by Timothy Lane 6/14/15
The scourge of political correctness (and other undesirable aspects of modern liberalism) actually have a venerable history in America, and not surprisingly a disastrous one. An early but telling sequence happened over 150 years ago.
In June 1864, after the Union botched an attempt to seize Petersburg before Lee could reinforce it, a long siege began. There are many traditional methods of siegecraft, including the mining of enemy positions. A Ninth Corps Pennsylvania colonel, Henry Pleasants, suggested such a mine to his corps commander, Ambrose Burnside, planning to rely on his and his men’s experience as coal miners.
Unfortunately, the distance the mine would be dug was too long to work according to the army engineers — and never mind that the coal miners insisted that they had practical experience to refute their theory. This attitude remains familiar today, of course.
Despite a lack of cooperation from above, Burnside had Pleasants and his men dig their mine, and also prepared for the battle that would result from the explosion of the mine. One of his divisions, that of Edward Ferrero, consisted of black troops with a strong motive to succeed but little combat experience. But this also meant that they hadn’t suffered the losses of the other divisions in the corps. So Burnside set them to training on special tactics to exploit the mine explosion to widen and deepen the resultant gap in Confederate lines.
Even as Pleasants and his men completed their mine, Meade and his engineers remained certain that it was theoretically impossible. But Burnside did finally get the gunpowder and fuse needed to explode the mine, and Grant used diversions elsewhere to distract Lee from that portion of the front.
But, shortly before the mine was to bet set off, Meade and Grant made one requirement. If the effort failed (which theory said it couldn’t, even though the theory was based on not being able to dig such a long tunnel that they had in fact already dug), then the black troops would be slaughtered, and they would be accused of having sacrificed them because they didn’t care about them. So they insisted that Burnside not use the black troops in the front ranks. A different division must be chosen.
From that point on, things basically went to Hell (in some cases quite literally, of course). Burnside had his other division commanders draw straws to see who would lead the attack. As fate would have it, the chosen division was a poor division under an even worse leader, James Ledlie, who spent the operation drunk in a bombproof. The result was that once the mine went off, the troops finally advanced but didn’t try to go beyond the crater. This continued even as the other divisions joined in. In the end, the Confederates repulsed the attack and inflicted far heavier losses than they suffered even including their losses in the initial blast.
And the black troops? They were sent in last — which didn’t save them from slaughter. But at least they merely joined the rest of the corps in being slaughtered. (Ferrero decided to join Ledlie, which didn’t help.) So no one complained about not caring about the black troops. And the failure was merely one of many at Petersburg, and maybe not even the worst.
What would have happened if Meade and Grant hadn’t demanded that Ferrero’s division be replaced in the assault? Given that they had special training, it’s reasonable to think they would at least have accomplished a lot more than Ledlie did, and perhaps have created enough of a gap that the nearby Confederates of the divisions of Bushrod Johnson and William Mahone couldn’t seal it off. We’ll never know now, of course, but success at the Crater might also have greatly shortened the war. The politically correct intervention did not guarantee defeat (a different division could have been chosen), but it certainly made it far likelier.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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