains a pleasant introduction to the subject and the Schmutz version provides the most detail.  I think it possible to do better than any of these books, but we may have reached the point of diminishing returns.  I count at least six or seven recent books on the Crater.  The next author to take up the subject might do well to begin with the formation of Pegram's or Elliott's Salient.

Dr. Hess, in his introduction, refers to the "constricted parameters of the H. E. Howard series of books on Virginia battles."  Mr. Howard never constricted my parameters when I wrote for him.  Perhaps Dr. Hess has encountered someone with a different experience.

Dr. Hess admirably looks the facts in the eye on Colonel Pleasants, who engineered the mine.  Pleasants had a terrible temper and a chip on his shoulder.  Without them, relations with the engineering staff of the Army of the Potomac would have gone much more smoothly.  As Dr. Hess points out, some of the engineers on General Meade's staff thought highly of the mine.

I think this book has a superior account of the fighting at First Deep Bottom, which preceded the mine explosion to capture Richmond and wreck the Virginia Central Railroad or at least draw Secessionist forces away from Petersburg.

I must concur in result with Dr. Hess' placing the blame for the disaster mainly on Burnside, though Meade and Grant ought not to have interfered with Burnside's plan.  (See my post on whether Burnside ought to have disregarded their orders not to lead with the Colored Division.)  I see the problem of General Ledlie's misunderstanding of Burnside's orders as the problem of unwritten orders that came up so often during the Civil War--for example, on the Confederate side at Gettysburg.  Burnside ought to have given his division commanders written orders that they could not have misunderstood.  Ledlie's ordering his brigadiers to hold the Confederate line rather than advance to the crest beyond probably doomed the attack.

I disagree with Dr. Hess as to the trees Burnside failed to remove, which Dr. Hess thinks was no problem.  The vision of the Federals was limited and Wright's Battery, which inflicted a devastating fire on the Unionists, was screened.

Curiously, this book fails to mention the disruption of Northern formations by debris from the mine explosion.  Most accounts indicate that enough men bolted for the rear that it took around ten minutes to get the troops organized again to advance.

This book has the most helpful maps of any I have read on the Crater.  They convey more information than any others I have seen.

I agree that the Confederate engineers and artillerists were unsung heroes.  They arranged so formidable a killing ground as to have convinced General Grant that fortifications could practically hold themselves.  The South Carolinians of Elliott's Brigade were also relatively unsung.  It was only natural that the Virginians (primarily Mahone's Brigade) involved, many of whom haled from Petersburg, should sing their own praises at the expense of the others involved in stopping the Federals.  Ironically, the people of Petersburg never regarded the soldiers of Mahone's Brigade as highly as they did the militia who helped foil General Butler's attack on Petersburg on June  9, 1864.

I am not convinced that if Captain Girardey ordered Mahone's Brigade to charge, Colonel Weisiger (the brigade's commander) did not.  Girardey was at the left of the brigade, almost 200 yards from Weisiger at the brigade's right.  Both might well have ordered the charge.

In this day and age, with contemporary software, it's just as easy to do proper footnotes as to lump a lot of sources together in endnotes that the reader must connect to various sentences in the paragraph at the end of which the notes appear.  This is not Dr. Hess' fault, though, but his publisher's.

Dr. Hess on page 161 mixes up Private George S. Bernard of Co. E of the 12th Virginia (also author of War Talks of Confederate Veterans and Civil War Talks) with Private David Meade Bernard of Co. E of the 12th Virginia.  George was at the left of Mahone's Brigade.  Meade, George's half-brother and a member of the brigade's sharpshooter battalion, was at the brigade's extreme right.

Whatever flag hung in the Petersburg Siege Museum while this book was being researched, is not the battleflag of the 12th Virginia.  That flag was torn up at Appomattox.

The indexing of the book was poor.  For example, W.A.S. Taylor and the 61st North Carolina each appear at least twice in the text but only once in the index.

Another task for the future historian of the Crater is to compare it with the mines at Vicksburg and inquire into what, if anything, Grant and his staff conveyed to IX Corps at Petersburg--or indeed, what knowledge of mine warfare did such of IX Corps as was at Vicksburg glean?  I raise this question more than twenty years ago in The Petersburg Campaign but no one has ventured to inquire much further--including Dr. Hess, who does little more than mention mine warfare at Vicksburg and that it represented desperation.

Dr. Hess correctly points out how formidable the complex of cavalier, bombproofs, and traverses was--formidable enough perhaps to have foiled the attack even if everything had gone right and Burnside had been allowed to lead with the Colored Division.  Grant might well have been wrong in believing that the attack would have succeeded with the Colored Division in the lead.

Had the attack succeeded and had the Federals taken Petersburg, I think the consequences would have been more dire for the Confederacy than does Dr. Hess.  Two of the railroads (the Weldon and the South Side) supplying Richmond would have been cut and the Unionists would have had a third within their grasp (the Richmond & Danville) as well as the inside track on any Confederate army attempting to retreat southward from Richmond.

So while this book is not perfect, this story has been told so many times recently and well enough here that I wonder if anyone will care to take up this subject again soon.