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.

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