Saturday, June 18, 2011

Before the Crater: The 48th Pennsylvania at Petersburg: June 1864 (Part 1)

While the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry is, of course, best known in Civil War history as "that regiment of coal miners" which successfully tunneled under the Confederate lines at Petersburg, even before this remarkable feat, the 48th was heavily engaged in attacks against those same lines a week before they began digging; indeed, the regiment suffered some of its highest casualties of the war during these assaults, and the valor of two of its members would be recognized with Medals of Honor. Regimental historian Oliver Bosbyshell would even declare that the attack on June 17 "was probably, in all its results, the most brilliant engagement for the Forty-eighth of any in which it participated."

Since the time is right--it being mid-June, of course--I thought I would spend a few days (weeks) focusing on these largely overlooked, but deadly actions.

To do so, and as I have done before when examining other campaigns, I am going to let the soldiers of the 48th speak for themselves, posting their letters, diary entries, reports, etc, all commenting upon or describing their role at the Battle of Petersburg, in mid-June 1864.

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Union Soldiers Assault Confederate Lines Surrounding Petersburg

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The Attacks on Petersburg
June 16-17, 1864
From Oliver C. Bosbyshell, The 48th In The War

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"The Forty-eighth crossed the pontoon bridge over the James River bright and early on the morning of the sixteenth, and directed its march straight for Petersburg. The advanced words on the City Point road, captured a day or two before by Butler's command, were passed about noon, grimly marked by the dead bodies of negro troops, who had fallen in the assault upon them. These were the first dead colored troops the boys of the Forty-eighth had seen and their stiff forms eloquently answered the query as to whether the colored troops would fight or not.

"The enemy's works at Petersburg were reached by the regiment about 5 o'clock p.m., in time to witness the assault of Barlow's Division of the Second Corps. This charge was also participated in by the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the Ninth Corps, who were temporarily attached to Barlow's Division by order of General Potter, that officer having been directed to send a brigade to support Barlow's attack.

"This charge was unsuccessful, the rebels maintaining their position, obliged Barlow to fall back, which he did, with the loss of some prisoners.

"The Forty-eighth were lying in a strip of woods, trying to secure some rest after the hard march from the James River, but this was not to be. The assault having proved unsuccessful, orders came to the Forty-eighth to advance. Line of battle was formed under the frowning ramparts of a small fort, bristling with artillery, directly in the regiment's front. Twilight was rapidly closing in on the scene and all felt that an assault on the rebel works meant serious business for the Forty-eighth, but all were steeled to the task. The advance began; some fifty yards beyond the woods were covered, when the line veered to the right, and filed into a gully through which ran a small creek. The movement continued to the right, following the winding of the creek, and leaving the enemy toward the left, until an abandoned part of the enemy's original line of works was reached. By this time it became too dark to distinguish objected at any distance.

The Attacks on Petersburg, June 15-17
The 48th PA Fought in the IX Corps, under Burnside

"Companies B and G were detailed to reconnoiter the position of the enemy. This was about ten o'clock at night. Deploying as skirmishers, these companies, with the rest of the regiment supporting, crossed over the little creek and advanced almost up to the enemy's works, who welcomed them with a lively volley of musketry. Under orders the line retired to the position secured in the abandoned works. So determined was Sergeant Wren and a private of B Company to ascertain the exact location of the rebel works that they ran right up against them, and the proverbial hospitality of the South induced the 'Johnnies' to gather them into their ranks, and them the delight of a Southern prison.

"The anxiety of Colonel [Henry] Pleasants for the safety of the colors, during this midnight foray, is well remembered--he cautioned the greatest care to be observed lest some unforeseen accident should occur and they be lost in the dark.

"Very little sleep was permitted the regiment, for at 3 o'clock the next morning (seventeenth) the men were quietly roused by Colonel Pleasants, who passed along the line, informing each company commander of the assault to be made on the enemy's lines. Caps were removed from the pieces, as reliance was to be had on the bayonet alone. He informed the men of the danger before them, and directed that if any felt disinclined to make the assault, they had permission to remain where they were. There is no record or evidence of any kind that a single man of the regiment took advantage of this offer--not one stayed behind! Tin cups and coffee pots were so secured as to make no rattling sound, and directions were passed along in whispered accents. Bayonets were silently fixed, the pieces, by order recapped and the regiment moved quietly out of the old rebel works left in front, with the stealthiness of Indians, over the creek where line of battle was formed, in utter darkness. Moving the right, for about a hundred yards with panther-like tread, a whispered command 'forward!' was given, and the savage rush began. Some firing on the right of the regimental line, resulted in an immediate answer from the enemy, along their entire line, thus marking it vividly by the flashes of their muskets. Directly into this fiery ribbon, belching its leaden hail through the ranks of the charging lines, swept the Forty-eighth, emptying its muskets at the instant the rebels' works were reached.

Sergeant Robert Reid, Company G, Medal of Honor Recipient

"How the heart beat, and the pulse throbbed during that onslaught! If fear or dread marked the supreme moment of the attack, it was banished completely in the glorious rush of the fight! What a harvest of prisoners--they were captured by the score, disarmed and sent to the rear, only to be gathered up by the regiments in reserve and turned in as captives of their own. The Forty-eighth actually secured more prisoners than the regiment had men engaged in the fight. Two flags and two pieces of artillery were likewise part of the regiment's trophies. The colors of the Forty-fourth Tennessee were captured by Sergeant Patrick Monaghan, of Company F, and the colors of the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery were recaptured by Private Robert Reid, of Company G. For this gallant and praiseworthy deed the War Department conferred upon these two soldiers the United States Medal of Honor. The distinction gained by Monaghan and Reid was proudly accorded them by every man in the regiment, as all recognized the achievement as adding additional glory to the command.

"The early dawn disclosed the redan further south--which carried two guns that were making sad havoc, by enfilading the attacking line. This work was on the left and front of the Forty-eighth, about a hundred yards distant. The wild rush and wholesale gathering in of prisoners, and generally good time the regiment was having in what had already been accomplished, disturbed the formation of the command considerably, so Pleasants, seeing the necessity of securing this redan, hastily ordered the boys in line, and with the shout of 'forward!' made a dash for the fort. Like a savage torrent, the impetuosity of which Pleasants tried to stem, the regiment fairly tore over those hundred yards and swept through the fort irresistibly. The enemy ran in great disorder by squads and singly to their left and rear. The men attempted to fire on the fleeing foe, by reversing the guns, but the rebels foiled this 'little game' by having loaded them with sand before leaving. The enemy brought a battery in position and shelled the captured fort, vainly trying to drive the regiment away. The guns were safely hauled to the rear by hand, notwithstanding the heavy fire of shot and shell poured into the captors from the battery referred to.

"Whilst on the gun platform, endeavoring with others to fire the guns, Private Robert Reid, of Company G, felt uncomfortably near him flying chips, broken by shot and shell, from the planking used to line the inside of the embrasures. Seeking cover, he dropped into the hole used by the rebel gunners for protection, and lo! a dozen of the 'Johnnies,' heretofore unobserved, were snugly stowed herein. They surrendered forthwith. Reid, with Sergeant Daniel Donne, of G, marched these captives to the rear, whilst others of the regiment were hauling off the cannon.

"The Forty-eighth maintained this line, so gallantly and determinedly wrested from the enemy, fortifying and strengthening it by using the outside of the fortification for the new line, reversing the position from the way the rebels planned it. This was probably, in all its results, the most brilliant engagement for the Forty-eighth of any in which it participated. Praise is due every officer, from Colonel Pleasants down, and to every man who was in this grand assault, for the splendid record the work here accomplished has given to the Forty-eighth Regiment. This achievement, with the wonderful Mine, are two brilliant and remarkable pages in the regiment's history, the like of which few other commands can boast."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your story of the 48th anniversary. I just discovered my Great grandfather's original GAR application to PA Post #6 (Germantown) at the GAR museum in Philadelphia. Wm Straw was in Co. K 48th from its formation until its dismissal on July 17 1865.