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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

History to Burnside: Disobey Meade's Orders!

A few weeks ago I posted the question, "Ought Burnside to Have Turned a Blind Eye at the Crater?"  The post observed that Burnside had already disregarded Meade's instruction to clear obstructions because that might have alerted the Confederates (who were already alerted) to the possibility of a mine.  I suggested that he ought to have gone the whole nine yards on disobeying orders and disregarded Meade's (and Grant's) orders to put a white division in the lead.  My authority for this idea?  Grant's testimony at the congressional inquiry on the Crater.  Grant conceded that the mine attack on July 30, 1864, would have been successful had the black division--trained for the task--led.  I brought up von Seydlitz, who disobeyed Frederick the Great and told him (after disobeying three orders in the same action), "My head is at Your Majesty's disposal after the battle, but during the battle please permit me to use it in your service."  I brought up Nelson, who put his blind eye  to the telescope at the Battle of Copenhagen when an irresolute superior raised the signal flag to withdraw.

Here's another commander who distinguished himself by disobeying orders--Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.  Ordered to adopt a defensive posture when he landed in Libya in 1941, he promptly went on the offensive and swept the British back into Egypt.  The unpredictable German fooled the British similarly on other occasions as well.  Rommel's disobedience had a peculiar twist.  Through Ultra, his enemies were reading his orders.  By disobeying orders, he confounded a foe who considered the battle all sewn up.  

Of course, if Burnside had disobeyed orders, he would have had to succeed at the Crater.  It was Grant's opinion that Burnside would have succeeded if he had disobeyed orders and allowed the African-American division lead, but Grant does not seem to have known about the complexity of the bomb-proofs, traverses and cavaliers behind Pegram's Salient.  These works made penetrating beyond the Crater more akin to advancing through the multiple lines IX Corps attacked near Fort Mahone on April 2, 1865, than to getting through the relatively simple works that VI Corps took on the same day.  VI Corps succeeded, and IX Corps failed (as it did at the Crater).  Then there was the killing ground set up by the Southern artillerists when it became apparent that the Northerners were mining Pegram's Salient.

While I must defer to Grant's judgment, we will never really know.