In the pre-dawn hours of July 30, 1864, the Union army surrounding the city of Petersburg Virginia, ignited three fuses in a mine. The flames travelled toward two galleries packed with over 8,000 pounds of black powder. It was their hope that by blowing a hole in the Confederate lines and taking the heights behind it, they could capture the Army of Northern Virginia and end the war. It didn’t go quite as planned.
Alan Axelrod chronicles the series of events that turned this ambitious plan from one with bright promise to one of confused failure. There were active decisions made, to be sure, that doomed the action, but Axelrod shows how the abdication of responsibility for making decisions was a major factor in the plan’s failure. Beginning with the decision to simply allow the digging of the mine to alleviate boredom instead of fully endorsing or rejecting the plan, Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade abdicated command responsibility. When his commanding officers forced him to choose different—untrained—troops to spearhead the attack only hours before the battle commenced, General Ambrose Burnside abdicated his responsibility to make a decision on whom the new leader and the new lead Division would be, instead leaving the choice of both entirely to chance (drawing straws). And when the time for attack happened, General James Ledlie, the commander who had won (or lost) the draw, sent his troops forward while he sat in a bomb-proof (bomb shelter) drinking rum, abdicating responsibility for leading his men into battle.
Axelrod relies heavily on the War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (the ORs for short) and the testimony from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Yet he weaves direct quotations from these sources into a highly readable narrative. The author does draw conclusions in his writing, but when he does it is clearly speculation and often he presents multiple possible conclusions.
There is plenty of blame to go around, and Axelrod is fair in his assessment. Burnside’s perpetual need to be liked impacted his communications and may have driven the abdication of his authority. Meade’s trust in Burnside was impacted by the pair’s prior history, which wasn’t positive. Major Duane, Meade’s Chief Engineer, may have sandbagged the project because of ego, believing Colonel Henry Pleasants could not do something that Duane himself couldn’t do. General Grant is shown to be timid in his support and admitted that had Burnside been allowed to use the troops he wished, he believed the action would have been successful. James Ledlie was a drunk.
At just under 250 pages, this is a page turner that includes technological innovations, compelling (if not necessarily likable) personalities, a vivid description of the horrors of war (particularly Chapter 10 Put in the Dead Men) and a very straightforward look at the red tape and bureaucracy of Civil War army leadership. Don’t be surprised if you feel frustrated as the story unfolds.
The only thing this book suffers from is a lack maps. While it includes dozens of photos set within the body of the text, a map or two of the general location of the units and of the defensive trenches the soldiers fought in would have been helpful.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.