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)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Role of West Pointers in the Civil War

Artillery Practice at the Academy
As most historians known, officers from West Point played a significant role in the Civil War. I tried to quantify this question by examining the general officers who served in the war.  I decided to only include the senior commanders, major generals and above, because brigadier generals were often political appointees and brevet promotions (Union officers only). I also excluded all brevet commissions in March 1865 and later because many were strictly honorary and did not reflect actual combat responsibilities. This criteria resulted in a total of 216 officers of which 126 were union and 90 were Confederate.  This supports the notion that proportionately many officers from the South chose to fight for the Confederacy. If we used the size of the two armies as an indicator, we would expect at least twice as many high-ranking general officers in the north and probably more considering the use of brevet promotions in the Union Army.

The Plain at West Point
Of the total number of higher ranked officers, 59% attended West Point.  I did not include Southern officers who received commissions from VMI.  Another disparity is revealed when examining the two armies. In the Confederate high command, 64% of the officers attended West Point while in the Union Army only 56% were West Point graduates.  This might be the result of more political appointments from the Lincoln Administration compared to the Davis Administration.
Commandant of Cadets C. F. Smith
I examined the year that officers graduated from the Academy to see if I could find "the class the stars shined on."  Conventional reason might suggest that it was the Class of 1846 with McClellan and Jackson.  This class produced eight high-ranking officers. The class that took the prize was 1842 with thirteen senior officers. The class of 1841 had 8 and the class of 1843 had 9. These three classes accounted for 23% of all West Point officers who achieved the rank of major general or higher.  One might ask who taught the cadets in these classes.  Why it was the esteemed Commandant of Cadets, Charles Ferguson Smith.  During his term as Commandant, Smith accounted for 30% of all the West Point graduates who became senior officers during the Civil War.