Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The 48th/150th: "If I Had Known What A Blunder It Would Be, I Never Would Have Gone In To Relight The Fuse:" Sgt. Henry Reese Remembers the Crater

Alfred Waud's Depiction of the Explosion of the Petersburg Mine
July 30, 1864
 
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It was one of the most remarkable successes of the war. . .followed by one of its worst disasters.
 
 
 
150 years ago this morning, the 48th Pennsylvania's mine at Petersburg was fired and in an instant a gaping hole--150 feet in length, 60 in width, and 30 in depth--was literally blasted in the Confederate lines. The way to Petersburg was open; an end to the deadlock appeared within sight. "Everything looked propitious for a grand success," said one man from Massachusetts. Yet the battle that resulted proved a terrible and horrific defeat; "a stupendous failure," and "the saddest affair of the war," or at least that is how Grant later remembered it.
 
150 years ago was a sad day for the Union and especially for the 9th Army Corps. . .
 
This fiasco--this tragedy at the Crater, however, should not in any way detract from the remarkable work performed by the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. When others said their effort would fail, they persevered. When they were denied support, they improvised. The digging of the Petersburg Mine was their effort, and theirs alone, and there could be no denying their success.
 
Yet despite the success of the 48th in tunneling under the Confederate lines, at least one of the men in the regiment--and probably many more--later wished it had never happened.


Sgt. Henry "Snapper" Reese


Born in Montmoutshire, Wales, on July 5, 1835, Henry Reese later set sail for America and found work in the coal mines of east-central Pennsylvania. When the nation went to war with itself, Reese was quick to volunteer his services to fight for his adopted country, enlisting into the ranks of Company F, 48th Pennsylvania. He served bravely with the regiment and must have become a particular favorite of Colonel Henry Pleasants, for, in late June 1864, Pleasants called on Reese to oversee the regiment's miners as they went to work digging the Petersburg Mine. He made a home at the entrance of the tunnel and there watched as the work parties came and went. He was the first to hear of any trouble or potential danger and he was sure that each of his miners received their extra allotment of whiskey.
 
It was 150 years ago today, however, where Reese, along with Lt. Jacob Douty, displayed  remarkable heroism, for it was these two men who crawled back into the tunnel to investigate why the mine had not blown. Pleasants had initially lit the fuse, sometime after 3:00 a.m. and the mine was scheduled for detonation at approximately 3:30. Yet that time would come and go. . .and still no explosion. Finally, Pleasants allowed Reese to go in and both he and Douty soon discovered that the fuse had extinguished. After resplicing and repairing the line, Reese relit it and both men raced their way back out. . . .


Colonel Henry Pleasants
Many years after the war, Reese sat down and gave an interview to Chaplain James Guthrie who was, at that time, preparing a history of black soldiers in America's wars. The book, published in 1899 and titled Camp-Fires of the Afro-American; or the Colored Man as a Patriot, featured a chapter on the role of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) at the Battle of the Crater. Reese's interview is both informative and insightful. It tells us about Reese's and Douty's exploits that morning and it allows us to help answer one of the long-lasting questions about the entire tragedy at the Crater, "How did the men of the 48th feel watching their great effort result in such bloodshed and disaster?"

[Reese]: "I saw Colonel Pleasants standing on an earthwork, watch in hand, anxiously looking toward the fort which we expected every minute to see blown up. He had lighted the fuse at quarter past three o'clock a.m., and the explosion out to have followed within then minutes; and when that time had passed, and it didn't come off, I began to think about the fuse. Being a practical miner, I concluded that a defect in it had caused the fire to go out, and I went up to Colonel Pleasants and so stated it to him, and at the same time offered to go into the mine and remedy the difficulty. Lieutenant Douty joined in with me, but the Colonel wouldn't permit us to make the venture until he felt sure that the fire was out, and not slumbering. He was afraid that, like many cases in mining, it might go off just as we would be approaching to investigate the trouble. At last he consented, and at quarter past four o'clock we entered the mine. We found that about fifty feet of the fuse had been consumed and that the fire had gone out where the fuses were spliced. We needed a knife, so I went out for one, reported the trouble, returned, and with Douty soon had the fuses fixed again."

Lt. Jacob Douty
Reese was then asked: "How did you feel, while in there?"

"Feel? I didn't stop to feel, I had been in tight placed in coal mines before the war didn't mind this affair; but when I got outside, and stood a few minutes looking toward the fort that was doomed, and at the ranks of brave men soon to go charging perhaps to destruction or capture, I felt something then trickling near my eyes, but, [said Reese after a pause] I guess it was only sweat."
 
"The explosion took place at about quarter to five o'clock. There was a heavy jar, a dull thud, a big volcano-puff of smoke and dust, and up went the earth under and around that fort for a distance in the air of a hundred feet or more, carrying with it cannons, caissons, muskets--and men. Poor fellows, their fate was awful, but it was so sudden that the fate of our men who were slaughtered in the crater soon after was worse. The men who went up in their sleep, with the fort, thought that may be that it was only a nightmare that ailed them; but our poor boys at the crater, hemmed in and shot down with their eyes open, had a worse lot, and the suspense they were in was enough to kill them. If I had known what a blunder was going to be made in the assault, after the mine had made such a success, I never would have gone into it to relight the fuse. It made me frantic to see such useless destruction; and when the assault had failed, it made me still more furious to see a division of Colored soldiers rushed into the jaws of death with no prospect of success; but they went in cheering as though they didn't mind it, and a great many of them never came back."

Fury, anger. . .mixed no doubt with utter disbelief. These must have been the common sentiments felt among all soldiers of the 48th when they watched their month-long effort--their great labor--vanish in terrible and useless slaughter, 150 years ago today, at Petersburg.


Entrance To The 48th's Mine At Petersburg
 

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Mahone's Counterattack, by Don Troiani

3 comments:

John H. said...

Excellent series of posts about the 48th Pennsylvania's efforts that led to the Battle of the Crater, John! This memory from one of those who dug the mine and witnessed the sad result really hits home. Doubtless, many other enlisted men felt the same emotion as Reese but never had the opportunity to express it as he did. Thanks for sharing!

frederick douglass said...

Great post John.

MICHAEL said...

John I seem to recall that Black troops were initially intended as the follow-up troops after the explosion but this was aborted.