Tag Archives: Ambrose Burnside

June 25, 1864: Sandbag day at Petersburg

Building field fortifications requires a lot of “consumable” materials.  Even in modern times, when the soldiers fortify a position, they tend to displace a lot of earth and use stockpiles of building materials.  One material that comes in high demand is the lowly sandbag.  In 1863, engineers on Morris Island recorded using over 46,000 sandbags in just one portion of the siege lines.  Reporting on that operation, Major Thomas Brooks described the standard sandbag of the time:

The dimensions of the filled sand-bags, when laid, varied from 6 by 10 by 24 inches to 5 ½ by 11 by 23 inches, and contained .85 of a cubic foot of damp sand, weighing about 85 pounds; hence 32 to the cubic yard.

So 32 sandbags made up one cubic yard of earthwork.  (Check my math as I check Brooks here – 0.85 cubic feet is 0.0314 cubic yards… and 0.0314 goes into 1 cubic yard 32.2 times.  Seems right?)  And 32 sandbags filled with 85 pounds of earth weigh 2,720 pounds – one and a third short tons.

For those commencing the siege of Petersburg, just under a year later, the sandbag was likewise an important commodity.  On June 25, 1864, at 2:45 p.m., Major-General Ambrose Burnside had a pressing need for sandbags:

We have commenced a mine that will reach the batteries of the enemy in our front by a reach of 115 yards. I have given orders for all the necessary changes of the line to make the work ordinarily secure. We want about 7,000 sand-bags or more. I think we can break the line of the enemy in due time if we can have the necessary facilities. We want heavy guns very much. Can we have the sand-bags?

That mine, in particular, would require a lot of sandbags.  Major-General George Meade responded promptly, granting that request for sandbags:

I have directed Duane to send you an engineer officer and a company of sappers, and Hunt to send you sand-bags and siege guns. I am delighted to hear you can do anything against the enemy’s line, and will furnish you everything you want, and earnest wishes for your success besides. I would have been over to see you to-day, but certain movements of the enemy on the left have kept me here.

“Delighted!”  The slow turning siege could grind forward, but needed just a few thousand sandbags.  Now time for staff officers to do what they get paid for.  Brigadier-General Henry Hunt, the Chief of Artillery, became the “stuckee” on the sandbag tasking request, as he was also directing the siege operations and generally kept sandbags around to support the artillery positions.

Hunt first inquired, at around 6 p.m. that day, to Brigadier-General John Barnard, running engineering operations out of City Point, specifically requesting that Brigadier-General Henry Benham provide the required sandbags.  Barnard, no slouch for military protocol, pointed out that Benham came under Meade’s orders, but “There ought to be 100,000 sand-bags somewhere.”  He also suggested inquiries with Brigadier-General Godfrey Weitzel, of the Army of the James.  But, hold that for a moment.

Upon receipt of Barnard’s reply, Hunt sent the request for sandbags directly to Benham.  And Benham, as he did so often with such matters, replied at 8:10 p.m. that the materials were not exactly at arm’s reach:

All my siege materials, as I have kept General Meade fully advised, have been retained at Fort Monroe. On receipt of your dispatch to General Barnard, through Colonel Porter, I at once sent an aide down in a steamer to bring it up, and I expect it to-morrow afternoon or evening, and will send them out to you at once, if you then wish them, of which please advise me.

So Benham had sandbags, but he just didn’t have them around at that moment.  Maybe tomorrow or the next day….

We hear all sorts of references to the Federal war effort featuring an over-abundance of resources.  But such abundance means nothing if the resources are not at the right place for use.  Barnard estimated 100,000 sandbags were “around.”  So now a capable staff officer needed to secure a small draft of that sandbag stockpile for use on the line.

Enter Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock, aide-de-camp on the staff of Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  While Hunt conversed with Benham, he also communicated with Comstock, who was also working this “tasking.”  At 6:10 p.m., Hunt related to Burnside:

Have heard from Comstock. He says General Benham has sand-bags. I have telegraphed to General Barnard to have 7,000 or 8,000 sent you to-night either by Benham or Abbot.

Ah, Colonel Henry Abbot also might have sandbags.  Comstock inquired with Abbot.  And promptly Abbot responded with an affirmative, but with limitations:

I made requisition for 25,000 sand-bags–5,000 for each gun, excluding the 100-pounders. How many were actually obtained I cannot say without seeing my ordnance officer, who is now at Broadway Landing. I have no transportation for them. I would suggest that you direct General Ingalls to send transportation to the Broadway Landing (one mile below the pontoon bridge), and let the wagon-master carry an order for Capt. S. P. Hatfield, ordnance officer of siege train, to issue the required number of bags to General Burnside. I think this plan would save much time. These bags, I hope, will be replaced, as I find I shall be obliged to supply them for my embrasures.

Abbot also suggested, within separate correspondence to Barnard, to inquire with Weitzel, on the Bermuda Hundred line.  So that’s how Barnard knew to reference Weitzel, perhaps?  At any rate, that’s where the draft of sandbags would come from.  That evening, Weitzel sent word to Burnside:

I have just ordered 8,000 sandbags to be sent to you from my depot at Bermuda Hundred with all possible haste. I imagine they will reach you about 1 o’clock.

So Burnside got his sandbags the following morning.  Soon the troops would be employed filling those sandbags.  Mind you those 8,000 would only provide 250 cubic yards of sandbags – be that reinforcing or revetments.  Oh, but that was 340 short tons of earth to be moved.  Sieges are indeed labor intensive operations.

The main reason I bring all this up is not to impress the reader with the number or weight of sandbags used, but to demonstrate how a good staff functions to support the commander.  While commanders can designate the point of attack or defense, it is often up to staff officer to ensure the resources are arranged to support that command.  Hunt, Comstock, Abbot, and Weitzel demonstrated just that function on June 25.  A small episode of the war, not something to command a paragraph in any history of the battle.  But the complex nature of any battle, particularly a siege, required hundreds of such small episodes – thankless staff work – in order to reach a successful conclusion.

There would be many more “sandbag days” at Petersburg.  100,000 sandbags would not be enough.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 40, Part II, Serial 81, pages 406-7, 417, 418, and 422-3.)

Wainwright’s Diary, May 1, 1864: “The army was never in better condition”

For Colonel Charles S. Wainwright and the rest of the Army of the Potomac 150 years ago, the waiting for the word was the preoccupation of the day:

Culpeper Court House, May 1, Monday.  We are still here but expecting orders hourly almost …. Things here look so very near a move that the chances are decidedly against our being in our present quarters for a regular Thursday entry in here this week.  Our sick were all sent off yesterday.  Burnside’s division of negroes has relieved the half of this corps on the railroad so that it will be here tomorrow.  The rest of Burnside’s command is near Rappahannock Station.  One division they say has not joined him yet.  So near as I can make out, Grant will start from here with about 125,000 men, including all Burnside’s corps and the cavalry.  One-third of the number are green troops, but there are only a few new regiments, and the army was never in better condition, take it altogether. The number stated, I am confident, is not over 5,000 out either way, as I have excellent means of knowing.  It is enough anyway; quite as many as Grant and Meade together can take care of, and properly used ought to be sure to use up Lee.  The weather continues very fine. The roads and all the country are just in the very best condition. Everyone here is in good spirits and those at home full of expectation.

The roads were fine.  The weather was fine.  But there was little to do but wait.

Several movies have depicted, at least briefly, the anxieties felt by soldiers during the “wait” for major operations.  For the World War II subjects, two such noteworthy films doing so, which I would guess most readers are familiar, are The Longest Day and A Bridge too Far.  In the latter movie, there is a scene where Sean Connery, playing Major-General Roy Urquhart, plays a round of golf the morning before his division jumped into Arnhem. That behavior reminds me, in my personal experience, of a commander who would practice fly-casting during the “waits.”  Anything to ease the anxiety and allow mental focus.  Keep in mind, as you consider the “wait,” these men were not just waiting for a train to arrive.  They were waiting for commencement of an activity in which many would perish or receive grievous wounds.  Hard to sit still with such as that hanging on the next order.

But an important difference between Wainwright of 1864 and Urquhart of 1944 lay in how much they knew of the operation.  Wainwright scarcely knew what road his batteries would march upon. While he could predict heavy fighting, he didn’t know where or when.  As one frequent contributor to this blog has remarked, Grant knew how to keep a secret!

Another important part of Wainwright’s observation on this day 150 years ago is the reference to Brigadier-General Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, Ninth Corps.  At the time Wainwright wrote the entry, Ferrero was quartered around Manassas, and relieving the Fifth Corps of responsibilities north of the Rappahannock along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Within days, those USCT regiments would move further south, then pick up the line of march to Germanna Ford.

I’ve written at length about the USCT (and 54th Massachusetts) present at Morris Island in the summer of 1863.  And I have always felt the deployment of those troops at that time provided the first “shock” to the Confederate leadership in regards to the “sable arm.”  But with the opening of the Overland Campaign, the presence of USCT on the line of march going south served a message to both Federal and Confederate.  There on the roads leading through Culpeper, over the Rapidan, and into the Wilderness were the very physical representation of the main purpose of the Civil War.  Emancipated men carrying arms into the fight.

(Citation from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 345.)

Wainwright’s Diary, April 28, 1864: “we should howl in unison”

For once, Colonel Charles S. Wainwright started his diary entry without mention of the weather.  Instead, he announced meager success on his “waggon” lobbying efforts:

April 28, 1864, Thursday. We have got back one more waggon for each battery, which gives us three for forage instead of two; still we ought to have one more, for though I have taken eight from the ammunition train to carry forage for the batteries in, we shall be loaded too heavily should the roads be bad at the start, and will have to set out with some on the carriages. One forage waggon is to march with each battery. I have had all my train out for inspection. It looked very well; the mules are good and in capital order, the waggons all nearly painted, and new covers marked with cross cannon and the corps badge.

My train now comprises 103 army waggons and eleven ambulances, and 781 horses and mules; the grand total of carriages of all sorts is 225, which when on the march, allowing fifteen yards to each, will cover just about two miles of road….

And what forced the commander’s hand and loosened the constriction on “waggons”?

[Brigadier-General Henry] Hunt writes me that the howl with regard to their losing one waggon per battery was universal, and thinks that with a little practice, so that we should “howl in unison,” we might really be able to accomplish something. There is just where the trouble has lain; several I think most, of the artillery officers have heretofore leaned towards their corps commander, and for their own advancement have sought to please him; they have identified themselves with the corps to which they were attached rather than with the arm in which they belong….

Interesting observation about relations between artillery officers and their corps commanders.  Were he around to comment today, I think Hunt would quickly point out the installation of field grade officers, to head the artillery brigades assigned to the corps, would alleviate much of that problem.

Wainwright next looked to an issue, while not directly impacting his artillery batteries, did play against the strength of the Army of the Potomac – expiration of enlistments.  Wainwright feared “short timer” attitudes as the army entered the campaign:

We are entering on this campaign with the term of quite a number of the regiments almost out. The question arises, how will these men behave when they have only a few weeks to serve before going home? Meade has considered it of sufficient importance to issue an order on the subject, exhorting them “not to suffer the honourable fame they have won to be tarnished by acts of insubordination”, at the same time warning them that “extreme measures” will be resorted to to stop any such trouble if necessary.

But, as for the artillery of the Fifth Corps, Wainwright was ready.  And elsewhere across the country other formations were nearing readiness:

Yesterday I notified both General Hunt and Warren that all my preparations were complete, and I was ready to move at any time…. Lieutenant-Colonel [Cyrus] Comstock, Grant’s senior aide-de-camp, was expected back from Chattanooga last night with information as to the state of readiness in Sherman’s army.  Burnside’s corps did embark according to the rumours in my last entry, and disembarked on Monday at Alexandria. He is to relieve the half of this corps now guarding the railroad; but after all the fuss made about him, and his big corps it is not to be supposed that he will remain there all summer….

In regard to poor Burnside, not like Wainwright was a gifted prognosticator.  Though I would like to listen to a gifted historian flesh out the reasons Burnside was there in the spring of 1864.  There were justifications – valid, though we might not consider them well grounded.  Anything besides “what ifing” the situation to a logical dead end.

Wainwright touched next upon reports of the Sanitary Commission Fair in New York… and that ceremonial sword:

The great fair is over in New York. The sword goes to Grant; McClellan was ahead at the close of the public subscribing, but afterward they claim to have received $1,000 from somewhere outside the city in votes for Grant; it was given by the Union League in New York, who presented that in this way they are supporting the Union.  All the ladies engaged in it are completely used up; many of them sick; and at least one Mrs. D. D. Field, has died from sickness brought on while there.

Wainwright closed with an interesting observation from one of his employees back in New York:

Lydia, my black cook, who did not want me to come and fight for the freedom of the slaves, now says that she “wishes a pestilence would carry the all off if they are to be set free without any means of being taken care of; for then they would fall by the hand of the Lord; now they are falling by the hand of men”….

There’s a springboard for a “what if.”  And one of far greater importance than Burnside’s command of a corps.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 344-5.)