Digging of The Tunnel at Petersburg

By far the most unusual event during the siege of Petersburg was the attempt by Grant to take Petersburg by a huge mining operation.

The idea of the tunnel was devised by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, the 33 year old commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania.  Pleasants was a mining engineer in civilian life and many of his men were coal miners.  He became convinced that his men could dig a tunnel under the Confederate fort known as Elliot’s Salient, then fill a mine under the fort sufficient to blow it to kingdom come, along with nearby Confederate trenches.  Pleasants took the idea to his corps commander Major General Ambrose Burnside.  He and his men had received permission, but he received virtually no assistance from the rest of the Army in the digging of the tunnel, he and his men having to improvise everything they used.  Engineering officers told Pleasants that he was crazy and at 511 feet the tunnel would be too long and his men would die of asphyxiation digging the tunnel long before it could be completed.

Petersburg Tunnel

The tunnel was elevated as it advanced toward the Confederate fort to prevent moisture clogging it up.   Fresh air was pumped in by air-exchange mechanism near the entrance. Pleasants had constructed a ventilation shaft located well behind Union lines, and connected it to the mine with canvas. At the shaft’s base, a fire was kept continuously burning. A wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel which protruded into the outside air. The fire heated stale air inside of the tunnel, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance via the wooden duct which transported the fresh air to the digging miners. 

The took took a bit over two weeks to dig and the mine fifty feet under the Confederate fort took almost another two weeks to construct.  It was filled with four tons of gunpowder.  The Confederates attempted some desultory countermining operations, but the Union tunnel troops went about their work undiscovered.  By July 28, 1864 the mine was ready to explode whenever the high command gave the word.  That word would be given on July 30, 1864.

Here is a portion of an article on the tunneling operation that led up to the Battle of the Crater, written by Major William H. Powell, United States Army, which appeared in volume 4 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. (more…)

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Published in: on July 29, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Digging of The Tunnel at Petersburg  
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January 20, 1863: Mud March

Mud March Painting

 

Probably the nadir of the Union war effort was reached by the Mud March of the Army of the Potomac which began 150 years ago on January 20, 1863.  Desperate to redeem himself after the bloody fiasco at Fredericksburg the commander of the Potomac, General Ambrose Burnside, ordered an unusal winter offensive, planning to cross over the Rappahannock at Banks ford, .

The weather was unseasonably mild on the 20th.  On the evening of the 20th-21st the rains began and did not stop.  Burnside quick began throwing pontoons over the river, but as the landscape dissolved into a sea of mud, the progress of the Army slowed.  Lee had ample time as a result to station the Army of Northern Virginia across from Burnside on the southern banks of the  Rappahannock.  Other than sharpshooter fire, Lee made no effort to stop Burnside from crossing, perhaps thinking that fighting Burnside with a swollen Rappahannock in the rear of the Army of the Potomac gave an excellent prospect of destroying the Union force. (more…)

December 13, 1862: Battle of Fredericksburg

 “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day.”

Cincinnati Commercial in a report on the battle of Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg I think is the absolute nadir of Union fortunes in the Civil War.  After the sacking of McClellan, Major General Ambrose Burnside came up with a plan that wasn’t bad.  Burnside would take the Confederates by surprise by crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and then racing the Army of Northern Virgnia to Richmond.    Burnside arrived opposite Fredericksburg on November 17 and he had stolen a March on Lee.  Unbelievably the pontoon bridges were nowhere to be found, bungling of an almost preternatural nature being responsible for not placing them at the front of the Union advance.v Burnside sat on the river across from Fredericksburg for almost a month while Lee fortified the heights outside Fredericksburg.  The key for the success of the plan, surprise, had vanished.  Lee was present and in an immensely strong position.  It made absolutely no sense for Burnside now to cross at Fredericksburg and initiate a battle and yet that is what he did.

The Union army crossed the river on December 11-12, under heavy fire from Confederate sharpshooters, with some street fighting in Fredericksburg.

The attacks against the Confederate fortified positions outside of Fredericksburg occurred on December 13. Burnside had divided his army into three Grand Divisions.    The Center Grand Division south of Fredericksburg had 60,000 men in two corps : Major General John Reynolds I Corps and W.F. Smith’s VI Corp.  Instead of ordering an attack by the entire Grand Division, Burnside only order an attack by one division.  Franklin assigned this task to Reynolds who choose Meade’s 4500 division to make the attack, supported by Gibbon’s division.  Meade and Gibbon were facing Jackson with some 35,000 men.  Fortuitously Meade’s assault attacked a section of the Confederate line that had been accidentally left unmanned, and Meade made a breakthrough.  Confederate reserves quickly chased Meade and Gibbon back to the Union lines.  A Confederate counterattack suffered heavy casualties from the fresh troops of the rest of the Grand Division supported by Sickles’ III Corps.  Most of the Confederate casualties at Fredericksburg were from this abortive counterattack.

Battle of Fredericksburg (more…)

Published in: on December 13, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on December 13, 1862: Battle of Fredericksburg  
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