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."

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