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

No comments: