June 25, 1864 (Saturday)
“I was there at that time,” explained Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants in a calm and collected manner. This former railroad worker and Pennsylvania coal miner sat before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in January of 1865. On that day, he thought back to a balmy June half a year past.
“I was then commanding the first brigade of the second division of the 9th Corps,” he continued, never mentioning the oddity of a Lt. Col. filling the position of a Brigadier-General. “While commanding the brigade, I frequently had occasion to go to the front line. I noticed a little cup of a ravine near to the enemy’s works.”
Seeing this ravine, the mind of Lt. Col. Pleasants backed away from the battlefield to a time a relative peace. “I having been a mining and civil engineer many years before the war, it occurred to me that a mine could be excavated there. I examined the ground, and after I had satisfied myself that it could be done, I spoke to the officer next in rank above me, Brigadier General [Robert] Potter, commanding the division, and explained to him what I proposed to do and how I proposed to do it, and what would be the effect of an explosion of that kind upon the enemy. He received the idea favorably….”
“About the 24th of June,” recalled General Potter during his own testimony, “the idea of mining under the enemy’s works in my immediate front was suggested to me; in fact, I had thought of it before, and several others had thought the same thing. Lieutenant Colonel Pleasants, commanding the 48th Pennsylvania volunteers, came to my quarters and suggested to me that he was familiar with mining, and that many of the men in his regiment were miners, and that they thought they could undermine one of the enemy’s works in my immediate front. After some conversation with him, I wrote a communication to General [Ambrose] Burnside, who was then my corps commander, suggesting this plan of mining the enemy’s works, and giving some of the details.”
“He [Pleasant] has in his command upward of eighty-five enlisted men and fourteen non-commissioned officers, who are professional miners, besides four officers. The distance from inside of our work, where the mine would have to be started, to inside of enemy’s work, does not exceed 100 yards. He is of the opinion that they could run a mine forward at the rate of from twenty-five to fifty feet per day, including supports, ventilation, and so on. It would be a double mine, for as we cannot ventilate by shafts from the top, we would have to run parallel tunnels, and connect them every short distance by lateral ones, to secure a circulation of air, absolutely essential here, as these soils are full of mephitic vapors.
A few miner’s picks, which I am informed could be made by any blacksmith from the ordinary ones; a few handbarrows, easily constructed; one or two mathematical instruments, which could be supplied by the engineer department, and our ordinary intrenching tools, are all that are required. The men themselves haw been talking about it for some days, and are quite desirous, seemingly, of trying it. If there is a prospect of our remaining here a few days longer I would like to undertake it.”
After reading the letter, General Burnside requested that Potter and Pleasants come to his headquarters. Schylkill County, Pennsylvania was, even then, a land torn asunder by myriad anthracite mines. If anyone could construct such an anomaly of war, it was these men.
According to Pleasants, upon his arrival at Burnside’s headquarters, he “explained to him carefully the mode of ventilating the mine and everything about it. He seemed very much pleased with the proposition, and told me to go right on with the work.”
“I authorized them to commence the work,” recalled Burnside, “and stated that I would report what had passed between us to the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac [George Meade], and would inform them of the result; that no harm could occur from beginning the work, as it could be suspended if it should not be approved.”
Up the chain it went, finally to General Meade. “I sanctioned its prosecution,” he admitted, “though at the time, from the reports of the engineers and my own examination, I was satisfied the location of the mine was such that its explosion would not be likely to be followed by any important result, as the battery to be destroyed was in a re-entering part of the enemy’s line, exposed to an enfilading fire, and reverse fire from points both on the right and left.”
As for General Ulysses S. Grant, in his memoirs, he wrote that both he and Meade approved it, “as a means of keeping the men occupied.” And so to Grant, and perhaps Meade, this was busy work – existing only for the purpose of making sure those Pennsylvanians weren’t bored out of their skulls.
For Lt. Col. Pleasants, it was like being back home. He and his men began the work at noon on this date. “My regiment was only about four hundred strong,” said Pleasants to the committee. “At first I employed but a few men at a time, but the number was increased as the work progressed, until at last I had to use the whole regiment, non-commissioned officers and all.”
As the time passed and the piles of dirt grew higher, Pleasants would find it increasingly difficult to find help from anyone. Because of this, the entire project would take nearly a month.
Describing the day-to-day work of the miners, a soldier in the 13th Ohio wrote after the war: “The dirt was carried out in cracker boxes and jute bags which had contained grain for the commissary department. The men working in the mine had only shirt and drawers on, and some were minus shirt even. I used to watch them popping in and out of the hole like so many brown gophers.”1
- Sources: Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War; Attack on Petersburg, p11, 32-33, 97, 126; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 40, Part 2, p396-397; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; History and Roster of the Fourth and Fifth Independent Battalions by Howard Aston. [↩]