Sunday, June 17, 2018

"Wasn't That A Splendid Charge?:" 154 Years Ago, The 48th's "Most Brilliant Engagement" Came At A Heavy Price: Petersburg, Virginia, June 17, 1864.

Edwin Forbes Sketch of the 9th Corps's Attack at Petersburg, June 17, 1864

Sometime around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of June 17, in almost total darkness, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, made his way quietly along the prone soldiers of his regiment, informing each of the regiment's company commanders that they would soon be launching an attack. Over the past six weeks, the 48th had suffered appalling casualties as it fought its way across northern Virginia, seeing heavy action at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna, and most recently at Cold Harbor. The regiment had crossed the Rapidan on May 4 and the James just a few days earlier. Now, the city of Petersburg lay just ahead, defended by a series of rebel batteries and a labyrinthine maze of earthworks and entrenchments. The 48th would soon be attacking a section of those imposing fortifications.  Stirred awake from a restless night's slumbers, the soldiers readied themselves for the charge. As quietly as possible, though no doubt with their hearts racing during that early morning stillness, they removed all caps from their guns, secured their tin cups to prevent rattling, and fixed bayonets. They soon moved forward, quietly, out of their entrenchments and crossed a small creek just to the front. "After getting the whole regiment over," remembered Sergeant Robert Reid of Company G, "we silently formed line; then, in utter darkness, moved to the right about one hundred yards, when, in a whisper, the command forward was given," and, as regimental historian Oliver Bosbyshell later wrote, "the savage rush began."

The soldiers of the 48th swept across the open ground between the opposing lines; it was still dark and the only noise was that of hundreds of feet tramping down upon the dew-covered grass and dirt. Soon after the charge began, however, off to the right of the 48th's advancing line of battle, musket fire rang out, which drew an immediate response from the Confederate line. The darkness was suddenly illuminated with the flash of the Confederate rifles. Still, the soldiers of the 48th rushed on. "Directly into this fiery ribbon, belching its leaden hail through the ranks of the charging line, swept the Forty-Eighth," wrote Bosbyshell. Reid remembered that "We went at them squarely, right into their firing line. Not one of our regiment returned a shot until we reached their works, when there was a short, sharp contest, and the line was ours. I still remember how my heart beat when starting on the charge, but it was forgotten in the glorious rush of the fight."

Within just a matter of minutes, the 48th rushed up and over a section of the Confederate entrenchments, catching many of the still sleepy gray-clad soldiers unawares. Hundreds of them were very quickly captured. Amid the confusion, Irish-born Sergeant Patrick Monaghan of Company F noticed a few Confederate soldiers attempting to flee. He ran amongst them and demanded their surrender. Their hands went up and it was soon noted that one of these Confederate soldiers was attempting to retreat with the flag of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, which had been captured the day before. Now the flag was back in Union hands; Monaghan of the 48th having re-captured it and later returned to the New York regiment. For this action, Monaghan would received a Medal of Honor.

Robert Reid of the 48th would also receive a Medal of Honor for his actions during this pre-dawn attack on June 17, 1864. Sweeping forward and rushing up and over the Confederate lines, Reid wrestled away the flag of the 44th Tennessee from its regimental color bearer, capturing those colors.

Wrote Bobsyshell: "How the heart beat, and the pulse throbbed during that onslaught! If fear or dread marked the supreme moment of the attack, it was banished completely in the glorious rush of the fight! What a harvest of prisoners--they were captured by the score, disarmed, and sent to the rear."

Robert Reid
Sergeant Patrick Monaghan

Yet as the skies continued to lighten another Confederate redan about 100 yards further south became visible. Confederate cannons posted there soon erupted into the flank and front of the 48th. Acting fast, Pleasants organized his men for yet another attack and "like a savage torrent" the 48th charged forward. "[T]he regiment fairly tore over those hundred yards and swept through the fort irresistibly. The enemy ran in great disorder by squads and singly to their left and rear." Two Confederate Napoleon cannons fell into the hands of the 48th which were safely hauled, by hand, to the rear.

Two cannons, two flags and two Medals of Honor, hundreds of prisoners and a good section of the Confederate line; it was a glorious victory for the 48th and for the Ninth Army Corps. All along Burnside's front, the morning attack had achieved much success. Even George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, would recognize the success of the Ninth Corps in a note to Burnside, sent on that June 17: "It affords me great satisfaction to congratulate you and your gallant corps on the assault this morning, knowing the wearied condition of your men from the night march over twenty-two miles, and the continual movement this last night; their persistence and success is highly creditable." Coming from Meade to Burnside these words were high praise, indeed.

For the actions of the 48th, Oliver Bosbyshell would later write that the attack on June 17, 1864, at Petersburg, "was probably, in all its results, the most brilliant engagement for the Forty-Eighth of any in which it participated. Praise is due to every officer, from Colonel Pleasants down, and to every many who was in this grand assault, for the splendid record the work here accomplished. .  . ."

Throughout the rest of the day on June 17 the Confederates made several attempts to regain their captured works, but each were turned back. A sometimes lively skirmish fire was kept up throughout the day. The next day, Burnside determined to strike once more, this time with his 1st and 3rd Division leading the way while the 2nd Division--which included the 48th--would advance behind in support. The fighting renewed once more in intensity on June 18 as the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac attempted to drive the Confederates from yet another line of earthworks and trenches very close to the city of Petersburg. Along the Ninth Corps front and though designated as a reserve, the soldiers of the 48th were once more brought to the front. They charged down a ravine and across a railroad cut and they made it closer to the Confederate line than any other Union force. Night settled in and off to their front rose Elliott's Salient, held by a brigade of South Carolina soldiers and the gunners of Richard Pegram's Virginia Battery.

One week later, on June 25, the soldiers of the 48th would begin to dig a mine underneath this portion of the Confederate line. . . .

The soldiers of the 48th were justly proud of their actions on the Seventeenth and Eighteenth of June; indeed, Bosbyshell later described the attacks on June 17 as the regiment's most brilliant action of the war. But the regiment paid a very heavy price.

During its attacks on June 17-18, the 48th Pennsylvania lost 19 men killed or mortally wounded, 42 men wounded, and 4 men missing/captured, for a total casualty count of 65.

Among those struck down with a mortal injury on that morning of June 17, 1864 was Lieutenant Curtis C. Pollock of Company G. Sweeping forward with the regiment, Pollock was shot in the shoulder and fell to the ground. Sergeant William Auman, also of Company G, rushed to Pollock's aid and helped the young twenty-two-year lieutenant to his feet. Though in considerable pain, said Auman, Pollock remained in good spirits. His first words to Auman: "Wasn't that a splendid charge?" Though he and others considered the wound non-fatal, Pollock succumbed to his injury one week later.

The others who fell that day--and during the next day's assaults--were. .  .

Killed/Mortally Wounded: (19)
Private Francis M. Stidham, Company A (MW6/18/1864; Died 7/10/1864)
Private Gilbert Graham, Company C (MW 6/18/1864; Died 4/1/1865)
Private John Major, Company E (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private William Rasons/Reysons, Company E (MY 6/17/1864; Died 6/24/1864)
Private James Reagan, Company E (MW 6/17/1864; Died 6/30/1864)
Private James Mercer, Company E (MW 6/17/1864; Died 5/21/1865)
Private Horace Straub, Company F (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Isaac Lewis, Company F (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Simon Devlin, Company F (KIA 6/18/1864)
Lieutenant Curtis C. Pollock, Company G (MW 6/17/1864; Died 6/23/1864)
Private Howard Jones, Company G (MW 6/17/1864; Died 7/13/1864)
Private George Morey, Company H (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Jefferson W. Beyerle, Company H (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private James Mulholland, Company H (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Anthony Gallagher, Company H  (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Thomas Davis, Company H (KIA 6/18/1864)
Lieutenant Joseph Edwards, Company I (MW 6/17/1864; Died 7/2/1864)
Private Nathan Rich, Company K (KIA 6/17/1864)
Private Arthur Gray (KIA 6/18/1864)

Lieutenant Joseph Edwards, Co. I
Mortally Wounded, June 17
(Hoptak Collection)
Lt. Curtis C. Pollock, Company G
Mortally Wounded, June 17, 1864
(Hoptak Collection) 

Private Francis M. Stidham
Mortally Wounded, June 18, 1864
(Hoptak Collection)

Wounded: (42)
Private Elias Britton, Company A
Private John Holman, Company A
Private John McLean, Company A
Private John Cochran, Company A
Private William Huckey, Company A
Private John Shaffer, Company A
Private Joel Lins, Company A
Private Henry Schreyer, Company A
Private James W. Sterner, Company A
Private William Dreibelbeis, Company A
Private Joseph Dreibelbeis, Company A
Sergeant Robert Campbell, Company B
Corporal James Rider, Company B
Sergeant Henry Weiser, Company C
Lieutenant James K. Helms, Company D
Corporal Jacob Dietrich, Company D
Private Lewis Dietrich, Company D
Private Jacob D. Casper, Company D
Private Joseph Berlinger/Buddinger, Company D
Private Joseph Lindenmuth, Company D
Private Thomas Clemens, Company E
Private R.B. Thompson, Company E
Private Murt Brennan, Company F
Private Patrick Boran, Company F
Corporal Robert Wallace, Company F
Private Edward L. Shissler, Company F
Private Joshua Reed, Company G
Lieutenant David B. Brown, Company H
Private Charles Eberle, Company H
Private Lewis Aurand, Company H
Private Jonathan Dillet, Company H
Private Frank Ringer, Company I
Private William Kramer, Company I
Corporal Benjamin Williams, Company I
Private Christian Seward, Company I
Private Samuel DeFrehn, Company I
Private Jacob Reichwein, Company I
Private Charles Koch, Company I
Sergeant Thomas Irwin, Company K
Private John Gillinger, Company K
Private Oliver Schwartz, Company K
Private David Houser, Company K

Captured/Missing: (4)
Sergeant Andrew Wren, Company B
Private Jacob Wigner, Company B
Private Michael Lavell, Company F
Private William Auchenbach, Company F

Private Elias Britton, Co. A
(Hoptak Collection)

Private John Cochran, Co. A
(Hoptak Collection)

Lieutenant James K. Helms, Co. D
Severely Wounded
(Courtesy Patriotic Order Sons of America)

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