Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alonzo Cushing, Harry Reese and the Issue over Medals of Honor. . .

Lt. Alonzo Cushing
News broke last night that Lt. Alonzo Cushing will receive a Medal of Honor and the reaction from those in the Civil War community has thus far been overwhelmingly positive. "At long last," "finally," "it's about time". . .these are just some of the common statements I have seen from bloggers and facebookers. But there are some who are expressing hesitancy and even outright disagreement with this decision to recognize Cushing's valor 151 years after the fact, out of concern for the precedent this will set.
My own feelings about this are mixed; while a great story I can also agree with those who now fear that slippery slope. This is certainly not meant to diminish Cushing's bravery and his heroic actions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. Yet there were countless other soldiers who performed equally heroic actions--at Gettysburg and on just about every battlefield of the war--whose valor has gone unrecognized by the Medal of Honor. And as was the case with Cushing, there are no doubt many other Union soldiers who were nominated for the Medal but whose nominations were never acted upon.

Sgt. Henry Reese
This includes Sergeant and later Lieutenant Henry Reese of Company F, 48th Pennsylvania, who was, indeed, nominated for a Medal of Honor for his bravery immediately prior to the Battle of the Crater. It was Reese, of course, who volunteered to crawl back into the 48th's mine at Petersburg to discover why there had been no blast. He discovered the fuse had gone out and, with the assistance of another officer, he re-spliced and re-lit it. . .then crawled back out as quickly as possible.
While the resulting battle was a complete disaster for the Union, the mine itself was a great success and in February 1865, Major General John Parke, who assumed command of the Ninth Army Corps following Burnside's departure, sought to have Reese's "conspicuous act of gallantry recognized with a Medal of Honor. In Reese's service records at the National Archives is Parke's recommendation, which reads, in part:  

Major General John Parke
"In the undermining and destruction of the Rebel Fort No. 5 in front of Petersburg, Va., the fuse leading to the magazine had been spliced about 15 feet from the fuse of the mine, when the fuse was first lighted, it burned to the splice when the fire went out, and, after the time set for the explosion had elapsed, Sgt. Henry Reese volunteered to enter the mine and relight the fuse at the splice, which he successfully accomplished, and returned in safety to the mouth of the mine, and in one minute after the explosion took place."
For whatever reason, or reasons, Parke's recommendation was not acted upon, and Reese was not issued the Medal of Honor. But there are some still today who would like to see the Welsh-born sergeant receive his medal. . .posthumously, of course, 150+ years later. . .just like Alonzo Cushing.

Entrance to the 48th's Mine at Petersburg

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The 48th/150th: August 1864: Life In The Trenches & A New Kind of Warfare

In early August 1864, the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania begrudgingly returned to the normal routines of trench warfare, no doubt still shaking their heads in disbelief over the utter disaster that resulted at the Crater. Yet the war continued. . .

On The Picket Line At Petersburg

Life in the trenches was simply miserable; the heat was relentless and there was little, if any shade; and the men were constantly exposed to the deadly fire of Confederate sharpshooters. Already the regiment had lost two good officers to sharpshooter's bullets--Captain Joseph Hoskings who had been wounded, and Lieutenant David Brown, who was killed while lying in his tent. Hoskings was in command of the regiment and upon his wounding, Major Oliver Bosbyshell assumed command. The regiment would spend August 7, in the trenches "exposed," said Bosbyshell, "not only to the constant rebel firing, but to a sun of torrid heat." Relieved that night, the 48th took a breathing spell on August 8 but was back again in the advanced line of trenches that night. All day on August 9, "The firing was sharp and rapid all the time along the line. The heat intense."
And so it went on, day after day and night after night. It was the new reality of warfare. Dull, monotonous. . .and deadly.

Map by Hal Jespersen

On August 15, soldiers in blue began stretching further south and east. The Ninth Corps would take up the line held by the Fifth Corps, while the Fifth Corps extended further to the left. As Bosbyshell wrote, "It was quite daylight when the new position was occupied, and the Forty-eighth filed into the place assigned, whilst the troops of the Fifth Corps filed out in full view of the rebels. They, however, remained quiescent, which was really remarkable, the policy thus far having been to fire at the sight of any body of troops."
The scorching heat of the first week of August seemed to have given way to frequent rainfalls. Water collected in the trenches; the men's boots--and feet--constantly damp. The rain only added to the misery. And there was also little sleep. Confederates kept up a heavy cannonading throughout the night of August 17-18. On August 19, the regiment side-stepped once more to the left and took up a position on the extreme left of the Ninth Corps' line.

Confederate Counterattack at Weldon Railroad

On August 20-21, the regiment supported the Fifth Corps in its actions at the Battle of Weldon Railroad (or the Battle of Globe Tavern. Following the Crater, U.S. Grant gave up on any more frontal attacks and, instead, focused on further investing the city of Petersburg. More specifically, he sought to cut the Weldon Railroad, which connected Petersburg to Wilmington, North Carolina, and which was also helping to keep Lee's men supplied. The fighting raged from August 19-21, in the rain, and it was the soldiers of Gouveneur Warren's Fifth Army Corps who were primarily engaged. But the Fifth Corps did get some support from the Ninth, which was now under the command of General John Parke, following Burnside's departure. Union casualties totaled 4,300 men killed, wounded, or captured; Confederate casualties were less than half that but the battle did result in a Union victory--the first of the Petersburg Campaign. The rail line was cut.

Lt. Jacob Douty, Co. K. 48th PA
Positioned on the far left of the Ninth Corps line, the 48th Pennsylvania did lend some support to Warren's men in this engagement. Moving south, the regiment began work on a line of temporary entrenchments while the heavy sounds of battle were heard to their left-front. On August 21, a Confederate counterattack pushed the 48th's skirmishers back and, as Bosbyshell recorded, "Regimental line was formed back of the works and every one in readiness to repel an expected attack." But no attack came and after a while of waiting, Bosbyshell sought to re-establish the skirmish line in front. Bravely, Lieutenant Jacob Douty--who several weeks earlier had re-entered the tunnel at Petersburg along with Snapper Reese--volunteered to lead the way. Bosbyshell explained why this was such a risky venture: "The front line of breastworks had been cleared of timber, but on the opposite side of the clearing was a heavy wood, and not a soul knew whether there was any force of the enemy there or not--so it was a brave act to jump our entrenchments, with a spade over his shoulder, as Douty did, and advancing across the clearing until nearly up to the opposite wood, coolly commenced digging a rifle pit in full view of friend and supposed foe alike." Soon, a number of other volunteers rushed forward and helped with the digging. Douty's act, thought Bosbyshell, should have resulted in a Medal of Honor.
Casualties--if there were any--during this operation were not recorded and on August 22 the 48th Pennsylvania was relieved at this line of temporary earthworks and made their way back to the front and there they would remain for weeks to come--exposed to the heat, the rain, and to the constant and deadly musketry and artillery fire that defined this new kind of warfare. As Bosbyshell remembered, "The never ceasing crack of the rifles of the men in the rifle pits, and occasional shower of mortar shells, with a flurry of shot and shell now and then, served to remind all hands that the war was going on, dangerously near, and ready for death and destruction upon the slightest provocation."

Monday, August 4, 2014

The 48th/150th: "The Regular Siege Life Again:" The Dust Settles at the Crater

Confederate Troops Re-Occupy The Crater
It probably meant little to the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania, especially coming from a man who offered little--if any--support and from a general who largely forsook the 9th Corps in its struggle in the Crater, but 150 years ago on August 3, Major General George Meade issued General Orders No. 32 that acknowledged the hard and heavy work performed by Colonel Pleasants and the soldiers of his command:

General Orders No. 32
George Meade
The Commanding General takes great pleasure in acknowledging the valuable services rendered by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants' 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Volunteers and the officers and men of his command in the excavation of the mine which was successfully exploded on the morning of the 30th ultimo under one of the enemy's batteries in front of the second division of the Ninth Army Corps. The skill displayed in the laying out and construction of the mine reflects great credit upon Lt. Col. Pleasants, the officer in charge, and the willing endurance by the officers and men of the regiment of the extraordinary labor and fatigue involved in the prosecution in the work to completion are worthy of the highest praise.
By Command of Major General Meade

Worthy of the highest praise, indeed. But 150 years ago there were no doubt many in the 48th who were bitter that Meade did not find the effort--while underway--worthy of the highest support. So, as the proverbial and literal dust settled over the Crater battlefield--as the dead were being buried and the prisoners on either side marched to rear and sent away to prisoner-of-war camps--the still unbelieving, somewhat seething soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania settled in once more to life in the trenches, resuming their place in line and suffering from the fire of Confederate sharpshooters. As Oliver Bosbyshell recorded in his regimental history, "Matters resumed the regular siege life again--the picket firing constant, and good men lost every day."
Captain Joseph Hoskings Assumed Command of the 48th Following the Crater
He was wounded severely on August 3, 1864
As Pleasants resumed command of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps, Captain Joseph Hoskings of Minersville assumed command of the 48th. On August 3, 1864, Hoskings was shot while on the picket line, the bullet passing "through the fleshy part of his left breast, at an angle, passing through the muscles of his left arm, making four distinct holes." Hoskings will survive this injury. Two days later, the 48th lost a popular officer by the name of David Brown, a lieutenant in Company H and, before the war, a baker from Pottsville. On August 5, 1864, Brown was lying in his tent when a rifle ball struck and killed him instantly.  

Lieutenant David Brown--Killed on August 5, 1864
He was a First Defender

The Grave of Lt. Brown
Presbyterian Cemetery, Pottsville

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The 48th/150th: "If I Had Known What A Blunder It Would Be, I Never Would Have Gone In To Relight The Fuse:" Sgt. Henry Reese Remembers the Crater

Alfred Waud's Depiction of the Explosion of the Petersburg Mine
July 30, 1864
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

It was one of the most remarkable successes of the war. . .followed by one of its worst disasters.
150 years ago this morning, the 48th Pennsylvania's mine at Petersburg was fired and in an instant a gaping hole--150 feet in length, 60 in width, and 30 in depth--was literally blasted in the Confederate lines. The way to Petersburg was open; an end to the deadlock appeared within sight. "Everything looked propitious for a grand success," said one man from Massachusetts. Yet the battle that resulted proved a terrible and horrific defeat; "a stupendous failure," and "the saddest affair of the war," or at least that is how Grant later remembered it.
150 years ago was a sad day for the Union and especially for the 9th Army Corps. . .
This fiasco--this tragedy at the Crater, however, should not in any way detract from the remarkable work performed by the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. When others said their effort would fail, they persevered. When they were denied support, they improvised. The digging of the Petersburg Mine was their effort, and theirs alone, and there could be no denying their success.
Yet despite the success of the 48th in tunneling under the Confederate lines, at least one of the men in the regiment--and probably many more--later wished it had never happened.

Sgt. Henry "Snapper" Reese

Born in Montmoutshire, Wales, on July 5, 1835, Henry Reese later set sail for America and found work in the coal mines of east-central Pennsylvania. When the nation went to war with itself, Reese was quick to volunteer his services to fight for his adopted country, enlisting into the ranks of Company F, 48th Pennsylvania. He served bravely with the regiment and must have become a particular favorite of Colonel Henry Pleasants, for, in late June 1864, Pleasants called on Reese to oversee the regiment's miners as they went to work digging the Petersburg Mine. He made a home at the entrance of the tunnel and there watched as the work parties came and went. He was the first to hear of any trouble or potential danger and he was sure that each of his miners received their extra allotment of whiskey.
It was 150 years ago today, however, where Reese, along with Lt. Jacob Douty, displayed  remarkable heroism, for it was these two men who crawled back into the tunnel to investigate why the mine had not blown. Pleasants had initially lit the fuse, sometime after 3:00 a.m. and the mine was scheduled for detonation at approximately 3:30. Yet that time would come and go. . .and still no explosion. Finally, Pleasants allowed Reese to go in and both he and Douty soon discovered that the fuse had extinguished. After resplicing and repairing the line, Reese relit it and both men raced their way back out. . . .

Colonel Henry Pleasants
Many years after the war, Reese sat down and gave an interview to Chaplain James Guthrie who was, at that time, preparing a history of black soldiers in America's wars. The book, published in 1899 and titled Camp-Fires of the Afro-American; or the Colored Man as a Patriot, featured a chapter on the role of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) at the Battle of the Crater. Reese's interview is both informative and insightful. It tells us about Reese's and Douty's exploits that morning and it allows us to help answer one of the long-lasting questions about the entire tragedy at the Crater, "How did the men of the 48th feel watching their great effort result in such bloodshed and disaster?"

[Reese]: "I saw Colonel Pleasants standing on an earthwork, watch in hand, anxiously looking toward the fort which we expected every minute to see blown up. He had lighted the fuse at quarter past three o'clock a.m., and the explosion out to have followed within then minutes; and when that time had passed, and it didn't come off, I began to think about the fuse. Being a practical miner, I concluded that a defect in it had caused the fire to go out, and I went up to Colonel Pleasants and so stated it to him, and at the same time offered to go into the mine and remedy the difficulty. Lieutenant Douty joined in with me, but the Colonel wouldn't permit us to make the venture until he felt sure that the fire was out, and not slumbering. He was afraid that, like many cases in mining, it might go off just as we would be approaching to investigate the trouble. At last he consented, and at quarter past four o'clock we entered the mine. We found that about fifty feet of the fuse had been consumed and that the fire had gone out where the fuses were spliced. We needed a knife, so I went out for one, reported the trouble, returned, and with Douty soon had the fuses fixed again."

Lt. Jacob Douty
Reese was then asked: "How did you feel, while in there?"

"Feel? I didn't stop to feel, I had been in tight placed in coal mines before the war didn't mind this affair; but when I got outside, and stood a few minutes looking toward the fort that was doomed, and at the ranks of brave men soon to go charging perhaps to destruction or capture, I felt something then trickling near my eyes, but, [said Reese after a pause] I guess it was only sweat."
"The explosion took place at about quarter to five o'clock. There was a heavy jar, a dull thud, a big volcano-puff of smoke and dust, and up went the earth under and around that fort for a distance in the air of a hundred feet or more, carrying with it cannons, caissons, muskets--and men. Poor fellows, their fate was awful, but it was so sudden that the fate of our men who were slaughtered in the crater soon after was worse. The men who went up in their sleep, with the fort, thought that may be that it was only a nightmare that ailed them; but our poor boys at the crater, hemmed in and shot down with their eyes open, had a worse lot, and the suspense they were in was enough to kill them. If I had known what a blunder was going to be made in the assault, after the mine had made such a success, I never would have gone into it to relight the fuse. It made me frantic to see such useless destruction; and when the assault had failed, it made me still more furious to see a division of Colored soldiers rushed into the jaws of death with no prospect of success; but they went in cheering as though they didn't mind it, and a great many of them never came back."

Fury, anger. . .mixed no doubt with utter disbelief. These must have been the common sentiments felt among all soldiers of the 48th when they watched their month-long effort--their great labor--vanish in terrible and useless slaughter, 150 years ago today, at Petersburg.

Entrance To The 48th's Mine At Petersburg

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

Mahone's Counterattack, by Don Troiani

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The 48th/150th: The Mine Completed, Charged, & Tamped. . . .

Entrance to the 48th's Mine at Petersburg
In all, it had taken just about one month for the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry to complete the tunneling of their mine at Petersburg. Having developed the idea and discussed it with a few of his confidantes in the regiment, Colonel Henry Pleasants next took his proposal of divisional commander Robert Potter who then suggested the Pennsylvania colonel and former mining engineer take the idea directly to General Burnside. Late on the evening of June 24, 1864, Burnside approved of Pleasants's endeavor and, next day at exactly 12:00 noon, Pleasants watched as his men began digging into the Virginia soil.
The actual digging was left to the 99 trained, professional miners in the regiment; every one else, though, played important supporting roles: building the timber framing, and especially removing the dirt. By the time the mine was fully completed, Pleasants estimated that approximately 18,000 cubic feet of earth had been removed from the ground, and either taken far to the rear or used to fill sandbags.
Forced to use improvised and modified tools, Pleasants and his dirt-covered and sore-shouldered soldiers in the 48th Pennsylvania labored under severe disadvantage. They received little, if any, support from the army and especially from the army's engineers, who believed the thing could not be done. The soldiers of the 48th were not even provided with lumber for the framing while even Pleasants's simple request for a surveyor's tool--needed to gauge exact distance--was denied.

But the thing was done. The main tunnel, extending some 510 1/2 feet and ending directly underneath Elliott's Salient, was completed on July 17; the next day, work on the right and left lateral galleries commenced. Respectively, the left and right galleries were 37' and 38' in length and in each of these galleries, chambers were dug for placing the magazines. It took another few days to complete the galleries, but by nightfall on July 23, the mine was finished. All that was left was placing the powder and laying the fuse.

Pleasants reported the completion of his mine to Burnside who, in turn, notified army commander Meade. Meade then requested that Burnside submit his plan for using the mine. Burnside's response, written on July 26, 1864, was the sooner, the better; rain and Confederate countermines might ultimately ruin the entire endeavor.  As the whiskered corps commander wrote, "It is altogether probable that the enemy is cognizant of the fact that we are mining, because it is mentioned in their papers, and they have been heard at work on what are supposed to be shafts in close proximity to our galleries. But the rain of night before last has, no doubt, much retarded their work. We have heard no sound of workmen in them either yesterday or today; and nothing is heard by us in the mine but the ordinary sounds of work on the surface above. This morning we had some apprehension that the left lateral gallery was in danger of caving in from the weight of the battery above it and the shock of their firing. But all possible precautions have been taken to strengthen it, and preserve it intact. The placing of the charge in the mine will not involve the necessity of making a noise. It is therefore probable that we will escape discovery if the mine is to be used within two or three days. It is nevertheless important, in my opinion, that the mine should be exploded at the earliest possible moment consistent with the general interests of the campaign." Following the explosion of the mine, Burnside planned to use his Fourth Division, composed entirely of black soldiers.
Meade received Burnside's plan and agreed that the mine should be charged and exploded sooner rather than later. However, he did not agree with Burnside's choice of using the black troops to spearhead the attack. Meade (and Grant) had paid little attention to Burnside and the 48th's mine throughout the previous month but now, at almost the eleventh hour, they took an interest and literally pulled the rug out from under Burnside's feet, with tragic consequences.
In the meantime, Pleasants received orders on July 27 to begin placing the powder; it took six hours, from 4:00 p.m. that afternoon until 10:00 p.m. that night. Pleasants had requested 12,000 pounds of powder but received 8,000. It arrived in legs, one wagon load at a time. And since the drivers of these wagons did not want to get too close to the front, the soldiers had to carry all 320 kegs of powder from a position roughly one mile to the rear then down the entire length of the tunnel and to the lateral galleries, where Pleasants awaited. As the colonel later explained, "The charge consisted of three hundred and twenty kegs of powder, each containing twenty-five pounds--four tons. It was placed in eight magazines, connected by wooden tubes, half filled with powder. These tubes met from the lateral galleries at the inside end of the main gallery, and from this point I placed three lines of fuses for a distance of ninety-eight feet." The fuses had to be spliced.

Carrying In The Powder Kegs

Placing The Powder In Magazines

As soon as the powder was placed in the magazines, work began immediately on the tamping, which consisted of bags filled with dirt--thousands of them, it seems. The tamping began at 10:00 p.m. on the night of July 27 and continued until 6:00 p.m. the following day. "Thirty four feet of main gallery was tamped," said Pleasants, "and ten feet of the entrance of each of the lateral galleries, but the space between the magazines was left clear of tamping." Oliver Bosbyshell further explained that the tamping "was about forty feet in length, and consisted of bags of sand placed loosely on one another, with long logs laid diagonally across the gallery, so as to be driven into the sides by the recoil of the explosion. Common blasting fuse was furnished, in pieces, instead of one continuous piece, which Colonel Pleasants was obliged to splice together. These lines were used ninety feet long, and placed in a wooden tube lined with canvas to guard it from the dampness. The tamping was finished and the mine was ready to be fired at 6 p.m. of July 28."
It was quite the extensive undertaking but by the evening of July 28--just about one month since the first shovel full of dirt was removed--the 48th's mine was finished, charged, and tamped. . .all Pleasants could do now was await the orders to fire it.