October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
A persistent soldier’s wife induces Grant to save her husband from the firing squad
[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.
By the end of October, or middle of November, everything in front of Richmond also settled down in a monotonous procedure which showed that active hostilities in any extended sense were over for that year. Skirmishing along the lines; some demonstrations against exposed rebel positions, enlivened by an occasional iron-clad or gunboat collision on the James, occupied the fall and winter.
For my own convenience in passing the headquarter guard-line by day or night, I had my tent pitched squarely on it, so that the front door of the tent opened inside the line, and the back door outside. One bright forenoon on returning to my tent a woman with an infant in arms was sitting at the back door waiting to see me. She was deeply veiled, poorly dressed, and evidently in great distress. She wanted to see Gen. Grant. I directed her to the proper headquarter entrance, told her to send her name to Gen. Grant by one of the guards, and perhaps she would be admitted. She said she had been told to come to me, and to no one else. I questioned her as to her business with the general, her name, her residence, by what means she had reached the front at a time when so few women were given this permission, and especially as to who had sent her to me. To all this her only reply was that she wanted to see Gen. Grant, and that she could only hope to do this through my friendly mediation. She was downcast, tearful and importunate.
I spent considerable time in explaining the unreasonableness of such a request to me, tried to have her go away and send some acquaintance who could and would intercede for her. But all to no purpose. “Wanted to see Gen. Grant.” “Wanted to see Gen. Grant” was her continual refrain, interrupted only by fits of weeping. I next essayed some rougher talk—told her I could not have her sitting there all day—that I hoped she would not compel me to have her forcibly taken away by a file of soldiers, &c. But she would neither go, nor enter into explanations. Somewhat provoked I left for awhile, expecting she would leave when she found I was obdurate. On returning an hour afterwards she was still there. Her dumb grief mastered my resolutions. So bringing her through my tent to the inside of the guard line, I pointed out the Adjutant’s tent, and told her to ask for Col. Bowers.
Bowers tried to make her understand that Gen. Grant was too busy to give personal attention to business matters—that his staff officers attended to most of it—that if she did see Gen. Grant she would probably be sent back to him at once—begged of her to state her errand, and if possible he would attend to it promptly. To all this she had but the one answer, she “Wanted to see Gen. Grant.” Bowers finally gave up the attempt of getting information from her, and went about his office duties, after telling her that Gen. Grant had ridden away and would not return till night. His efforts to get her to leave had been as futile as mine.
At noon Bowers had provided her a good dinner. At three or four o’clock in the afternoon Grant returned. After a lunch he lighted a cigar and seated himself under his marquee for a smoke. Bowers pointed him out to the woman and said: “Madam, that is Gen. Grant.” I witnessed the performance, and asked him why he sent that woman to Gen. Grant? He replied: “To get rid of her myself.” His good humor was restored.
We soon learned that she was the wife of a federal soldier who had deserted to the enemy, been captured armed and in rebel uniform, had been court-martialed and sentenced to be shot; and was then at the front awaiting execution. She came to plead for his life. Gen. Grant spent an hour in trying to show her how impossible it was to grant her request. Desertion was an unpardonable military offense; but when it was aggravated by taking up arms in the enemy’s ranks, every civilized country in the world inflicted the death penalty. He expressed his sympathy for her, and urged her to return to her home and friends, and try to forget the man who had shown himself to be so unworthy of the affection and love of any good woman—that a man who could so far forget his wife, child and country, would never prove a good husband and father. She listened stolidly; but said over and over again that he had always been a good husband to her. She made no apologies for his conduct, but kept on repeating he had always been a good husband, and begging him to spare his life.
The General left her sitting at his tent door, strolled around headquarters awhile in silence, chewing and pulling at his cigar abstractedly, interviewed Bowers, and again endeavored to get her away from camp without violence. She absolutely refused to leave. Supper time came on, but there she sat. He then ordered a servant to provide her with a supper. By this time Grant was reduced to about the same extremity as Bowers and myself had been. He finally telegraphed Gen. Meade to review the court-martial proceedings and see if there were any technical informalities in them which would justify a review, or a commutation or suspension of sentence. Meade replied that he could find no errors or informalities of any kind. Grant then telegraphed to the President, and received full authority to do as he pleased in the matter. His next order was to Gen. Meade to send the man to his headquarters under guard. He arrived in an ambulance, strongly guarded, about daylight in the morning. The husband and wife were brought together. The former made no attempt to justify his conduct; but was greatly affected at meeting his wife under such circumstances. It was a total surprise to him, as he had not been informed of her presence, and broke him down completely.
Grant gave him a lecture of unusual severity—scored him unmercifully—told him he richly deserved a thousand deaths, for one such act often led to the deaths of thousands of innocent men—told him he could stand by and witness his execution without a single emotion of pity for him—but concluded it all by telling him that out of sorrow for his wife, who had proven herself so true and so good a woman, he would give him one chance for his life. He would not pardon him, nor in any way release him from the verdict pronounced against him, except to delay the day of his execution. He would order him to be restored to the ranks of the company from which he had deserted, subject to further orders in the matter. He told him plainly he would be under daily and hourly surveillance, and upon the first dereliction of duty in any way, he would order him to be shot within twenty-four hours. After breakfast the husband was returned to the front, and the wife placed on the ten o’clock forenoon mailboat for Washington City. I made inquiries about the soldier for a while afterwards; then lost all track of him. He probably served out his enlistment; and may be drawing a fat pension.
On Christmas eve, 1864, I was restless, discontented and homesick. On going to my tent about ten o’clock P.M. , I sat for an hour brooding over the pleasures of past anniversaries and the gloominess of the present. Filling my pocket with cigars I walked to the Adjutant’s tent, where a light was still burning, and found Col. Bowers stretched out in a large camp-chair in front of the fire, and wearing a subdued, downcast countenance. To my inquiries as to what was the matter, he replied that he had been thinking of his mother, his home, and the difference between his present cheerless surroundings, and those of happier times.
We had chatted but a few minutes when Gen. Rawlins entered and wanted to know if we had not heard the bugle blow “taps,” and “lights out,” and whether he should be obliged to put us under arrest for such flagrant violation of army regulations? We turned the tables on him by inquiring why he was wandering about camp at that time of night? He made his excuses similar to those of Col. Bowers. Within five minutes we heard the tread of some one else approaching, and Gen. Grant walked in. We all greeted him with a burst of laughter, and requested honest confession. He went over the same string of sentimental expressions. But conversation soon took a wide and pleasant range, and we talked for more than an hour about everything uppermost in our minds, excepting war; and until all my cigars had been consumed.
Asking us to keep our seats a few minutes, Grant went to his tent and returned with an unopened box of large, excellent cigars which some one had just sent him from New York. We smoked one or two, each, from this box, when it was agreed that we ought to be in bed. The general insisted on our taking one more smoke before breaking up. Instead of lighting mine I put it in my pocket, and said I would smoke it the next Christmas Eve in memory of that one. I had to take another, however, and smoke them.
One year from that night we were all in Washington City. Remembering my promise I drove out to Gen. Grant’s home, and timed my arrival so exactly that I met him in the hall, on his way from the diningroom to the library. I was ushered into the latter, where the general commenced pushing papers about on the table, set cigars and matches within reach, and invited me to take a cigar. I pulled one slowly and deliberately out of my pocket as if to light it.
He stared at me a moment and asked me if I was afraid of the quality of his. I replied by asking if he remembered where we were one year ago that night. “Yes, at City Point.” “Don’t you remember that I pocketed one of your cigars then, promising to smoke it in memoriam ?” A smile lighted up his face. “Yes, but you have not saved that cigar till now?” “This is the identical cigar, general, and I am here to fulfill my promise.” “Oh well, if you have kept it so long, smoke out of the box tonight, and save it another year.” I complied, saved it another year, and all the succeeding years, from that to this. It lies in my house, safely incased in glass, a sentimental reminder of those days so long past, and where I hope it will continue to lie, till I too have joined “the bivouac of the dead.” Bowers, Rawlins and Grant have gone to “fame’s eternal camping ground.”