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"Playhouse 90" The Tunnel (1959)

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"Only Burnside Could Snatch One More Defeat From the Jaws of Victory!"

Author: theowinthrop from United States
28 April 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In the summer of 1864, the North and the South were locked in a deadly stalemate that many felt would lead to Southern independence. Ulysses Grant was brought to the Virginia theater of the war, after his three years of successes in the West and deep south, and now was confronting Robert E. Lee. But every battle with Lee from May 1864 to August 1864 had been (at best) a draw. A similar situation was occurring around Atlanta, Georgia, where Grant's friend William Sherman kept confronting Joseph Johnston, but never quite defeating him. But, as a matter of fact both Lee and Johnston found they could not figure out any way to defeat their northern opponents.

It later would turn out that the stalemate was not to the best of the South's interests. Lee could not get out of the Richmond area to send assistance to Johnston, and Johnston could not find alternative source of reinforcements. But in the short run it looked very impressive that Grant and Sherman did not crush their opponents.

Grant did try various things, of which only one worked well. He took General Phil Sheridan, and sent him into the Shenandoah Valley - the "breadbasket" of Lee's Army - and destroyed it's crops. Lee countered this with one of his best lieutenants, Jubal Early, but in the end Sheridan out-general-led Early (though just barely). But Sheridan (like Sherman) was an exception. An attempt to get an army across the James River under Benjamin Butler at Bermuda Hundreds ended in being literally bottled up by the superior generalship of Confederate General Pierre Beauregard.

And then there was this disaster - turned here into a drama on the old television series "Playhouse 90". General Ambrose E. Burnside has a left us a reputation that brings Civil War experts to tears. He occasionally showed some degree of ability, usually in junior positions. He did a very tricky but successful early amphibious landing at Hatteras Inlet in 1862. He also did defeat Lee's able "War Horse" commander, James Longstreet, at Knoxville in 1863. But his record included the bloody fiasco (at the battle of Antietam Creek) of "Burnside's Bridge", and the massacre of troops of the Army of the Potomac in several useless frontal assaults at Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862. The latter was the defeat that marked his nadir as an army commander, but he was able to be used in smaller commands until 1864.

In that summer of 1864 Burnside came up with an idea for breaking the stalemate before Petersburg between Grant and Lee's Armies by using a huge amount of explosives to blow a hole in the Confederate trench system and plow through with Union troops. This was to be known as the Battle of the Crater. It was reviewed by Grant, as Commander in Chief, and General George Gordon Meade, titular Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Both approved the plan.

It required having crack Union troops climb out of the crater created by the explosion, and swiftly move through the southern trench (thus cracking the Confederate defense perimeters. In actuality it was a brilliant plan - but Burnside was in charge.

First thing wrong was that he decided to use mostly African-American troops as his specially trained forces. Burnside should have realized that this would certainly not be liked in abolitionist circles, where the African-American troops would look like cannon fodder. Southern troops would also react far more violently against African-American troops than Caucasian - American soldiers.

Secondly Burnside failed to have ladders ready for the hundreds of troops to climb out of the crater. All the troops began milling about the Crater opening, waiting for orders that never came. The Confederates did regroup and fired into the struggling Union masses - killing hundreds of them.

THe Union troops were under command of General Edward Ferrero and General James Ledlie. Ferrero had a distinguished career as a Norhern soldier, but Ledlie was a coward. They would spend the hours of the attack in Ledlie's tent, drinking a bottle of liquor while their men got slaughtered.

Burnside's career was finished by this fiasco, which President Lincoln felt only he could have created (see the quote in the "summary line". Ledlie was made to resign (for health reasons). Ferrero was sent home to New York to assist in the drafting of new troops. And the siege of Petersburg lasted for another eight months.

The defeat did not help Northern Morale, but shortly afterward a series of victories (Farragut's victory at Mobile Bay, Alabama; Sherman's victories over Confederate commander John Bell Hood (whom the stupid Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced the cautious but capable Johnston with)at Atlanta, General Phil Sheridan's victories at Winchester, Va., and at Cedar's Creek - over Jubal Early, General John Schofield's victory at Franklin, Tennessee over John Bell Hood, followed by General George Henry Thomas' total destruction of Hood's army at Nashville) enabled the North to realize that Grant was a genius who was slowly destroying the Confederacy. But the cost of defeats like the Crater made the string of victories seem quite unlikely in September 1864.

That, anyway, is the story behind this teleplay production. I have never seen this production, so I cannot comment on the actors or the writing. But the story itself was worth repeating in some detail, to recall what a total military disaster Ambrose Burnside could create. As such he succeeded in creating that disaster which became part of the record of his military career. He would go on to be governor of Rhode Island, and then end his political career as U.S. Senator from Rhode Iland. Go figure that one out!

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I Did Indeed See This Episode And Remember It Pretty Well

10/10
Author: Howard Parsons from United States
17 September 2009

The Tunnel was a dramatic account of the Battle of the Crater. While the production took a few liberties for dramatic purposes, it was essentially a fair & accurate depiction of history. For example, I remember that in "The Tunnel", Burnside did not provide ladders for his troops climb out of their trenches. The historical fact may well be that it was the case for both the Union trenches and the Crater itself but it was only emphasised as the troops left their trenches. The Wikipaedia Article indicates that the Union forces had exited their trenches and assembled behind their lines to await the explosion. When that moment came, they were supposed to cross over their trenches on specially made "bridges" and charge towards the Crater. None of these special bridges were ever constructed and/or deployed so the advancing Union Troops had to jump down into their trenches and then scramble out the other side.

Either which way you care to look at this, the Battle of The Crater was an unmitigated disaster for the Union and turned into what Gen. William Mahone accurately described as a "Turkey Shoot".

On a side note, the Confederate Troops tried something similar a few months later but lacked the tunneling expertise of the Union & had even fewer supplies to carry out the operation.

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