The digging of the Petersburg Mine and the resulting fiasco at the battle of the Crater easily ranks among the most fascinating--and incredible--events of the American Civil War. It was also among the saddest. Ulysses Grant said as much, declaring the Crater "the saddest affair" he had witnessed during the entire war. "Such an opportunity for carrying fortifications," Grant continued, "I have never seen and do not expect again to have."
And I'm just not saying this because of the whole 48th Pennsylvania thing.
Even the best Hollywood screen writers would be hard pressed to conjure up a more compelling story. Two bloodied and bruised armies settling in for a siege, warily staring at each other across just several hundred yards. . .the 9th Corps occupying the most advanced Union trenches. Oh, and it just so happened that in the 9th Corps was a regiment of troops containing a good number of coal miners, and its commander a mining engineer. With little support and with no help from the army's top brass or so-called engineering experts, the troops dig the longest tunnel up to that point in all of military history, some 500 feet in length, plus two lateral galleries, which they packed with 8,000 pounds of powder. The subsequent explosion created a massive hole in the Confederate lines....210 feet wide, 30 feet deep, and 60 feet wide.
The rest. . .as they say. . .is history.
Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks the whole mine/crater thing is so interesting. Over the years, there has developed a little cottage industry in works of historical fiction that all revolve around the 48th digging that mine. . .oh, and who can forget the 48th's "cameo" at the beginning of Cold Mountain?
Several weeks back, friend and Antietam Tour Guide Bill Sagle gave me a copy of Glory Enough Of All~The Battle of the Crater: A Novel of the Civil War. It was a quick read and I did enjoy it, although the only real 48th soldier author Duane Schultz wrote about was Henry Pleasants. . .
In addition to Schultz's book is Richard Slotkin's novel, simply titled The Crater. I, too, read it and enjoyed it. . .
While these two books are worth reading to anyone interested in the 48th or to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, there are two others, which I believe to be far more interesting--and accurate. These works--The Tragedy of the Crater and Inferno at Petersburg--were published respectively in 1938 and 1961, and both were co-authored by Henry Pleasants, Jr.
No, he wasn't the colonel's son, but a much younger cousin.
I have longed been troubled in classifying these two works as "fiction." In the introduction to Tragedy, Pleasants, Jr., wrote that he based everything off of personal papers and miscellaneous documents that were in the family's personal collection. Most importantly, and most troubling, the author also wrote that some of the material and quotations he used came directly from the mouth of his cousin--the man who masterminded the whole thing.
As a student of the 48th, I want to believe Henry Pleasants, Jr., and take him at his word. . .he has some great stuff in both these books, especially reactions from Pleasants and the troops who tunneled. But as a historian, I am having a tough time recognizing these works as solid, primary evidence, or, in other words, as FACT. Can I base conclusions off of hearsay? Most in the field of history would say an unequivocal "NO," but, then again, who is to say that the conversations between Pleasants and his cousin (the author) did not take place, and who is to say that those letters and documents did not exist? Perhaps they still do. . .in some attic or in a shoebox in a closet somewhere.
At the risk of sounding unprofessional, I am inclined to accept the accounts in Pleasants, Jr.'s works. . .but with qualification. At least until those documents resurface.