July 29, 1864 (Friday)
“The mine was prepared and ready for the powder to be put in on the 23rd of July,” testified Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania, “and the enemy was trying to find me out all the time; but I could not get powder to put in, or permission to put it in, until the 28th or 29th.”
The mine tunneling toward and then under the Confederate works at Petersburg was complete. All that now needed to be done was to set the fuses, ignite the powder and explode the works. But there were delays and strange obstacles.
For instance, the fuses that Pleasants finally received were cut up into small lengths. He had no idea why that might be, but assumed that they came from Fortress Monroe. “They sent just whatever they had,” he allowed. “It hardly ever happens that they require fuze for that distance.”
That distance was over 500 feet – the length of the lateral shaft, which made its way to a series of rooms, running concurrent with the Rebel defenses above ground. Pleasants had called for 12,000lbs of powder, but was only given eight. By 6pm on the 28th, the work was completed:
“The charge consisted of three hundred and twenty kegs of powder, each containing about twenty-five pounds. It was placed in eight magazines, connected with each other by troughs half filled with powder. These troughs from the lateral galleries met at the inner end of the main one, and from this point I had three fuzes for a distance of ninety-eight feet. Not having fuzes as long as required, two pieces had to be spliced together to make the required length of each of the lines.”
As Pleasants was finishing the mine, General Ambrose Burnside, whose corps would lead the assault following the blast, submitted a plan to George Meade. For weeks, he had been drilling a division of United States Colored Troops specifically for this assault.
When Burnside met with Meade, he was informed that the “portion of my plan which contemplated putting the colored troops in the advance did not meet with his approval.” He also objected to Burnside’s rather complicated plan to fill the exploded gap and then push both left and right, curing up the Rebel line in both directions. “He was of the opinion that the troops should move directly to the crest without attempting these side movements.”
Burnside heartily objected. The black troops had been specifically trained for this. It was true that they had not really been in battle before, but the condition of the three other (white) divisions was not good. He reminded Meade that “the three white divisions had for forty days been in the trenches in the immediate presence of the enemy, and at no point of the line could a man raise his head above the parapet without being fired at by the enemy. That they had been in the habit, during the whole of the time, of approaching the main line by covered ways, and using every possible means of protecting themselves from the fire of the enemy.” The black troops, apparently, would not be wise enough not to make a frontal assault.
But Meade was steadfast. According the daily-written journal of his staff officer, Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, Meade held “that these negroes were green and had never seen a great action; he had no right to run risks; if they failed people would justly say ‘Oh! you put forward the negroes to sacrifice them for nothing!'”
General Grant, in his own testimony before the Joint-Committee on the Conduct of the War, agreed. “General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only that one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving those people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put the white troops in front. … I do not think it would have been proper to put them in front, for nothing but success would have justified it.”
After Meade met with Grant, he visited Burnside to tell him the news – a white division must lead the assault, no matter how ill-prepared they might be. Burnside asked him if the decision could be reconsidered. “No, general, the order is final.” Burnside had no choice. “Very well, general,” he said to Meade, “I will carry out this plan to the best of my ability.” The mine was to be exploded at 3:30am the next morning. Once it went, Burnside’s troops were to advance.
Burnside then called together his three commanders of white divisions. He could find reasons for any of them to lead the assault. Two were closer, while the other was better-rested. Having no way to figure this out on his own, Burnside relied upon chance.
“I finally decided that I would allow the leading division to be designated by lot, which was done,” recalled Burnside; “General [James] Ledlie drew the lot to lead the advance, and the necessary orders were given for the movement of his division to the point from which the attack was to be made.”
Burnside sent Ledlie and his brigade commanders to take a look at the ground, to make whatever examination of it they could. By 4pm, it was complete and they waited only for darkness to fall to prepare their troops for the attack.
Night came, but the troops sent to relieve Burnside’s along the line were late in arriving. Everything seemed late in coming. Meade, having heard that things would be late, implored Burnside to shift his troops regardless of replacements to fill the trenches.
Well before dawn, Lt. Col. Lyman, saddled their horses to ride to Burnside’s headquarters. The night still clung to the sky, and this gave Meade pause. He had an officer telegraph Burnside at 3:20am: “As it is still so dark, the commanding general says you can postpone firing the mine if you think proper.”
A reply came without delay: “The mine will be fired at the time designated.”1
- Sources: Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War; Petersburg; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; With Grant & Meade by Theodore Lyman; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses Grant; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]