48th Pennsylvania did its duty in what became Battle of the Crater disaster
PETERSBURG, Va. - They were just coal miners from Schuylkill County, but they could have been heroes - if just for one day.
As the nation continues its ongoing 150th anniversary remembrance of the American Civil War, our area has had many reasons to pause and reflect on the contributions and sacrifices made by local troops who helped preserve the Union. In the minds of most, the pinnacle of those efforts was recognized last summer with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
This summer, however, what is arguably the most iconic event of all involving area troops during the four-year war will have its 150th anniversary. That event was the digging of the famous tunnel under Confederate lines by the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in the early stages of the 10-month siege at Petersburg, Va., that resulted in the infamous "Battle of the Crater."
These coal miners - many of Irish descent - from Schuylkill County upheld their part of the project in digging the 511-foot tunnel that had two T-shaped wings once it reached the Confederate lines under Fort No. 5. That those efforts resulted in such a disaster through no fault of their own is somewhat reminiscent of the alleged comment by an Irish shipbuilder at Holland and Wolff Shipyards in Belfast after the sinking of RMS Titanic that "There was nothing wrong with her when she left us."
Had there not been a regiment with the pluck of the 48th, which covered itself in glory Sept. 17, 1862, in the action at Burnside's Bridge during the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland, one would have most likely been created for a historical novel. In addition, the 48th earned recognition for its action in the fighting at Fredericksburg, Second Manassas and the Wilderness.
Likewise, the 48th had such larger-than-life characters as Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, Pottsville; Sgt. Harry "Henry/Snapper" Reese, Minersville, and Lt. Jacob Douty, Cressona, and one is left to wonder why a made-for-television movie - at the very least - has not been produced focusing on the action at Petersburg. Pleasants was able to convince his skeptical superiors that his "boys" could accomplish the construction of the tunnel, and Douty and Reese entered the tunnel to "touch" the shortened fuse after the initial lighting attempt failed due to a broken splice.
Activities to commemorate the 150th anniversary battle - complete with a re-enactment of the explosion under Confederate lines - get under way on July 30, the date of the action that resulted in Union casualties of 504 killed, 1,881 wounded and 1,413 missing or captured. Confederate losses that day were 361 killed, 727 wounded and 403 missing or captured.
Additional activities are scheduled for Aug. 1 and 2 that range from tours and lectures to living-history presentations. Many of the events will be held in Old Towne Petersburg, where the producers of the Revolutionary War docudrama "Turn" are filming much of the AMC television series.
Clearly, the men of the 48th, dubbed the "Schuylkill Regiment," did their jobs - and then some. From the beginning of the project, however, it seemed doomed by lack of support from within the high command of the Union Army, the tension of social unrest at home in the coal fields and decisions made at the front for apparent political reasons.
Drawing on his expertise as a mining engineer, Pleasants outlined his plan to tunnel under Confederate lines and set off a powder charge that would create an opening in their defenses. His plan was approved by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, best known for his troops suffering defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. There was little support - and actual disdain - from those higher in the chain of command, including Army commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade.
While Grant wanted to avoid a prolonged siege like the one he oversaw in 1863 at Vicksburg, Mississippi, both he and Meade doubted if digging the tunnel would achieve a strategic advantage. In fact, both officers are reported to view the project as a way to keep the troops "occupied."
No matter how sound the plan, most likely Meade would have not been supportive of anything suggested by Burnside, who was finally removed from duty after the disaster of the crater. In a classic example of history repeating itself, during World War II generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton had a similar abrasive relationship.
Other parallels are that the trench warfare carried on in France during World War I was similar to that at Petersburg. Also, the draft riots of 1863 in New York City and some with wealth buying their way out of military service were similar to events that would take place some 100 years later during the Vietnam War.
Not even the most basic tools such as wheelbarrows and picks were issued by the Quartermaster Corps to the 48th, leaving the troops no choice other than modifying their shovels and devising their own handmade tools. In order to haul the dirt out of the tunnel they used converted wooden hardtack cases, one of which is part of a display on the Battle of the Crater at the Eastern Front Visitor Center at the Petersburg National Battlefield.
Taking it upon themselves to assist the 48th by cutting timber and collecting lumber to support the shaft was a division of United States Colored Troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero. This division had been trained for the express purpose of attacking the Confederate lines after the explosion, with one of the two brigades going to the right and the other to the left of the crater.
In addition to being trained for carrying out the attack, these troops had the advantage of being fresh, as they had not been involved in the beating taken by the Union forces at Cold Harbor immediately before the army's arrival at Petersburg in June. On the eve of the attack, however, Meade, who along with Grant now supported the plan, pulled the USCT in favor of other units that had not been trained how to carry out the attack.
Adding to the irony was the bond that was formed between the 48th and the USCT because back in Schuylkill County the previous summer there was unrest between Irish miners who were losing their jobs to migrating recently freed slaves from the South who were truly being paid "slave" wages to dig coal. Troops had actually been sent to Pottsville to keep order, and the Bishop of the Philadelphia Diocese traveled to Schuylkill County and preached against secret societies in general and the Molly Maguires in particular.
Still, the men of the 48th persevered, and began digging the tunnel in late June, making modifications as needed. One of the more ingenious aspects of the project was constructing just one air shaft that used a fire to draw air into the tunnel and circulate it so the miners were able to breath.
"It became clear to the Confederates that something was going on, but they really didn't think it would work," Park Ranger Grant Gates said. "As the tunnel got near the Confederate lines the miners could actually hear them talking in their underground bomb proofs."
Finally, the main tunnel reached the Confederate lines July 17, but even then Army of Northern Virginia commander Gen. Robert E. Lee was skeptical. It would be two weeks before he ordered a countermining attempt, but the Rebels lacked the skill to carry out the project and the tunnel was not detected.
Meanwhile, the "T" wings were added under Confederate lines and packed with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder in 320 kegs just 20 feet beneath the surface. With the support of Grant and Meade, the charges were armed July 28 and set to be detonated July 30 between 3:30 and 3:45 a.m.
It was in the final hours that Meade made the decision to pull Ferrero's USCT who had been trained for the assault and instructed Burnside, who was not known for thinking on his feet, to select other troops for the attack. He did this by having his division commanders draw straws, and drawing the short straw was Gen. James Ledlie.
Often described as "the worst general of the Civil War," there are multiple reports that Ledlie remained in his tent and was inebriated by the time the explosion rocked the Confederate lines at 4:44 a.m. Inferior fuses had been supplied to the 48th and they required multiple splices to run the length of the tunnel.
Pleasants lit the fuse at the appointed time, but after waiting nearly an hour, Reese and Douty volunteered to crawl into the tunnel to find the problem. Sure enough, the fuse had broken at a splice, which was repaired and relit, and the ensuing explosion created a crater 170 feet in length, 100-120 feet in width and 30 feet in depth.
Had the attacking Union forces been trained for the assault, they would have known to attack around the outside edges of the crater. Instead, they rushed down into the crater and the slaughter lasted into the afternoon.
"I believe Meade pulled the United State Colored Troops because of political reasons, as it would have reflected poorly on Lincoln if they had been sent in first and been slaughtered," Gates said. "Also, he was still under a lot of pressure and was still answering for not pursuing Lee's retreating army at Gettysburg the previous summer."
After the explosion, the Confederates quickly regrouped in the 10-minute delay by Ledlie's untrained troops, who were apparently unprepared for the explosion. When they finally attacked there were no footbridges in place so they could quickly cross their trenches, and once they stumbled upon the crater they thought it was a rifle pit for them to take cover and fire at the Confederates.
In a cruel twist of fate, during the latter stages of the battle many of Union casualties were suffered by the USCT that had been held in reserve. Many of those troops were shot and bayoneted after surrendering by Confederate troops, but even worse, some suffered the same fate at the hands of their fellow Union soldiers hoping to escape the same fate from the Rebels.
Pleasants and the 48th had no role in the attack and he later was praised for his idea and carrying out the digging of the tunnel. He was appointed a brevet brigadier general, March 13, 1865, and received a citation that mentioned his role.
In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Grant said that he believed that attack would have been a success had Burnside been allowed to use his USCT at the front. Although Meade had been censured for his decision, Grant stopped short of hanging him out to dry.
"I believe if he had done so it would have been a success," Grant said. "Still, I agreed with Gen. Meade as to his objections to that plan.
"Gen. Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front."
Although the Battle of the Crater is viewed as a Confederate victory, they gained no strategic advantage. Meanwhile, the siege continued until the final days of the war in April 1865.
If you go
With some advance planning of a trip to Petersburg, Va., much time can be saved when visiting the Eastern Theater of the battlefield, where the crater is located, and the Western Theater, where much of the action occurred in the final days of the war. As there are also other attractions in the area, seeking lodging between modern Petersburg and Old Towne Petersburg at hotels such as the Hampton Inn in Colonial Heights makes for easy travel.
While many of the national chain restaurants are in the area, a better choice is to eat in one of the locally owned restaurants in the Old Towne. Many of them have Civil War Era menu items, and some of them have been used to film scenes for the AMC television series "Turn" and the film "Lincoln" that stared Daniel Day Lewis.
A vacation planning guide is available from Petersburg Area Regional Tourism by calling 804-861-1666 or 877-730-7278. Information is also on its website at www.petersburgarea.org.
Battle of the Crater events
For information on the Battle of the Crater 150th anniversary events call the Petersburg National Battlefield Park Rangers at 804-732-3531, ext. 200.
Here is a schedule of events:
Wednesday, July 30: A commemorative program will take place at 5:45 a.m., which is the daylight savings time adjusted approximate hour of the explosion. A keynote address will be given at midday and ranger tours will be provided in the morning and afternoon.
Friday, Aug. 1: A morning panel discussion will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at Gillfield Baptist Church, 209 Perry St.; an afternoon panel discussion will be from 1 to 3 p.m. at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 10 Union St. Both discussions will have three speakers and a Q&A session. One will address the battle and the other impacts of the siege on those living in the city.
Saturday, Aug. 2: Living history programs on the battle, the soldiers and their weapons and field medicine will be held throughout the day. Union and Confederate artillery will present a live fire demonstration and re-enactors portraying Generals Grant and Lee will present their thoughts on this battle.