Friday, January 9, 2015

The 48th/150th: A New Year, Another Winter. . .And Still Inside Fort Hell

150 years ago, the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania welcomed the New Year--1865--with but little fanfare or ceremony, though perhaps with a bit more optimism that this war would soon be over and that this just might be their last winter in uniform. To them, New Year's Day was just another day--another cold day--in the trenches outside of Petersburg. For the past few weeks they had made Fort Sedgwick their home, an earthen fortification better known as Fort Hell. It was there where they would spend that Holiday season. For those few men who had served with the regiment since its organization during that long-ago summer of 1861, it would be their fourth winter in the army; their fourth Christmas away from home. During the winter of '61-'62, the regiment was encamped on the sandy beaches of Hatteras Island, North Carolina. Next winter--'62-'63--found them one mile east of the banks of the Rapphannock River and opposite the torn and shattered town of Fredericksburg, in the midst of despair following the debacle there and the ignominious Mud march that followed. The winter of '63-'64, however, proved even worse, for it was it spent in the mountains of east Tennessee, in very cold temperatures and with snowfall, sleet and ice ever present. The men would call that winter their "Valley Forge Winter."

Inside Fort Hell
(Library of Congress)

Now, as 1864 turned to 1865, the soldiers of the 48th found themselves only a few hundred yards removed from their butternut and gray-clad adversaries. The siege at Petersburg had commenced more than six months earlier. How many of them were thinking that they should not have been there? That this war should have been long over by then? That they should have been enjoying the Holidays back at home? No doubt these thoughts crossed the minds of so many of the 48th's soldiers when thinking back to what they had accomplished the previous summer, in tunneling under the Confederate lines. What an opportunity. . .squandered. So, there they still were. With the success of Sherman further south and Sheridan in the Valley--and with the reelection of Lincoln in November--however, there may have been more optimism that winter, optimism that this war would soon wrap up. But when? How much longer would they have to endure this life--life in the trenches, a life on edge?  With the constant sniper fire and ever-present artillery rounds blasting overhead or burrowing deep into the trenches, any moment could be their last. . .

A Man Stands Outside A Bombproof Inside Fort Hell
(Library of Congress)

New Year's Day 1865 was quiet--eerily quiet; not a shot fired was all. Next day, however, the two sides renewed their murderous hostilities.  "On January 2," wrote regimental historian Joseph Gould, "we had a perfect shower of shells." When this fire commenced, the men of the 48th were being visited by those of the 96th Pennsylvania, another regiment recruited principally from Schuylkill County. Hopeful of renewing acquaintances or just spending time amongst old friends and neighbors, the Schuylkill County men instead found themselves having to race through the trenches, ducking for cover as the Confederate rounds exploded overhead. Sadly, not all made it through unscathed or even alive.

A number of the men from both regiments were wounded, while Corporal William Livingston of Company C, was killed. At the time, Livingston, along with Lt. James Clark, were in a bombproof when a sixty-four pound mortar shell passed directly through and detonated. Somehow Clark survived, though he was injured; Livingston--a laborer from Port Clinton, with blue eyes and brown hair, who had enlisted in the summer of 1861--was killed instantly, giving him the dubious distinction of being the first soldier of the 48th Pennsylvania to lose his life at the outset of that final year of the war. . . .