Even today, when people often change careers, General Edward Ferrero’s resume might seem startling. The son of Italian political refugees, he was born in Granada, Spain on January 18, 1831 and arrived in New York while still an infant. Edward’s father taught dance. He opened a school at the northeast corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue. The future general was practically raised on the academy’s shining floors, becoming a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, even teaching dancing to the cadets at West Point. He is generally described as charming, witty, and good-humored, with beautifully polished manners and exquisite personal grace.
Yet the dance master was also a lieutenant colonel in the New York National Guard. After the secessionists fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, Ferrero recruited the 51st New York, a new regiment of roughly 1000 men, at his own expense. He was commissioned its colonel on October 14. In an army of the inexperienced, Ferrero’s peacetime soldiering made him look pretty good. He knew something about moving units about a parade ground (what is drill, after all, but choreography?). Besides, he was a teacher: he knew how to train men.
His regiment was assigned to General Ambrose E. Burnside’s North Carolina expedition. Burnside was a West Pointer, a veteran of garrison duty during the Mexican War, and a major general of the Rhode Island militia. Burnside seemed the stereotype of a mid-Victorian general: broad-shouldered and firm-jawed, with a steady gaze and flamboyant muttonchop whiskers. (The term “sideburns” comes from his name.) Despite his formidable appearance, the Rhode Islander was genial and kindly, the soul of truth and honor, and as unsuited to command an army by virtue of poor judgment and lack of common sense as any man with stars on his shoulders in the history of the Republic. But Lincoln liked Burnside and believed him far more competent than he was—one of his rare misreadings of character.
Burnside gave Colonel Ferrero command of a brigade—three regiments, roughly 3000 men. At Roanoke Island, Ferrero led his men ashore: they took the first fortified redoubt captured in the war. In light of his successes, Lincoln gave Burnside command of the Union’s major fighting force in the East, the Army of the Potomac. At Antietam, Burnside rigidly insisted on crossing a small stream by sending men piecemeal across a narrow stone bridge within range of Confederate cannon. They could have waded. The result was slaughter.
Ferrero fought well, winning promotion to brigadier general on September 10, 1862. Three months later, he fought under Burnside again at Fredericksburg, when the Rhode Islander repeatedly sent the Army of the Potomac uphill against entrenched Confederate artillery, losing 13,000 men in a day.
Burnside was not working out. Lincoln transferred him to command of the Ninth Corps, a then-independent unit consisting of roughly 25,000 men that supported the Army of the Potomac without being part of it. Ferrero, then only thirty-three years old, would command its Fourth Division, consisting entirely of African-American soldiers, many former slaves from Maryland.
By the summer of 1864, the Civil War in the East was a grim reaping. The Union had finally found a commander with the habit of victory. At thirty-eight, Ulysses S. Grant had been a washed-up clerk in his family’s store in Galena, Illinois. At forty-one, he was general-in-chief of the Union armies. Grant was quiet, unpretentious, even seedy. His rumpled exterior concealed, as Jean Edward Smith wrote, “a formidable intellect and a rock-solid self-confidence…a topographer’s feel for landscape, a photographic memory when it came to maps, a command of the English language at its incisive best.”
Grant understood that the Union’s superior resources would wear the Confederacy away, if only he engaged the enemy and never let go. His opponent, General Robert E. Lee, for his part understood Grant and his strategy. After three years, Lee knew Southern independence would rest on dragging out the war through the November elections. If Northern voters, weary of fighting, turned out Lincoln and the Republicans, the incoming Democrats would make peace.
On May 4, 1864, Grant crossed Virginia’s Rapidan River with 120,000 men. There, in the gloomy woodland known as the Wilderness, which Bruce Catton called “the last place on earth for armies to fight,” he engaged Lee in a rapid succession of bloody battles: The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Yellow Tavern. On May 20, Grant again advanced, attempting to outflank Lee, forcing Lee to move to keep ahead of him. On June 3, Grant had reached Cold Harbor, seven miles east of Richmond, the Confederate capital.
That day, Grant sent three corps, tens of thousands of men, charging across an open field against Confederate artillery. He did it repeatedly, only stopping some seven thousand casualties later. It was not that he had lost so many men—casualties are in the nature of the business—it was that he had wasted them, and Grant could not justify it even to himself. He had taken 60,000 casualties in one month’s hard fighting, nearly half the men with whom he had crossed the Rapidan. But the Union could replace them, while the Confederacy could no longer replace the 30,000 casualties Grant had inflicted on Lee.
Within a week, Grant moved yet again, this time in secret. On June 15, barely ten days after Cold Harbor, Lee realized he had been outfoxed for once when the Union army attacked the Confederate rail hub at Petersburg, Virginia. Lee’s luck was with him: the local Confederate commander held Grant off for three days, until Lee arrived in force on June 18. Now the armies dug in, erecting a line of forts and trenches that stretched some forty miles from Richmond to Petersburg. It was the first modern trench warfare: its students would apply its lessons fifty years later on the Western Front.
And, as on the Western Front, the result was stalemate. The frustration that had prompted Grant to order frontal assaults at Cold Harbor also led him to entertain radical means to break through Lee’s lines outside Petersburg. They wouldn’t work, either.
Unlike many Union officers assigned to command black troops, Ferrero seems to have had no reservations about their military virtues. Most of them were new to soldiering: he drilled and trained them vigorously.
East of Petersburg, the armies were closest at Elliott’s Salient, also called Pegram’s Salient. This was a Confederate artillery emplacement held by Johnson’s Division, an under-strength unit of a few thousand men commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson, barely 500 feet from Burnside’s Ninth Corps.
One of Burnside’s regiments was the 48th Pennsylvania, an infantry regiment recruited among Schuylkill County coalminers. Even its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, was a mining engineer. During their bull sessions, Pleasants’ men devised a plan. They would dig a 500-foot-long tunnel beneath the Confederate trenches and fill it with explosives to blast a hole in Lee’s line. A division would then attack through the breach. Pleasants proposed the scheme to Burnside, who approved it and obtained the begrudging consent of Gen. George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, and of General Grant.
Burnside selected the Fourth Division—Ferrero’s command—to spearhead the attack. Ferrero’s men were fresh, having been held in reserve. After the explosion, Ferrero’s mission would be to advance around the crater, clearing Confederate stragglers from their trenches. Then three more divisions would move through the breach to seize Cemetery Hill, about 500 yards beyond. The hill overlooked Petersburg itself: its control would make Lee’s position untenable. Ferrero immediately began training his men for the assault.
On June 25, 1864, the Pennsylvanians began digging the tunnel with picks and shovels, finishing it on July 23. The main shaft was 586 feet long and four and a half feet wide, with two lateral galleries, or branches, totaling 75 feet, extending beneath the Confederate entrenchments. Over the next four days, the Pennsylvanians packed 320 kegs of black powder, totaling 8000 pounds, into the galleries. Then they installed the fuse.
Within twelve hours of the attack, however, General Meade dropped his own bomb. Meade had just survived a congressional investigation into his conduct at Gettysburg a year before. If this attack failed, Meade wanted no political repercussions for ordering black soldiers to the slaughter. Accordingly, he ordered Burnside to substitute a white division for Ferrero’s as the assault’s first wave.
The change of plan was so sudden that some of Ferrero’s commanders did not learn of it until after midnight on the morning of battle.
It was an amazing decision. Ferrero had trained his men for weeks in anticipation of the assault. The other divisions were unprepared. Moreover, although Ferrero’s men had never been in close contact with the enemy, they were anxious to fight. Of course, Burnside had his orders, but a competent commander would have chosen Ferrero’s replacement as assault leader based upon his subordinates’ qualities. Burnside had his division commanders draw lots. James Ledlie won. No one worse could have been chosen.
A thirty-two-year-old civil engineer, born in Utica, New York, James Hewitt Ledlie had been commissioned a major in 1861, rising to brigadier general by the end of 1862. He had generally avoided combat in various district and post commands. This was probably good for all concerned. As Ezra Warner wrote in Generals in Blue, Ledlie was “an arrant physical coward” who hit the bottle under stress. Nonetheless, in May 1864, he was assigned to command a brigade in the Ninth Corps. A month later, he was given command of the First Division of the Ninth Corps, even though his subordinates were already complaining of his poor performance on the battlefield and his drinking habits.
Ledlie’s First Division, though weary and demoralized from weeks of fighting without relief and completely unprepared for this new assignment, was to enter the breach. At 3:30 a.m., zero hour, they were standing to. No explosion. After 4 a.m., the 48th Pennsylvania reported that the fuse had died out some forty feet short of the explosives. Lieutenant Jacob Douty and Sergeant Henry Rees entered the gallery and reignited the fuse. They had barely emerged from the tunnel’s mouth at 4:45 a.m. when the spark reached the explosives.
General Bushrod Johnson had anticipated a Union attempt to breach his lines through a frontal assault. Nothing had prepared him or his men for this. The earth shook for miles around. Then the ground burst like a volcano beneath the Confederate artillerists and infantrymen in the trenches in what Johnson’s official report called an upheaval “of an immense column of more than 100,000 cubic feet of earth.” Cannon, timbers, and men rose with it, flipping end over end in the air. Nine Southern infantry companies simply vanished.
As the column rose some 200 feet, 170 feet of Confederate entrenchment disintegrated, leaving a crater 135 feet long, 97 feet wide and 30 feet deep, littered with twisted pieces of iron, shattered wheels, broken cannon, human fragments, and half-buried screaming men. Nearly 150 pieces of Union artillery then opened fire upon the Confederate positions in what Johnson later called “the heaviest artillery fire known to our oldest officers in the field.”
Ledlie’s incompetence bore fruit from the first moment. He had failed to provide for ladders or steps: his men had to struggle to get out of their own trenches. His officers did not know where they were going once they reached the Crater because Ledlie had not briefed them on their new goal, Cemetery Hill, and their route to it.
The explosion and the enormous pit had struck Ledlie’s troops with awe. As they stumbled forward from the dust and smoke, their discipline failed: they could not resist the temptation to crowd forward to look into the hole. The attack slowed and stopped. The various units mingled together, breaking the lines of command. Officers could not find their men in the crowd. Fire began coming from the other side.
Good troops recover from the shock of disaster and Johnson’s men were very good. His surviving infantry and artillery began firing on the flanks of the advancing federal columns. Now, instead of advancing around the Crater, Ledlie’s troops began entering it to take shelter from enemy fire.
At a depth of thirty feet, getting into the Crater was easy. Getting out of it was not. Half an hour after they had stepped off, Ledlie’s command was huddled in a confused, leaderless mass at the bottom of the pit. Unit after unit backed up after them, leaving thousands of men either crammed into the Crater or stalled in no man’s land—useless as combat troops, but excellent targets. Even the Confederates found the slowness of the Union’s advance inexplicable. One observer noted that Johnson’s division had been so shaken that “there was nothing on the Confederate side to prevent the orderly [advance] of any column through the breach which had been effected, cutting the Confederate army in twain.”
Thus the First Division stalled. Its commander was not present to restore order, clear the trenches, and resume the advance. General Ledlie was huddled “in a bombproof shelter ten rods [165 feet] in the rear of the main line,” plying himself with a bottle of rum borrowed from a regimental surgeon. He couldn’t observe the fighting or pass instructions to his officers. A court of inquiry later found that “Had the division [been] led by a resolute, intelligent commander, it would have gained the crest in fifteen minutes after the explosion, and before any serious opposition could have been made to it.”
Within minutes of the explosion, Johnson had dispatched his aides to the Confederate divisions on his flanks for reinforcements. On his right flank was William Mahone’s Virginians. Johnson’s aide, an English volunteer named Smith, promptly galloped back to report Mahone was on the march.
Brigadier General William Mahone was not yet thirty-eight years old when Smith dashed up to his headquarters. Though the son of an innkeeper, Mahone had graduated from Virginia Military Institute, having paid his tuition from the proceeds of a card game at his father’s tavern.
He had been a college professor and professional railroader before entering the Confederate army in 1861. And his handsome and strong-willed wife Otelia Butler, mother of their thirteen children and a character in her own right, was nearly as famous as Mahone.
Mahone had transformed his command into what the authors of the encyclopedic Confederate Military History have described as “a remarkably spirited and unified organization which was inspired with a strong esprit [de] corps, and distinguished for readiness to take all chances in either defense or assault.” Moreover, Petersburg was Mahone’s hometown. (As Grant had quipped of Meade defending his native Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, “A rooster fights for his own dung hill.”)
Burnside sent in two more divisions. They either froze in no man’s land or took cover in the Crater. Then Burnside sent in Ferrero’s Fourth Division. They had to stop in the front line of the Federal trenches because other troops were blocking their way. Then Ferrero was ordered to advance. Then he was ordered to halt. Then he was ordered to advance. By now, his men were taking enemy fire and unable to protect themselves. They rushed forward. Some obeyed their orders, charging around the pit. Others stopped in no man’s land. Still more rushed into the Crater, hopelessly entangling themselves with the mob that had once been Ledlie’s command. Ferrero was not there. He was back in the bombproof with Ledlie, sharing the bottle.
Burnside, still farther in the rear, had been so sure of success that his baggage had been ordered packed for the advance into Petersburg. He disbelieved the bad news about the assault and kept sending troops up to the Crater. His attention was further distracted by the presence of the remarkably temperamental and profane General Meade, who began squabbling with him over the failure of the attack. The only fly on the wall was Horace Porter, one of Grant’s staff officers: he later claimed that day’s arguments between Generals Burnside and Meade “went far towards confirming one’s belief in the wealth and flexibility of the English language as a medium of personal dispute.” At 9:45 a.m., Grant and Meade flatly ordered Burnside to break off the offensive and withdraw. Burnside did not forward the order to his troops for nearly three more hours.
In the meantime, Mahone’s Virginians had come to the Crater, filling the breach in the Confederate lines created by the explosion. Then at 9 a.m., while Mahone was redeploying his command—moving them into place for a counterattack—part of Ferrero’s Fourth Division, having passed the Crater as originally planned, advanced upon him in line of battle. Only half of Mahone’s command was in place. He charged anyway.
The Virginians came boiling out of a ravine, smashing head-on into the Federals, and in a serious of ferocious charges, killed or forced back every Federal soldier who had gone beyond the Crater. Johnson’s artillery encouraged the bluecoats on their way with canister—shells filled with musket balls that scattered in all directions after exploding.
Between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., as Johnson reported, Confederate artillerists began using mortars—small, short-range artillery with high trajectory—to drop explosive shells “with remarkable precision” into the mass of men huddled at the bottom of the pit. Then the rebel infantry pressed to the Crater’s rim, hiring into the nearly helpless Federal troops floundering in “their huge, earthen barrel.”
Around noon, Mahone’s command charged into the pit, driving out the survivors in hand-to-hand fighting. Many Confederates had been told Ferrero’s division was under orders to take no prisoners. Now they returned the compliment, shooting and bayoneting every black soldier they could find.
By mid-afternoon, the fighting was over. Bodies lay four and five deep on the floor of the Crater. The Union suffered 3,798 to 5,300 casualties. Of these, half were from Ferrero’s African-American division, who had stood their ground and fought and died. Nevertheless, The New York Times reported that the black soldiery had fallen “out of the range of fire after several advances forward,” an evasive suggestion that they had run away. Indeed, Northern journalists seem to have been nearly as one in blaming Negro troops for the defeat. An unnamed special correspondent wrote that their conduct “was as disgraceful as it proved disastrous to themselves.” This was simply untrue: it would have been news to one of Ferrero’s men, Sergeant Decatur Dorsey of the 19th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, who won the Medal of Honor for saving his company colors from a Confederate charge and rallying his men to advance.
The Confederacy had lost from 1,032 to 1,500 men. The assault had been, as Grant wrote, a “stupendous failure.” He would besiege Petersburg for another eight months.
The U.S. Army convened a court of inquiry, which heard testimony for sixteen days. They found Burnside and Ledlie at fault. Only now, after Antietam and Fredericksburg and the Crater, was Burnside finally relieved of command. Ledlie resigned his commission in January 1865, having been literally read out of the service on Grant’s orders. Ferrero was found responsible for having been “where he could not see the operation of his troops [or know] the position of the two brigades of his division or whether they had taken Cemetery Hill.”
Robert E. Lee promoted Mahone to major general before sundown on the day of battle. Mahone fought until the very end and surrendered with Lee at Appomattox. His neighbors elected him mayor of Petersburg; his fellow Virginians, U.S. Senator, from which office he dominated the politics of the Old Dominion. His Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railway was a direct ancestor of today’s Norfolk Southern. Once, when Mahone was standing beside one of its steam locomotives, someone asked him the meaning of the initials “A. M. & O.” painted on its tender. “All Mine and Otelia’s,” he replied.
Ambrose E. Burnside resigned his commission on April 15, 1865. Rhode Island welcomed him as a conquering hero. His warm, charismatic personality overcame his consistent history of military debacle to see him three times elected governor and, in 1874, U.S. senator, which office he held until his death on September 13, 1881. Six years later in Providence, on July 4, 1887, the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations dedicated an equestrian statue to its beloved incompetent.
James Ledlie, that “arrant physical coward,” made a fortune in building and promoting western and southern railroads. In 1882, he died of dropsy and jaundice at the St. Mark’s Hotel in New Brighton, Staten Island. His New York Times obituary does not mention the Battle of the Crater. Ledlie, Nevada, which was named for him in 1880, became a ghost town after his Nevada Central Railroad was torn up in 1938. At last report, all that remained was a collapsed wooden building and a solitary telegraph pole.
Edward Ferrero never ceased to praise his men for their courage under fire at the Crater. Despite the court of inquiry’s finding, he was brevetted major general on December 2, 1864 for “meritorious service.” After he was mustered out of the army in 1865, Ferrero returned to New York, and, over the next three decades, operated a succession of splendid ballrooms and catering halls that, from their descriptions in the contemporary press, seem precursors to such institutions as Leonard’s of Great Neck. He died in his home at 111 West 7th street on Monday, December 11, 1899. His New York Times obituary, like that of Ledlie, does not mention the Crater, either. He lies in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. His most enduring work, The Art of Dancing, has been reprinted and may be found on Amazon.com.
New York Press, January 14 & 28, 2003
January 14, 2015 No Comments