Friday, June 27, 2014

The 48th/150th: Digging the Petersburg Mine. . .

 150 years ago, the soldiers of the 48th were already deep into and under the Virginia soil, digging their mine at Petersburg. . . .

Entrance to the 48th PA's mine at Petersburg

A few days earlier and after discussing the possibility of tunneling under the Confederate lines with a few of his subordinates, regimental commander Henry Pleasants took his idea to divisional commander Robert Potter and corps commander Ambrose Burnside, who were both supportive of the endeavor. Burnside, on the evening of June 24, authorized Pleasants to begin the work, promising that he would next take the proposal to army commander George Meade, and if Meade ruled against it, then the project could simply be stopped.

And so it was that on Saturday, June 25, 1864, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants and his 48th Pennsylvania Infantry first struck pick and shovel into the Virginia soil and began tunneling toward and then under the Confederate position known as Elliott's Salient. The attacks of the previous week had placed the 9th Corps exceptionally close to the Confederate lines, to within less than 125 yards in most places, and their assaults had carried them across a railroad and creek bed and immediately to the rear of advanced Union line was a deep hollow, or ravine. It was in this ravine where Pleasants and his men began their tunnel.

Meanwhile, behind the lines, Burnside had taken Pleasants's proposal to Meade who was, surprisingly, initially supportive of the idea. He offered to send whatever help he could but it very quickly became clear that this would be the extent of Meade's support. He sent the army's chief engineers, Major James Duane, to the front to talk with Pleasants and to inspect the work being done by the 48th. Duane (who was seemingly the bane of Ambrose Burnside's Civil War career) soon reported back that the thing could not be done; Pleasants later testified that Duane dismissed the project outright, calling it "all clap-trap and nonsense." The army's chief engineer thus had no faith, no confidence in Pleasants's project and it appears that George Meade then lost all interest in it. He never formally approved the mine; but he never called it off, either. At least it would keep some of the men on the front occupied. . .

Major James Duane
Pronounced the 48th's mine as "all clap-trap and nonsense"
Henry Pleasants and the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania received little, if any, support from the Army of the Potomac. The West Point-educated engineers in that army dismissed the possibility and no doubt began to ridicule the 48th. James Duane himself had literally written the book for army engineers, and on page 208 of this Manual for Engineer Troops, he identified the forty tools that would be required for a successful mining operation.

Not a single one of these forty tools was provided by the army to Pleasants and the soldiers of the 48th.

They were thus forced to improvise and make do with what they did have. In his regimental history, Oliver Bosbyshell wrote that "At 12 o'clock noon on the twenty-fifth of June the mine was commenced. The work was one of great difficulty, attended with imminent danger and arduous labor. There was nothing to do it with except the men--no tools, no plank, no nails, no wheel-barrows. Army picks were made smaller and straightened for mining purposes. Hickory sticks were fastened to cracker boxes so as to make hand-barrows, to convey the material excavated to a place where it could be piled outside the mine."

Modified picks and shovels and cracker boxes to remove the dirt is thus all the soldiers employed while in the mine. To make triangulations and measure distance, Henry Pleasants requested a surveyor's two called a theodolite from the army. It was absolutely critical that the mine terminate directly under the Confederate lines; not in front or beyond it. This is why Pleasants needed the theodolite. . .and there were two among Duane's engineers but, apparently, none could be spared. It was thus up to Ambrose Burnside to write to a friend in Washington who sent it down for Pleasants's use.

At the time the mining began there were approximately 400 or so soldiers present and fit for duty with the 48th but, at first, only a few of them were put to work. Yet as the days (and weeks) went by and as the mine continued to get longer, the number of 48th soldiers employed continued to grow until, at last, the entire regiment was at work with it. While only the skilled miners were clawing and picking away at the dirt, the others were engaged in procuring wood for the framing, in removing the dirt, and in other supportive measures. As Pleasants explained, "The great difficulty I had was to dispose of the material got out of the mine." And even here and as usual, "I found it impossible to get any assistance from anybody; I had to do all the work myself. I had to remove all the earth in old cracker boxes. I got pieces of hickory and nailed [them] on the boxes in which we received our crackers, and then iron-cladded them with hoops of iron taken from old beef and pork barrels."

Artist Gil Cohen's Excellent Rendering of the 48th Digging the Mine at Petersburg
Note the pick, modified cracker box, and improvised tools. . . . 

Pleasants provided this testimony many months later and in front of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, which was investigated the subsequent debacle at the Crater. And when asked by a committee member why he was unable to get assistance of any kind, Pleasants responded: "I do not know. . . .General Burnside told me that General Meade and Major Duane, chief engineer of the army of the Potomac, said the thing could not be done; that it was all clap-trap and nonsense; that such a length of mine had never been excavated in military operations, and could not be; that I should get my men smothered for want of air or crushed by the falling of the earth, or the enemy would find it out, and it would amount to nothing."

Pleasants was even unable to get boards or any kind of wood, which was needed to construct the mine's framing. "I had to get a pass," explained Pleasants, "and send two companies of my own regiment with wagons outside of our lines to rebel saw-mills and get lumber in that way, after having previously got what lumber I could by tearing down an old bridge."

Even operated under such disadvantage and with no support, the soldiers of the 48th--who came and went from the mine entrance like so many brown gophers, said one Ohio soldier--were able to complete the mine by July 23, less than one month after first digging in. This included the main tunnel, at 510 feet, and two lateral galleries, each about 40 feet in length. Pleasants, however, claimed the project could have been completed 1/3 or 1/4 the time if he had help. It seems the biggest time consumer was removing and disposing the dirt.  The question was then asked, "How far did you have to carry [the dirt]?" "The whole length of the mine, and to where it could be deposited, and every night I had to get pioneers of my regiment to cut bushes and cover it up where it had been deposited; otherwise the enemy could have climbed up trees in their lines and seen the pile of newly excavated earth."

Much of the criticism leveled against Pleasants and his project was that the men would suffocate but Pleasants had much experience with ventilation while working for the railroads and coal mines in the years before the war. As Bosbyshell explained, "The ventilation was accomplished in a very simple way--after a method quite common in the anthracite mines. A perpendicular shaft or hole was made from the mine to the surface at a point inside of the Union rifle pits. A small furnace, or fire-place, was built at the bottom of this hole, or shaft, for the purpose of heating the air, and a fire was kept constantly burning, thus creating a draft. A door made of canvas was placed in the gallery, a little outside this fire-place, thus shutting it in and shielding it from the outside air at the mouth of the mine. Wooden pipes, extending from the outside of this canvas door, along the gallery to the inner end thereof, conducted the fresh air to the point of operations, which, after supplying the miners with pure air, returned along the gallery towards the entrance of the mine, and, being stopped by the canvas door, the vitiated air moved into the furnace and up the shaft to the surface. By this means a constant current of air circulated through the gallery. As the work advanced, the inside end of the wooden pipe was extended so as to carry good air up to the face of the workings."

Modern-day image of where Pleasants sank the ventilation shaft
To guard against the possibility of Confederates identifying the location of the tunnel
by the smoke pumping out of this 'chimney,' Pleasants ordered fires lit all along this part
of the Union line. . .

During the first week, the mining was proceeding rapidly. . .but on July 2, and at about 100 feet in, the miners encountered "extremely wet ground" and at the forward face of the mine "the timbers gave way, and the roof and floor of the mine nearly met," said Pleasants. Undeterred and now out to prove the army engineers wrong, Pleasants simply had his men re-timber it and start again, but from this point on they had to "excavate a stratum of marl, the consistency of putty, which caused the progress to be very slow." To get around this, Pleasants directed his miners to start digging upward, on an "inclined plane, raised 13 1/2 feet perpendicular."

As is here indicated, the tunneling of the Petersburg Mine was a complex project and not simply the men digging a tunnel. For example, while the miners were busy digging and as Pleasants was working out all the particulars, especially with ventilation, other members of the regiment were going for lumber and constructing the timber framing. Explained Bosbyshell: "The roof of the gallery, where it was wanting in tenacity and likely to fall, was supported by sets of timbers, consisting of four pieces: two props, one cap and one mud sill, notched into one another. Where the material was very soft, boards and planks were placed between the timbers, and the top, bottom and sides so as to form a complete casing. When the gallery approached near the enemy's works, all the timber was notched outside the mine, and put in place without noise or jar of any kind. The plank was obtained from a bridge over the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad, and the boards from a saw-mill outside the Union lines, some five or six miles distant. To obtain these Colonel Pleasants was obliged to send two companies of his regiment with wagons, to load them. No lumber was furnished from headquarters, and no cavalry escort was proffered to guard against risks."

Diagrams of Mine, from side and from top
In the side-image, notice the incline where the 48th dug upwards to avoid the putty-like marl

"Snapper" Reese
For nearly a month, the soldiers of the 48th worked around the clock--twenty-four hours a day. The men who would be doing the digging were divided into shifts or details; two to three men going in at a time, to work in shifts of two to three hours. Two officers were appointed to oversee each work shift while in charge of all the miners was Sgt. Henry "Snapper" Reese, a tough-as-nails Welshman who set up his "home" at the entrance of the mine, overseeing each detail of men as they came and went. Perhaps the most strenuous activity was carrying out the dirt, especially since the mine itself was only four-to-five feet in height. There were a lot of aching backs and shoulders.

At the end of every shift, every man received a ration of whiskey.

While not engaged in the operation, the soldiers of the 48th sculpted and carved "all sorts of oddities: pipes, corps marks, crosses and the like," from that putty-like marl, which hardened on exposure to the air and the sun. These trinkets were then sent home and, today, some can still be viewed in the collections of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County.

From start to finish, every aspect of the tunneling of the Petersburg Mine was masterminded by Henry Pleasants and carried out exclusively by the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania. And despite the lack of support, despite working with improvised tools and under severe hardship and disadvantage, and despite the ridicule leveled toward them by the army's nay-saying engineers, Pleasants and his soldiers of the 48th succeeded in their tremendous undertaking and succeeded grandly.

Today, the ground (left of walk path) is sinking where the soldiers of the 48th dug their mine

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 48th/150th: June 24, 1864: Pleasants Finalizes His Plan and the Mine Project is Approved

On June 24, 1864. . . .150 years ago. . . .Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania, finalized his plans to tunnel under the Confederate lines southeast of Petersburg.

Entrance To Mine, Petersburg, Virginia

The Sand Patch Tunnel
Born on February 16, 1833, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pleasants was the son of a Philadelphia merchant and arms smuggler and a Spanish nobleman's daughter. He spent the first thirteen years of his life in Argentina and did arrive in the United States until 1846, when, upon his father's death, he was sent to be raised by an uncle near Philadelphia. When young Pleasants arrived in the United States, he spoke little English, but he was studious and diligent and was soon excelling in his studies. He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree and, upon graduation in 1851, he went to work as a civil engineer with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He spent the next few years designing the layout of tracks and supervising the construction of tunnels, including, in 1854, the Sand Patch tunnel that cut 4,200 feet through the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. To help expedite the construction, Pleasants sank a number of  perpendicular shafts through the mountain, measuring anywhere from 120 to 200 feet in depth. Resigning from work with the railroads, Pleasants moved on to a career as a coal mining engineer. In January 1857 he settled in Pottsville, in the heart of east-central Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region. There he met and fell in love with Sallie Bannon, daughter of Benjamin Bannon, editor of the influential Miners' Journal. . The two were married but, sadly, just a few months later, tragedy struck when Sallie died suddenly at the age of 31. Henry Pleasants sank into a deep depression and, at least according to family story, he volunteered to fight in the hopes of getting killed on the field of battle. He began his wartime service as a lieutenant in the three-months' organization, the Tower Guard. He then helped to raise and organize what became Company C, 48th Pennsylvania, a tough collection of soldiers, largely Irish coal miners, recruited from Heckscherville and other coal patches between Pottsville and Minersville. He led the company with distinction and was ultimately advanced in rank to Lieutenant Colonel. When Joshua Sigfried departed the regiment in the early spring of 1864 in order to take command of a U.S.C.T. brigade, Pleasants assumed command of the regiment.

Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants
Oliver Bosbsyshell, in his regimental history of the 48th, provided a fine biography of Pleasants and how he came about devising the Petersburg Mine: "He was a soldier of true grit, possessed of more than ordinary ability as an engineer--ability that he displayed many times during the campaign from the Rappahannock down to Petersburg, in the erection of temporary fortifications which he required the regiment to build every night, and the lives of many of the men were saved through this precaution. [He] was in all respects an American--thoroughly so--a pure type of progressive young America--his career shows remarkable understanding in a young man. He sprang from an old Virginia Quaker family, although his father was born in Philadelphia. Whilst in business in South America, this gentleman married a South American lady, and General Henry Pleasants was the result of this union. His impetuous nature, and quick, fiery temper, but withal generous, goodheartedness, comes of this Americo-Spanish blood. . . .Pleasants' career before the war, shows that he took with him into the service, qualities eminently fitting him for the successful carrying through of so grand a project as the Petersburg Mine. . . .It is not surprising that so ardent a lover of his profession as Pleasants, and so earnest a soldier of the war, should employ his active mind in devising ways and means to end the rebellion. When these two salients in the opposing line, so temptingly lying opposite each other came under his notice, his profession came to aid his soldierly qualifications, and his quick eye took in the advantage of the situation, and the idea of undermining the rebel fort was projected."  

Having overheard one of his men state that they could blow the Confederates out of existence if only they could run a mine shaft under their lines, Pleasants began surveying the studying the Confederate defenses to the Ninth Corps's front. On June 22, Pleasants, along with Captain Gilbert McKibben, an officer on General Robert Potter's staff, rose up above the Union trenches to study Elliott's Salient when a Confederate sharpshooter's bullet slammed directly into McKibben's face, reminding everyone, once more, of the ever-present deadly reality of life in the trenches, when the opposing lines were so near to one another.

Captain George W. Gowen, Co. C
Pleasants continued to contemplate the project. He discussed it with two fellow engineers, Captain
George W. Gowen, of Pleasants's old Company C, and Captain Frank Farquhar, whom Pleasants had known in Pottsville and who was now serving as the chief engineer of the army's Eighteenth Corps.
Pleasants also directed that each of his company commanders prepare and present a list of all the coal miners in their respective companies. Because they were recruited from Schuylkill County and because of what they achieved in tunneling under the Confederate lines at Petersburg, the 48th Pennsylvania has long been referred to as "that regiment of coal miners," with the thought being that the ranks were composed largely by miners. But this was not the case. True, there were a good number of miners in the regiment, but they were not all miners. Indeed, when the lists came back, there were a total of 85 enlisted men and 14 officers who were trained, skilled, and professional miners. It would be these men who would be doing the mining in the weeks to come; the other members of the regiment would help with the project, but in a supporting role (removing the dirt, constructing the timber framing, filling sandbags for tamping, and so on).  

Pleasants's idea came to fruition and the men of the 48th readied themselves for an undertaking that would forever emblazon their names in the annals of Civil War history. Very little support was offered or given at the army level or from among the army's engineers. They simply believed it could not be done; the proposed tunnel was too long, the men would suffocate, nothing like this had ever worked before, but Pleasants never doubted, his men never doubted. It could be done; it would be done. Run a tunnel under the Confederate line, blast a hole in that line, then have the men rush forward to secure the critical Jerusalem Plank Road beyond and the critical high ground upon which was the Blandford Cemetery. Secure that ground and Lee would be forced to abandon his lines at Petersburg--the siege, the deadlock would be broken and, perhaps, Lee's army would be broken, too.

General Robert Potter (standing, center, bareheaded) and staff
Captain Gilbert McKibben is among these officers

After finalizing this plan, Pleasants, 150 years ago today, went directly to divisional commander Robert Potter who liked the idea. Potter then referred the matter to corps commander Ambrose Burnside: "General: Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, of the Forty-Eighth Pennsylvania, has called upon me to express his opinion of the feasibility of mining the enemy's works in my front. Colonel Pleasants was a mining engineer in charge of some of the principal works of Schuylkill County, Penna. He has in his command upwards of eighty-five enlisted men and fourteen commissioned officers who are professional miners. The distance from inside our work, where the mine would have to be started, to inside the enemy's work, does not exceed one hundred yards. He is of the opinion that they could run a mine forward at the rate of twenty-five to fifty feet per day, including supports, ventilation and so on. A few miners' picks, which I am informed could be made by any blacksmith from ordinary ones; a few handbarrows, easily constructed; one or two mathematical instruments, which would be supplied by the engineer department, and the ordinary entrenching tools, are all that are required. The men themselves have been talking about it, and are quite desirous, seemingly, of trying it. If you desire to see Col. Pleasants I will ride over with him and send him up to you."
Burnside, indeed, wished to speak directly with Pleasants and hear about this plan. It was a hot summer's evening when Potter and Pleasants made their way to Burnside's headquarters. There, Pleasants explained his plans. . .and Burnside was thrilled with the idea. 150 years ago this evening, Ambrose Burnside authorized Pleasants and the 48th to begin the mining operation the next day--on June 25. He promised to take the idea to George Meade, commander of the army.
Pleasants returned to his headquarters after his successful interview with Burnside and, that night, prepared himself and most likely his command for the operation.  

Diagram of Pleasants' Mine

Monday, June 23, 2014

The 48th/150th: "We Can Blow That Damned Fort Out Of Existence. . . "

Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, 48th Pennsylvania
150 Years Ago, began working out his plan
to tunnel under the Confederate lines
150 years ago, outside Petersburg, Virginia, and after Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant decided against any more frontal attacks upon the Confederate defenses, the soldiers in blue settled in for a siege. The so-called Overland Campaign thus drew to a close. It began some 46 days earlier, on May 4, 1864, and roughly 100 miles to the north when the Army of the Potomac first crossed the Rapidan River and began marching--and fighting--its way south. The campaign had witnessed some of the most horrific battle actions of the entire war and the casualties were simply unimaginable. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, the North Anna to Cold Harbor, and to the outskirts of Petersburg, tens of thousands of men fell either killed or wounded.
The campaign had been a savage and costly one for the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania. During those 46 days--at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomoy Creek, Cold Harbor, and at Petersburg--the regiment lost 72 men killed or mortally wounded, 208 wounded, and 15 men captured or missing in action, for a total casualty count of 295 men.

Deciding to abandon any more frontal assaults, Grant now ordered the army to dig in. On the Ninth Corps's front, the Confederate position was very close but the soldiers of Burnside's command went to work cutting into the Virginia soil. "The lines were strongly entrenched," said Oliver Bosbyshell, "traverses, abatis and covered ways were built, as the least exposure of any part of the person was sure to result in injury. The nearness of the contending parties, at this particular part of the entrenchments, rendered it extremely important for the soldiers to keep well under cover."

Civil War Trenches

A Union Battery in the Trenches at Petersburg

Sharpshooting Became A Daily and Deadly Reality

Captain Benjamin Schuck, Co. I
A tinsmith from Middleport, Schuck was
mortally wounded June 25, 1864
This would be a new kind of war; gone were the days of linear formations, of direct, head-on attacks across open ground. The men had tired, grown weary of such tactics. Yet life in the trenches was far from ideal. The sun scorched the men; there was little shade since most of the trees had been cut to strengthen the fortifications. When it rained, water collected at the bottom of the trenches and the soldiers had to walk--and sometimes sleep--in the mud. Sniper and sharpshooter fire was a constant and deadly threat and soon soldiers in both blue and gray could hardly even go to the restroom without taking their lives in their hands. "It is extremely difficult to describe the feelings and sensations aroused during the tedious days of the siege," said Bosbyshell. "Life was counted of little worth--the familiarity with death almost bred contempt of the grim monster. Still the presence of the great destroyer was daily manifested." Along the Ninth Corps's front, throughout the months of June and July, an average of 36 to 48 men fell per day, victims of sharpshooter's bullets, including some members of the 48th PA. ' On June 25, for example, Benjamin B. Schuck, the highly-respected captain of Company I, while overseeing his skirmish line, was struck down by a sharpshooter's bullet and mortally wounded; he died a month later, on July 27. "He was highly esteemed as a thoroughly efficient officer," said Bosbyshell, "and a very good man in all respects."

Schuck's Grave
Odd Fellow's Cemetery, Pottsville, PA

Death was an ever-present reality; it could come at any moment of reckless or inadvertent exposure. The lines were so very close together. Just over a hundred feet away loomed an angle in the Confederate lines known as Elliott's Salient, which was occupied by Captain Richard Pegram's Virginia Battery and a brigade of South Carolina soldiers under Stephen Elliott.

Life in the trenches was miserable and the men were no more looking forward to a prolonged siege of Petersburg than they were to frontal assaults. . .

. . .and 150 years ago, on June 23, 1864, while walking along his lines and among his men, Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania overheard one of his men exclaim, "We can blow than damn Confederate fort out of existence, if we could just run a mine shaft under it."

A professional mining engineer, Pleasants may have thought about this earlier but now the seed was fully planted, and the young Buenos Aires-born colonel returned to his headquarters and began to devise the plan. Within a matter of hours, he would take that plan to his divisional commander--Robert Potter--and to his corps commander--Ambrose Burnside. And by the 25th of June, the same day Captain Schuck fell wounded at the front, other soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania began digging in to the Virginia soil.

Entrance To The 48th's Mine At Petersburg. . .

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The 48th/150th: "Like A Savage Torrent:" The 48th Pennsylvania at Petersburg: June 17-18, 1864

Harpers' Weekly Depiction of Attacks on Petersburg, June 1864

150 Years Ago. . .the ranks of the 48th Pennsylvania had once more been bloodied following a series of assaults at Petersburg.

A week before, Grant had ordered the army south from Cold Harbor and on the morning of June 16, the soldiers of the 48th crossed the James River and arrived in front of Petersburg later that afternoon, in time to watch soldiers of the army's Second Corps launch an unsuccessful attack against the entrenched Confederate line. Sometime around dusk, the regiment was led to the left, marching south along a creek bed until they arrived at a position directly opposite Battery No. 15, which was a well-entrenched angle in the Confederate lines. The opposing lines were very close. Sometime around 10:00 p.m. on the night of June 16, Colonel Henry Pleasants ordered the men of Companies B & G to advance across to the Confederate side of the creek to reconnoiter. Creeping forward in the darkness--regimental historian Joseph Gould later wrote that that night was "dark as pitch"--the two companies came under fire and scampered back. Yet the question remained as to whether they were fired upon by friend or by foe and it fell to two men of Company B, Sergeant Andrew Wren and Private Jacob Wigner, to go forward once more to find out. Once more they slowly crept forward in the darkness. When nearing the line of earthworks, both were grabbed and, by the collars of their uniform coats, pulled inside the Confederate lines. They were both now prisoners of war and both were soon shipped south to Andersonville Prison. It was there, six months later and still in captivity that Wigner, an 18-year-old machinist from Pottsville, died. Wren would remain a prisoner at Andersonville for the next ten months before, finally, being released in late April 1865.

While these two men ventured forth in the darkness only to become prisoners of war, the rest of the regiment settled in for the night, catching whatever sleep they could and knowing that they would most likely be called into action the next day. That next day arrived all too soon.

Map by Hal Jespersen

At 3:00 a.m. on the morning of June 17 and in the total darkness, Colonel Henry Pleasants quietly made his way from company to company, informing each of their commanders that they would soon be launching an attack. The men were to charge with bayonets fixed and all caps removed from the guns to prevent against the men from firing. The soldiers were soon stirred awake and, according to Robert Reid of Company G, they quietly attached their bayonets, removed the caps, and even secured their tincups so there would be no rattling. "[T]hen we moved out of the works and crossed the creek. . .After getting the whole regiment over, we silently formed line; then, in utter darkness, moved to the right about one hundred yards, when, in a whisper, the command forward was given."

In his regimental history, Oliver Bosbyshell painted a vivid portrait of the morning's preparations and noted that Pleasants "informed the men of the danger before them, and directed that if any felt disinclined to make the assault, the 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. . .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 to the right, for about a hundred yards with panther-like tread, a whispered command 'forward!' was given, and the savage rush began."

The soldiers of the 48th swept across the open ground between the opposing lines; it was still dark and the only noise was that of hundreds of feet tramping down upon the dew-covered grass and dirt. Away off to the right, however, some Union troops opened fire, which drew an immediate response from the Confederate line. The darkness was illuminated with the flash of the Confederate rifles. But still, still, the soldiers of the 48th rushed on. "Directly into this fiery ribbon, belching its leaden hail through the ranks of the charging line, swept the Forty-Eighth," wrote Bosbyshell, while Reid boasted that "We went at them squarely, right into their firing line. Not one of our regiment returned a shot until we reached their works, when there was a short, sharp contest, and the line was ours. I still remember how my heart beat when starting on the charge, but it was forgotten in the glorious rush of the fight."

It was a complete surprise. Within a matter of minutes, the 48th PA crashed into the Confederate lines and captured Battery No. 15. Hundreds of Confederates were very quickly captured.

During the sharp engagement, the Irish-born Sergeant Patrick Monaghan noticed a few Confederate soldiers attempting to flee. He ran amongst them and demanded their surrender. Their hands went up and it was soon noted that one of these Confederate soldiers was attempting to retreat with the flag of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery. The flag had been captured the day before and now Monaghan of the 48th re-captured it and later it would be returned to the New York regiment. For this action, Monaghan received the Medal of Honor.

Robert Reid of the 48th would also receive a Medal of Honor for his actions during this pre-dawn attack on June 17, 1864. Sweeping forward and rushing up and over the Confederate lines, Reid wrestled away the flag of the 44th Tennessee from its regimental color bearer, capturing those colors.

Wrote Bobsyshell: "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."

Robert Reid

Post War Image of Sgt. Patrick Monaghan
(Courtesy of Mr. Richard F. Meaney, III)

The Flag of the 44th Tennessee, Captured By Reid

As the skies continued to lighten another Confederate redan about 100 yards further south became visible. Confederate cannons posted there soon erupted into the flank and front of the 48th. Very soon, Colonel Pleasants organized the men for yet another attack and "like a savage torrent" the 48th charged forward. "[T]he 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." Two Confederate Napoleons fell into the hands of the 48th and the two guns were safely hauled, by hand, to the rear.

Two cannons, two flags and two Medals of Honor, hundreds of prisoners and a good section of the Confederate line; it was a glorious victory for the 48th and for the Ninth Army Corps. All along Burnside's front, the morning attack had achieved much success. Even George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, would recognize the success of the Ninth Corps in a note to Burnside, sent on that June 17: "It affords me great satisfaction to congratulate you and your gallant corps on the assault this morning, knowing the wearied condition of your men from the night march over twenty-two miles, and the continual movement this last night; their persistence and success is highly creditable." These words coming from Meade to Burnside was high praise, indeed.

For the actions of the 48th, Oliver Bosbyshell would later write that the attack on June 17, 1864, at Petersburg, "was probably, in all its results, the most brilliant engagement for the Forty-Eighth of any in which it participated. Praise is due to every officer, from Colonel Pleasants down, and to every many who was in this grand assault, for the splendid record the work here accomplished. .  . ."

Throughout the rest of the day on June 17 the Confederates made several attempts to regain their captured works, but each were turned back. A sometimes lively skirmish fire was kept up throughout the day. The next day, Burnside determined to strike once more, this time with his 1st and 3rd Division leading the way while the 2nd Division--which included the 48th--would advance behind in support. The fighting renewed once more in intensity on June 18 as the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac attempted to drive the Confederates from yet another line of earthworks and trenches very close to the city of Petersburg. Along the Ninth Corps front and though designated as a reserve, the soldiers of the 48th were once more brought to the front. They charged down a ravine and across a railroad cut and they made it closer to the Confederate line than any other Union force. Night settled in and to their front, just a hundred yards or so away, rose Elliott's Salient, held by a brigade of South Carolina soldiers and the gunners of Richard Pegram's Virginia Battery.

One week later, on June 25, the soldiers of the 48th would begin to dig a mine underneath this portion of the Confederate line. . . .

Trenches at Petersburg

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

The soldiers of the 48th were justly proud of their actions on the Seventeenth and Eighteenth of June; indeed, Bosbyshell later described the attacks on June 17 as the regiment's most brilliant action of the war.
But the price was heavy. . .During its attacks on June 17-18, the 48th Pennsylvania lost 19 men killed or mortally wounded, 42 men wounded, and 4 men missing/captured, for a total casualty count of 65.

Killed/Mortally Wounded: (19)
Private Francis M. Stidham, Company A (MW6/18/1864; Died 7/10/1864)
Private Gilbert Graham, Company C (MW 6/18/1864; Died 4/1/1865)
Private John Major, Company E (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private William Rasons/Reysons, Company E (MY 6/17/1864; Died 6/24/1864)
Private James Reagan, Company E (MW 6/17/1864; Died 6/30/1864)
Private James Mercer, Company E (MW 6/17/1864; Died 5/21/1865)
Private Horace Straub, Company F (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Isaac Lewis, Company F (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Simon Devlin, Company F (KIA 6/18/1864)
Lieutenant Curtis C. Pollock, Company G (MW 6/17/1864; Died 6/23/1864)
Private Howard Jones, Company G (MW 6/17/1864; Died 7/13/1864)
Private George Morey, Company H (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Jefferson W. Beyerle, Company H (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private James Mulholland, Company H (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Anthony Gallagher, Company H  (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Thomas Davis, Company H (KIA 6/18/1864)
Lieutenant Joseph Edwards, Company I (MW 6/17/1864; Died 7/2/1864)
Private Nathan Rich, Company K (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Arthur Gray (KIA 6/18/1864)

Lieutenant Joseph Edwards, Co. I
Mortally Wounded, June 17
(Hoptak Collection)

Lieutenant Curtis Pollock, Co. G
Mortally Wounded, June 17, 1864
(Hoptak Collection)

Private Francis M. Stidham
Killed, June 18, 1864
(Hoptak Collection)

Wounded: (42)
Private Elias Britton, Company A
Private John Holman, Company A
Private John McLean, Company A
Private John Cochran, Company A
Private William Huckey, Company A
Private John Shaffer, Company A
Private Joel Lins, Company A
Private Henry Schreyer, Company A
Private James W. Sterner, Company A
Private William Dreibelbeis, Company A
Private Joseph Dreibelbeis, Company A
Sergeant Robert Campbell, Company B
Corporal James Rider, Company B
Sergeant Henry Weiser, Company C
Lieutenant James K. Helms, Company D
Corporal Jacob Dietrich, Company D
Private Lewis Dietrich, Company D
Private Jacob D. Casper, Company D
Private Joseph Berlinger/Buddinger, Company D
Private Joseph Lindenmuth, Company D
Private Thomas Clemens, Company E
Private R.B. Thompson, Company E
Private Murt Brennan, Company F
Private Patrick Boran, Company F
Corporal Robert Wallace, Company F
Private Edward L. Shissler, Company F
Private Joshua Reed, Company G
Lieutenant David B. Brown, Company H
Private Charles Eberle, Company H
Private Lewis Aurand, Company H
Private Jonathan Dillet, Company H
Private Frank Ringer, Company I
Private William Kramer, Company I
Corporal Benjamin Williams, Company I
Private Christian Seward, Company I
Private Samuel DeFrehn, Company I
Private Jacob Reichwein, Company I
Private Charles Koch, Company I
Sergeant Thomas Irwin, Company K
Private John Gillinger, Company K
Private Oliver Schwartz, Company K
Private David Houser, Company K

Captured/Missing: (4)
Sergeant Andrew Wren, Company B
Private Jacob Wigner, Company B
Private Michael Lavell, Company F
Private William Auchenbach, Company F

Private Elias Britton, Co. A
(Hoptak Collection)

Private John Cochran, Co. A
(Hoptak Collection)

Lieutenant James K. Helms, Co. D
Severely Wounded
(Patriotic Order Sons of America)

Friday, June 13, 2014

The 48th/150th: Roads South To Petersburg. . .June 12-16, 1864

150 years ago, the Army of the Potomac began its shift southward, marching for the James and, ultimately, to Petersburg beyond. . . .Late on June 12, the 48th Pennsylvania abandoned its position near Cold Harbor, marched through Burhamville and headed for Turnstall's Station and the Chickahominy River beyond. They crossed the Chickahominy on pontoons two days later. On June 16, the regiment crossed the James River "bright and early" and, about 4:00 p.m., arrived in front of the Petersburg defenses. On their way to the front, the tired and dusty Schuylkill County soldiers passed the scene of an earlier engagement, with the dead still covering the fields. For these veteran troops, this ghastly sight was nothing, except for the color of the slain. A number of black U.S.C.T. soldiers had been killed in the assault. "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," recorded Oliver Bosbyshell.

The pontoon bridge across the James River consisted of over 100 pontoons and spanned 700 yards across the river. The 48th marches across this bridge on the morning of June 16. [New York Public Library]
The following two days--June 17-18--the regiment would attack the Confederate defenses at Petersburg and suffer heavily for it. Having already lost well more than 200 soldiers over the past six weeks in its march south from the Rapidan, through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, across the North Anna, and at Cold Harbor, another 65 were destined to fall. Their attacks would, however, place them very near to yet another Confederate defensive line, nearer to Petersburg, an angle in the trenches known as Elliot's Salient. And it would be on June 23 when Colonel Pleasants overheard one of his soldiers say that if only they could run a mine under it, they could blow that damned fort out of existence.
The digging of the Petersburg Mine--the 48th's greatest accomplishment--would commence two days later. .  .

Roads South From Richmond To Petersburg: June 12-June 16, 1864

Friday, June 6, 2014

The 48th/150th: Agnes Allison's Sacrifice. . .The Story of the Allison Brothers of Port Carbon

The Allison Brothers
(from Schuylkill County in the Civil War)
150 years ago. . .In homes throughout Schuylkill County, tears were shed as the families either received the letters of company commanders or read in the newspaper that their son, husband, brother, father had been killed in action in far-away Virginia, near a place called Cold Harbor.
But few--very few--throughout the entire nation, perhaps, would shed more tears or mourned as deeply as Mrs. Agnes Allison of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania.
On June 3, 1864. . .150 years ago. . .she laid to rest her son, George, who had been mortally wounded at Spotsylvania. On that very same day, as she watched the coffin containing George's body be lowered into the ground within the confines of the Presbyterian Cemetery in Port Carbon, and over a hundred miles away, her son James Allison was killed in action while serving with the 48th Pennsylvania at Cold Harbor.
James Allison would be the fourth son Agnes Allison lost in the Civil War.  . . . .

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

The small community of Port Carbon, situated along the Schuylkill River two miles northeast of Pottsville in the anthracite rich coal regions of east-central Pennsylvania, boasts a proud Civil War history. Founded in the early 1800s and incorporated as a borough in 1852, Port Carbon grew quickly from a few sparse settlements to a thriving market town of nearly 2,000 inhabitants by 1860. The site of the first lock on Schuylkill Canal, Port Carbon flourished from the shipment of coal extracted from the many mines surrounding the town. The canal and the coalmines offered plenty of work, especially for the thousands of western European immigrants who flocked to Schuylkill County during the antebellum years, seeking a better life. And when the war did break out, many of these immigrants were quick to take up arms in defense of their adopted country, joining and fighting alongside the thousands of Schuylkill County natives who also responded to their country’s call. From Port Carbon and its neighboring coal patches alone came no fewer than 513 volunteers who donned the Union blue from 1861-1865. 

Port Carbon Soldiers' Monument
To honor the services of these men, Port Carbon, in 1904, erected a tall soldiers’ monument on the summit of Goat Hill, a high eminence that rises above the town. Consisting of a twenty-two-foot zinc pedestal with a bronze, six foot bronze statue of a soldier on top, standing at parade rest, this soldiers’ monument is quite typical of those one can still find standing in hundreds of small towns across the nation, in both the North and the South.

But in Port Carbon there stands another Civil War memorial, one not so typical. Though more modest and much smaller in size, this memorial stands in the Presbyterian Church Cemetery over the grave of Agnes Allison. Known locally as the Mother Allison Memorial, this monument was placed there not to pay tribute to soldiers, but to honor the sacrifice of Agnes Allison, an immigrant from Scotland, who, during the course of the conflict lost four of her sons, all killed in action.

Born in 1807, Agnes was twenty-one-years-old when she married Andrew Allison in Aragask, Scotland, in 1828. Over the next eighteen years, Agnes gave birth to six sons before her husband Andrew’s death in August 1845. A local history of Port Carbon notes that upon her own death in 1883, Agnes Allison had been a resident of the community for thirty years, meaning that she and her sons had emigrated from Scotland and settled in Port Carbon sometime in the early 1850s, after Andrew’s death. Several of Agnes’s sons found work as boatmen on the Schuylkill Canal while another, Alexander, found gainful employment as a blacksmith. With the outbreak of civil war, however, the Allison boys were quick to leave their civilian occupations behind to take up arms in defense of their adopted country.

Twenty-six-year-old Alexander Allison and his older brother James were first to march off to war, as members of two local militia companies that had been raised in response to President Lincoln’s April 15, 1861, call for 75,000 men to serve a ninety-day enlistment. Witnessing no action during this three-month stint, both Alexander and James reenlisted in the summer of 1861, signing up this time to serve for “three years, or the course of the war,” whichever came first. James Allison now entered the ranks of Company M, 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, while Alexander enlisted as the First Sergeant in Company C, 96th Pennsylvania Infantry. He was joined in the 96th by his brother John, who at age twenty-one, was the youngest of the four Allison boys to serve. The oldest was George Allison who enlisted in February 1862 as a thirty-two-year-old private in Company K, 56th Pennsylvania. The widow Agnes Allison’s anxiety must have been great as she watched four of her six sons answer the call and depart for war.
The 96th Pennsylvania Infantry
Recruited largely from Schuylkill County
Alexander and John Allison Served in the 96th PA
(from the Library of Congress)

The first of the Allison brothers to fall were John and Alexander, who were both struck down on May 3, 1863, during the Battle of Salem Church. The two had served side-by-side in the 96th since the summer of 1861 and had survived the worst the war threw at them during the Seven Days’ Battles and at Crampton’s Gaps, where the 96th suffered particularly heavy losses. Alexander Allison was among the wounded at Crampton’s Gap but he had recovered in time to rejoin the regiment for the spring 1863 Chancellorsville campaign. On May 1, 1863, Alexander was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant; his younger brother John, by this time, had worked his way up to corporal. Just two days after Alexander’s promotion, the 96th was again called into action, and again the regiment suffered heavily. Emerging from a woodlot just south of Salem Church, the 96th came under a galling fire from the Alabamians of Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade, sparking a bitter stand-up fight between the two sides. “Volley after volley was fired,” remembered Captain Jacob Haas of the 96th, but the regiment “could not break the rebel position.” Haas remembered seeing the newly-minted Lieutenant Allison repeatedly ordering his men to load and fire, before a bullet slammed into his right side, dropping him to the ground. In the chaos of this battle, Alexander’s younger brother John was also struck down. Noted Haas, “It’s not known whether John Allison was killed before Alex was wounded. But during this heavy fire fight with minnie balls flying in every direction, John was dropped and instantly killed. . . .”

Salem Church

Alexander Allison was carried from the field and taken to a hospital at nearby Aquia Creek where he drew his last breath two days later, on May 5, his heart heavy knowing by this time that his younger brother had been killed. It must have been a profound blow for Agnes Allison later that month when word arrived in Port Carbon that two of her sons were now dead. The Miners’ Journal, the leading newspaper of Schuylkill County, took notice of their death, writing that “The death of Lieutenant Allison and his brother is deeply regretted. Their kind dispositions and fine soldiering qualities made many warm friends who mourn their loss.” The editors of the Miners’ Journal also noted that Agnes Allison still had two sons in the service, although at this time, one of them—James Allison—was just then back at home, recovering from what was a grievous injury.

The Grave of Lt. Alexander Allison
Fredericksburg National Cemetery  
(Brother John is most likely buried as an 'unknown' in the same cemetery)

While Alexander and John Allison had joined the 96th and older brother George served in the 56th Pennsylvania, James Allison enlisted instead in the mounted arm, serving as a private in the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry. On January 15, 1863, however, James was discharged from the regiment. He had been thrown hard against the pommel of his horse’s saddle, resulting in an injury that required him to use catheters for the next four months. James was thus recovering at home when word of Alexander’s and John’s deaths arrived. Still, their deaths did not deter James from reentering the service. In late February 1864, while the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry was home in Schuylkill County on veteran’s furlough, James, a pre-war boatman on the Schuylkill Canal, signed up once more to fight, this time as a private in Company G of the hard-fighting 48th.

With its ranks replenished, the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry once more departed their Schuylkill County homes in late March 1864, with orders to proceed to Annapolis where their fellow regiments of the 9th Army Corps were just then rendezvousing. Again, for the third time, James Allison was leaving home, no doubt leaving his mother behind with tears filling her eyes. Heavy combat lay ahead for the 48th at the Wilderness in early May but especially a week later at Spotsylvania where, on May 12, the regiment lost 26 men killed or mortally wounded, 92 men wounded, and 11 more missing in action. The price paid by the 48th that bloody Thursday at Spotsylvania was high, but James Allison emerged from this slaughter unscathed.

The same could not be said, however, for James’s older brother George, serving in the ranks of the 56th Pennsylvania. Even as James Allison and the men of 48th were attacking Harry Heth’s Confederate division on the Confederate right, George Allison and the 56th Pennsylvania were charging General Charles Field’s Confederate division well-positioned atop Laurel Hill on the opposite end of the line. It was a forlorn effort and the slopes of Laurel Hill were soon awash in a sea of blue and red. The 56th formed part of Edward Fowler’s brigade of Lysander Cutler’s Fifth Corps division. Cutler led his division forward, with two brigades up front, followed by two, including Fowler’s, in support. And while casualties were particularly heavy in the front line, those in the back suffered as well. Confederate general Charles Field acknowledged the bravery of the Federals in this attack, stating that their effort was a “determined” one, but, as he was quick to point out, they were “repulsed with great slaughter.” Thirty-three-year-old George Allison, who, like his brother James, was a boatman before the war laboring along the Schuylkill Canal, was shot down and mortally wounded that day. He clung desperately to life for the next eleven days before passing away on May 23.

The remains of George Allison were brought back to Port Carbon for interment. A grief-stricken Agnes Allison buried her oldest son in the graveyard of the Presbyterian Church on June 3. Three of her sons were now gone, leaving only James still in uniform. And even as she buried George, Agnes’s thoughts were no doubt turned to James, fighting in some far off field, over a hundred miles away from home. But what she could not then know—and as if the story of Agnes Allison and her sons were not tragic enough—on June 3, on the very same day George Allison was being laid to rest in Port Carbon and even as Agnes was returning home from the funeral, James Allison was drawing his last breath.

Private James Allison
Company G, 48th PA
Having survived the storm at Spotsylvania, James Allison and the men of the 48th Pennsylvania next found themselves heavily engaged at the Battle of Cold Harbor. It was during this fight on June 3 that James Allison received a mortal wound, dying just a few hours after being struck down.

The remains of James Allison were later buried in the Richmond National Cemetery; those of Alexander were interred at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Confederate soldiers buried the body of John Allison somewhere near Salem Church, though it is likely he was later exhumed and buried as an “Unknown” in the same cemetery as his older brother Alexander. Only the body of George Allison returned home to Port Carbon for burial.
The Grave of James Allison, 48th PA
Richmond National Cemetery

It is impossible to imagine the anguish and devastation felt by Agnes Allison, having lost four of her sons in the Civil War. Their deaths left a void in her life and in her heart as she did her best to continue to provide a home and bring up her two remaining sons, Andrew and David.

Peace finally came to Agnes Allison on April 3, 1887, when she passed away at the age of 80.   Her remains were buried next to her son George, already twenty-three years in the grave.

Agnes Allison may have taken some consolation after the war in knowing that the veterans of the local Port Carbon chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic honored the Allison brothers by naming their post after them. Indeed, it was this Allison Brothers Post of the G.A.R. that led the effort to have the soldiers’ monument placed atop Goat Hill in 1904. And it was this same post that three years later led the effort to place a memorial on the grave of Agnes Allison, to pay tribute to her and her great sacrifice.        
The Mother Allison Memorial in the Presbyterian Cemetery
Port Carbon, Pennsylvania
Agnes and her son George are buried here. . .