It was an audacious idea.
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was dug in outside Petersburg; the Union Army of the Potomac, seeking to capture the Virginia town, could do nothing to dislodge it, two proud armies stuck peering at each other through field glasses, ankle-deep in mud, within innovative trench systems that would crisscross France more than a half-century later.
Up stepped Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. He had had a eureka moment: Why not let his Pennsylvania coal miners dig a tunnel under no man’s land, pack the ground beneath the Rebs with an obscene amount of gunpowder, and blow ’em all to high heaven? Having no better ideas, Union brass went for it.
The plan basically worked. Despite a few glitches, the mine was dug, 8,000 pounds of black powder was placed, it exploded bigly as promised, and Confederate soldiers were tossed to and fro in the air, those surviving the blast stupefied at what had just happened to them.
As the uprooted southerners staggered about in bewilderment, Union soldiers rushed forward across the field directly, irresistibly, into the hole that 320 kegs of gunpowder evidently forms, giddy at what the Pennsylvania boys had wrought. The crater, still visible today, measured more than 150-feet long, 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Hurrahs ensued; blue forage caps were hurled into the air in celebration.
But there was just one problem for the seemingly victorious northerners: They were now standing in a 150 x 100 x 30 foot pit. The southerners recovered soon enough to realize it, surrounded the crater with cannon and rifleman, and engaged in what a Confederate officer would later call a “turkey shoot.” The South won the day.
This story of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory is worth recalling because a.) it’s a fun story to tell (if you weren’t there) and b.) it dramatically illustrates what can befall a force when it becomes blinded by success — when it is so caught up in its own cleverness that it doesn’t think ahead.
The Battle of the Crater in 1864 may be especially worth remembering for conservatives heading into the 2020 elections. The Republican Party has had some successes following an unorthodox leader espousing unorthodox tactics — any Republican president can appoint conservative judges pre-screened by the Federalist Society, it’s worth noting — but its current leader comes with a singularly exposed flank. That extra exposure risks more than Republicans losing in 2020; it creates a scenario under which American conservatism itself is routed in 2021 and beyond.
The Democratic Party will field candidates this year who would have no chance of winning the presidency normally, starting with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But widespread antipathy for this president, who will be further weakened by investigations in all likelihood going into 2020, opens up the real possibility of a radical progressive winning the White House — with a Democratic House and Senate majority to back him or her up. Republicans would find themselves in a hole of their own digging, with potential policy consequences that would make the Barack Obama agenda look like child’s play in hindsight.
Sage conservatives who capitulated to Trumpism are coming to this realization, but too slowly and too quietly. They are taking a wait-and-and-see approach with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation when they should be drawing up Plan B.
Skeptics of consequence within the GOP were anything but emboldened this week by Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel who slammed her own uncle, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for daring to state the obvious in a Washington Post op-ed about this president’s erratic temperament and moral shortcomings. Stay loyal, she announced to the troops, and keep packing in that gunpowder.
It’s going to be one heck of an explosion, unless some brave souls can sever the fuse.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.