Men of the 48th earned their place in history
PETERSBURG, Va. - As an engineer for the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Co., Henry Pleasants knew mining.
As the commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants knew he could count on his regiment of coal miners from Schuylkill County.
And, in the predawn hours of July 30, 1864, he counted most on Lt. Jacob Douty and Sgt. Harry "Henry/Snapper" Reese to carry out a life-threatening mission. Pleasants had lit the fuse to the charge of 8,000 pounds of gunpowder under Confederate lines in the 511-foot long tunnel his men had begun digging in June.
Because the inferior fuse required multiple splices it became obvious that there was a break in the line. Pressured by his superior officers, who only got onboard with the plan in the final days of the project, Pleasants had no choice other than accept the offer by Douty and Reese to enter the tunnel to repair and relight the fuse.
After accomplishing their mission, Douty and Reese scrambled on hands and knees out of the tunnel, which was just 3 feet in height and tapered at the top. It is said that when they emerged they somewhat calmly said the explosion would occur in 15 minutes and sure enough at 4:44 a.m. the gunpowder rocked the Rebel lines, but instead of producing a Union victory inept leadership resulted in the disaster that became known as the Battle of the Crater.
Only the most basic information is known of Douty, a boiler maker from Cressona who was 28 years old when he joining the 48th as a second lieutenant, Oct. 1, 1861. Along with the rest of the regiment he saw action at the Second Battle of Manassas, the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg.
By 1864, he had been promoted to first lieutenant and accounts have him working side-by-side with Pleasants during the digging of the tunnel. With Reese leading the way with a lantern, Douty is credited with using his folding knife to repair the fuse that had broken approximately halfway to the powder charge.
Douty left the army when his three-year term of service ended in September 1864. After the end of the Civil War he settled in Philadelphia, where he died April 13, 1895, at the age of 62.
Pleasants was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was 13 when he was sent to the United States to attend school in Philadelphia. In 1857 he moved to Pottsville, but with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 he joined the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry with the rank of second lieutenant on a three-month enlistment.
In July 1861 Pleasants enlisted as a captain in the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and served with the regiment in the Western Theater before it was shipped to the Eastern Theater. By 1864 he had obtained the rank of lieutenant colonel and was in command of the regiment.
For his role in the tunnel project at Petersburg, Pleasants was promoted Aug. 1, 1864, to command the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, IX Corps. He was brevetted as a brigadier general March 13, 1865, with his citation recognizing his service at Petersburg and exonerated for the bungling of other officers.
After the war, Pleasants returned to Pottsville in 1865 and resumed his career as a mining engineer for the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Co. He eventually served as chief engineer and then superintendent, dying at the age of 47 and being buried in the Charles Baber Cemetery.
In every sense of the word Reese has to be described as a "character" who lived life to the fullest extent. He was born Aug. 5, 1835, in Monmouthshire, South Wales, and when still a young child moved with his family to Minersville, where he was listed on the 1870 census.
According to family history, sometime during the 1850s he moved to Shamokin to protect a mine superintendent from a threat received from the Molly Maguires. With the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted April 21, 1861, in the 48th with the rank of private, being promoted to sergeant when he re-enlisted three months later.
In August 1864, Reese was promoted to the rank of first sergeant, and early in 1865 was promoted to the rank of captain. He was discharged from service July 17, 1865, and resumed his occupation as a miner until being hired as chief of police in Shamokin.
Among those who were his close associates were Col. William F. Cody, who would visit Reese when touring in the area with his "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," and Capt. Jack Crawford, a civilian cavalry scout during the Sioux War of 1876-77 who had worked with Reese in the mines when both lived in Minersville. Both Cody and Crawford were said to have spent most of their time in the area at a bar owned by Reese.
While no Confederate bullet was able to take the life of Reese, he was done in by a tooth infection, dying May 3, 1893. According to newspaper accounts, his funeral was described as the largest ever in Shamokin, where he is buried, with an estimated crowd of 7,000 paying its respects. A letter home from the front
Below is the text of a letter written by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, describing the digging of the tunnel and its purpose during the siege of Petersburg, Virgina, by the Union Army to his uncle in Pottsville and is on display at the Eastern Front Visitor Center at the Petersburg National Battlefield.
Near Petersburg, Va.
July 23, 1864
I have rec'd both yours and uncle James' welcome letters, but I have not had time to answer them. I have worked harder of late with body & brain than I ever did in my life before. I have projected, undertaken & completed a gigantic work & have accomplished one of the greatest things in this war: I have excavated a mine gallery from our lines to & under the enemy's works. This mine is 511 feet in length and has lateral galleries of 75 ft. making total distance 586 ft.
I am under one of their principal forts, and as soon as the "high authorities" are ready, will put 12,000 (twelve thousand) lbs. Of powder in 9 enormous magazines & will blow fort, cannon & rebels to the clouds.
The Chief Engineer of the Army & the rest of the regular army wiseacres said ti was not feasible: that I could not carry the ventilation that distance without digging a hole to the surface & that I would either get the men crushed by falls of earth or have them smothered. Old Burnside stood by me. Told me to go ahead & I have succeeded.
When I began I have neither an inch of board or a single nail. I caused our big picks to be made smaller; got cracker boxes and made hand-barrows out of them, and went ahead day & night until I finished it.
I now wait the order to put in the powder & reap the fruits of the work. It is terrible, however, to hurl several hundred men with my own hand at one blow into eternity; but I believe I am doing right.
Be sure not to speak of this matter outside of uncle James & Aunt Emily; until the thing is done: - Then I will give you a fuller account.
Love to all, Affec.