Who was the best political general of the Civil War? Edward Ferrero
By Charles Patton
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Memorial Debate at the February 2023 Roundtable meeting was: “Who was the best political general of the Civil War?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations.
I was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the Lincoln Forum, and we went over to tour the cemetery and the battlefield. I saw some USCT reenactors in uniform with a regimental flag showing their colors with the name of the commanding officer, General Edward Ferrero, proudly displayed. I had a conversation with one of the reenactors, who gave me a brief history of what action the 51st New York saw during the Civil War. When I saw the topic for this evening’s discussion, I recalled my visit to Gettysburg and the conversation with some of the reenactors.
Doing some research, I found that General Ferrero, whose parents were natives of Italy, was born in Spain in 1831, and his family moved to New York City the following year. Prior to the start of the Civil War, Ferrero was a dance instructor at his father’s dance studio. Ferrero was described as being quite charming, witty, and of good humor, with polished manners and exquisite personal grace. The dance studio morphed into what is now the Apollo Theater in New York City.
Ferrero also taught Dance and Parade instructions at West Point Military Academy prior to the start of the Civil War. He became acquainted with the officers and the cadets, who soon found out that Ferrero knew something about moving mass bodies of people in a large area. As someone wrote about Ferrero, “What is drill but choreography?”
In 1858 Ferrero was a lieutenant with the New York state militia. In 1861 Ferrero, using his own funds, raised the 51st New York Infantry Regiment. His 1,000 troops became known for their parade ground precision and military drill. However, during the first two months of training camp, his troops were not issued rifles or weapons. They marched around the parade training grounds with wooden sticks.
In 1862 Ferrero’s regiment served in an expedition to Roanoke Island, North Carolina, where they captured the first Confederate redoubt of the Civil War. Later in 1862, a brigade of the IX corps, consisting of three regiments totaling 3,000 men under Ferrero, was among the first to be involved in a successful engagement with the Confederate army. Ferrero’s troops were also at Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam, where the Union army lost over 13,000 troops in the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. Ferrero’s men fought well, and he was promoted to brigadier general in 1862.
When the IX corps was sent to the Western Theater to join the siege of Vicksburg, Ferrero was one of the brigade commanders in the corps. Ferrero’s men served a lot of fatigue duty and night patrol, protecting the supply wagons in Mississippi. Captain Higginbotham kept a journal in which he wrote that one night, “I heard a tremendous amount of gunfire after dark.” He wanted to go and see what was happening, but he had not been to roll call and did not know the sign/counter-sign for the evening. When a soldier was challenged with the question, “Halt who goes there,” if the soldier did not know the proper response, what happened? The result could be the sound of a gunshot in the dark of night. Soldiers and people from Vicksburg would come at night from the city to take food and whatever else they could from the Union supply wagons. Guarding these supply wagons was imperative, because the Union army was operating in enemy territory, and its supplies were vital to the success of the conquest of Vicksburg.
In 1864, Ulysses Grant, who had a record of winning battles in the Western Theater, including Vicksburg, was made commander of all U.S. forces and moved to the Eastern Theater. The IX corps was assigned to the Union army there, and one of its divisions was commanded by Ferrero. Ferrero’s division had two brigades of infantry, all of which consisted of USCT regiments. Ferrero remained in command of this division during the siege of Petersburg.
During this siege, the Battle of the Crater happened in 1864. A 500-foot-long tunnel was dug beneath the Confederate trenches by the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. The 48th Pennsylvania was led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer. The mine shaft was dug from the Union camp by coal miners of the 48th Pennsylvania. Then the tunnel was filled with 8,000 pounds of explosives with the expectation of blasting a hole under Robert E. Lee’s line of Confederate soldiers.
An enormous crater was the result. After the explosion went off, the plan was for Ferrero’s division of USCT men to attack through the breach. But the plan was changed at the midnight hour. Ferrero had trained his troops to march in formation around the crater, clearing Confederate stragglers from their trenches, while three more divisions of Union troops moved through the breach to seize Cemetery Hill, which was about 500 yards beyond where the explosion was to have taken place. If this maneuver was successful, Union forces would be overlooking Petersburg, making Lee’s position untenable.
Ferrero had been training his men to be the first to move against the enemy’s line after a large explosion of dynamite, four tons of gunpowder, went off inside and underneath the Confederate position. But the plan was changed hours before the explosion was to go off. Ferrero’s USCT regiments were not going into the attack first, and they were not happy. For political reasons, Generals Grant and Meade directed General Burnside to replace Ferrero’s black division with General Ledlie’s white division. General Meade wanted no political repercussions for the ordering of black soldiers to the slaughter if things went badly.
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 the explosion and the battle. The USCT soldiers had trained for weeks in anticipation of the assault, and they were anxious to fight. The white troops were unprepared for the movements associated with maneuvering around a crater on the battlefield, because Ledlie had not properly trained them for the attack.
During the fighting, Ledlie and Ferrero were not present in the battle while their troops advanced on Petersburg. Instead, Ledlie and Ferrero were drinking rum in a bunker. Ledlie’s division was completely unprepared for its new assignment, which took place starting at 3:30 a.m. The Union army suffered nearly 3,800 casualties in this battle.
Ferrero’s division, or what was left of it after the slaughter, was incorporated into a newly organized USCT unit, the XXV corps, which was composed entirely of black troops, and they went on with General Grant to Appomattox Courthouse. Ferrero was criticized by a court of inquiry for his actions at the Battle of the Crater, but he continued to serve as a division commander until the end of the war and was brevetted major general on December 2, 1864 for “meritorious service.”
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