Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Soldiers of the 48th: Lieutenant Jacob Douty, Co. K

Had the Union attack at the Crater been successful, Jacob Douty's name would be much more recognized than it is today. . .And I've always held that if the Army of the Potomac had proved triumphant on that late July day in 1864, the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry would be praised as the heroes of the Union. But this is all counterfactual and speculative, and Jacob Douty's name has slipped into the vast realms of historical obscurity. Jacob Douty was twenty-eight years old when, on October 1, 1861, he was mustered into service as a 2nd Lieutenant in Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The boilermaker from Cressona was listed as standing 5'9" in height, with a dark complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair. Douty served with the regiment for the next three years, seeing action at 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and throughout the 1864 Overland Campaign. By the summer of 1864, Douty had been promoted to 1st Lt.
After failing to break through the Confederate defenses of Petersburg in mid-June, the Army of the Potomac would settle in for a siege of that city that ultimately lasted nine months. However, in late June, the men of the 48th Pennsylvania sought to bring an end to the siege, and perhaps even an end to the war itself, by tunelling under the Confederate lines and exploding tons of black powder.
It is beyond the scope of this particular blog to explain at length the digging of the mine; it is familiar to most students of the war. In the face of severe handicaps, ranging from the total lack of the support the project got from the army's brass (save Burnside), to the unavailability of proper tunelling equipment, the 48th prevailed and in just about one month's time achieved an incredibly remarkable feat: They had tunelled some 510 feet into the earth and packed two extended galleries at the end of the tunnel with 8,000 pounds of powder. Colonel Henry Pleasants, mastermind of the project, ran a fuse, ninety-eight feet in length, and at 3:00 a.m. on the morning of July 30, lit it.
The explosion was supposed to occur at 3:30, but that time soon came and passed. The regiment, indeed, the whole army, waited nervously in anticipation. Sergeant Harry "Snapper" Resse and Lieutenant Jacob Douty, who had assisted Pleasants throughout the digging of the tunnel, volunteered to enter the mine and see what had happened. Pleasants refused; it was far too dangerous. Soon, questions came from headquarters: where is the explosion? Finally, firmly convinced that the problem lay with the fuse, Pleasants relented to Reese's and Douty's requests, and at 4:15 a.m. the two soldiers crawled in. . .
With a lantern to guide them, Reese and Douty followed the length of the fuse until, at last, at around 4:30, they discovered the problem: the fuse had, indeed, extinguished roughly one-half the distance to the powder rooms. Douty pulled out a jackknife, cut the extinquished fuse, and then relit it. After determining the fire was once again well-underway, both Reese and Douty crawled as fast as their knees and hands (the tunnel was only three-foot high, and tapered at the top) could carry them and back out the entrance of the mine where they informed a nervous Pleasants of the problem. The explosion would occur, they said, in fifteen minutes. And so it did. . .
The resulting explosion and its impact on the Confederate line is well-noted. So too is the resultant distastrous Union attack.
I often try to imagine what Pleasants, Reese, Douty, and all the other men of the 48th were thinking when they witnessed the catastrophe that followed their hard work...It had all come to naught, and the war would continue for another nine months.
Jacob Douty left the army in September 1864, his three-year term of service coming to an end. He settled in Philadelphia after the war, and died there on April 13, 1895. He was 62 years of age.
It is unfortunate that Douty has been largely forgotten in Civil War history and memory. His bravery at Petersburg was remarkable. Perhaps Captain Oliver Bosbyshell, writing soon after Douty's death, said it best: "The Medal of Honor should have decorated his breast. . ."

I wonder if any attempt has been made to honor him posthumously with such a medal?

I'll certainly write more about the 48th's struggles, triumphs, and tribulations in digging the Petersburg Mine in blogs to come. . .

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