Union battle plan gone cruelly wrong

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2009

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The mine was detonated beneath the Confederate fortifications outside Petersburg, Va., at 4:45 a.m. on July 30, 1864. One Union Army observer noted “an enormous mass . . . full of red flames’’ whose top was like “an enormous mushroom.’’ Another Union officer described “a great spout or fountain of red earth [which] rose to a great height, mingled with men and guns . . . and every kind of debris, all ascending, spreading, whirling.’’

But, writes historian Richard Slotkin in “No Quarter,’’ this “brilliant technical coup’’ which was to have opened the way to Richmond, and perhaps ended the war, quickly turned into “a humiliating mess.’’

Union troops, incompetently led and ill prepared, failed to take advantage of the breach in the Confederate lines, while the Confederates quickly regrouped and ripped the belated Union advance apart with devastating crossfire. There was more horror to come, and it is in its vivid recounting, and in putting it into a political context, that Slotkin, a professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University, lifts “No Quarter’’ into the first rank of Civil War histories.

One division of black soldiers, the “Colored Division,’’ had initially been chosen as the spearhead of the advance beyond the crater and had been specially trained for that role. But General George Meade, the field commander, vetoed their use. As General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall commander, later recalled, Meade felt that “if we put the colored troops in front . . . and it should prove a failure, it would be said . . . that we were shoving those people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them.’’ Grant concurred, for as Slotkin comments, he understood “that Black soldiers were a highly charged political symbol.’’

When the ill-prepared white troops were repulsed, the Colored Division was finally sent in - after three hours of being jammed in the assault trenches as the wounded were carried back past them. Initially, they swept forward, shouting “no quarter’’ in memory of the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow in Tennessee three months before.

They were soon cut down by the Confederate crossfire, and massacred as they retreated. As one Union officer recalled, “I often think of this scene, and a cold shudder goes through me as I think of how those poor colored men were butchered in cold blood.’’ By early afternoon, barely nine hours after the detonation of the mine, the fighting was over. It would be “a godsend for the Confederate government,’’ writes Slotkin, helping to identify it “with the preservation of White supremacy.’’ Here, he shows a deep understanding of men in battle. As the Confederates counterattacked and the Union troops broke and ran, Slotkin comments, “They were probably right up against that invisible deadline beyond which not even the bravest man could be expected to go.’’ A day after the battle, Grant would describe it as “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.’’

Even more telling is the comment of Sergeant Harry Reese, one of the Pennsylvania miners who had dug the shaft. When the fuse sputtered out, he crawled back into the shaft. “If I had known what a blunder was going to be made in the assault . . . I never would have [relighted] the fuse. . . . It made me still more furious to see a division of Colored soldiers rushed into the jaws of death with no prospect of success; but they went in cheering as though they didn’t mind it, and a great many of them never came back.’’

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

NO QUARTER The Battle of the Crater, 1864

By Richard Slotkin

Random House, 411 pp., maps, $28.

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