Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alonzo Cushing, Harry Reese and the Issue over Medals of Honor. . .

Lt. Alonzo Cushing
News broke last night that Lt. Alonzo Cushing will receive a Medal of Honor and the reaction from those in the Civil War community has thus far been overwhelmingly positive. "At long last," "finally," "it's about time". . .these are just some of the common statements I have seen from bloggers and facebookers. But there are some who are expressing hesitancy and even outright disagreement with this decision to recognize Cushing's valor 151 years after the fact, out of concern for the precedent this will set.
My own feelings about this are mixed; while a great story I can also agree with those who now fear that slippery slope. This is certainly not meant to diminish Cushing's bravery and his heroic actions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. Yet there were countless other soldiers who performed equally heroic actions--at Gettysburg and on just about every battlefield of the war--whose valor has gone unrecognized by the Medal of Honor. And as was the case with Cushing, there are no doubt many other Union soldiers who were nominated for the Medal but whose nominations were never acted upon.

Sgt. Henry Reese
This includes Sergeant and later Lieutenant Henry Reese of Company F, 48th Pennsylvania, who was, indeed, nominated for a Medal of Honor for his bravery immediately prior to the Battle of the Crater. It was Reese, of course, who volunteered to crawl back into the 48th's mine at Petersburg to discover why there had been no blast. He discovered the fuse had gone out and, with the assistance of another officer, he re-spliced and re-lit it. . .then crawled back out as quickly as possible.
While the resulting battle was a complete disaster for the Union, the mine itself was a great success and in February 1865, Major General John Parke, who assumed command of the Ninth Army Corps following Burnside's departure, sought to have Reese's "conspicuous act of gallantry recognized with a Medal of Honor. In Reese's service records at the National Archives is Parke's recommendation, which reads, in part:  

Major General John Parke
"In the undermining and destruction of the Rebel Fort No. 5 in front of Petersburg, Va., the fuse leading to the magazine had been spliced about 15 feet from the fuse of the mine, when the fuse was first lighted, it burned to the splice when the fire went out, and, after the time set for the explosion had elapsed, Sgt. Henry Reese volunteered to enter the mine and relight the fuse at the splice, which he successfully accomplished, and returned in safety to the mouth of the mine, and in one minute after the explosion took place."
For whatever reason, or reasons, Parke's recommendation was not acted upon, and Reese was not issued the Medal of Honor. But there are some still today who would like to see the Welsh-born sergeant receive his medal. . .posthumously, of course, 150+ years later. . .just like Alonzo Cushing.

Entrance to the 48th's Mine at Petersburg

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The 48th/150th: August 1864: Life In The Trenches & A New Kind of Warfare

In early August 1864, the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania begrudgingly returned to the normal routines of trench warfare, no doubt still shaking their heads in disbelief over the utter disaster that resulted at the Crater. Yet the war continued. . .

On The Picket Line At Petersburg

Life in the trenches was simply miserable; the heat was relentless and there was little, if any shade; and the men were constantly exposed to the deadly fire of Confederate sharpshooters. Already the regiment had lost two good officers to sharpshooter's bullets--Captain Joseph Hoskings who had been wounded, and Lieutenant David Brown, who was killed while lying in his tent. Hoskings was in command of the regiment and upon his wounding, Major Oliver Bosbyshell assumed command. The regiment would spend August 7, in the trenches "exposed," said Bosbyshell, "not only to the constant rebel firing, but to a sun of torrid heat." Relieved that night, the 48th took a breathing spell on August 8 but was back again in the advanced line of trenches that night. All day on August 9, "The firing was sharp and rapid all the time along the line. The heat intense."
And so it went on, day after day and night after night. It was the new reality of warfare. Dull, monotonous. . .and deadly.

Map by Hal Jespersen

On August 15, soldiers in blue began stretching further south and east. The Ninth Corps would take up the line held by the Fifth Corps, while the Fifth Corps extended further to the left. As Bosbyshell wrote, "It was quite daylight when the new position was occupied, and the Forty-eighth filed into the place assigned, whilst the troops of the Fifth Corps filed out in full view of the rebels. They, however, remained quiescent, which was really remarkable, the policy thus far having been to fire at the sight of any body of troops."
The scorching heat of the first week of August seemed to have given way to frequent rainfalls. Water collected in the trenches; the men's boots--and feet--constantly damp. The rain only added to the misery. And there was also little sleep. Confederates kept up a heavy cannonading throughout the night of August 17-18. On August 19, the regiment side-stepped once more to the left and took up a position on the extreme left of the Ninth Corps' line.

Confederate Counterattack at Weldon Railroad

On August 20-21, the regiment supported the Fifth Corps in its actions at the Battle of Weldon Railroad (or the Battle of Globe Tavern. Following the Crater, U.S. Grant gave up on any more frontal attacks and, instead, focused on further investing the city of Petersburg. More specifically, he sought to cut the Weldon Railroad, which connected Petersburg to Wilmington, North Carolina, and which was also helping to keep Lee's men supplied. The fighting raged from August 19-21, in the rain, and it was the soldiers of Gouveneur Warren's Fifth Army Corps who were primarily engaged. But the Fifth Corps did get some support from the Ninth, which was now under the command of General John Parke, following Burnside's departure. Union casualties totaled 4,300 men killed, wounded, or captured; Confederate casualties were less than half that but the battle did result in a Union victory--the first of the Petersburg Campaign. The rail line was cut.

Lt. Jacob Douty, Co. K. 48th PA
Positioned on the far left of the Ninth Corps line, the 48th Pennsylvania did lend some support to Warren's men in this engagement. Moving south, the regiment began work on a line of temporary entrenchments while the heavy sounds of battle were heard to their left-front. On August 21, a Confederate counterattack pushed the 48th's skirmishers back and, as Bosbyshell recorded, "Regimental line was formed back of the works and every one in readiness to repel an expected attack." But no attack came and after a while of waiting, Bosbyshell sought to re-establish the skirmish line in front. Bravely, Lieutenant Jacob Douty--who several weeks earlier had re-entered the tunnel at Petersburg along with Snapper Reese--volunteered to lead the way. Bosbyshell explained why this was such a risky venture: "The front line of breastworks had been cleared of timber, but on the opposite side of the clearing was a heavy wood, and not a soul knew whether there was any force of the enemy there or not--so it was a brave act to jump our entrenchments, with a spade over his shoulder, as Douty did, and advancing across the clearing until nearly up to the opposite wood, coolly commenced digging a rifle pit in full view of friend and supposed foe alike." Soon, a number of other volunteers rushed forward and helped with the digging. Douty's act, thought Bosbyshell, should have resulted in a Medal of Honor.
Casualties--if there were any--during this operation were not recorded and on August 22 the 48th Pennsylvania was relieved at this line of temporary earthworks and made their way back to the front and there they would remain for weeks to come--exposed to the heat, the rain, and to the constant and deadly musketry and artillery fire that defined this new kind of warfare. As Bosbyshell remembered, "The never ceasing crack of the rifles of the men in the rifle pits, and occasional shower of mortar shells, with a flurry of shot and shell now and then, served to remind all hands that the war was going on, dangerously near, and ready for death and destruction upon the slightest provocation."

Monday, August 4, 2014

The 48th/150th: "The Regular Siege Life Again:" The Dust Settles at the Crater

Confederate Troops Re-Occupy The Crater
It probably meant little to the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania, especially coming from a man who offered little--if any--support and from a general who largely forsook the 9th Corps in its struggle in the Crater, but 150 years ago on August 3, Major General George Meade issued General Orders No. 32 that acknowledged the hard and heavy work performed by Colonel Pleasants and the soldiers of his command:

General Orders No. 32
George Meade
The Commanding General takes great pleasure in acknowledging the valuable services rendered by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants' 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Volunteers and the officers and men of his command in the excavation of the mine which was successfully exploded on the morning of the 30th ultimo under one of the enemy's batteries in front of the second division of the Ninth Army Corps. The skill displayed in the laying out and construction of the mine reflects great credit upon Lt. Col. Pleasants, the officer in charge, and the willing endurance by the officers and men of the regiment of the extraordinary labor and fatigue involved in the prosecution in the work to completion are worthy of the highest praise.
By Command of Major General Meade

Worthy of the highest praise, indeed. But 150 years ago there were no doubt many in the 48th who were bitter that Meade did not find the effort--while underway--worthy of the highest support. So, as the proverbial and literal dust settled over the Crater battlefield--as the dead were being buried and the prisoners on either side marched to rear and sent away to prisoner-of-war camps--the still unbelieving, somewhat seething soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania settled in once more to life in the trenches, resuming their place in line and suffering from the fire of Confederate sharpshooters. As Oliver Bosbyshell recorded in his regimental history, "Matters resumed the regular siege life again--the picket firing constant, and good men lost every day."
Captain Joseph Hoskings Assumed Command of the 48th Following the Crater
He was wounded severely on August 3, 1864
As Pleasants resumed command of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps, Captain Joseph Hoskings of Minersville assumed command of the 48th. On August 3, 1864, Hoskings was shot while on the picket line, the bullet passing "through the fleshy part of his left breast, at an angle, passing through the muscles of his left arm, making four distinct holes." Hoskings will survive this injury. Two days later, the 48th lost a popular officer by the name of David Brown, a lieutenant in Company H and, before the war, a baker from Pottsville. On August 5, 1864, Brown was lying in his tent when a rifle ball struck and killed him instantly.  

Lieutenant David Brown--Killed on August 5, 1864
He was a First Defender

The Grave of Lt. Brown
Presbyterian Cemetery, Pottsville