All along, Gen. Ambrose Burnside had supported an unorthodox plan: Dig a long tunnel, load it with dynamite and blow a hole in the Confederate lines defending Petersburg, Va., a vital rail hub.
But a last-minute change from above threw Burnside into a funk, and he made aerror that cost the Union a speedy end to the Civil War and relieved Burnside of his command.
Originally, the plan had a division of trained Union soldiers rushing through the hole in the Confederate lines immediately after the blast, being careful to go around the resulting crater, not into it. But orders forced Burnside to choose another, untrained division to take the offensive.
Instead of choosing his best-led division, Burnside told three commanders under him to draw straws. The “winner”—Brig. Gen. James Ledlie—was arguably Burnside’s weakest commander.
You could have almost predicted that Ledlie would fail to instruct his men to go around the crater. Instead, they meandered into it and became sitting ducks for a Confederate counterattack that yielded more than 4,000 Union casualties and kept Petersburg in Confederate hands for another eight months.
The lesson: Never leave important decisions to chance.
— Adapted from The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission, Alan Axelrod, Carroll & Graf.