SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
TERRIBLE BATTLE OF THE MINE
BEFORE PETERSBURG, VIRGINIA.
A Remarkable Episode of the Rebellion Recalled Where 33d Anniversary Occurred Last Week.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE REPUBLICAN.—
An article in your Sunday issue of May 30 relating the experiences of a member of the 9th New Hampshire volunteers in the campaign against Richmond and Petrsburg, Va., contains so many errors that I deem it a duty in the interest of truth and the rising generation to correct some of them. I care nothing about the experience of individuals, but the dates and other facts are so glaringly incorrect that the writer is inexcusable. The writer of that article tells of a “battle of the mine before Petersburg, July 3, 1863.” Is this a mistake of the types? The first attack made upon Petersburg was made by troops from Gen Butler’s command at Bermuda Hundred, on the 10th [sic, 9th] of June, 1864, by 3500 infantry under Gen Gillmore, and 1500 cavalry under Gen Kautz. This attack amounted to little. On the 15th of June, ’64, Gen Smith with troops from Grant’s army, which had crossed the James river, made an attack upon Petersburg, and there was severe fighting for four days with heavy losses on both sides, the Union army capturing several important and commanding positions. As is well known, Gen Grant laid siege to Petersburg and Richmond, which culminated in the evacuation of both these cities on the night of April 2, 1865.
Let us now look into history in relation to the explosion of the mine before Petersburg, July 30, 1864. I will consult Benson J. Lossing, as The Republican the other day advised some ladies in Trenton, N. J., to do. Lossing says in volume 3, page 350, in a foot-note:—
The advance of the 9th (Burnside’s) corps was within 200 yards of one of the strongest of the confederate forts on the Petersburg lines, under which a mine was constructed. It was commenced in a hollow within Burnside’s lines, just in the rear of a deep cut of the City Point railway, entirely concealed from the confederates. The work was done by the enlisted men of the 48th Pennsylvania regiment, nearly 400 in number, under the special direction of Lieut-Col Henry Pleasants.
In the fourth volume of “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” published by the Century company, page 545, in an article by William H. Powell, major United States army. Maj Powell was judge advocate of Ledlie’s division, and also performed the duties of aid-de-camp to Gen Ledlie at the time of the explosion of the mine. Maj Powell says:—
By the assaults of June 17 and 18, 1864, on the confederate works at Petersburg, the 9th corps, under Burnside, gained an advanced position beyond a deep cut in the railroad within 130 yards of the enemy’s main line and confronting a strong work called by the confederates Elliott’s Salient, and sometimes Pegram’s Salient. A few days after gaining this position Lieut-Col Henry Pleasants, who had been a mining engineer, and who belonged to the 48th Pennsylvania volunteers, composed for the most part of miners from the upper Schuylkill coal region, suggested to his division commander, Gen Robert B. Potter, the possibility of running a mine under one of the enemy’s forts in front of the deep hollow. This proposition was submitted to Gen Burnside, who approved of the measure, and work was commenced on the 25th of June. After encountering many difficulties in the way of procuring tools and instruments to work with, the mine was completed and ready for the powder on the 23d of July. With proper tools and instruments it could have been done in much less time. The main gallery was 510.8 feet in length. The left lateral gallery was 37 feet in length, and the right lateral gallery 38 feet. The mine was charged with 8000 pounds of powder instead of 14,000 pounds as asked for, the amount having been reduced by order of Gen Meade.
Col Pleasants lighted the fuse at half past 3 o’clock (a. m.), and waited an hour for the explosion, when Lieut Jacob Douty and Sergeant Henry Reese, of Pleasants’s regiment, volunteered to go in and examine into the cause of the delay. The fire had stopped where the fuses had been spliced. They were relighted by these daring men and at 16 minutes before 5 o’clock the mine exploded. (See Col Pleasants’s report).
Now as to the troops who led the assault. Up to the 29th of July it was supposed that the division of colored troops of the 9th corps, commanded by Gen Ferrero, would lead in the assault; in fact, they had been drilled for that purpose; but on the 29th this plan was changed by order of Gen Meade. Burnside insisted on his program, and the matter was referred to Gen Grant, who confirmed Gen Meade’s views, although he said in his evidence before the committee on the conduct of the war:—
Gen Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and I believe if he had done so, it would have been a success. 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 beccause we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.
Gen Ledlie, who had been in command of the 1st division of the 9th corps for about six weeks, was selected to lead in the assault with his division, which consisted at that time of two brigades, the first led by Gen William F. Bartlett, and the second by Col Marshall, and consisted of the 9th, 21st, 35th, 56th, 57th and 59th Massachusetts under Bartlett, and 100th Pennsylvania, 179th New York, 3d Maryland, 2d Pennsylvania heavy artillery, and the 14th New York heavy artillery, under Marshall.
Now for the assault: Brevet Maj Charles H. Houghton of the 14th New York heavy artillery, in an article by him, and published in the fourth volume of the Century war book, says:—
We formed our lines of battle in the trenches of Gen Potter’s division. Our brigade, commanded by Col E. G. Marshall of the 14th New York heavy artillery, was first in line of battle, the 2d Pennsylvania provincial heavy artillery in the first line, the 14th New York artillery in the second line, and the 179th New York and 3d Maryland in the third line. While waiting quietly and anxiously for the explosion, the men had been allowed to lie down in line. I was lying on the ground resting my head upon my hand and thinking of the probable results when the denouement came. I shall never forget the terrible and magnificent sight. The earth around us trembled and heaved so violently that I was lifted to my feet. Then the earth along the enemy’s lines opened, and fire and smoke shot upward 75 or 100 feet. The air was filled with earth, cannons, caissons, sandbags and living men, and with everything else within the fort. One huge lump of clay, as large as a haystack or small cottage, was thrown out and left on top of the ground toward our own works. Our orders were to charge immediately after the explosion, but the effect produced by the falling earth and the fragments sent heavenward, that appeared to be coming right down upon us, caused the first line to waver and fall back, and the situation was one to demoralize most troops. I gave the command “Forward,” but at the outset a serious difficulty had to be surmounted. Our works, which were very high at this point, had not been prepared for scaling. But scale them in some way we must, and ladders were improvised by the men placing their bayonets between the logs in the works and holding the other end at their hip or on shoulders, thus forming steps (illegible) which men climbed. I, with others, stood on top of the works pulling men up and forming line[?], but time was too precious to wait for this, and Col Marshall, who was standing below within our own works, called to (illegible . . .), and our orders (illegible) the first to be planted on the ruined fort[?]
Let us now return to Maj Powell’s story of the (illegible) at the crater.
The whole scene of the explosion struck every one dumb[?] with astonishment[?] as we arrived at the (illegible) of the debris…
[SOPO Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, at this point in the article, most of an entire paragraph is completely illegible. See the article image below if you want to attempt to decipher it.]
…[bat]tery in position on the enemy’s side of the crest of the crater, a portion of the leading brigade passed over the crest and attempted to form.
An attempt to capture the fort on Cemetery hill in the rear of the crater failed, and the troops fell back and sought refuge in the crater. After this failure Col Marshall requested Maj Powell to go to Gen Ledlie and “explain the condition of affairs,” and Maj Powell says:—
This I did immediately. Passing to the Union lines under a storm of canister, I found Gen Ledlie and a part of his staff ensconced in a protected angle of the works. I gave him Col Marshall’s message, explained to him the situation, and Col Marshall’s reasons for not being able to move forward. Gen Ledlie then directed me to return at once and say to Col Marshall and Gen Bartlett that it was Gen Burnside’s order that they should move forward. This message was delivered. Maj Powell continues further along in his article: “Whether Gen Ledlie informed Gen Burnside of the condition of affairs, as reported by me, I do not know; but I think it likely, as it was not long after I had returned to the crater that a brigade of the 2d division (Potter’s) under the command of Brig-Gen S. G. Griffin advanced its skirmishers, and followed them immediately, directing its course to the right of the crater.”
The 9th New Hampshire was in this brigade,—the 2d brigade, 2d division, so I fail to see how they could be the first to plant their colors on the crater.
As for being exposed to the “burning sun for 36 hours,” I will not attempt to explain that. It must have been another case of the sun standing still. The troops of the 2d division could not have got to the crater much, if any, before 6 o’ clock a. m., and they were taken prisoners about 2 p. m. Maj Powell says:—
Among the captured was Gen William F. Bartlett. Earlier in the war he had lost a leg, which he had replaced with one of cork. Where he was standing in the crater a shot was heard to strike with the peculiar thud known to those who have been in action; and the general was seen to totter and fall. A number of officers and men immediately lifted him, when he cried out: “Put me any place where I can sit down.” “But you are wounded, general, aren’t you?” was the inquiry. “My leg is shattered all to pieces,” said he. “Then you can’t sit up,” they urged, “you’ll have to lie down.” “Oh, no,” exclaimed the general, “it’s only my cork leg that’s shattered.”
The losses in this affair, in the four divisions of the 9th corps, were 52 officers and 370 men killed, 103 officers and 1556 men wounded, and 87 officers and 1652 men captured; total 3828. It was a costly blunder.
The surviving veterans of the late war are very anxious that accurate histories of the war, and the cause of it, should be written and placed in our schools. They should set an example and when writing regimental histories, or about personal experiences, be as exact as possible, remembering that history is one thing and romance another. JAMES MCKENNA.
PITTSFIELD, JUNE 17, 1897.1
- “Terrible Battle of the Mine.” Springfield Republican. August 1, 1897, p. 14 col. 4-5 ↩