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
Sergeant Patrick Monaghan

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)

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