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. . .

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