Sunday, October 12, 2008

On The Civil War Trail

As you know I enjoy Civil War History so yesterday my husband and I went to the Petersburg National Battlefield, located in Petersburg VA.
When we first arrived we stopped into the visitor center where we had a bit of fun playing dress up at the hands on area.





We also saw a reproduction of a Sutler Store

A sutler was a civilian storekeeper who was authorized to operate a general store on or near a military camp, post, or fort. He purchased and sold a variety of goods that were not supplied by the army. Soldiers could visit the sutler's store when off duty, as many of them did. It was a place to relax, visit, purchase commodities and to get away from the routine military life for a while. In most sutler stores, soldiers could play checkers or pool.




While there I learned a lot that I did not know a lot about the Civil War history of the area and was surprised to learn that the Siege of Petersburg lasted ten months and once Robert E. Lee abandoned the city it lead to the take over of Richmond and that led just one week later to the surrender of Lee at Appomattox VA thus ending the American Civil War. I took a lot of photos which I am encluding and I am posting information on more of what I learned during our trip..

*Please note....all information from here down is provided from Wikipedia®
All photos shown are mine and were taken at the Petersburg National Battlefield on Oct. 12, 2008


Petersburg, a prosperous city of 18,000, was a supply center for the Confederate capital of Richmond, given its strategic location just south of the city, its site on the Appomattox River that provided navigable access to the James River, and its role as a major crossroads and junction for five railroads. The taking of Petersburg by Union forces would make it impossible for Robert E. Lee to continue defending Richmond.





The battle for the city began shortly after the Union defeat at Cold Harbor. Grant decided to take Richmond through Petersburg, and he began positioning the Union army on June 15 by slipping away from Lee and crossing the James River. This represented a change of strategy from that of the preceding Overland Campaign. There, confronting and defeating Lee's army in the open was the primary goal; now, Grant selected a geographic and political target and knew that his superior resources could besiege Lee there, pin him down, and either starve him into submission or lure him out for a decisive battle. Lee at first believed that Grant's main target was Richmond and devoted only minimal troops under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to the defense of Petersburg






During the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, the armies were aligned along a series of fortified positions and trenches more than 20 miles (32 km) long, extending from the old Cold Harbor battlefield near Richmond all the way to areas south of Petersburg.

After Lee had checked Grant in an attempt to seize Petersburg on June 15, the battle settled into a stalemate. Grant had learned a hard lesson at Cold Harbor about attacking Lee in a fortified position and was chafing at the inactivity to which Lee's trenches and forts had confined him. Finally, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps, offered a novel proposal to solve the problem.

Pleasants, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania in civilian life, proposed digging a long mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines and planting explosive charges directly underneath a fort (Elliott's Salient) in the middle of the Confederate First Corps line. If successful, this would not only kill all the defenders in the area, it would also open a hole in the Confederate defenses. If enough Union troops filled the breach quickly enough and drove into the Confederate rear area, the Confederates would not be able to muster enough force to drive them out, and Petersburg might fall. Burnside, whose reputation had suffered from his 1862 defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and his poor performance earlier that year at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, gave Pleasants the go-ahead, hoping to restore his reputation.


Mine construction




Digging began in late June, but even Grant and Meade saw the operation as, "A mere way to keep the men occupied," and doubted it of any actual strategic value. They quickly lost interest and Pleasants soon found himself with few materials for his project, to the extent that his men had to forage for wood to support the structure. Work progressed steadily, however. Earth was removed by hand and packed into improvised sledges made from cracker boxes fitted with handles, and the floor, wall, and ceiling of the mine were shored up with timbers from an abandoned wood mill and even from tearing down an old bridge. The shaft was elevated as it moved toward the Confederate lines to make sure moisture did not clog up the mine, and fresh air was pumped in via an ingenious air-exchange mechanism near the entrance; the miners kept a fire continually burning at the bottom of a single ventilation shaft, which emerged behind the Union lines. Meanwhile, a wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel. The fire superheated stale air, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance, and carried it through the wooden duct to the location where the miners were working.
This precluded the need for additional ventilation shafts and served well in disguising the diggers' progress. On July 17, the main shaft reached under the Confederate position. Rumors of a mine construction soon reached the Confederates, but Lee refused to believe or act upon it for two weeks before commencing countermining attempts, which were sluggish and uncoordinated, and they were unable to discover the mine. General John Pegram, whose batteries would be above the explosion, did, however, take the threat seriously enough to build a new line of trenches and artillery points behind his position as a precaution.

The mine was in a "T" shape. The approach shaft was 511 feet (156 m) long, starting in a sunken area downhill and more than 50 feet (15 m) below the Confederate battery, making detection difficult. The tunnel entrance was narrow, about 3 feet (0.91 m) wide and 4.5 feet (1.4 m) high. At its end, a perpendicular gallery of 75 feet (23 m) extended in both directions. Grant and Meade suddenly decided to use the mine three days after it was complete after a failed attack known later as the First Battle of Deep Bottom. The Federals filled the mine with 320 kegs of gunpowder, totaling 8,000 pounds. The explosives were approximately 20 feet (6.1 m) underneath the Confederate works and the T gap was packed shut with 11 feet (3.4 m) of earth in the side galleries and a further 32 feet (9.8 m) of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine. On July 28, the powder charges were armed.








Battle

On the morning of July 30, Pleasants lit the fuse. But as with the rest of the mine, Pleasants had been given poor quality fuse, which his men had had to splice themselves. After no explosion occurred at the expected time, two volunteers from the 48th Regiment (Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese) crawled into the tunnel. After discovering the fuse had burned out at a splice, they spliced on a length of new fuse and relit it. Finally, at 4:44 a.m., the charges exploded in a massive shower of earth, men, and guns. A crater (still visible today) was created, 170 feet (52 m) long, 60 to 80 feet (24 m) wide, and 30 feet (9.1 m) deep. Between 250 and 350 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast.

The plan was doomed from the start, however, due to Meade's interference on the day before the battle. Burnside had trained a division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero to lead the assault. They were trained to move around the edges of the crater and then fan out to extend the breach in the Confederate line. Then, Burnside's two other divisions, made up of white troops, would move in, supporting Ferrero's flanks and race for Petersburg itself.

Meade, who lacked confidence in the operation, ordered Burnside not to use the black troops in the lead assault, thinking the attack would fail and the black soldiers would be killed needlessly, creating political repercussions in the North. Burnside protested to General Grant, who sided with Meade. Burnside selected a replacement white division by having the commanders draw lots. Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie's 1st Division was selected, but he failed to brief the men on what was expected of them and was reported during the battle to be drunk, well behind the lines, and providing no leadership. (Ledlie would be dismissed for his actions during the battle.)

Ledlie's untrained white division went across the field to the crater and, instead of moving around it, thought it would make an excellent rifle pit and it would be well to take cover and so they moved down into the crater itself, wasting valuable time while the Confederates, under Maj. Gen. William Mahone, gathered as many troops together as they could for a counterattack. In about an hour's time, they had formed up around the crater and began firing rifles and artillery down into it, in what Mahone later described as a "turkey shoot". The plan had failed, but Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, sent in Ferrero's men. They also went down into the crater, and for the next few hours, Mahone's soldiers, along with those of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson, and artillery slaughtered the IX Corps as it attempted to escape from the crater. Some Union troops eventually advanced and flanked to the right beyond the Crater to the earthworks and assaulted the Confederate lines, driving the Confederates back for several hours in hand-to-hand combat. Mahone's Confederates conducted a sweep out of a sunken gully area about 200 yards (180 m) from the right side of the Union advance. This charge reclaimed the earthworks and drove the Union force back towards the east.




Aftermath

The Confederates reported losses of 1,032 men in the battle, while Union losses were estimated at 5,300, about half of which were from Ferrero's division. Five hundred Union prisoners were taken, and 150 of these prisoners were USCT. Both the black and white wounded prisoners were taken to the Confederate hospital at Poplar Lawn in Petersburg. Burnside was relieved of command. Although he was as responsible for the defeat as Burnside, Meade escaped censure. As for Mahone, the victory, won largely due to his efforts in supporting Johnson's stunned men, earned him a lasting reputation as one of the best young generals of Lee's army in the war's last year.

Grant wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, "It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war." He also stated to Halleck that "Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." Pleasants, who had no role in the battle itself, received praise for his idea and the execution thereof. When he was brevetted a brigadier general on March 13, 1865, the citation made explicit mention of his role.

Grant subsequently gave in his evidence before the Committee on the Conduct of the War:

General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade as to his objections to that plan. General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front."

Despite the battle being a tactical Confederate victory, the strategic situation in the Eastern Theater remained unchanged. Both sides remained in their trenches and the siege continued.


The Crater

The area of the Battle of the Crater is a frequently visited portion of Petersburg National Battlefield Park. The mine entrance is open for inspection annually on the anniversary of the battle. There are sunken areas where air shafts and cave-ins extend up to the "T" shape near the end. The park includes many other sites, primarily those that were a portion of the Union lines around Petersburg.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Mary said...

I enjoyed the virtual tour and one day when I visit Virginia again, I will be sure to stop here. Though I am Canadian, I am an avid Civl War History buff. Did you know that many Canadian men fought in the Civil War - most on the side of the Union. Two men from the area where I live volunteered their services.

Have a great week.
Blessings,
Mary

October 13, 2008 at 9:57 AM  
Anonymous mannanan said...

WOW....have bookmarked so I will return. Very interesting post, thsnks.....

October 13, 2008 at 11:09 AM  

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