Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Battle of the Crater

The Federal high command knew it would be difficult to break the siege that had developed around Petersburg, Virginia. A frontal attack would be well-nigh impossible, as the Confederate works were just too strong to capture. Ambrose Burnside, once commander of the entire Army of the Potomac but now only of the XIV Corps, decided to go under the Confederate line. Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, a former mining engineer and now commander of the 48th PA submitted a plan to dig a mine which Burnside approved. When blown up under Elliott's Salient, it would destroy the Confederate works in the area and kill their defenders. Grant had made a similar attempt at the siege of Vicksburg, but it had not been completely successful in breaking the Confederate line. That did not stop Burnside from trying again. Even if it wasn't successful, at least it would keep the men in the area occupied.

Digging the mine
The Pennsylvanians, many of them former miners, dug the earth out by hand, and then packed it into boxes and pulled out on improvised sledges. The air was kept fresh inside the tunnel with a fire which heated the air and forced it out through a ventilation tube. The soldiers dug around the clock. They calculated that they were under the Confederate position on July 17th after 511 feet of digging. Twenty feet deep in the ground, they could hear the rebel soldiers marching above. By July 23rd they had finished digging powder chambers under the bastions. 8,000 pounds of powder were brought in and connected with 100 feet of fuzes. The workers replaced the first forty feet of earth to create a backstop. All was ready on July 28th.

Burnside planned for a division of United States Colored Troops under Edward Ferrero to make the attack. Burnside had the men meticulously trained on exactly what their role would be in the assault. There was reluctance on the part of many Union generals to lead the blacks in combat, as they thought that they would not make good soldiers. Meade and Grant decided to change out the black division for a white one, and James Ledlie's unprepared division was chosen to lead the assault. Many brigades of infantry and 144 cannon were prepared to support them.

The explosion
The fuse was lit at 3:30 am on the morning of July 30th. Time ticked by as the Yankees anxiously waited, but no there was no explosion. It seemed likely that the fuse had been a dud, but it would be very hazardous to go and check, as it was possible it would explode at any moment. Grant was considering ordering Burnside to attack without the mine when two soldiers volunteered to see what the problem was. Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry Reese soon found the problem - there had been a faulty splice in the fuse. They spliced and relit it. At 4:44 am the powder exploded in the middle of the Confederate entrenchments, throwing men, earth and guns into the air. One Confederate wrote:
A slight tremor of the earth for a second, then the rocking as of an earthquake, and, with a tremendous blast which rent the sleeping hills beyond, a vast column of earth and smoke shoots upward to a great height, its dark sides flashing out sparks with a roaring sound, showers of stones, broken timbers and blackened human limbs, subsides - the gloomy pale of darkening smoke flushing to an angry crimson as it floats away to meet the morning sun.

A crater opened in the landscape 170 feet long, over 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep, that is still visible to this day. 278 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the explosion, and many more were badly stunned. However, the Federals of Ledlie's division were not prepared to make an assault. When they did finally make it to the crater they did not keep moving as the black division had been trained to. Wandering around, they decided to use the crater as a rifle pit instead of making use of their success. Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone gathered all the men he could find and moved them to the Crater. Federal troops continued to pour into the crater, including Ferrero's black division. The gap in the Confederate line had been closed and Mahone moved his men to the rim of the crater. They unleashed their fire on 10,000 disorganized Union soldiers who were gathered in the pit. The casualties mounted among the tightly packed Federals, and the ease of hitting the target reminded many rebels of a turkey shoot. At about 9:30 am, Grant ordered the attack halted and Burnside to pull back the troops, but Burnside, despairing, delayed to execute the order in the hope that something miraculous would redeem the attack. Finally, around midday, the battle ended. Mahone's men charged with bayonets into the crater, capturing or killing any who did not flee to the rear. The Confederates were angry at seeing black troops fighting against them, as they saw it as uprooting their social order and inciting a slave rebellion on their helpless families. There were reported instances of cruelty on the part of the Confederate troops, some of whom regrettably did not accept the surrender of a black soldier, and bayoneted them in cold blood.

The crater after the battle
In this battle the Federals lost almost 3,800, with 500 killed, 1,900 wounded and 1,400 captured. The Confederates lost about 1,500, 350 killed, 750 wounded and 400 missing. Blame was quickly spread for the failure. Burnside and Ledlie were effectively dismissed, and resigned from the army. Grant wrote to Henry Halleck in Washington:
It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have. ... I am constrained to believe that, had instructions been promptly obeyed, Petersburg would have been carried, with all the artillery and a large number of prisoners, without a loss of 300 men.
The crater today

Monday, July 28, 2014

Battle of Killdeer Mountain

150 years ago today an important battle was fought between the United States and the Sioux Indians. Read about it on Discerning History.

Battle of Ezra Church

150 years ago today events were moving quickly in the Atlanta Campaign. Just days before Joseph E. Johnston had been replaced with John Bell Hood as the command of the Confederate army. He made attacks on William Sherman in rapid succession, but they both turned into bloody disasters. It was Sherman who attacked next. He sent the troops under Major General Oliver Otis Howard to the western side of Atlanta to cut the railroad that supplied Hood's army. Hood realized this blow was coming, and sent troops to meet it, hoping to catch Howard by surprise. But Howard too correctly guessed what Hood would do. He had his men in breastworks when the greybacks came charging at them. The Confederates were unable to break the Union line, but they put a stop to Howard's advance. It was at a horrible cost. 3,000 Confederates fell, including corps commander Alexander Stewart, as opposed to less than 650 for the Federals. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Second Battle of Kernstown

After his invasion of the north in which he marched to the very gates of Washington, Jubal Early fell back with his army to the Shenandoah Valley. The Federals were soon after him. With the Union troops pressing on his flanks, Early retreated from Winchester, abandoning some supplies. The Yankees were convinced that the Confederates were retreating in earnest up the Valley because of the victories they won in skirmishing. Therefore two corps were withdrawn from the theater and sent back to join Grant at Petersburg, leaving only three Union divisions in the Valley. This left about 10,000 Federals to face 13,000 – 14,000 Confederates. When Jubal Early learned this news from prisoners, he realized the opportunity he had to strike a successful blow and lure those two corps back from the war's main front.

George Crook
On July 24th, 150 years ago, Early moved north towards the Federal Army of the Valley, under the command of George Crook, a West Point Graduate and an Indian fighter. The two forces met at Kernstown, the sight of Stonewall Jackson's first independent battle back in 1862. As the Confederates arrived on the battlefield, Early sent in his cavalry first, deploying the infantry under the cover of woods. This confirmed Crook's belief that the main Confederate army had left the valley, and he ordered his troops to attack what he assumed to be a small party.

Pritchard House, around which the battle was fought
At 1 PM Mulligan's division advanced, supported by the brigade of Rutherford B. Hayes, future president of the United States. As Hayes command marched down a road towards the Confederate position, they were surprised by a sudden attack on their flank. Rebels came streaming out of a ravine, catching Hayes' men off guard and throwing them into retreat. A gap had opened up on Mulligan's other flank, which John B. Gordon's division exploited. With Mulligan caught between two Confederate commands, he ordered his division to retreat. He himself fell as he fruitlessly tried to stop the retreat from turning into a rout. The Federal cavalry attempted to stop the Confederate column, but the southern troopers halted and broke them, adding to the Federal confusion. Soon the entire Union army was scattered and retreating before Early's victorious men.

Rutherford B. Hayes
Crook retreated quickly with his battered army, crossing the Potomac into Maryland on July 26th. With the Federals again cleared from the Valley, Early took the opportunity again raid the north, sending cavalry into Federal territory which burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Battle of Atlanta

John Bell Hood was not discouraged by his defeat in front of Atlanta at the Battle of Peachtree Creek. He soon had a new plan to throw back Sherman's advance. He sent Hardee's corps around the Union left flank, while Cheatham's corps hit the Union front and Wheeler's cavalry probed their supply line. This plan was put into effect on July 22, 150 years ago today. Hardee's march took longer than he expected and by the time he arrived on McPherson's flank, the Federals had realized the blow was coming and realigned their forces to meet it. Nevertheless, Hardee ordered his men forward and the battle began.

Confederate works
As the Confederate lines rolled forward, they did not achieve the surprise and breakthrough they hoped for. The Union soldiers stood firm, and Hardee's first charge was repulsed. The Confederates continued to press forward, and a fierce battle developed. Hardee and Cheatham were attacking the Federal forces at right angles to each other. There was much fighting over a place called Bald Hill, and both sides struggled, at times hand to hand, until darkness put an end to the fighting.

Fortifications around Atlanta
Hardee was able to make little progress, but Cheatham's men did score a breakthrough two miles up the line. Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee was sent in to follow up on this success:
The Yankee lines seemed routed. We followed in hot pursuit; but from their main line of entrenchment--which was diagonal to those that we had just captured, and also on which they had built forts and erected batteries - was their artillery, raking us fore and aft. We passed over a hill and down into a valley being under the muzzles of this rampart of death. We had been charging and running, and had stopped to catch our breath right under their reserve and main line of battle. … Our regiment … re-formed and the order was given to charge, and take their guns even at the point of the bayonet. We rushed forward up the steep hill sides, the seething fires from ten thousand muskets and small arms, and forty pieces of cannon hurled right into our very faces, scorching and burning our clothes, and hands, and faces from their rapid discharges, and piling the ground with our dead and wounded almost in heaps. It seemed that the hot flames of hell were turned loose in all their fury, while the demons of damnation were laughing in the flames, like seething serpents hissing out their rage. 
Cheatham's men had broken Logan's XV Corps, and as the rebels rushed forward twenty cannon were assembled near Sherman's headquarters to stop them. The shells from these guns, supported by Logan's rallied men, were able to stop the Confederate advance.

The battle ended around sunset with the Confederates yet again having failed to break through the Federal lines. Hardee's delayed march, and the hard Federal fighting, had frustrated Hood's plans. The Union lost over 3,600 men, including James McPherson, who was killed by advancing Confederate skirmishers. Hood lost around 5,500 men.

Sherman at Atlanta

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Battle of Peachtree Creek

After replacing Joseph Johnston at the head of the Army of Tennessee, it did not take John Bell Hood long to strike a blow. On July 19th he received news that the Union army was split in two, with Thomas' Army of the Cumberland heading directly for Atlanta, while the Army of the Ohio and the Army of the Tennessee moved to the east, heading towards the railroad supply lines. Hood planned to attack Thomas while he was crossing Peachtree Creek, thus neutralizing the superior numbers of the Yankees. This was a plan that Johnston had been developing before he was removed from command.

The Confederates attacked on July 20th, 150 years ago today. Hood committed two corps to the attack, Hardee's and Stewart's, while Cheatham's stood in place before the other Union army. The plan was to strike at 1 pm, but it took too long to keep the three corps aligned in position. The rebels finally attacked by 4 pm, but by that time Thomas had not long crossed the creek, but the men had thrown up significant defensive works. Hardee's attack was badly executed and repulsed by the Federals without much danger. Stewart's blow struck harder. In his attack two Federal brigades were driven back, and nearly an entire regiment captured. But Thomas' men counterattacked, and with the help of their artillery stopped the Confederate advance. Before Hardee could throw in his reserve he received an order from Hood to send them to reinforce Cheatham, and thus the battle ended for the day. About 1,900 Federals and 2,500 Confederates fell. 
Graves after the battle

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Joseph Johnston Removed from Command

One of the longest lasting Confederate generals in the American Civil War was Joseph E. Johnston. He was in command at Manassas, the first great battle of the war, and at the Bennett Place, the largest surrender of Confederate troops at the end of the war. He did not, however, have a good relationship with President Jefferson Davis. It was 150 years ago today that Davis removed him from command, frustrated with his defensive strategy in the face of Sherman's advance southward towards Atlanta.

For months Sherman and Johnston had maneuvered. Johnston took up strong defensive positions, trying to lure Sherman into wrecking his army against them. Time and again the Federals frustrated his plans by simply outflanking the Confederate line, and forcing Johnston to order a retreat. In this way, time after time, Johnston retreated through northern Georgia until he was at the gates of Atlanta. Sherman had attacked him once, at Kennesaw Mountain, and had received a serious bloodying from it. But the Federal general just returned back to his old outflanking ways. Johnston's plan was simply not working.

Jefferson Davis had long wished to relieve Johnston of command, but he did not have a good replacement for him. Finally he decided to replace him with John Bell Hood. It was a dangerous time to do it, with the army engaged with the enemy in front of Atlanta, but Davis believed if he waited, Johnston might abandon the city without a struggle. When the President asked Lee's advice on the change, he answered:
It is a grievous thing to change commander of an army situated as is that of the Tennessee. Still if necessary it ought to be done. I know nothing of the necessity. I had hoped that Johnston was strong enough to deliver battle.... Hood is a good fighter, very industrious on the battle field, careless off, & I have had no opportunity of judging of his action, when the whole responsibility rested upon him. I have a high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness & zeal. 
Davis made the decision and Johnston replaced Hood 150 years ago today. This change of commanders would rapidly alter the course of the campaign. Hood would move quickly and zealously to implement a very different strategy than that of Joseph E. Johnston.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Early's Raid and the Battle of Monocacy

In the summer of 1864, with Lee and Grant stalled in siege-like conditions around Petersburg and Richmond, both sides turned some of their focus to nearby areas. A Union army under David Hunter advanced up the Shenandoah Valley, and Robert E. Lee responded by sending Jubal Early to face him with the army's Second Corps. He disposed of Hunter at the Battle of Lynchburg, and then turned his attention to an invasion of the north. Although his small force could not be reasonably expected to make serious progress north, it was hoped that pressure on the northern home front would at least ease the pressure on Lee at Petersburg.

Thus Early turned his men north. Bypassing Harper's Ferry, they crossed the Potomac River into Maryland on July 5th. When Hunter had moved through the Shenandoah Valley, his men had destroyed much property owned by Confederate civilians. Now the Confederates would deliver some payback, though in a more upstanding fashion. Instead of burning Union homes, Early sent demands for money and supplies to the town magistrates. Collecting from them what he could, the Confederates moved east toward Washington.

The Federals were racing to gather what forces they could to throw in front of the advancing Confederate raiders. A corps was detached from Grant and sent hurriedly north to defend the capital. The commander of the Union's Middle Atlantic Department was Major General Lew Wallace, who later wrote Ben Hur. He rounded up all the men he could to Monocacy, where he could block Early from moving on Baltimore or Washington.

When Early approached Monocacy on July 9th, 150 years ago today, he had 10,000 veterans to Wallace's 6,000 green troops. While Rodes division skirmished with the Federal force, Early sent cavalry later followed by Gordon's division, to cross the river to the north and strike the Union left. The plan eventually worked, and under heavy pressure from the Confederates and with his retreat threatened, Wallace ordered his men to fall back. He had lost just under 1,300 men. Less than 1000 Confederates were killed and wounded.

Although the Yankees lost the battlefield, the time Wallace and his men won was very valuable. As Grant later wrote:
If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent .... General Wallace contributed on this occasion by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.
If Early had been at the gates of Washington on that day, he may have been able to walk right in. As it was, he did not arrive before the city for two more days. After letting his men rest for the night, he determined not to attack the capital's formidable defenses, which by now were occupied by substantial numbers of northern troops. The Confederates probed the Union fortifications, which were for a short while held under the eye of Abraham Lincoln himself. Finding no opportunity to attack, Jubal Early set his men marching back to Virginia on July 13th. This was the last Confederate invasion of the north, and probably their best opportunity to capture Washington. Even if they had captured the northern capital, they probably could not have held it for long, and it is unlikely that it may not have had the same political consequences as earlier in the war. Nonetheless, as Early told a staff officer as they rode south, “Major, we haven't taken Washington, but we've scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”

Fort Stevens today