James Hewett Ledlie
– August 15
) was a civil engineer for American
railroads and a general in the Union Army
during the American Civil War
. He is best known for his dereliction of duty
at the Battle of the Crater
during the Siege of Petersburg
Ledlie was born in Utica, New York
. He graduated from Union College, Schenectady, New York
, and worked as a civil engineer in railroad construction.
Shortly after the start of the Civil War, Ledlie was appointed major
of the 19th New York Infantry, which was subsequently renamed the 3rd New York Artillery regiment. The history of this regiment was marred by a mutiny at the expiration of its original term of service. Ledlie was promoted to colonel
, in December 1861, and was promoted to brigadier general
in command of the Artillery Brigade of the Department of North Carolina in December 1862. (His appointment expired in March 1863 for lack of Senate confirmation, but he was reappointed in October 1863 and later confirmed.) For the next year and a half, he served primarily in garrison positions with North Carolina coastal artillery emplacements and in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.
Just after the start of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in 1864, Ledlie transferred to the Army of the Potomac, commanding a brigade in Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps. He assumed command of the 1st Division on June 9. It was in this command that his brief military career was ruined.
During the Siege of Petersburg, former coal miners in Burnside's corps devised an ingenious plan to lift the stalemate by digging a 511-foot tunnel under the Confederate lines. On July 30, 1864, they detonated the explosives, creating a crater some 135 feet in diameter that remains visible to this day. Some 250 to 350 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast. The Union plan was to exploit the explosion by sending well-rehearsed African-American troops of Edward Ferrero's division into the gap and driving for critical objectives deep in the Confederate rear area. The plan was modified at the last minute, however, due to political concerns about the effect the black troops would have on the Confederate soldiers and the public in general. Burnside, despondent at the change in plans, resorted to a lottery to select a replacement division. Ledlie drew the short straw and disaster resulted. He did not brief his troops beforehand and they entered the crater out of curiosity instead of moving safely around its rim, as Ferrero's division had been trained to do. Unable to exit the steep sides of the crater, they were slaughtered by Confederates firing down on them. Over 5,300 Union troops were casualties in the ill-fated battle that achieved none of its objectives. But most damning for Ledlie's reputation was the fact that he did not lead, or even accompany, his men into battle. He and Ferrero were observed behind the lines in a bunker, drinking liquor.
Ledlie was criticized by a court of inquiry into his conduct that September and, in December, he was effectively dismissed from the service by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, on orders from Gen. Grant. He formally resigned his commission on January 23, 1865.
Ledlie resumed his career as a railroad civil engineer in the West and South. He participated in the construction of the transcontinental railroad
as an employee of the Union Pacific
. He also worked on constructing the Nevada Central Railroad
line from Battle Mountain, Nevada
to Austin, Nevada
, racing to get the 92-mile line built in half a year to meet a deadline before a bond issue expired. His crews got within 2 miles of the city limits of Austin before the deadline, and at the last minute town officials quickly extended the city limits to meet the tracks.
Ledlie died in New Brighton, Staten Island, and is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica, New York.
- Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
- Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, Louisiana State University Press, 1964, ISBN 0-8071-0822-7.