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

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post! My ancester was a member of the 26th SC, assigned to Elliott's Brigade. I wish he had left behind some sort of memoir or recollection of his service.