The Crater of Liberalism

VicksburgMineby Timothy Lane6/14/15
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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4 Responses to The Crater of Liberalism

  1. Steve Lancaster says:

    Tim, now that is an interesting interpretation of political correctness in the 19th century of course any soldier, regardless of color, with little training, poorly officered and with little motivation would perform about the same. When you consider everything the crater had against it as a tactical strategy it is a wonder that the mine even blew.

    I had a long disagreement with a professor at U of A about the question of how the North and South viewed each other as a nation. The professor contended that like the Revolutionary War it was a question of politics between two very similar peoples with common religion, language, and customs.

    My contention is that at the time of the War of Northern Invasion not only were Yankees and Southerners of different stock, but over three quarters of a century different peoples, with unique customs, language and religion. I think that is still somewhat true today, but after 4 wars in the 20th century it is greatly lessened. However, the current resident of the WH has begun the regional debate again.

    There are secessionist groups in every state, each for its own varied reasons. You live close to the used to be state of Franklin, and in Northern CA there is the proposed state of Jefferson. They might have made had the CA legislature not been scheduled to vote on it Dec. 8, 1941.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Of course, they weren’t always poorly officered, though this problem increased as the war continued. Bruce Catton once pointed out that Hancock’s vaunted Second Corps was routed at Ream’s Station (August 1864) by a counterattack it would have laughed off a year before. Attrition is a double-edged sword, with its worst effects on armies most dependent on high quality, such as the Japanese Navy pilots of World War II, or Frederick the Great’s Army, This is why Frederick eventually became battle-averse; the Seven Years War had shown him what attrition could do to the Prussian infantry.

  2. Steve Lancaster says:

    That is one of the main reasons that casualty counts go up the closer to the end of the war. Casualties on both sides were higher in the last 18 months of the war than in the previous 2 1/2 years. The same is true for all of the major conflicts of the 20th century. It is part attrition of force on both sides and the subsequent increase in poorly trained recruits as the war continues.

    Lee once said, “to be a good leader you must love the army, to win a war you must be willing to sacrifice the thing you love the most”.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      That was McClellan’s problem. He was a capable strategist and he certainly loved his men — but he couldn’t bear to sacrifice them.

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