Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Colonel Edward Roberts

I have been waiting for some time for my vocational and avocational paths to cross.  My career in the oil and gas industry finally crossed with my interest in the American Civil War in the person of Colonel Edward A. L. Roberts. 


Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball
Roberts was a lieutenant colonel in the 28th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment where he served under Colonel Moses N. Wisewell. The 28th was was part of Brigadier General Nathan Kimball's 1st Brigade or "Gibraltar Brigade."  Kimball's brigade was in Brigadier General William H. French's Third Division in Major General Darius H. Couch's II Corp. This corps was part of the Right Grand Division under Major General Edwin Vose Sumner in Major General Ambrose Burnside's Army of the Potomac.

Roberts had been court-martialed for "intoxication on dress parade" in November and was waiting for the results from the military court. Roberts’ regiment marched into Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Battle of Fredericksburg
On December 13, 1862, General Burnside's ordered General Sumner to send "a division or more" to seize the high ground to the west of Fredericksburg. Burnside believed his assault on the southern end of the Confederate line would be the decisive action of the battle.  On the northern end of the battlefield, General French's Third Division prepared to move forward under Confederate artillery fire. Fredericksburg was covered in fog. 

The fog lifted at 10:00 a.m., and Sumner ordered the advance around 11:00 a.m.   The avenue of approach was difficult with most of it over open fields, with houses, fences, and gardens that would restrict the movement of battle lines. A canal stood about 200 yards west of the town, crossed by three narrow bridges, which would require the Union troops to funnel themselves into columns before proceeding. About 600 yards to the west of Fredericksburg was the low ridge known as Marye's Heights, rising 40–50 feet above the plain. They advanced slowly through heavy artillery fire, crossed the canal in columns over the narrow bridges, and formed in line, with fixed bayonets, behind the protection of a shallow bluff. In perfect line of battle, they advanced up the muddy slope until they were cut down at about 125 yards from the stone wall by repeated rifle volleys.

When his commander was shot in the face during the 28th’s charge, Roberts assumed command. In his after action report, Roberts wrote, “We went into action under a most galling and deadly fire of shot and shell, and continued in action until near dark. Officers and men conducted themselves well.”

A month later, Roberts’ court martial verdict was published under General Order No. 2. Despite his heroic actions during the battle, among the Civil War’s bloodiest, he was found guilty and ordered to be cashiered, effective January 12, 1863. Prior to the court’s verdict, Roberts had attempted to resign but this was strangely characterized as “tendering resignation in face of enemy.”

Robert's Torpedo
Roberts’ service as a Union officer was finished. However, he would soon make history in Pennsylvania oilfields. During the bombardment at Fredericksburg, Roberts noticed that shells falling in the canal transferred the force of their underwater explosions sideways.  Oilmen knew that oil was "locked" under pressure in deep rock formations. If those rocks could be broken up, more of the resource could be released. Roberts transformed his observation into what he described as “superincumbent fluid tamping.” He received the first of his many patents for an “Improvement in Exploding Torpedoes in Artesian Wells” on April 25, 1865.

The torpedo or bomb was lowered down the well to a desired depth. The torpedo contained from fifteen to twenty pounds of gunpowder (later nitroglycerin). The borehole was filled with water which provided the “fluid tamping” to concentrate the concussion and more efficiently fracture surrounding oil strata.

Roberts revolutionary oilfield invention greatly increased production of America’s early petroleum industry and hydraulic fracturing technology was born.

(Source: Shooters - A "Fracking" History, American Oil & Gas Historical Society, "A deeper perspective on the fracking boom," The Dallas Morning News, April 20, 2014, 7E., and The Boom, Russell Gold, Simon & Shuster)

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