Today is the 147th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, one of the better-known events of the siege of Petersburg. There’s no need here to go through the details of the mining effort, the bungled planning involving the debate over the use of black soldiers, and the disaster of the assault itself.
Many people point fingers at various Union commanders for what happened. The incompetence of James Ledlie is assumed. Not much is said about Edward Ferrero, who commanded the division of black soldiers. Ambrose Burnside, who (outside of biographer William Marvel) is not kindly treated, usually bears the brunt of abuse, with some reserved for George Gordon Meade, while I stand in a distinct minority for holding Ulysses S. Grant accountable (and, indeed, this is exhibit A in challenging the case that I’m a Grant apologist). Other than the reaction of William Mahone, who made up for his lackluster performance at Gettysburg by mounting a counterattack, the Rebels seem to have had very little to do with the outcome in the minds of many. There have been recent books on the battle by Alan Axelrod, John F. Schmutz, Richard Slotkin, and Earl Hess, each of which has its fans, but it is unclear whether those studies have appreciably changed (as opposed to enriched) the narrative about the battle and its place in the Petersburg campaign — and a forthcoming book on the battle by erstwhile presidential candidate Newt Gingrich may make no difference, either. Yes, our attention’s been drawn to stories of atrocities toward black soldiers, but beyond that these narratives create a more detailed understanding without changing the broader story of the campaign.
I tend to hold Grant accountable because by this time he understood that Meade and Burnside had a flawed working relationship, and that the Army of the Potomac as well as the Army of the James did not always meet his expectations when it came to offensive operations (I acknowledge the argument that perhaps Grant expected too much in the first place). Thus, to remind me that Burnside fell short here or Meade did something wrong there is besides the point: by now Grant knew that such was often the case, and yet he did very little to overcome what were by now well-known obstacles and part of the friction of war. If, as Grant later said, such a great opportunity had been lost, doesn’t it seem that he should have done all he could to ensure that such would not be the case?
Others disagree (hello, Jim Epperson). What do you think?