George Eggleston.

The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2

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The explosion completely destroyed a Confederate fort and its garrison, leaving a vast crater thirty feet deep and two hundred feet long into which Ledlie's men were sent like sheep to the slaughter. Having reached the crater they stopped there instead of pushing on as had been intended and running over the weak second line of Confederate defense. Thus the whole purpose of the enterprise was completely defeated at the outset for lack of capable leadership.

It must be remembered that at that period of the war Lee's army was so far battle seasoned that any form of panic was to it completely impossible. Even when it saw the most important part of its line blown up, and thousands of Federal troops rushing into the crater, the Army of Northern Virginia remained steadfast and unshaken. Hurried orders were given, and promptly obeyed. Within ten minutes after Ledlie's column came to a halt in the crater it was forever too late for them to gain the advantage intended by rushing through that slender second line which held the Jerusalem plank road, and which alone stood then between the Federal army and Petersburg. Under Lee's command, the Army of Northern Virginia had become as perfect a piece of military mechanism as ever existed, and under Lee's command, for both Lee and Beauregard were promptly present at the post of danger, the men of that army were quickly shifted into positions against which an advance of their enemy would have been nothing less than wholesale suicide.

In the meanwhile Ledlie's men in the crater were as helpless to retire as they were to advance. They were practically leaderless and the space in rear of them was already commanded by Confederate artillery which could sweep it with canister from end to end. To this commanding force of artillery Lee promptly added thirty-five other guns, placing each in a position from which it could hurl its missiles from one end to the other of the doomed space.

It was not until after midday that these preparations and others of a like kind were completed. But in the meanwhile detachments from Lamkin's battery of mortars were pushed up and placed behind traverses within sixty yards of that cavernous hole in which thousands of Federal soldiers were lying helpless for lack of a leader fit to command them. These mortars continued ceaselessly throughout the morning to hurl twenty-four-pound shells into the hole at the rate of twenty a minute. This fire was murderous in an extreme degree, but there was no escape from it. The men subjected to it had no choice but to sit still and await the end. They could neither advance nor retreat with any hope of escape in either direction.

Finally a little after midday, and after he had completed his preparations and the placing of his guns, Lee ordered Mahone, with a heavy infantry force, to charge across the field to the very edge of the crater, and pour into it a fire so destructive that its further tenancy should be rendered impossible.

The more desperate of the Federal troops in the hole risked flight toward their own lines, fifty yards away. Not many of them succeeded in getting there. The rest surrendered, and the Confederates occupied the crater.

The narrow space between the two lines was literally piled high with dead Federal soldiers, lying on top of each other, sometimes three deep, and in some places five. A day later there was a suspension of hostilities for a few hours, and the dead were dragged away and buried.

This badly managed affair well nigh rivaled the blunder at Cold Harbor in its costliness to the Army of the Potomac. Grant's loss was more than 4,000 men, – Lee's less than 1,000.

The whole enterprise was of doubtful military propriety. Yet if it had been conducted with an energy and capability equal to that which had been brought to bear upon other fields it might have promised the early and complete destruction of Lee's defenses. If there had been, in command of the troops set apart for the assault, such a man as Sheridan, for example, or Hooker, or Hancock, the chance was an even one or better that the force hurled suddenly upon Lee's broken line could have made its way into Petersburg by impetuous advance. It must be accounted one of General Meade's rare failures in judgment, that he did not place the assailing force under some such commander upon whom he could depend to give wise personal direction and leadership to the desperate fighting needed on such an occasion.

In its outcome, this enterprise which had been planned for the destruction of Lee and his army, resulted rather in their strengthening. Having recaptured the crater they promptly threw up a line of works along that side of it which lay nearest to their enemy, thus in fact, shortening the distance between the two lines, without in any way weakening their position.

An unfortunate circumstance connected with this affair was the fact that General Burnside, who had general command in that part of the field, made a desperate endeavor – which came a few minutes too late – to force the Confederate second line by an advance of the negro troops under his command. These pushed themselves as far forward up the hill as they could go and were there hurled back and driven into the great pit. In the event many of them were captured. The Confederates refused to recognize these black men as soldiers or to treat them as prisoners of war. It was a time, indeed, when the Southern soldiers were in a state of peculiar exasperation and revengefulness against negroes in arms. During a recent raid certain negro troops had committed unforgiveable outrages upon women, and in consequence the mood of mind of the Army of Northern Virginia was such that a negro soldier in arms had better have fallen into hell than into their hands. General Lee and his subordinates did what they could to compel a merciful treatment for the negro troops who were captured in the crater. It was all to no purpose. Every effort made to send these men to the rear as prisoners under charge of details ended in a report from the commander of the detail that the negroes had "escaped." Their escape was of such kind that burial parties had to be sent into the covered ways leading to Petersburg to clear them of the negro corpses there.

General Grant has said of this mine enterprise: "The effort was a stupendous failure. It cost us about 4,000 men, mostly however, captured; and all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander (Burnside) and the incompetency of the division commander (Ledlie) who were sent to lead the assault."

Early's Invasion of Pennsylvania

It will be remembered that General Grant set out upon his Virginia campaign of 1864 with the definite and avowed purpose of crushing and destroying Lee in the field. The completeness of his failure to accomplish this purpose was made manifest in July, when Lee, confronting the consolidated armies of the Potomac and the James, nevertheless felt himself strong enough to detach from his own force a vigorous body of troops under Early, with instructions to sweep Hunter out of the Valley of Virginia and undertake a third invasion of Maryland, so conducted as to threaten Baltimore and Washington.

This movement was a peculiarly daring one, but the strategy of it was brilliant. The detachment of the troops sent to Early seriously weakened the force that Lee had under his command for the defense of the Confederate capital, but he hoped for such results from Early's movement as should again compel the Federal Government to weaken or withdraw Grant's army from the siege of Petersburg. He had twice before succeeded by such tactics in compelling the Army of the Potomac to withdraw from Virginia and stand upon its defense at the North. In both instances as soon as that army had withdrawn Lee himself had moved with all his force to the support of the invading column. There is little doubt that he intended to repeat this operation if Early's threat to Washington should prove effective in compelling Grant's withdrawal from Virginia. But by this time volunteering by hundreds of thousands and drafts, some of which brought as many as half a million men into the field, had so enormously increased the Federal numbers that Grant was strongly disposed to leave the defense of Washington to quite other troops than those he had with him in his operations at Petersburg. The disparity of numbers between the two armies had now become too great to be offset by brilliant strategy, or by any energy in daring enterprise.

Hunter had so far carried out Grant's plan of ravaging the Valley of Virginia and moving upon the Confederate lines of communication at Lynchburg, as to create in Lee's mind a serious apprehension. Partly to meet this danger, and partly with a larger strategic purpose, Lee detached Early, and sent him down the Valley with about 8,000 men. Slipping into the upper or southern end of the valley without discovery, Early plunged forward impetuously, and so completely broke Hunter's resistance that that general, instead of retiring before his enemy toward the Potomac, abandoned the field completely, and took refuge in West Virginia, thus leaving Early's pathway to the region beyond the Potomac open and unobstructed. Early was an officer of extraordinary vigor and promptitude. He quickly crossed the Potomac and pushed on to Monocacy near the city of Frederick. There he was met by a force under General Lew Wallace on the ninth of July. Hurling his army upon Wallace he quickly swept him from the field. He then pushed forward until, on the eleventh of July, he came within sight of Washington City itself, and for a time it was gravely feared there that he would enter and possess the Federal capital.

Grant had known nothing of Early's detachment from Lee's army until the news came to him that the Confederates were marching upon Washington in threatening force. As has been said before, it was Grant's conviction that Washington ought to be able to take care of itself so long as the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia was kept busy in his own front at Richmond and Petersburg. Nevertheless, as soon as news came to him that Early had defeated Hunter and driven him out of the valley, and that the Confederates were rapidly advancing upon Washington, Grant detached a strong force, and hurried it to the capital city. In the meanwhile the authorities at Washington seem to have been thrown into a panic as dangerous as it was senseless. They did, indeed, take certain measures of defense. They put arms in the hands of the clerks in the several departments, and sought with these to make some show of opposition to the approach of the Confederate veterans. This was manifestly useless. The time had long gone by when untrained clerks, however well armed, could be expected to stand for one moment against the battle-hardened veterans who had learned their trade under Lee or Grant in the desperate struggles in Virginia. It is not an exaggeration but simple truth to say that at that time a single regiment from either the Army of Northern Virginia or the Army of the Potomac could easily and almost without effort have swept away a hundred thousand untrained militiamen, however patriotic they may have been, and however they may have been inspired with personal courage. To send a mob of department clerks, however numerous, against such a force as that which Early commanded was like sending sheep to a contest with wolves. It meant the butchery of the poor fellows, without the smallest hope that their sacrifice of life could yield anything of advantage to the Federal cause or could delay the Confederate progress by more than a few minutes at the most. But Grant had promptly met the danger by hurrying two corps of his veterans to Washington city. Fortunately for the Federal cause, this force got there in time to interpose itself effectively between Early and the capital.

After burning the city of Chambersburg Early was compelled to retire, which he did at once without loss, taking up a strong position in the Valley of Virginia, where his presence as a continual threat to Washington city was more effective than his co?peration with Lee at Petersburg could have been.

Posted in the valley, Early's little force of 8,000 men served to occupy twice or thrice that number of Grant's troops in the defense of Washington, and in preparation for repelling an apprehended invasion of the country north of that city.

This Monocacy campaign, as it is called in history, involved no great battle, but as a strategic influence it was an achievement of the utmost importance to General Lee. Before that campaign was begun Hunter's presence in the Valley and his mastery there served not only to cut off from Lee the rich supplies which it was his custom to draw from that quarter of the country, but also to threaten him dangerously in the rear. If Hunter had been let alone, he must presently have forced his way to Lynchburg, cutting Lee's chief line of communication with the south and west, and opening the way to a junction between his own force and the forces which were pushing forward by Grant's order from Tennessee toward that point. By the detachment of Early with 8,000 men Lee had succeeded in preventing all this; in driving Hunter beyond the mountains into West Virginia, where his force could render no assistance whatever to Grant's campaign; in clearing the valley of all Federal forces; and in compelling Grant to keep at Washington a strong force which he might otherwise have utilized in his operations at Petersburg.

For several months after the Monocacy campaign this continued to be the situation. It grew at last so intolerable to Grant that he sent Sheridan to the Valley to drive Early out, and possess that fair region. In the meanwhile the results of Early's brilliant campaign with a handful of men, and his still more important success in holding the Valley of Virginia with that same handful of men, had its influence upon operations at the principal seat of hostilities.

Operations at Petersburg and Sheridan's Valley Campaign

In the mine operation General Grant had been baffled even more conspicuously than at the Wilderness or at Spottsylvania or at Cold Harbor. All his efforts to break through Lee's lines had completely failed. All his efforts to crush Lee and destroy his resisting power had come to naught. There remained to him – notwithstanding his enormous superiority of force and of the materials of war – only the resource of continuing the regular siege operations already in progress.

For such operations he was peculiarly well equipped. He had more men than his adversary had by three or four to one. He had an unassailable base of supplies upon the James river to which his vessels could come without the slightest fear of molestation. He had unlimited supplies while his adversary hung all the time upon the verge of starvation. He had a railroad in his rear over which he could move trains at will without even the possibility of his adversary's discovery. He had already by the extension of his lines compelled Lee to draw his out to the point of breaking. Grant could, at any moment, concentrate a hundred thousand men and a hundred guns upon any point in Lee's line which he might select for assault, and that without the smallest possibility of Lee's discovering his purpose. But instead of assault, which he had many times attempted with disastrous results, General Grant wisely determined to continue his policy of attenuating Lee's lines by enforced extension. He continued to move his own troops southward and westward toward and along the Weldon railroad, thus compelling Lee to stretch out his lines until the men in his breastworks, instead of standing elbow to elbow, stood many feet apart, and held their ground only by virtue of a desperate determination.

On the thirteenth of August Grant sent Hancock to assail the defenses of Richmond on the northern side of the James river. Lee was prompt to meet him, and the Confederates succeeded in repelling every attack made throughout a succession of bloody days. But while these operations were going on north of the James, Grant availed himself of his superior numbers by sending Warren on the eighteenth to seize upon the Weldon railroad south of Petersburg, and entrench himself in a line crossing that avenue of Confederate communication. On the nineteenth of August and again on the twenty-first, Lee desperately assailed Warren in this position, but without success. On the twenty-fifth a Confederate force under General A. P. Hill was sent forward to recapture the position. The Confederates made three desperate assaults, but in each case were beaten back with terrific loss. Finally, Hill ordered Heth's division to move forward and carry the works at all hazards and all costs. That was an order which the veterans in these two contending armies understood, and were accustomed to obey. Ordered to carry the works, Heth did so, capturing three batteries and a large number of prisoners. Then the Federals, under General Miles, rallied and made a counter assault, recapturing a part of the works, but suffering terribly in the encounter. In this fierce struggle the Federals lost 2,400 men. The Confederate loss has never been accurately reported, but in such desperate fighting as was done on that field, it must have been severe.

The total result of this struggle was that Grant held and continued thereafter to hold a part of the railroad which led south from Petersburg, by way of Weldon, and upon which Lee was compelled to depend in a considerable degree for communication and supplies. But with that vigor and resourcefulness which had come to mark the operations of the armies on both sides, Lee promptly opened a wagon route thirty miles long and well defended, over which as a bridge to the gap he was able for months afterwards to carry all supplies and reinforcements that could be brought to him from the south.

In the meanwhile there was continuous battling all along the Richmond and Petersburg lines, which covered a space of more than thirty miles. The sharpshooting was incessant, the bombardment scarcely less so. But Grant was not yet ready to make another determined assault upon Lee's works, or in any other way to bring on a battle in earnest.

The defeat and driving away of Hunter from the Valley was a painful miscarriage of the plans with which the lieutenant general had hoped to conduct the campaign. So long as Early should remain in the Valley it was obvious that continual raids upon Washington were not only possible but probable, and that these raids or even the possibility of them must seriously impair Grant's strength at Petersburg. Accordingly, Grant decided that his first care now must be to regain possession of the valley of Virginia, and to hold that region irresistibly against Confederate invasion. To accomplish this he sent for General Sheridan and placed under his command a force of 30,000 men, or nearly four times as many as those with which Early could oppose him. With a force so overwhelming, Sheridan was ordered completely to clear the valley of Confederate troops, to cut off all supplies that might come from that fertile region for the support of Lee's army, and permanently to render that pathway toward the north a no-thoroughfare to the Confederates.

Grant's purpose looked to a campaign of utter and complete destruction. In his orders to Sheridan he said, "In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, where it is expected you will have to go first or last, it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed destroy. It is not desirable that the buildings should be destroyed – they should rather be protected; but the people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected; and we are determined to stop them at all hazards."

Up to this time General Halleck, who was acting as adjutant general, though no longer in command, had continued in annoying ways to interfere with Grant's orders and proceedings. A dispatch from Mr. Lincoln warned Grant that certain of his orders would not be carried out unless he, Grant, should personally see to their execution. This gave Grant his opportunity, once for all, to teach Halleck the bitter lesson that it was now the Galena clerk who had the right to command. Grant went to Washington and so far asserted himself that Halleck sent him a message of complete submission, and thereafter executed the orders of the commanding general, instead of criticizing them and interfering with them.

Grant's instructions to Sheridan were to put himself south of the Confederates, and to follow them to the death wherever they might go. Having 30,000 men with whom to chase 8,000 Sheridan's task in the execution of this order was not a difficult one.

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