Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Battle of the Crater

There may not be a more depressing battle in the Civil War than the Battle of the Crater, fought 150 years ago today. What happened? Basically, a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners got the notion of digging tunnel under the rebel lines at Petersburg, where the two armies had settled down to trench warfare. Their commander, named Henry Pleasants, took the project in hand - took it to his commander (Ambrose Burnside, one of the worst generals of the war), who approved - and they set to work. They dug a mine under the Rebel lines - very effectively, quickly, and without being detected - everything was set to blow the thing sky high. And behind the lines, Burnside was having one of his better moments - planning the attack, specifically training one of his divisions to make the attack, and take advantage of the expected breach int he Rebel lines. But - this is where it gets depressing. Not that it failed (as it did) - but how it failed. Burnside chose his largest and freshest division to lead the attack - a division of US Colored Troops. But when the army's commander, George Meade, found out - he panicked. He had never liked the idea of the mine - his engineers thought the tunnel would be impossible to dig; no one in the Union high command thought much of Burnside - if he liked the idea, it had to be a bad one. So Meade was not invested in the attack at all, didn't think it would work, and was not about to be attacked in the press for putting Colored Troops in an impossible situation. He told Burnside to pick someone else - Burnside put up a fight - but Grant backed up Meade (he didn't think much of Burnside or the mine either) - and that was that.

It is painful to think about it - to read about it - to read what happened next. There were other chances to win the war - Grant's campaign to get to Petersburg probably came the closest, and the initial fighting around the city in the middle of June was probably the worst lost chance of the war. As it would happen, the mine in fact did break the rebel line - though it was hardly a given that they could have taken Petersburg even with the break. But the nature of this failure, that's what really gets you. The ingenuity of the plan - the effectiveness of the mining itself - the mere fact that Ambrose Burnside showed initiative (or recognized it in others) - the fact that he had a chance to do something right for once, and mostly did it - his moral courage in choosing the Colored Troops.... And the whole thing brought to grief by the short-sightedness and prejudice and moral cowardice of Meade and Grant. And of course, Burnside reverting to type: forced to change divisions to lead the attack, he left it to chance - got stuck with the worst men, the worst general in the corps, who proceeded to fail spectacularly.

The fight itself was a disaster, except for the start. The mine went undetected - was packed with powder - there were anxious moments when the fuse went out, but it was relit, and then the thing went up and went up well. The confederate lines were obliterated, along with a good part of the hill - leaving a huge crater where the rebels had been. The Union troops attacked, led by the division of one James Ledlie - and things started going to hell. Ledlie himself spent the battle behind the lines with a bottle; his men went forward in broken and piecemeal fashion, and did very little to exploit the fact that there were no rebels left anywhere near the front. The confederates recovered quickly, and started to counter attack - as they did, more Union troops came up, with little more organization than the first wave, and soon found themselves bottled up. Finally, the Colored Troops joined the fight, and made an attack, but by now the rebels had formed a very strong line - they repelled the attacks, and forced almost all of Burnside's corps into the crater itself, where they slaughtered them. Especially the black troops, who were murdered in cold blood, as often as not. And so it ended - a complete disaster.

It didn't need to be. And not much needed to be different - letting the Colored Troops lead the attack, as they were prepared to do, would have done much to exploit it. They were ready - they knew to fan out beyond the mine, to roll up all the subsidiary trenches and break the rebel army apart - they would have won something. They were prevented from trying, and sent in late to their doom - another in the long line of disgraceful treatments of blacks in this country.

They could have won something at the Crater - though probably not the war. The problem was, as it had been at the Bloody Angle, and as it would be all through World War I - even if you broke a trench line, it was almost impossible to do much more. You could break a line - but once you did, you came up against a simple limit: there was no way to move troops through a battle zone faster than the human body could move. Maybe if you could get past the trenches, but that was very difficult - even in 1864, the area behind a line of trenches was a maze of more trenches, strongpoints, communication tunnels and all the rest. That's what Burnside's men found when they got past the crater itself - more trenches and holes and what not. They ran afoul that as much as they ran afoul the confederates. This was bad in 1864 - by 1914 (once everyone was dug in), it was even worse. Miles of trenches extended behind the main lines - you could break the front line, you could get through some of the zone behind - but you could never get far enough that there wouldn't be a new trench line waiting for you eventually. In 1864, Burnside used a mine; in 1916, everyone would use artillery to obliterate the front lines - but the results were the same. The front lines would be obliterated - the armies would move forward - the enemy would regroup and counterattack - both sides would suffer unimaginable casualties. The lines never moved. Burnside and AP Hill didn't have machine guns in 1864, so only some 4,500 Union troops were lost (out of 13,000 attackers), and 1,500 confederates - but the results were the same. The lines didn't move an inch. They wouldn't move an inch, until April 1865, when the confederates didn't have enough men left to prevent Grant from going around them; or 1918, when the Allies had tanks and millions of Americans and the Germans were out of men. Tanks, of course, changed everything - because now you could move through a battle zone, fully armored, at speed. That was a long way away.

The Battle of the Crater was the end of Ambrose Burnside, as a general anyway. (He went on to be a senator and a governor after the ware, so it wasn't all bad.) James Ledlie was done as well, drummed out of the army as a drunk. It was also the last time Grant tried anything like a direct attack on the rebel lines - after this, he accepted the siege and tried other things. Soon, he would detach part of his army with Phil Sheridan to run down Jubal Early's army in the Shenandoah Valley. Sherman would be able to take Atlanta - things would move ahead, while Grant held Lee in place.

Unfortunately, Europeans would consider this war something of a backwater feud - they would ignore what happened in Petersburg, and try to fight in the open in 1914. It took a while for that to play out, but it did - and once everyone dug in, that was that. (Their real mistake might have been something different - missing what had changed since 1864 (or 1871, and the Franco-Prussian war): the development of a true industrialized war machine - mass produced weapons, trains, the ability to bring the masses of the country into the war. The reason the siege of Petersburg is different from the siege of France in 1914 is that Germany, France and Britain managed to mobilize millions of men, keep them in action for 4 years, and make lines across the whole of France.) But all that mobilization, and all the means of moving men across large distances in 1914, still didn't solve the problem of Petersburg - you still couldn't move men through a war zone by any means but their feet. Cavalry didn't help until you got past the trenches - no one could get past all the trenches. (Until those tanks and Americans turned up.) So - size and logistics made the whole western front a siege: made it easy to hold, but everyone kept trying to break it - none of them would seem to grasp that there was nothing they could do, no way to get through all the trenches.

But that's another war (one that started 100 years ago Monday.) Just one that could have profited from the lessons of the Crater.

No comments: