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

Friday, June 27, 2014

The 48th/150th: Digging the Petersburg Mine. . .

Private William Duffy, Company F, 48th Pennsylvania
used this modified pick to tunnel under the Confederate lines at Petersburg

The tag on the handle reads:
"Pick used by Wm. Duffy
Pvvt 48th PVI Before
Petersburg June 25-July 29, 1864

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

150 years ago, the soldiers of the 48th were already deep into and under the Virginia soil, digging their mine at Petersburg. . . .

Entrance to the 48th PA's mine at Petersburg

A few days earlier and after discussing the possibility of tunneling under the Confederate lines with a few of his subordinates, regimental commander Henry Pleasants took his idea to divisional commander Robert Potter and corps commander Ambrose Burnside, who were both supportive of the endeavor. Burnside, on the evening of June 24, authorized Pleasants to begin the work, promising that he would next take the proposal to army commander George Meade, and if Meade ruled against it, then the project could simply be stopped.

And so it was that on Saturday, June 25, 1864, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants and his 48th Pennsylvania Infantry first struck pick and shovel into the Virginia soil and began tunneling toward and then under the Confederate position known as Elliott's Salient. The attacks of the previous week had placed the 9th Corps exceptionally close to the Confederate lines, to within less than 125 yards in most places, and their assaults had carried them across a railroad and creek bed and immediately to the rear of advanced Union line was a deep hollow, or ravine. It was in this ravine where Pleasants and his men began their tunnel.

Meanwhile, behind the lines, Burnside had taken Pleasants's proposal to Meade who was, surprisingly, initially supportive of the idea. He offered to send whatever help he could but it very quickly became clear that this would be the extent of Meade's support. He sent the army's chief engineers, Major James Duane, to the front to talk with Pleasants and to inspect the work being done by the 48th. Duane (who was seemingly the bane of Ambrose Burnside's Civil War career) soon reported back that the thing could not be done; Pleasants later testified that Duane dismissed the project outright, calling it "all clap-trap and nonsense." The army's chief engineer thus had no faith, no confidence in Pleasants's project and it appears that George Meade then lost all interest in it. He never formally approved the mine; but he never called it off, either. At least it would keep some of the men on the front occupied. . .

Major James Duane
Pronounced the 48th's mine as "all clap-trap and nonsense"
Henry Pleasants and the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania received little, if any, support from the Army of the Potomac. The West Point-educated engineers in that army dismissed the possibility and no doubt began to ridicule the 48th. James Duane himself had literally written the book for army engineers, and on page 208 of this Manual for Engineer Troops, he identified the forty tools that would be required for a successful mining operation.

Not a single one of these forty tools was provided by the army to Pleasants and the soldiers of the 48th.

They were thus forced to improvise and make do with what they did have. In his regimental history, Oliver Bosbyshell wrote that "At 12 o'clock noon on the twenty-fifth of June the mine was commenced. The work was one of great difficulty, attended with imminent danger and arduous labor. There was nothing to do it with except the men--no tools, no plank, no nails, no wheel-barrows. Army picks were made smaller and straightened for mining purposes. Hickory sticks were fastened to cracker boxes so as to make hand-barrows, to convey the material excavated to a place where it could be piled outside the mine."

Modified picks and shovels and cracker boxes to remove the dirt is thus all the soldiers employed while in the mine. To make triangulations and measure distance, Henry Pleasants requested a surveyor's two called a theodolite from the army. It was absolutely critical that the mine terminate directly under the Confederate lines; not in front or beyond it. This is why Pleasants needed the theodolite. . .and there were two among Duane's engineers but, apparently, none could be spared. It was thus up to Ambrose Burnside to write to a friend in Washington who sent it down for Pleasants's use.

At the time the mining began there were approximately 400 or so soldiers present and fit for duty with the 48th but, at first, only a few of them were put to work. Yet as the days (and weeks) went by and as the mine continued to get longer, the number of 48th soldiers employed continued to grow until, at last, the entire regiment was at work with it. While only the skilled miners were clawing and picking away at the dirt, the others were engaged in procuring wood for the framing, in removing the dirt, and in other supportive measures. As Pleasants explained, "The great difficulty I had was to dispose of the material got out of the mine." And even here and as usual, "I found it impossible to get any assistance from anybody; I had to do all the work myself. I had to remove all the earth in old cracker boxes. I got pieces of hickory and nailed [them] on the boxes in which we received our crackers, and then iron-cladded them with hoops of iron taken from old beef and pork barrels."

Artist Gil Cohen's Excellent Rendering of the 48th Digging the Mine at Petersburg
Note the pick, modified cracker box, and improvised tools. . . . 

Pleasants provided this testimony many months later and in front of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, which was investigated the subsequent debacle at the Crater. And when asked by a committee member why he was unable to get assistance of any kind, Pleasants responded: "I do not know. . . .General Burnside told me that General Meade and Major Duane, chief engineer of the army of the Potomac, said the thing could not be done; that it was all clap-trap and nonsense; that such a length of mine had never been excavated in military operations, and could not be; that I should get my men smothered for want of air or crushed by the falling of the earth, or the enemy would find it out, and it would amount to nothing."

Pleasants was even unable to get boards or any kind of wood, which was needed to construct the mine's framing. "I had to get a pass," explained Pleasants, "and send two companies of my own regiment with wagons outside of our lines to rebel saw-mills and get lumber in that way, after having previously got what lumber I could by tearing down an old bridge."

Even operated under such disadvantage and with no support, the soldiers of the 48th--who came and went from the mine entrance like so many brown gophers, said one Ohio soldier--were able to complete the mine by July 23, less than one month after first digging in. This included the main tunnel, at 510 feet, and two lateral galleries, each about 40 feet in length. Pleasants, however, claimed the project could have been completed 1/3 or 1/4 the time if he had help. It seems the biggest time consumer was removing and disposing the dirt.  The question was then asked, "How far did you have to carry [the dirt]?" "The whole length of the mine, and to where it could be deposited, and every night I had to get pioneers of my regiment to cut bushes and cover it up where it had been deposited; otherwise the enemy could have climbed up trees in their lines and seen the pile of newly excavated earth."

Much of the criticism leveled against Pleasants and his project was that the men would suffocate but Pleasants had much experience with ventilation while working for the railroads and coal mines in the years before the war. As Bosbyshell explained, "The ventilation was accomplished in a very simple way--after a method quite common in the anthracite mines. A perpendicular shaft or hole was made from the mine to the surface at a point inside of the Union rifle pits. A small furnace, or fire-place, was built at the bottom of this hole, or shaft, for the purpose of heating the air, and a fire was kept constantly burning, thus creating a draft. A door made of canvas was placed in the gallery, a little outside this fire-place, thus shutting it in and shielding it from the outside air at the mouth of the mine. Wooden pipes, extending from the outside of this canvas door, along the gallery to the inner end thereof, conducted the fresh air to the point of operations, which, after supplying the miners with pure air, returned along the gallery towards the entrance of the mine, and, being stopped by the canvas door, the vitiated air moved into the furnace and up the shaft to the surface. By this means a constant current of air circulated through the gallery. As the work advanced, the inside end of the wooden pipe was extended so as to carry good air up to the face of the workings."

Modern-day image of where Pleasants sank the ventilation shaft
To guard against the possibility of Confederates identifying the location of the tunnel
by the smoke pumping out of this 'chimney,' Pleasants ordered fires lit all along this part
of the Union line. . .

During the first week, the mining was proceeding rapidly. . .but on July 2, and at about 100 feet in, the miners encountered "extremely wet ground" and at the forward face of the mine "the timbers gave way, and the roof and floor of the mine nearly met," said Pleasants. Undeterred and now out to prove the army engineers wrong, Pleasants simply had his men re-timber it and start again, but from this point on they had to "excavate a stratum of marl, the consistency of putty, which caused the progress to be very slow." To get around this, Pleasants directed his miners to start digging upward, on an "inclined plane, raised 13 1/2 feet perpendicular."

As is here indicated, the tunneling of the Petersburg Mine was a complex project and not simply the men digging a tunnel. For example, while the miners were busy digging and as Pleasants was working out all the particulars, especially with ventilation, other members of the regiment were going for lumber and constructing the timber framing. Explained Bosbyshell: "The roof of the gallery, where it was wanting in tenacity and likely to fall, was supported by sets of timbers, consisting of four pieces: two props, one cap and one mud sill, notched into one another. Where the material was very soft, boards and planks were placed between the timbers, and the top, bottom and sides so as to form a complete casing. When the gallery approached near the enemy's works, all the timber was notched outside the mine, and put in place without noise or jar of any kind. The plank was obtained from a bridge over the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad, and the boards from a saw-mill outside the Union lines, some five or six miles distant. To obtain these Colonel Pleasants was obliged to send two companies of his regiment with wagons, to load them. No lumber was furnished from headquarters, and no cavalry escort was proffered to guard against risks."

Diagrams of Mine, from side and from top
In the side-image, notice the incline where the 48th dug upwards to avoid the putty-like marl

"Snapper" Reese
For nearly a month, the soldiers of the 48th worked around the clock--twenty-four hours a day. The men who would be doing the digging were divided into shifts or details; two to three men going in at a time, to work in shifts of two to three hours. Two officers were appointed to oversee each work shift while in charge of all the miners was Sgt. Henry "Snapper" Reese, a tough-as-nails Welshman who set up his "home" at the entrance of the mine, overseeing each detail of men as they came and went. Perhaps the most strenuous activity was carrying out the dirt, especially since the mine itself was only four-to-five feet in height. There were a lot of aching backs and shoulders.


At the end of every shift, every man received a ration of whiskey.

While not engaged in the operation, the soldiers of the 48th sculpted and carved "all sorts of oddities: pipes, corps marks, crosses and the like," from that putty-like marl, which hardened on exposure to the air and the sun. These trinkets were then sent home and, today, some can still be viewed in the collections of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County.

From start to finish, every aspect of the tunneling of the Petersburg Mine was masterminded by Henry Pleasants and carried out exclusively by the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania. And despite the lack of support, despite working with improvised tools and under severe hardship and disadvantage, and despite the ridicule leveled toward them by the army's nay-saying engineers, Pleasants and his soldiers of the 48th succeeded in their tremendous undertaking and succeeded grandly.

Today, the ground (left of walk path) is sinking where the soldiers of the 48th dug their mine

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 48th/150th: June 24, 1864: Pleasants Finalizes His Plan and the Mine Project is Approved

On June 24, 1864. . . .150 years ago. . . .Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania, finalized his plans to tunnel under the Confederate lines southeast of Petersburg.

Entrance To Mine, Petersburg, Virginia

The Sand Patch Tunnel
Born on February 16, 1833, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pleasants was the son of a Philadelphia merchant and arms smuggler and a Spanish nobleman's daughter. He spent the first thirteen years of his life in Argentina and did arrive in the United States until 1846, when, upon his father's death, he was sent to be raised by an uncle near Philadelphia. When young Pleasants arrived in the United States, he spoke little English, but he was studious and diligent and was soon excelling in his studies. He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree and, upon graduation in 1851, he went to work as a civil engineer with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He spent the next few years designing the layout of tracks and supervising the construction of tunnels, including, in 1854, the Sand Patch tunnel that cut 4,200 feet through the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. To help expedite the construction, Pleasants sank a number of  perpendicular shafts through the mountain, measuring anywhere from 120 to 200 feet in depth. Resigning from work with the railroads, Pleasants moved on to a career as a coal mining engineer. In January 1857 he settled in Pottsville, in the heart of east-central Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region. There he met and fell in love with Sallie Bannon, daughter of Benjamin Bannon, editor of the influential Miners' Journal. . The two were married but, sadly, just a few months later, tragedy struck when Sallie died suddenly at the age of 31. Henry Pleasants sank into a deep depression and, at least according to family story, he volunteered to fight in the hopes of getting killed on the field of battle. He began his wartime service as a lieutenant in the three-months' organization, the Tower Guard. He then helped to raise and organize what became Company C, 48th Pennsylvania, a tough collection of soldiers, largely Irish coal miners, recruited from Heckscherville and other coal patches between Pottsville and Minersville. He led the company with distinction and was ultimately advanced in rank to Lieutenant Colonel. When Joshua Sigfried departed the regiment in the early spring of 1864 in order to take command of a U.S.C.T. brigade, Pleasants assumed command of the regiment.

Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants
Oliver Bosbsyshell, in his regimental history of the 48th, provided a fine biography of Pleasants and how he came about devising the Petersburg Mine: "He was a soldier of true grit, possessed of more than ordinary ability as an engineer--ability that he displayed many times during the campaign from the Rappahannock down to Petersburg, in the erection of temporary fortifications which he required the regiment to build every night, and the lives of many of the men were saved through this precaution. [He] was in all respects an American--thoroughly so--a pure type of progressive young America--his career shows remarkable understanding in a young man. He sprang from an old Virginia Quaker family, although his father was born in Philadelphia. Whilst in business in South America, this gentleman married a South American lady, and General Henry Pleasants was the result of this union. His impetuous nature, and quick, fiery temper, but withal generous, goodheartedness, comes of this Americo-Spanish blood. . . .Pleasants' career before the war, shows that he took with him into the service, qualities eminently fitting him for the successful carrying through of so grand a project as the Petersburg Mine. . . .It is not surprising that so ardent a lover of his profession as Pleasants, and so earnest a soldier of the war, should employ his active mind in devising ways and means to end the rebellion. When these two salients in the opposing line, so temptingly lying opposite each other came under his notice, his profession came to aid his soldierly qualifications, and his quick eye took in the advantage of the situation, and the idea of undermining the rebel fort was projected."  

Having overheard one of his men state that they could blow the Confederates out of existence if only they could run a mine shaft under their lines, Pleasants began surveying the studying the Confederate defenses to the Ninth Corps's front. On June 22, Pleasants, along with Captain Gilbert McKibben, an officer on General Robert Potter's staff, rose up above the Union trenches to study Elliott's Salient when a Confederate sharpshooter's bullet slammed directly into McKibben's face, reminding everyone, once more, of the ever-present deadly reality of life in the trenches, when the opposing lines were so near to one another.

Captain George W. Gowen, Co. C
Pleasants continued to contemplate the project. He discussed it with two fellow engineers, Captain
George W. Gowen, of Pleasants's old Company C, and Captain Frank Farquhar, whom Pleasants had known in Pottsville and who was now serving as the chief engineer of the army's Eighteenth Corps.
Pleasants also directed that each of his company commanders prepare and present a list of all the coal miners in their respective companies. Because they were recruited from Schuylkill County and because of what they achieved in tunneling under the Confederate lines at Petersburg, the 48th Pennsylvania has long been referred to as "that regiment of coal miners," with the thought being that the ranks were composed largely by miners. But this was not the case. True, there were a good number of miners in the regiment, but they were not all miners. Indeed, when the lists came back, there were a total of 85 enlisted men and 14 officers who were trained, skilled, and professional miners. It would be these men who would be doing the mining in the weeks to come; the other members of the regiment would help with the project, but in a supporting role (removing the dirt, constructing the timber framing, filling sandbags for tamping, and so on).  

Pleasants's idea came to fruition and the men of the 48th readied themselves for an undertaking that would forever emblazon their names in the annals of Civil War history. Very little support was offered or given at the army level or from among the army's engineers. They simply believed it could not be done; the proposed tunnel was too long, the men would suffocate, nothing like this had ever worked before, but Pleasants never doubted, his men never doubted. It could be done; it would be done. Run a tunnel under the Confederate line, blast a hole in that line, then have the men rush forward to secure the critical Jerusalem Plank Road beyond and the critical high ground upon which was the Blandford Cemetery. Secure that ground and Lee would be forced to abandon his lines at Petersburg--the siege, the deadlock would be broken and, perhaps, Lee's army would be broken, too.

General Robert Potter (standing, center, bareheaded) and staff
Captain Gilbert McKibben is among these officers

After finalizing this plan, Pleasants, 150 years ago today, went directly to divisional commander Robert Potter who liked the idea. Potter then referred the matter to corps commander Ambrose Burnside: "General: Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, of the Forty-Eighth Pennsylvania, has called upon me to express his opinion of the feasibility of mining the enemy's works in my front. Colonel Pleasants was a mining engineer in charge of some of the principal works of Schuylkill County, Penna. He has in his command upwards of eighty-five enlisted men and fourteen commissioned officers who are professional miners. The distance from inside our work, where the mine would have to be started, to inside the enemy's work, does not exceed one hundred yards. He is of the opinion that they could run a mine forward at the rate of twenty-five to fifty feet per day, including supports, ventilation and so on. A few miners' picks, which I am informed could be made by any blacksmith from ordinary ones; a few handbarrows, easily constructed; one or two mathematical instruments, which would be supplied by the engineer department, and the ordinary entrenching tools, are all that are required. The men themselves have been talking about it, and are quite desirous, seemingly, of trying it. If you desire to see Col. Pleasants I will ride over with him and send him up to you."
Burnside, indeed, wished to speak directly with Pleasants and hear about this plan. It was a hot summer's evening when Potter and Pleasants made their way to Burnside's headquarters. There, Pleasants explained his plans. . .and Burnside was thrilled with the idea. 150 years ago this evening, Ambrose Burnside authorized Pleasants and the 48th to begin the mining operation the next day--on June 25. He promised to take the idea to George Meade, commander of the army.
Pleasants returned to his headquarters after his successful interview with Burnside and, that night, prepared himself and most likely his command for the operation.  

Diagram of Pleasants' Mine

Monday, June 23, 2014

The 48th/150th: "We Can Blow That Damned Fort Out Of Existence. . . "

Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, 48th Pennsylvania
150 Years Ago, began working out his plan
to tunnel under the Confederate lines
150 years ago, outside Petersburg, Virginia, and after Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant decided against any more frontal attacks upon the Confederate defenses, the soldiers in blue settled in for a siege. The so-called Overland Campaign thus drew to a close. It began some 46 days earlier, on May 4, 1864, and roughly 100 miles to the north when the Army of the Potomac first crossed the Rapidan River and began marching--and fighting--its way south. The campaign had witnessed some of the most horrific battle actions of the entire war and the casualties were simply unimaginable. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, the North Anna to Cold Harbor, and to the outskirts of Petersburg, tens of thousands of men fell either killed or wounded.
The campaign had been a savage and costly one for the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania. During those 46 days--at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomoy Creek, Cold Harbor, and at Petersburg--the regiment lost 72 men killed or mortally wounded, 208 wounded, and 15 men captured or missing in action, for a total casualty count of 295 men.

Deciding to abandon any more frontal assaults, Grant now ordered the army to dig in. On the Ninth Corps's front, the Confederate position was very close but the soldiers of Burnside's command went to work cutting into the Virginia soil. "The lines were strongly entrenched," said Oliver Bosbyshell, "traverses, abatis and covered ways were built, as the least exposure of any part of the person was sure to result in injury. The nearness of the contending parties, at this particular part of the entrenchments, rendered it extremely important for the soldiers to keep well under cover."

Civil War Trenches

A Union Battery in the Trenches at Petersburg

Sharpshooting Became A Daily and Deadly Reality

Captain Benjamin Schuck, Co. I
A tinsmith from Middleport, Schuck was
mortally wounded June 25, 1864
This would be a new kind of war; gone were the days of linear formations, of direct, head-on attacks across open ground. The men had tired, grown weary of such tactics. Yet life in the trenches was far from ideal. The sun scorched the men; there was little shade since most of the trees had been cut to strengthen the fortifications. When it rained, water collected at the bottom of the trenches and the soldiers had to walk--and sometimes sleep--in the mud. Sniper and sharpshooter fire was a constant and deadly threat and soon soldiers in both blue and gray could hardly even go to the restroom without taking their lives in their hands. "It is extremely difficult to describe the feelings and sensations aroused during the tedious days of the siege," said Bosbyshell. "Life was counted of little worth--the familiarity with death almost bred contempt of the grim monster. Still the presence of the great destroyer was daily manifested." Along the Ninth Corps's front, throughout the months of June and July, an average of 36 to 48 men fell per day, victims of sharpshooter's bullets, including some members of the 48th PA. ' On June 25, for example, Benjamin B. Schuck, the highly-respected captain of Company I, while overseeing his skirmish line, was struck down by a sharpshooter's bullet and mortally wounded; he died a month later, on July 27. "He was highly esteemed as a thoroughly efficient officer," said Bosbyshell, "and a very good man in all respects."

Schuck's Grave
Odd Fellow's Cemetery, Pottsville, PA

Death was an ever-present reality; it could come at any moment of reckless or inadvertent exposure. The lines were so very close together. Just over a hundred feet away loomed an angle in the Confederate lines known as Elliott's Salient, which was occupied by Captain Richard Pegram's Virginia Battery and a brigade of South Carolina soldiers under Stephen Elliott.

Life in the trenches was miserable and the men were no more looking forward to a prolonged siege of Petersburg than they were to frontal assaults. . .

. . .and 150 years ago, on June 23, 1864, while walking along his lines and among his men, Colonel Henry Pleasants of the 48th Pennsylvania overheard one of his men exclaim, "We can blow than damn Confederate fort out of existence, if we could just run a mine shaft under it."

A professional mining engineer, Pleasants may have thought about this earlier but now the seed was fully planted, and the young Buenos Aires-born colonel returned to his headquarters and began to devise the plan. Within a matter of hours, he would take that plan to his divisional commander--Robert Potter--and to his corps commander--Ambrose Burnside. And by the 25th of June, the same day Captain Schuck fell wounded at the front, other soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania began digging in to the Virginia soil.

Entrance To The 48th's Mine At Petersburg. . .