Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The 48th/150th: "If I Had Known What A Blunder It Would Be, I Never Would Have Gone In To Relight The Fuse:" Sgt. Henry Reese Remembers the Crater

Alfred Waud's Depiction of the Explosion of the Petersburg Mine
July 30, 1864
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

It was one of the most remarkable successes of the war. . .followed by one of its worst disasters.
150 years ago this morning, the 48th Pennsylvania's mine at Petersburg was fired and in an instant a gaping hole--150 feet in length, 60 in width, and 30 in depth--was literally blasted in the Confederate lines. The way to Petersburg was open; an end to the deadlock appeared within sight. "Everything looked propitious for a grand success," said one man from Massachusetts. Yet the battle that resulted proved a terrible and horrific defeat; "a stupendous failure," and "the saddest affair of the war," or at least that is how Grant later remembered it.
150 years ago was a sad day for the Union and especially for the 9th Army Corps. . .
This fiasco--this tragedy at the Crater, however, should not in any way detract from the remarkable work performed by the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. When others said their effort would fail, they persevered. When they were denied support, they improvised. The digging of the Petersburg Mine was their effort, and theirs alone, and there could be no denying their success.
Yet despite the success of the 48th in tunneling under the Confederate lines, at least one of the men in the regiment--and probably many more--later wished it had never happened.

Sgt. Henry "Snapper" Reese

Born in Montmoutshire, Wales, on July 5, 1835, Henry Reese later set sail for America and found work in the coal mines of east-central Pennsylvania. When the nation went to war with itself, Reese was quick to volunteer his services to fight for his adopted country, enlisting into the ranks of Company F, 48th Pennsylvania. He served bravely with the regiment and must have become a particular favorite of Colonel Henry Pleasants, for, in late June 1864, Pleasants called on Reese to oversee the regiment's miners as they went to work digging the Petersburg Mine. He made a home at the entrance of the tunnel and there watched as the work parties came and went. He was the first to hear of any trouble or potential danger and he was sure that each of his miners received their extra allotment of whiskey.
It was 150 years ago today, however, where Reese, along with Lt. Jacob Douty, displayed  remarkable heroism, for it was these two men who crawled back into the tunnel to investigate why the mine had not blown. Pleasants had initially lit the fuse, sometime after 3:00 a.m. and the mine was scheduled for detonation at approximately 3:30. Yet that time would come and go. . .and still no explosion. Finally, Pleasants allowed Reese to go in and both he and Douty soon discovered that the fuse had extinguished. After resplicing and repairing the line, Reese relit it and both men raced their way back out. . . .

Colonel Henry Pleasants
Many years after the war, Reese sat down and gave an interview to Chaplain James Guthrie who was, at that time, preparing a history of black soldiers in America's wars. The book, published in 1899 and titled Camp-Fires of the Afro-American; or the Colored Man as a Patriot, featured a chapter on the role of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) at the Battle of the Crater. Reese's interview is both informative and insightful. It tells us about Reese's and Douty's exploits that morning and it allows us to help answer one of the long-lasting questions about the entire tragedy at the Crater, "How did the men of the 48th feel watching their great effort result in such bloodshed and disaster?"

[Reese]: "I saw Colonel Pleasants standing on an earthwork, watch in hand, anxiously looking toward the fort which we expected every minute to see blown up. He had lighted the fuse at quarter past three o'clock a.m., and the explosion out to have followed within then minutes; and when that time had passed, and it didn't come off, I began to think about the fuse. Being a practical miner, I concluded that a defect in it had caused the fire to go out, and I went up to Colonel Pleasants and so stated it to him, and at the same time offered to go into the mine and remedy the difficulty. Lieutenant Douty joined in with me, but the Colonel wouldn't permit us to make the venture until he felt sure that the fire was out, and not slumbering. He was afraid that, like many cases in mining, it might go off just as we would be approaching to investigate the trouble. At last he consented, and at quarter past four o'clock we entered the mine. We found that about fifty feet of the fuse had been consumed and that the fire had gone out where the fuses were spliced. We needed a knife, so I went out for one, reported the trouble, returned, and with Douty soon had the fuses fixed again."

Lt. Jacob Douty
Reese was then asked: "How did you feel, while in there?"

"Feel? I didn't stop to feel, I had been in tight placed in coal mines before the war didn't mind this affair; but when I got outside, and stood a few minutes looking toward the fort that was doomed, and at the ranks of brave men soon to go charging perhaps to destruction or capture, I felt something then trickling near my eyes, but, [said Reese after a pause] I guess it was only sweat."
"The explosion took place at about quarter to five o'clock. There was a heavy jar, a dull thud, a big volcano-puff of smoke and dust, and up went the earth under and around that fort for a distance in the air of a hundred feet or more, carrying with it cannons, caissons, muskets--and men. Poor fellows, their fate was awful, but it was so sudden that the fate of our men who were slaughtered in the crater soon after was worse. The men who went up in their sleep, with the fort, thought that may be that it was only a nightmare that ailed them; but our poor boys at the crater, hemmed in and shot down with their eyes open, had a worse lot, and the suspense they were in was enough to kill them. If I had known what a blunder was going to be made in the assault, after the mine had made such a success, I never would have gone into it to relight the fuse. It made me frantic to see such useless destruction; and when the assault had failed, it made me still more furious to see a division of Colored soldiers rushed into the jaws of death with no prospect of success; but they went in cheering as though they didn't mind it, and a great many of them never came back."

Fury, anger. . .mixed no doubt with utter disbelief. These must have been the common sentiments felt among all soldiers of the 48th when they watched their month-long effort--their great labor--vanish in terrible and useless slaughter, 150 years ago today, at Petersburg.

Entrance To The 48th's Mine At Petersburg

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

Mahone's Counterattack, by Don Troiani

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The 48th/150th: The Mine Completed, Charged, & Tamped. . . .

Entrance to the 48th's Mine at Petersburg
In all, it had taken just about one month for the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry to complete the tunneling of their mine at Petersburg. Having developed the idea and discussed it with a few of his confidantes in the regiment, Colonel Henry Pleasants next took his proposal of divisional commander Robert Potter who then suggested the Pennsylvania colonel and former mining engineer take the idea directly to General Burnside. Late on the evening of June 24, 1864, Burnside approved of Pleasants's endeavor and, next day at exactly 12:00 noon, Pleasants watched as his men began digging into the Virginia soil.
The actual digging was left to the 99 trained, professional miners in the regiment; every one else, though, played important supporting roles: building the timber framing, and especially removing the dirt. By the time the mine was fully completed, Pleasants estimated that approximately 18,000 cubic feet of earth had been removed from the ground, and either taken far to the rear or used to fill sandbags.
Forced to use improvised and modified tools, Pleasants and his dirt-covered and sore-shouldered soldiers in the 48th Pennsylvania labored under severe disadvantage. They received little, if any, support from the army and especially from the army's engineers, who believed the thing could not be done. The soldiers of the 48th were not even provided with lumber for the framing while even Pleasants's simple request for a surveyor's tool--needed to gauge exact distance--was denied.

But the thing was done. The main tunnel, extending some 510 1/2 feet and ending directly underneath Elliott's Salient, was completed on July 17; the next day, work on the right and left lateral galleries commenced. Respectively, the left and right galleries were 37' and 38' in length and in each of these galleries, chambers were dug for placing the magazines. It took another few days to complete the galleries, but by nightfall on July 23, the mine was finished. All that was left was placing the powder and laying the fuse.

Pleasants reported the completion of his mine to Burnside who, in turn, notified army commander Meade. Meade then requested that Burnside submit his plan for using the mine. Burnside's response, written on July 26, 1864, was the sooner, the better; rain and Confederate countermines might ultimately ruin the entire endeavor.  As the whiskered corps commander wrote, "It is altogether probable that the enemy is cognizant of the fact that we are mining, because it is mentioned in their papers, and they have been heard at work on what are supposed to be shafts in close proximity to our galleries. But the rain of night before last has, no doubt, much retarded their work. We have heard no sound of workmen in them either yesterday or today; and nothing is heard by us in the mine but the ordinary sounds of work on the surface above. This morning we had some apprehension that the left lateral gallery was in danger of caving in from the weight of the battery above it and the shock of their firing. But all possible precautions have been taken to strengthen it, and preserve it intact. The placing of the charge in the mine will not involve the necessity of making a noise. It is therefore probable that we will escape discovery if the mine is to be used within two or three days. It is nevertheless important, in my opinion, that the mine should be exploded at the earliest possible moment consistent with the general interests of the campaign." Following the explosion of the mine, Burnside planned to use his Fourth Division, composed entirely of black soldiers.
Meade received Burnside's plan and agreed that the mine should be charged and exploded sooner rather than later. However, he did not agree with Burnside's choice of using the black troops to spearhead the attack. Meade (and Grant) had paid little attention to Burnside and the 48th's mine throughout the previous month but now, at almost the eleventh hour, they took an interest and literally pulled the rug out from under Burnside's feet, with tragic consequences.
In the meantime, Pleasants received orders on July 27 to begin placing the powder; it took six hours, from 4:00 p.m. that afternoon until 10:00 p.m. that night. Pleasants had requested 12,000 pounds of powder but received 8,000. It arrived in legs, one wagon load at a time. And since the drivers of these wagons did not want to get too close to the front, the soldiers had to carry all 320 kegs of powder from a position roughly one mile to the rear then down the entire length of the tunnel and to the lateral galleries, where Pleasants awaited. As the colonel later explained, "The charge consisted of three hundred and twenty kegs of powder, each containing twenty-five pounds--four tons. It was placed in eight magazines, connected by wooden tubes, half filled with powder. These tubes met from the lateral galleries at the inside end of the main gallery, and from this point I placed three lines of fuses for a distance of ninety-eight feet." The fuses had to be spliced.

Carrying In The Powder Kegs

Placing The Powder In Magazines

As soon as the powder was placed in the magazines, work began immediately on the tamping, which consisted of bags filled with dirt--thousands of them, it seems. The tamping began at 10:00 p.m. on the night of July 27 and continued until 6:00 p.m. the following day. "Thirty four feet of main gallery was tamped," said Pleasants, "and ten feet of the entrance of each of the lateral galleries, but the space between the magazines was left clear of tamping." Oliver Bosbyshell further explained that the tamping "was about forty feet in length, and consisted of bags of sand placed loosely on one another, with long logs laid diagonally across the gallery, so as to be driven into the sides by the recoil of the explosion. Common blasting fuse was furnished, in pieces, instead of one continuous piece, which Colonel Pleasants was obliged to splice together. These lines were used ninety feet long, and placed in a wooden tube lined with canvas to guard it from the dampness. The tamping was finished and the mine was ready to be fired at 6 p.m. of July 28."
It was quite the extensive undertaking but by the evening of July 28--just about one month since the first shovel full of dirt was removed--the 48th's mine was finished, charged, and tamped. . .all Pleasants could do now was await the orders to fire it. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The 48th/150th: Main Gallery Completed; Work On Lateral Galleries Commences

Side and Top Profiles of the 48th's Mine. . .
150 years ago, on July 17, 1864, working with improvised tools, under severe hardships, and with no support from the army, the dirty, mud-and-clay-covered soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania completed their mine's main gallery. Their backs and shoulders were no doubt sore, but, still they had done much good work in a short amount of time. Work on the mine began at precisely 12:00 noon on June 25, meaning that it had taken them just 23 days to dig the main tunnel, which extended some 511.5 feet in length and ended directly under the Confederate stronghold known as Elliott's Salient.
Yet the fact that there were Union troops digging a mine underneath the Confederate lines at Petersburg was one of the worst kept secrets in the army and it was not long before Confederate engineers began digging counter-mines, seeking to locate just exactly where this alleged tunnel was. Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th, mastermind of the entire endeavor, grew worried that his tunnel would be discovered, so sometime around midnight on July 17, 1864, the short-tempered colonel, along with Captain William Winlack--a pre-war mine superintendent from Silver Creek--and another, unidentified soldier of the 48th, entered the mine and quietly hunched their way forward. When they reached the end of the main gallery, Winlack and the other soldier made their way down the two lateral galleries, which were, at this point, not yet finished and extended only a few feet, left-and-right of the main tunnel. When he heard reports from Confederate soldiers verifying that they were pretty certain there was tunneling going on, Pleasants ordered a stop to his project and now, he, Winlack and the other man lay quietly on their backs, simply listening for any noise that might indicate a Confederate counter-mining operation heading toward their own tunnel. And there they lay, in complete darkness and in complete silence, for thirty minutes. . .listening.

Captain Winlack (center) and his lieutenants in Company E:
Thomas Bohannon (left) and Joseph Fisher (right)
At the end of thirty minutes, Pleasants let out a low whistle, the signal for the other two men. The three joined back up and Pleasants asked what, if anything they heard. To Winlack, Pleasants whispered: "What do you think about any counterboring?" Winlack shook his head an whispered back in Pleasants's ear: "The rebels no know more of the tunnel being under them than the inhabitants of Africa." "That's just what I believe," responded Pleasants. Then the colonel asked the other man, his identity lost to history. The unidentified soldier responded in so low a whisper that Pleasants could not hear a thing he said. Losing his cool--apparently Pleasants lost his cool a lot--, he snapped and yelled at the man to speak up. Pleasants's voice "rang from one end of the gallery to the other," recorded historian Oliver Bosbyshell, "putting to flight all his notions cautioning extreme silence!"
Confident the Confederates were unaware of the exact location of his mine, Pleasants ordered the work the resume at 6:00 a.m. on July 18. The soldiers dug right and left galleries, which would respectively extend 37 and 38 feet, and which would each contain chambers for the placement of the powder-filled magazines.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The 48th/150th: "We Are Digging A Mine. . .To Blow Up The Rebels"

150 years ago, the soldiers of the 48th were deep underground, nearing the end of their second week working to tunnel under the Confederate lines at Petersburg and "blow them out of existence," as one man stated, bluntly. At the mine entrance, Sgt. "Snapper" Reese kept track of the miners-turned-soldiers-turned miners as they came and went. They worked in teams of two or three, digging into the earth while other soldiers removed the dirt, constructed the timber framing for the mine, or supported in whatever way they could. At first the operation proceeded rapidly and within just a matter of days, the 48th's tunnel extended well over one hundred feet in length. But then the digging got tougher as the soldiers encountered a "putty-like marl," which the soldiers had to then dig up and around. And for each foot the tunnel grew, it took that much longer to remove the dirt, which was carried out one cracker box at a time.

Pleasants, Reese, and the men of the 48th did their best to maintain the secrecy of their project, though this did not, it seems, deter them from writing about it in their letters home. Albin Day, for example, a corporal in Company K, spoke about the mine project in a letter to his brother in Orwigsburg dated July 10, 1864. At that time, Corporal Day was in the hospital being treated for an injury to his arm. In this letter home, he spoke of his injured arm, the treatment he was getting, and, oh yes, the mine project. It is interesting that he mentioned it only in passing, without discussing the particulars. Perhaps this was because he was not, at that point, actively engaged in it.

Cpl. Albin Day's July 10, 1864 Letter To Brother Henry Day

Camp Battel of pettersBurg, virginia

July 10, 1864

Dear Brother

I now Sit Down to write A Few lines to let you know that I am well At present and hope to find you the Same. I am in the hospital Back in the rear. I have got A sore arm and the Doctors Don't know What it is. my arm was swollen as big as my leg and the Doctor wanted to take my arm off and I would not let him for I said to him I would rather Die than lose my arm but my arm is getting better fast. I Cand [can] use it a littel but the pain is Drawing in my right shoulder but I think it will be all wright in A few Weeks.
Dear Brother I have not received A letter from you in two months and I wrote three and to day the Chaplain Came around and give me A sheet of paper and A envelope and so I thought I would write another letter to you and If I would not get an answer and then It would be the last one.
We have no news here just now. A littel picket firing now and then. Our Regtament [regiment] is digging A mind [mine] for to Blow up the rebels for we are going to have A regellar [regular] siege here. we have some eighty pound guns.
So no more at present from your Brother Albin Day
give my best respects to mother and your wife and my love to my wife and also to Charley and Willey and all inquiring friends.
from Albin Day to his Brother Henry Day
Write Soon
Please excuse me for bad writing for my arm is sore to write good.

Henry Day Pictured, Presumably, With His Wife
Henry Day Served in a three-month unit at the start of the war but did not reenlist
The Grave of Albin Day in the Salem Evangelical Cemetery, Orwigsburg, PA