Sunday, June 9, 2013

Meade at the "Horrid Pit"

After Meade's Petersburg fiasco Grant asked him what his plans were. He didn't have any, but he told him about an idea, Meade thought dubious, presented to him by Burnside, that of tunneling under the Petersburg defenses and engaging in a surprise attack. Meade thought the idea preposterous and would never work, but Grant liked it; so Burnside was given the go-ahead.

Burnside chose Edward Ferrero to lead the enterprise and he chose Ferrero's Colored Division to be the first ones through the tunnel. Why did Burnside chose Ferroro's colored troops? Because all the other troops were worn out and apathetic as their actions proved in the initial assault against Petersburg; whereas "the black men of Ferroro's Fourth Division burned with a hunger to fight and were eager to learn to fight well. Whereas the white soldiers craved a rest, the black soldiers wanted nothing more than to prove themselves. They seemed to Burnside the obvious choice to make the assault." from Alan Axelrod's The Horrid Pit, page 93.

When Meade learned of this the day before the assault he countermanded Meade's orders. Catton on page 238 of A Stillness at Appomattox wrote, "Meade made one change in Burnside's original plan. He told Burnside that Ferroro's colored division must not be used as the first wave. The fight must be spearheaded by the white troops. If the colored troops were to be used at all they must go in later, as support.

"Burnside objected, with heat, pointing out that Ferrero's was the biggest, freshest division and that it had been getting special training for weeks in the movements which would be involved in this assault. Meade refused to yield . . . Profoundly disturbed, Burnside went back to his own headquarters to arrange his plans and prepare new orders."

Axelrod tells us that Meade made two changes to the orders and not just one. Burnside later testified "[Meade] did not approve of the formation proposed, because he was satisfied that we would not be able, in the face of the enemy, to make the movements which I contemplated, to the right and left; and that he was of the opinion that the troops should move directly to the crest [of Cemetery Hill, behind the Petersburg line] without attempting these side movements."

When the mine exploded opening a crater through the Petersburg walls, the white troops behaved just as Burnside feared, just as they behaved at Petersburg. The up a little way and milled about. When the black troops attempted to make their way through the opening it was filled with white troops unwilling to go forward.

So of course Burnside had to appear before congress to explain his failure. Ferroro as a witness testified, "Each of the division commanders, as well as every officer in the command, who had given his attention to the subject in the least degree, was fully aware of the condition of the white troops, as I had previously stated it to General Meade, and were firmly impressed with the conviction that the colored troops were in much better condition to lead the attack, and of the wisdom of using the white troops as supports.
Grant, who backed Meade up testified, General Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still I agreed with General Meade in his objection to that plan. 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 white troops in front."

Burnside's career was ruined, but not Meade's. He endured no penalty for replacing Burnside's excellent plan with a poor one of his own making. Yet to this day there are many who think Meade was an excellent general, even better than Sheridan.

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