Friday, November 14, 2014

The 48th/150th: "Another Season of Quiet Fell On The Troops:" October-November 1864

There is surprisingly little written or known about the actions of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry during the Fall of 1864 and Winter of 1864-1865, and perhaps this is because the regiment was largely inactive during this period. There were no great campaigns or sanguinary battles; instead, the war-weary and mud-covered soldiers remained hunkered down in the trenches surrounding Petersburg, doing their best to deflect the boredom and monotony, and doing their best to avoid the incoming shells and Confederate sharpshooters' bullets.
Harpers' Weekly Depiction of Life in the Petersburg Trenches
On the final day of September, 1864, the 48th participated in the Battle of Peebles's Farm and, for its efforts, lost 55 casualties. Most of these losses--a total of 43 men--were taken prisoner and were, by now, enduring the hell that was life in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Salisbury Prison. Sixteen would perish during the captivity. Their story was told in the previous post.
The men who made it safely through the action at Peebles's Farm returned to their place in the trenches and to the realities of this new kind of trench warfare. Most of October passed quietly, with the men strengthening their fortifications and keeping a leery eye on the Confederate troops just across that no-man's-land between the lines.  At the end of the month, the regiment participated in the demonstration against the Boynton Plank Road but only in a supporting capacity. Following this, "Another season of quiet fell on the troops," said Oliver Bosbyshell.
It was during this time that the regiment bid adieu to those officers and men who, earlier that year, chose not to re-up or re-enlist and with the expiration of their original three-year term of service, these men received their honorable discharges and headed home, their soldiering days were over. Those who remained in the service no doubt longed and wished for the day when they, too, would be making that long journey back to their families and friends in Schuylkill County. The big topic of debate was "when" this joyful day would arrive. On November 18, the regiment held a mock election. Ten days earlier, Lincoln had secured re-election, triumphing over Democratic challenger George McClellan. Lincoln would have won again if they counted the 48th's votes; Lincoln scored 200 votes; McClellan received 30. With Lincoln's victory, many on both sides were now fully convinced that it was only a matter of time before the Confederacy foundered and folded and threw down its arms. Deserters in ragged uniforms of gray and butternut continued to flock into Union lines and, as Joseph Gould, wrote, "They were a sad looking lot, their appearance indicated the hollow condition of the rebellion. They all expressed views that proved to the hopelessness of their cause and were glad to quit."
Yet there were also many boys in blue who sought escape from life in the army; several of those who were caught were paraded in front of the men, who had been drawn up in line, and publicly executed. On October 14, for example, Charles Merlin of the 2nd Maryland Infantry met his end at the hands of a firing squad. The soldiers of the 48th were ordered up to witness this sad spectacle, this tragic pageant. Gould remembered it vividly in his regimental history: "The division was formed in an open square and, at nine o'clock in the morning, the prisoner was brought from his place of confinement, accompanied by the Chaplain. A band led the procession, playing a funeral march. In the rear of the band was a file of guards, then the prisoner, then four men bearing his coffin, and after the coffin, another file of guards. The procession marched all around the inside of the square to the open end, where the grave had been dug. Here the band was dismissed, the coffin placed near the open grave, and the prisoner then listened to the charges, findings and sentence read to him by the provost marshal. He was then left with the Chaplain, who seated him upon his coffin, bandaged his eyes, prayed with him, shook him by the hand and walked to the head of the square. A detail of twelve men with eleven muskets, loaded with ball, and one with blank cartridge, were drawn up within twenty-five paces of the victim. . . .The muskets were loaded by a sergeant and distributed to the men. . . .At the word "fire" from the officer in charge of the squad, the poor fellow fell back upon his coffin, riddled with the bullets of his comrades. The division was then marched by the body, whilst it still lay upon the coffin, and it was a pitiful sight to witness."
Execution of A Civil War Soldier
from Frank Leslie's The Soldier in our Civil War (1893)

The Rest of The Army Reviews the Corpse
from Frank Leslie's The Solider in our Civil War (1893)
Pitiful, indeed, and intended to send a message to the rest of the men who may have been contemplating desertion. It did not seem to work, though, for as Gould recorded, three days later, six men of 6th New Hampshire deserted. One month later, in mid-December, the 48th was once again drawn up to witness more executions, this time, though, it was via hanging and not firing squad. Two soldiers from the 179th New York had been apprehended while attempting to desert and, once more, Gould described the macabre pageant: "A gallows had been erected near division headquarters, and the troops were all formed about it. The prisoners were marched past the division on to the gallows; one of the men coolly smoking a cigar. They were led on the trap; the findings and sentence read to them; black caps placed on their heads; and the drop fell. As the trap fell, on which they stood, their names, company and regiment, and the caused for which they were executed, were seen painted in bold letters, so that all could be plainly read. The execution was very artistically performed; and, after the division was marched past the suspended bodies, we were conducted to camp."
Such was life in this civil war . . .