NP: June 25, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 17: Mines And Countermines

   

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Mines And Countermines

(This is the seventeenth in a series of articles on the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. At noon today, a hundred years ago, work began on a project which was to result in the salient feature of the whole campaign. The project would not flare into open action until July 30, the Battle of the Crater, and in the meantime there would be some weeks of relative inactivity as far as major events were concerned.)

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A phase of the Petersburg campaign which, with a conspicuous exception, has not received full attention is mining. The exception, of course, is the mine which resulted in the Battle of the Crater. The digging of it began a century ago today at noon [June 25, 1864].

[Confederate Engineers] Colonel [William W.] Blackford, Colonel [Thomas M. R.] Talcott [both of the 1st Confederate Engineers], and a few other Confederate participants have written comprehensive passages about mining, but the official information is not as abundant as it might be. The explanation may be that such activity was regarded as routine. There are accounts of Petersburg residents going out to enter tunnels under construction. And there is one instance in which information about an extensive Confederate mine seems to show up in the written word only in the form of data which Union intelligence obtained from spies.

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There was nothing routine about the mine on which work commenced a hundred years ago at noon today [June 25, 1864], unless, of course, it may have seemed that way to the Pennsylvania coal miners from Schuykill County who largely constituted the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment. Its origin is attributed to the remark of one of them: “We could blow that damn fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.”

Supposedly the comment was made in the presence of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, who took the idea from there.

The point to be mined was Elliott’s Salient, a work on the Confederate line which was more of a reentrant than a salient, and which, standing opposite the advanced position of Burnside’s IX Corps, reminded one Union soldier of the ugly horn of a rhinoceros. It was a challenge and an opportunity. Not only did the position of the Union line and the terrain invite mining, but behind the point where it would begin was ample space in which troops could be massed for an attack.

The project was peculiarly that of Colonel Pleasants. His division commander, General [Robert B.] Potter, and his corps commander, General [Ambrose] Burnside, approved the plan, but [AoP commander George G.] Meade and Major [James C.] Duane, the chief of engineers, took a dim view. Meade and Grant thought of it as a means of keeping men occupied, although Grant’s interest would increase, although not to the point of acting on the Napoleonic dictum tha[t] in assaults a general should be with his troops.

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If Pleasants had not been a man of determination, he would have abandoned his enterprise soon after starting it, but indifference and obstructionism on the part of others strengthened his determination. He was allowed, not assisted, to dig his tunnel.

It would be five feet high, four and a half feet wide at the bottom, two and a half feet wide at the top, and securely timbered. It would slant upward to avoid a drainage problem. When ventilation became a problem, he would solve it with an ingenious and fairly simple device based on the fact that warm air tends to rise.

In digging the do-it-yourself tunnel, the miners-turned-soldiers improvised mining picks by straightening army picks, used cracker barrels as receptacles, and obtained timber by tearing down a railroad bridge and operating an abandoned sawmill some distance away. Burnside, who was inclined to be helpful, sent to Washington for an old theodolite. All in all, the operation would have been more in keeping with the improvisation which had become a way of life on the other side of the lines than with a project of an army with unlimited resources.

The tunnel was completed to a distance of 510.8 feet on July 17 [1864].  The lateral shafts to contain the powder were ready six days later. For those who like statistics, there was an estimate of 18,000 cubic feet of earth excavated. Despite the opposition offered by nature and generals, the thing was an undeniable success.

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Although the diggers had cut bushes to place over the earth removed from the tunnel, it was no secret that a tunnel was under construction. Confederate soldiers perched in trees and using mirrors could see that dirt that was being hauled in large quantities. As early as July 1 [1864] General Alexander reported to Lee that mining was in progress. It was a subject of conversation and letters. Confederates found assurance in the fact Lee and Beauregard were two of the world’s best engineers. A joke had it that Grant had dug a tunnel under Petersburg, had run a train in it, and that smoke could be seen rising through the cobblestones of Sycamore Street. Pickets on the lines and newspapers in the cities began challenging Grant to spring his mine.

The opinion expressed by Francis Lawler, a British newspaper correspondent at Lee’s headquarters, that 400 feet was the maximum length of a tunnel because of the problem of ventilation, may have carried undue weight, but precautions were taken. The Confederates dug shafts with listening galleries in Elliott’s Salient and threw up a second line or trench cavalier and part of a third line in the rear of it.

It is interesting to speculate on the underground confrontation which would have resulted if one of the countermines had struck the Pleasants mine. Several hundreds of lives would have been saved, and the Petersburg campaign would have been deprived of its most extraordinary feature.1

Article Image

19640625PetersburgProgressIndexP4C1to2PetersburgNo17

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:

Source:

  1. “Mines And Countermines.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  May 6, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2

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