Monday, December 1, 2014

The 48th/150th: In Fort Hell

150 years ago, the dirt-covered and weary soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania were settling into a new 'camp,' as it were, taking up position in the fortification known as Fort Sedgwick but more often called--and more widely known--Fort Hell. Across the way--across the so-'no man's land' between the Union and Confederate trenches that the men had dubbed 'Purgatory,' and on the other side of the Jerusalem Plank Road--was Fort Mahone, or Fort Damnation, which was being held by equally ragged and weary Confederate soldiers who watched for any movement and kept things hot for the U.S. soldiers occupying Fort Hell. The 48th relieved Second Corps soldiers in the fort on November 29 and the Rebs wasted little time in welcoming them to their new quarters. Regimental historian Joseph Gould wrote that the ever-watchful Confederates "let loose to welcome our coming, to give us a house-warming. . . .They commenced early and quit late." Fort Hell itself, wrote Gould, "was a large and strongly-built structure, with bombproofs erected for the protection of the troops." These bombproofs were excavations in the ground, each seven to nine feet in depth, covered with heavy logs and tree boughs. Fort Hell did not leave a particularly strong impression on the men of the 48th, but as with everywhere else it seemed, they would grow accustomed to it. They had no other choice, really, for there, they would spend the winter of 1864-65. . .the last winter of the war.
Fort Hell, Petersburg
The distance between Fort Hell and Fort Mahone--which some called Fort Heaven--was only a few hundred yards; the picket lines on both sides were even closer--eighty yards, perhaps--and in some places soldiers in blue and gray struck a deal not to fire at each other during the day, but instead to resume it at nightfall. Gould recalled that between the opposing pickets, conversation and lively trading was kept up regularly.
Union Pickets in front of Fort Sedgwick
(Battles & Leaders)
Picket fire was one thing; shelling was another. Confederate batteries kept up a steady and sometimes deadly fire, with bombs fired by cannons and mortars plainly visible on clear days and clearly audible, especially the heavy "wobbling" sound the mortar rounds made as they traveled toward the Union camps. It did not take the men of the 48th long to discover that the bombproofs, although strongly constructed and useful as night, to sleep in, did little to stop a well-directed mortar round. Large ten-inch shells, said Gould, would cut right through the log-and-thatched roofs of the bombproofs "as a knife would penetrate butter." Watching and listening for these artillery rounds became something of a past-time for the 48th that winter. They grew accustomed to it, although there were several instances of the rounds hitting their mark.

Fort Sedgwick--better known as Fort Hell--was one of the most dangerous places in the lines around Petersburg. . .
. . . it was also one of the most photographed forts.
The days passed with but little activity. The men yearning, no doubt, to return home and spend the Holidays there, with their loved ones, instead of in the cold and water-filled trenches outside Petersburg, as temperatures only continued to drop as the weeks went by. They kept up-to-date with all the news and gossip; they had already cheered the news of Lincoln's reelection in November and, that December, would celebrate Sherman's successes in Georgia. But the thought foremost in their minds was when, when would this thing be over, when could they go back home, with peace struck and the nation restored. Far too many would never find out. There would still be fighting ahead, with the onset of spring and the commencement of a new, grand offensive. But that was still many months away. All the men could do was wait. . .and pray that their lives would be spared from those incessant mortars and incoming artillery rounds. Not all were so lucky. December 19 was a day on unusually "hard shelling" and one of the mortar rounds struck squarely into one of Company D's bombproofs, wounding a number of  men including young George Hartz, who succumbed the following day. Nine days later, another ten-inch mortar shell injured ten men belonging the Company K and fatally wounded Corporal John Dentzer. Another man, twenty-eight-year-old Corporal William Livingston of Company C, a laborer from Port Clinton, would be claimed just after the New Year, on January 2, 1865.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Image Courtesy of the Dentzer Family
Corporal John Dentzer was twenty-seven-years old when he enlisted into the ranks of Company K, 48th Pennsylvania, in January 1863. He stood 5'4" in height, with a Dark Complexion, Grey Eyes, and Dark Hair. His occupation was listed as "Seaman" and he and his brothers were first-generation Americans, whose father had immigrated to the United States, making a home in Cressona. In September 1862, John's older brother George was killed in action at Antietam.
Today, Brothers George and John Dentzer lie buried side-
by-side at the Cressona Cemetery.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Private George Hartz
(Patriotic Order Sons of America)
George Hartz was one of the youngest soldiers in the 48th Pennsylvania, having enlisted on April 30, 1862, at the age of sixteen. He was a student who stood 5'6" in height, with a Sandy Complexion, Grey Eyes, and Sandy Hair. Sadly, young, baby-faced George Hartz was mortally wounded in late December 1864 when a mortar round exploded in his bombproof inside Fort Hell. 

The Grave of Young George Hartz
Bickel's Cemetery, Ashland, PA.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The 48th/150th: "Another Season of Quiet Fell On The Troops:" October-November 1864

There is surprisingly little written or known about the actions of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry during the Fall of 1864 and Winter of 1864-1865, and perhaps this is because the regiment was largely inactive during this period. There were no great campaigns or sanguinary battles; instead, the war-weary and mud-covered soldiers remained hunkered down in the trenches surrounding Petersburg, doing their best to deflect the boredom and monotony, and doing their best to avoid the incoming shells and Confederate sharpshooters' bullets.
Harpers' Weekly Depiction of Life in the Petersburg Trenches
On the final day of September, 1864, the 48th participated in the Battle of Peebles's Farm and, for its efforts, lost 55 casualties. Most of these losses--a total of 43 men--were taken prisoner and were, by now, enduring the hell that was life in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Salisbury Prison. Sixteen would perish during the captivity. Their story was told in the previous post.
The men who made it safely through the action at Peebles's Farm returned to their place in the trenches and to the realities of this new kind of trench warfare. Most of October passed quietly, with the men strengthening their fortifications and keeping a leery eye on the Confederate troops just across that no-man's-land between the lines.  At the end of the month, the regiment participated in the demonstration against the Boynton Plank Road but only in a supporting capacity. Following this, "Another season of quiet fell on the troops," said Oliver Bosbyshell.
It was during this time that the regiment bid adieu to those officers and men who, earlier that year, chose not to re-up or re-enlist and with the expiration of their original three-year term of service, these men received their honorable discharges and headed home, their soldiering days were over. Those who remained in the service no doubt longed and wished for the day when they, too, would be making that long journey back to their families and friends in Schuylkill County. The big topic of debate was "when" this joyful day would arrive. On November 18, the regiment held a mock election. Ten days earlier, Lincoln had secured re-election, triumphing over Democratic challenger George McClellan. Lincoln would have won again if they counted the 48th's votes; Lincoln scored 200 votes; McClellan received 30. With Lincoln's victory, many on both sides were now fully convinced that it was only a matter of time before the Confederacy foundered and folded and threw down its arms. Deserters in ragged uniforms of gray and butternut continued to flock into Union lines and, as Joseph Gould, wrote, "They were a sad looking lot, their appearance indicated the hollow condition of the rebellion. They all expressed views that proved to the hopelessness of their cause and were glad to quit."
Yet there were also many boys in blue who sought escape from life in the army; several of those who were caught were paraded in front of the men, who had been drawn up in line, and publicly executed. On October 14, for example, Charles Merlin of the 2nd Maryland Infantry met his end at the hands of a firing squad. The soldiers of the 48th were ordered up to witness this sad spectacle, this tragic pageant. Gould remembered it vividly in his regimental history: "The division was formed in an open square and, at nine o'clock in the morning, the prisoner was brought from his place of confinement, accompanied by the Chaplain. A band led the procession, playing a funeral march. In the rear of the band was a file of guards, then the prisoner, then four men bearing his coffin, and after the coffin, another file of guards. The procession marched all around the inside of the square to the open end, where the grave had been dug. Here the band was dismissed, the coffin placed near the open grave, and the prisoner then listened to the charges, findings and sentence read to him by the provost marshal. He was then left with the Chaplain, who seated him upon his coffin, bandaged his eyes, prayed with him, shook him by the hand and walked to the head of the square. A detail of twelve men with eleven muskets, loaded with ball, and one with blank cartridge, were drawn up within twenty-five paces of the victim. . . .The muskets were loaded by a sergeant and distributed to the men. . . .At the word "fire" from the officer in charge of the squad, the poor fellow fell back upon his coffin, riddled with the bullets of his comrades. The division was then marched by the body, whilst it still lay upon the coffin, and it was a pitiful sight to witness."
Execution of A Civil War Soldier
from Frank Leslie's The Soldier in our Civil War (1893)

The Rest of The Army Reviews the Corpse
from Frank Leslie's The Solider in our Civil War (1893)
Pitiful, indeed, and intended to send a message to the rest of the men who may have been contemplating desertion. It did not seem to work, though, for as Gould recorded, three days later, six men of 6th New Hampshire deserted. One month later, in mid-December, the 48th was once again drawn up to witness more executions, this time, though, it was via hanging and not firing squad. Two soldiers from the 179th New York had been apprehended while attempting to desert and, once more, Gould described the macabre pageant: "A gallows had been erected near division headquarters, and the troops were all formed about it. The prisoners were marched past the division on to the gallows; one of the men coolly smoking a cigar. They were led on the trap; the findings and sentence read to them; black caps placed on their heads; and the drop fell. As the trap fell, on which they stood, their names, company and regiment, and the caused for which they were executed, were seen painted in bold letters, so that all could be plainly read. The execution was very artistically performed; and, after the division was marched past the suspended bodies, we were conducted to camp."
Such was life in this civil war . . . 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The 48th/150th: Captured At Peebles's Farm, Died In Salisbury Prison

Salisbury Prison, as depicted in this 1886 lithograph
(University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

150 years ago today, the 48th Pennsylvania lost 55 men in the Battle of Peebles's Farm. Four of these men were either killed or mortally wounded; eight others were wounded. The remaining 43 fell into Confederate hands as prisoners-of-war. Two years earlier, at the Battle of Second Manassas, 57 members of the regiment were captured but these men were soon after paroled, exchanged, and permitted to rejoin the ranks of the 48th. By 1864, however, the system of prisoner exchanges had broken down and now, these captured soldiers would be marched under armed guard to the rear, then placed aboard train cars for the long journey to a prisoner-of-war camp.  Most would be taken to Salisbury Prison, in Rowan County, North Carolina, an abandoned textile mill that had been converted into a prison. Designed to hold but 2,500 men, in early October, some 10,000 prisoners were packed and crammed into its sixteen acres, including most of the 48th Pennsylvania soldiers who had been captured at Peebles's Farm.  And it would be there where sixteen of these men would perish, victims, said regimental historian Joseph Gould, of "the inhuman treatment experienced by all Union prisoners in rebel prisons."
Corporal Michael Condron, Co. C
Died in Salisbury Prison, 11/30/1864
(John D. Hoptak Collection)
Underfed, undernourished and subjected to the overcrowded and filthy conditions, it would not takeJacob Hammer would be among the first of the 48th to die. Hammer, a native of Germany and a coal miner by profession, had entered the ranks of Company B, 48th PA, in late April 1864. He died less than seven months later, on November 12.  Private Charles Dintinger of Company C also lost his life in November, 1864, while confined in Salisbury. He, too, had just entered the ranks of the 48th several months earlier, though he was much younger than Hammer; just eighteen years of age. Corporal Michael Condron had been serving with the 48th since the regiment was first organized in the late summer of 1861, when at age twenty-two he became a member of Co. C. He stood 5'10" in height, had a Light Complexion, Blue Eyes, and Light Brown Hair; his occupation was listed as Laborer; his place of residence, like most others, Schuylkill County. Corporal Condron's life expired in Salisbury on November 30, 1864. Patrick Crowe was a nineteen-year-old red-headed laborer when he volunteered to serve in Company I, 48th Pennsylvania in March 1864. His confinement in Salisbury lasted six weeks; it ended with his death on November 19. Company F, of the 48th, would lose most of the men who perished within the walls of Salisbury. William Fulton, a thirty-nine-year old coal miner from Pottsville, died on February 12, 1865; Joseph Finley, born in Ireland in 1845, took up arms in defense of his native land and gave his life while serving it in January 1865.  Also lost from the ranks of Company F was eighteen-year-old William H. Kohler--a 5'2" hazel-eyed laborer from Pottsville--Elijah DeFrehn --a thirty-one-year-old, hazel-eyed laborer from Pottsville--and Private Michael Welsh, aged nineteen, who perished on February 2, 1865. Many of those who served in the 48th were of foreign birth, including many who gave their lives fighting in defense of the United States; several have already been mentioned. But also included among this number was nineteen-year-old Philip Heffron, a private in Company H, who had been born in Ireland but who, in April 1864, entered the ranks of the 48th. He died of starvation in Salisbury Prison, on November 25, 1864.  Edward Maginnes of Company E passed away a week before Heffron, on November 17. Maginnes was eighteen years of age when he volunteered in the spring of 1864; just a few months later, this young, 5'5" blue-eyed laborer was dead.  At 5'0" inches in height, Private Samuel Shollenberger was among the shortest soldiers in the regiment; no matter, though, for in February 1864, this eighteen-year-old carpenter volunteered to serve in Company A; he never returned back home, dying on January 16, 1865. 
long for Salisbury to claim its first victims. Thirty-six-year-old

All of these men, listed above, as having died while confined in Salisbury Prison were all, more than likely buried there in any one of the eighteen trenches that had been dug just southeast of the prison walls, each 240-feet in length. The dead were collected and buried rather unceremoniously there, without coffins, stacked one next to the other.

The Location of the Eighteen Trenches Were the Dead from Salisbury Were Buried
Today within the Salisbury National Cemetery

But there were four other soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania--at least four other soldiers--who died from the effects of confinement shortly after their release. This included Privates Joshua Reed and Nicholas Gross of Company G. Reed had entered the regiment in February 1862 and since then had been wounded at 2nd Bull Run and at Petersburg in June 1864. Captured at Peebles's Farm and confined at Salisbury, this thirty-year-old laborer from Barry Township died at his home in the spring of 1865. Gross, a thirty-eight-year-old watchmaker from Prussia, succumbed to chronic diarrhea shortly after his release and was buried in the Annapolis National Cemetery. 1st Sergeant Henry Graeff was eighteen years old and a student when he volunteered to serve in Company D, 48th in the summer of 1861. Confined at Salisbury, Graeff died in his Pottsville home on March 29, 1865 and was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery there. And, finally, there was Private Lewis Sterner, who, in May 1864, became a soldier in the ranks of Company A, 48th Pennsylvania. The 5'7 1/2", Light-Complexioned, Grey-Eyed, Brown-Haired laborer was released from confinement at Salisbury and returned to his Tamaqua home. He died there on April 11, 1865. Upon his tombstone it is recorded that young, twenty-two-year-old Sterner died "of the treatment received while in rebel prison."

The Possible Grave of Private Joshua Reed
Company G, 48th in Lavelle, Schuylkill County

* * * * * * * * * *

The Grave of Private Lewis Sterner
Odd Fellows' Cemetery, Tamaqua

Friday, September 19, 2014

The 48th/150th: Peebles's Farm: 9/30/1864

150 years ago. . .
The Battle of Peebles Farm: 9/30/1864
. . .and after helping to secure the capture of Weldon Railroad in mid-August 1864, the war-weary, dirt-covered soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania settled in once more to the monotonous but still deadly life in the trenches at Petersburg. A relative calm and quiet descended over the lines over the course of the next six weeks, but, as regimental historian Oliver Bosbyshell was quick to point out, although matters "remained quiet. . .so far as any movements of magnitude were concerned," "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 [still] going on, dangerously near, and ready for death and destruction upon the slightest provocation." And if they needed a further reminder that the war was, indeed, still going on, it came 150 years ago on September 30, 1864.

Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant sought to strike both ends of Robert E. Lee's ever-lengthening and ever-thinning lines around Petersburg. While Benjamin Butler would strike the far Confederate right, just south of Richmond, Gouveneur Warren would lead his Fifth Corps against the opposite end of Lee's line, south of Petersburg. It was hoped that Lee would weaken his right in response to Butler's threat and that Warren would be able to exploit this and sever more Confederate supply lines that ran into Petersburg from the south.
Supported by a division of cavalry as well as General John Parke's Ninth Corps, Warren began his movement on Friday, September 30, leading his men along the Poplar Springs road toward Peebles's Farm. Lee had done exactly what Grant had hoped: he weakened his right by sending troops from A.P. Hill's corps to the north. A division of the Fifth Corps attacked Hill's thinned lines and routed them from a fortification known as Fort Archer. Because of this, however, Lee halted those men that had ordered away and sent them back to confront the threat on his right. In the meantime, Warren halted his own advance as soldiers from Parke's Ninth Corps shuffled further to the south and east, looking to effect a connection with Warren's left flank.
The Attack of 5th Corps Troops at Peebles Farm
(from Frank Leslie's Scenes and Portraits of the Civil War)
The 48th Pennsylvania, commanded still by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, that mastermind of the Petersburg Mine, took up position in the rear of the Ninth Corps, in reserve, in a clearing near the Pegram House. As the fighting unfolded to their front, one must wonder what the veteran soldiers of the 48th were thinking, for, as it turned out, it was on that same date, back in 1861, that many of the companies were officially organized and mustered into service. Three years earlier, exactly, so many of these veteran troops had become soldiers, taking that oath to serve for "three years or the course of the war," whichever came first. For those men who did not re-enlist earlier in 1864, they would soon--very soon--be heading home. For those who did reenlist, the predominant thought must have been, why they had chosen to do so.
Suddenly, chaos. . .and a mob of retreating men! In front, Confederate General Harry Heth had orchestrated a counterattack that slammed head-on into the advanced units of the Ninth Corps. The units out in front line broke in disorder, the men fleeing as fast as they could to the rear. . .and directly through the ranks of the 48th. According to Bosbyshell, Colonel Pleasants "was greatly enraged at these fleeing soldiers as they dashed blindly to the rear, pushing and shoving their way between the ranks of the Forty-Eighth, and with drawn sword slashed to the right and left amongst them with the strength of an athlete, staying the flight effectually anywhere near his sweeping sabre." Bosbyshell joked about all the sore heads and bruised ribs that surely resulted among these fleeing Union soldiers, but as these men fled to the rear, the 48th formed quickly into line of battle and advanced toward the oncoming gray-and-butternut tide. A thick secondary growth of trees and bushes, along with a swamp, however, disrupted their formation. The regiment's line broke in half; to the right of this heavy undergrowth the men began digging in, quickly establishing entrenchments. On the left, however, the other half of the regiment advanced so close the advancing rebels that they were able to "distinguish their features." Several heavy volleys erupted and Major Bobsyshell, in command of this half of the regiment, ordered his men to fall back. They rejoined their comrades behind their new "well-defined line of works" and held on there. Order was restored and the next day a second Confederate attack was easily repulsed. Union reinforcements would arrive on the scene and by October 2, they would be able to claim Peebles's Farm as a victory. 
The 48th, however, had lost a good number of men--most of them captured. Joseph Gould intimated in his regimental history that the losses could easily have been much higher. "In the progress of the fight the line of the brigade was broken, which resulted very nearly in the capture of the entire regiment. By skillful maneuvering the command preserved its organization, although its lines were thrice broken by frightened troops pouring through them."  
Once things settled down and the ominous calm spread again through the lines, Pleasants compiled a list of the regiment's casualties at Peebles's Farm. It included 4 men killed or mortally wounded, 8 wounded, and a staggering 43 men captured or listed among the missing. For these captured men, the horrors of prison life at Salisbury Prison, North Carolina, awaited them. Tragically, at least 16 of these men died from the effects of prison confinement. . .disease, starvation, despair. . .never making it out, never making it back home.     
The casualties the 48th sustained 150 years on September 30 were as follows:
Killed/Mortally Wounded: (4)
John Darragh: Co. E
David Miller: Co. F (Mortally Wounded; Died in Annapolis 11/16/1864)
James Heiser: Co. I
Joseph Cobus: Co. I (Wounded and Captured; Died of Wounds 10/4/1864)
Wounded: (8)
Sergeant Major Henry C. Honsberger
Sgt. George Bowman: Co. D
William Ball: Co. F
Thomas Garland: Co. F
Patrick Galligan: Co. G
Cpl. Henry Fey: Co. H
Benjamin Williams: Co. I
Henry Goodman: Co. I
Captured/Missing: (43)  
Lewis Sterner: Co. A (Died 4/11/1865 in Tamaqua)
Franklin W. Simons: Co. A
Samuel Shollenberger: Co. A (Died 1/16/1865 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
John E. Bubeck: Co. B
Gardner Bell: Co. B
Jacob Hammer: Co. B (Died 11/12/1864 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
Thomas Griffiths: Co. B
William Stevenson: Co. B
Sgt. Samuel Wallace: Co. C
Cpl. Michael Condron: Co. C (Died 11/30/1864 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
Murt Brennan: Co. C
Charles Dintinger: Co. C (Died 11/1864 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
William Larkin: Co. C
Sgt. Henry Graeff: Co. D (Died 3/29/1865 in Pottsville)
George H.W. Cooper: Co. D
William H. Williams: Co. D
Daniel Dietrich: Co. D
John Dooley: Co. E
Edward Magginnis: Co. E (Died 11/17/1864 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
Sgt. Robert Paden: Co. F
William Fulton: Co. F (Died 2/12/1865 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
Joseph Finley: Co. F (Died 1/22/1865 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
William Moore: Co. F
Michael Welsh: Co. F (Died in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
William Koehler: Co. F (Died in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
Elijah DeFrehn: Co. F (Died in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
Patrick Grant: Co. G
Nicholas Gross: Co. G (Died in Annapolis, 3/12/1865)
Joshua Reed: Co. G (Died at his home from effects of prison confinement)
Henry Jones: Co. H
Joseph Moore: Co. H
John Halladay: Co. H
Phillip Heffron: Co. H (Died of starvation 11/25/1864 in Salisbury Prison, N.C)
1st Lt. Oliver A.J. Davis: Co. I
Patrick Crowe: Co. I (Died 11/19/1864 in Salisbury Prison, N.C.)
Lucien Monbeck: Co. I
Nathan Neifert: Co. I
Henry A. Neyman: Co. I
William Weiss: Co. I
George H. Gross: Co. K
Thomas Leonard: Co. K
John Patry: Co. K
Thomas Fogarty: Co. K
Cpl. Michael Condron, Co. C
Captured at Peebles Farm; Died in Salisbury Prison
(John D. Hoptak Collection)
1st Lt. Oliver A.J. Davis
Captured at Peebles Farm and Survivor of Salisbury Prison
(John D. Hoptak Collection)

Benjamin Williams, Co. I
Captured a Peebles Farm; Survivor of Salisbury Prison
(John D. Hoptak Collection)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Soldiers of the 48th: Private Francis Stidham, Company A

Private Francis M. Stidham
Company A, 48th Pennsylvania
(John D. Hoptak Collection)
Tragedy seemed to hover like an ever-present shadow over Mary Jane Stidham of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania.
Born in 1823, Mary Jane was married at age eighteen and, soon after, she and her husband Jacob Stidham began raising a family. A son, Francis, was born first; another son, John, followed two years later, and then a baby girl, born in 1851. Sadly, the three Stidham children lost their father and Mary her husband when, in early 1853, Jacob, an engineer aboard the steamer Spray, died. The records vary; he may have been killed by an explosion aboard the steamer or he may have drowned after falling overboard. Either way, the death of Jacob Stidham left the Stidham family without a husband and a father and forced young Francis, who was either 13 or 14 years old at that time of his father's death, to find work in order to help support the family. He went to work as a brakeman on the Catawissa Railroad and then earned money as a chair maker in Tamaqua.
But then the war began and in August 1861, Francis Stidham volunteered to serve. He traveled to Port Clinton and signed up under Captain D.B. Kauffman. The following month, the 21-year-old chair maker who stood 6'0" in height, with a dark complexion, dark eyes, and dark hair, was mustered into service as a private in Company A, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Francis Stidham was unmarried and had no children of his own but he would continue to support his family while in uniform. To support his widowed mother as well as his younger sister, Francis sent home $8.00 each month. No doubt his younger brother John did so as well after volunteering to serve himself in August 1862. John Stidham entered the ranks of the 96th Pennsylvania and served well with that regiment until his death, which occurred on May 12, 1864, at Spotsylvania. The 48th and 96th Pennsylvania Infantries were both heavily engaged in this sanguinary struggle, though they fought on opposite ends of the battlefield. As Francis Stidham and his comrades in the 48th assaulted the right flank of the Confederate line, John Stidham and the soldiers of the 96th were striking the left. At some point during the engagement, Francis's younger brother John was killed in action. Mary Jane Stidham lost a son. . .
She would lose the other just two months later.
On June 17, 1864, Francis Stidham was wounded severely while charging the Confederate lines outside Petersburg, Virginia. Carried from the field, he was conveyed back to Annapolis "suffering from a gunshot wound of right arm and breast." He arrived in Annapolis on June 20; three weeks later--on July 10--the wound "resulted in hemorrhage into [his] thoratic cavity," and Francis Stidham passed away. His remains were buried in the Annapolis National Cemetery where they continue to rest.     
After losing her husband to an accidental death in 1853, Mary Jane Stidham lost both her sons to war eleven years later, in 1864.  She was able to collect a small pension until her own death which occurred on May 30, 1878 in Tamaqua. Her cause of death was listed as breast cancer; she was fifty-five years of age.

At the grave of Private Francis Stidham. . .Annapolis National Cemetery

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

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
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Mahone's Counterattack, by Don Troiani

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The 48th/150th: The Mine Completed, Charged, & Tamped. . . .

Entrance to the 48th's Mine at Petersburg
In all, it had taken just about one month for the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry to complete the tunneling of their mine at Petersburg. Having developed the idea and discussed it with a few of his confidantes in the regiment, Colonel Henry Pleasants next took his proposal of divisional commander Robert Potter who then suggested the Pennsylvania colonel and former mining engineer take the idea directly to General Burnside. Late on the evening of June 24, 1864, Burnside approved of Pleasants's endeavor and, next day at exactly 12:00 noon, Pleasants watched as his men began digging into the Virginia soil.
The actual digging was left to the 99 trained, professional miners in the regiment; every one else, though, played important supporting roles: building the timber framing, and especially removing the dirt. By the time the mine was fully completed, Pleasants estimated that approximately 18,000 cubic feet of earth had been removed from the ground, and either taken far to the rear or used to fill sandbags.
Forced to use improvised and modified tools, Pleasants and his dirt-covered and sore-shouldered soldiers in the 48th Pennsylvania labored under severe disadvantage. They received little, if any, support from the army and especially from the army's engineers, who believed the thing could not be done. The soldiers of the 48th were not even provided with lumber for the framing while even Pleasants's simple request for a surveyor's tool--needed to gauge exact distance--was denied.

But the thing was done. The main tunnel, extending some 510 1/2 feet and ending directly underneath Elliott's Salient, was completed on July 17; the next day, work on the right and left lateral galleries commenced. Respectively, the left and right galleries were 37' and 38' in length and in each of these galleries, chambers were dug for placing the magazines. It took another few days to complete the galleries, but by nightfall on July 23, the mine was finished. All that was left was placing the powder and laying the fuse.

Pleasants reported the completion of his mine to Burnside who, in turn, notified army commander Meade. Meade then requested that Burnside submit his plan for using the mine. Burnside's response, written on July 26, 1864, was the sooner, the better; rain and Confederate countermines might ultimately ruin the entire endeavor.  As the whiskered corps commander wrote, "It is altogether probable that the enemy is cognizant of the fact that we are mining, because it is mentioned in their papers, and they have been heard at work on what are supposed to be shafts in close proximity to our galleries. But the rain of night before last has, no doubt, much retarded their work. We have heard no sound of workmen in them either yesterday or today; and nothing is heard by us in the mine but the ordinary sounds of work on the surface above. This morning we had some apprehension that the left lateral gallery was in danger of caving in from the weight of the battery above it and the shock of their firing. But all possible precautions have been taken to strengthen it, and preserve it intact. The placing of the charge in the mine will not involve the necessity of making a noise. It is therefore probable that we will escape discovery if the mine is to be used within two or three days. It is nevertheless important, in my opinion, that the mine should be exploded at the earliest possible moment consistent with the general interests of the campaign." Following the explosion of the mine, Burnside planned to use his Fourth Division, composed entirely of black soldiers.
Meade received Burnside's plan and agreed that the mine should be charged and exploded sooner rather than later. However, he did not agree with Burnside's choice of using the black troops to spearhead the attack. Meade (and Grant) had paid little attention to Burnside and the 48th's mine throughout the previous month but now, at almost the eleventh hour, they took an interest and literally pulled the rug out from under Burnside's feet, with tragic consequences.
In the meantime, Pleasants received orders on July 27 to begin placing the powder; it took six hours, from 4:00 p.m. that afternoon until 10:00 p.m. that night. Pleasants had requested 12,000 pounds of powder but received 8,000. It arrived in legs, one wagon load at a time. And since the drivers of these wagons did not want to get too close to the front, the soldiers had to carry all 320 kegs of powder from a position roughly one mile to the rear then down the entire length of the tunnel and to the lateral galleries, where Pleasants awaited. As the colonel later explained, "The charge consisted of three hundred and twenty kegs of powder, each containing twenty-five pounds--four tons. It was placed in eight magazines, connected by wooden tubes, half filled with powder. These tubes met from the lateral galleries at the inside end of the main gallery, and from this point I placed three lines of fuses for a distance of ninety-eight feet." The fuses had to be spliced.

Carrying In The Powder Kegs

Placing The Powder In Magazines

As soon as the powder was placed in the magazines, work began immediately on the tamping, which consisted of bags filled with dirt--thousands of them, it seems. The tamping began at 10:00 p.m. on the night of July 27 and continued until 6:00 p.m. the following day. "Thirty four feet of main gallery was tamped," said Pleasants, "and ten feet of the entrance of each of the lateral galleries, but the space between the magazines was left clear of tamping." Oliver Bosbyshell further explained that the tamping "was about forty feet in length, and consisted of bags of sand placed loosely on one another, with long logs laid diagonally across the gallery, so as to be driven into the sides by the recoil of the explosion. Common blasting fuse was furnished, in pieces, instead of one continuous piece, which Colonel Pleasants was obliged to splice together. These lines were used ninety feet long, and placed in a wooden tube lined with canvas to guard it from the dampness. The tamping was finished and the mine was ready to be fired at 6 p.m. of July 28."
It was quite the extensive undertaking but by the evening of July 28--just about one month since the first shovel full of dirt was removed--the 48th's mine was finished, charged, and tamped. . .all Pleasants could do now was await the orders to fire it.