- Historic Sites
The Power Of A Woman
A persistent soldier’s wife induces Grant to save her husband from the firing squad
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
[The operations in front of Petersburg quickly developed into a stalemate, with both armies solidly entrenched. Direct assault was out of the question. Late in June, 1864, it was decided to dig a tunnel under a Confederate strongpoint at the center of the line, explode a mine there, and see if an infantry breakthrough could not be made after the explosion. The mining was entrusted to the 48th Pennsylvania infantry, a regiment largely made up of coal miners.]
On June 25th work was commenced on the Petersburg mine, which obtained great celebrity at the time. It commenced in a ravine in front of the Ninth corps, and fell properly under Burnside’s oversight. It was dug under great difficulties, such as lack of suitable mining tools, and the excavation was completed on July 23d. Two [four] days more were consumed in charging it with powder. . . . Orders were given for its explosion at a little after three o’clock on the morning of July 30th, but the fuse was not actually fired until after four o’clock. Then owing to splices and other imperfections in the fuse it failed to go off. Two volunteers followed the line of fuse in to the faulty place at which it had gone out, relighted it, and a few minutes before five o’clock, the whole mine exploded with a thundering roar that shook the earth and the heavens.
So far as the mine was concerned, it proved a great success. So far as results are considered it was a stupendous failure. Its cost in labor and money had been heavy. Its cost in killed, wounded and missing was set down at four thousand and three.• The enemy’s loss in men was trifling. His loss in ground nothing. His prestige in successfully resisting the attack was deservedly great.
• The Union losses were all incurred in the attack following the explosion of the mine, and in the Confederate counterattack in the crater and other nearby points where the Union troops took refuge. But the Confederate loss of 1,500 can scarcely be called trifling.
The entire failure of this enterprise keenly disappointed Gen. Grant. He should have known better, however, than to have trusted any necessary preparations to such an incompetent officer as Burnside had proved himself to be long before that. For this he deserves great blame. The selection of Gen. [James H.] Ledlie to lead the assault, was as bad as could have been made. He did not even accompany his men, but remained behind in a safe place, and was written down coward by all from that time forth.
It is needless to describe the carnage that reigned in and around the crater formed by the explosion; nor the death that was in the air to all who attempted retreat or escape from it. In fact its horrors were far beyond any description which could be made in cold blood years afterward. Seeing that it was a failure Burnside was ordered about nine in the forenoon to extricate his troops as he best could, as soon as he could, and return to his old lines.
Mine explosions are rarely successful. They are subject to too many accidents and miscarriages. They can only be resorted to when the lines of the opposing forces are in close proximity. An observant enemy generally suspects the intention, and prepares for it, in great measure, by counter-mining and extra precautions. The precise point of danger may be a matter of conjecture; but able engineers can always determine certain limits within which such attempts must be made, if at all. If the explosion should meet the expectation of its projectors, its final results depend upon the action instantly taken in the offensive. On the other hand there is in most cases, perhaps, an indefinable dread of such explosions out of all proportion to their real dangers.
The scenic effects often surpass all powers of description. We stood, or sat, around in groups, on an eminence overlooking the field, for nearly two hours, waiting in painful silence, for the grand denouement in front of Petersburg. I happened to be looking directly at it when the enormous mass of powder was at last ignited. Contrary to the usual expectation, the noise and roar of the concussion is not the first thing to break on the senses, but comes a few seconds later. My first perception was that of seeing the earth commencing to rise on a line a hundred yards in length; then to split open by fissures, from which emerged a dense volume of smoke, dirt and dust; followed by sulphurous flames, as if the whole center of the globe was belching forth some monstrous volcanic masses. The smoke and flames rose perpendicularly at first; then spread out into a great sheet; and commenced slowly to fall in the form of a great water spout. This was soon followed by the detonation of the combustibles. The sound of the explosion did not equal my expectations, and came so late that those whose eyes were not turned that way missed much of its sublimity. As in all such cases, a large proportion of the upheaved material fell back near to the place from which it was hoisted upward. The crater formed was probably one hundred and fifty yards long, and of course deepest in the center.
Then commenced a furious cannonading from the Union line for a mile to the right and left, under cover of which the assault was to be made. It is believed that no such thunder of cannon was ever heard on the American continent, and probably not in the world, as on that occasion.
One good result followed not long after. Gen. Burnside ceased to command the Ninth Corps, which was placed under Gen. [John G.] Parke.