July 26, 1864 (Tuesday)
It had taken nearly a month, but the 510 foot mine shaft excavated under the Confederate lines south of Petersburg was complete. But it was no easy task.
Undertaken by the 48th Pennsylvania, it was overseen by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants. “The great difficulty I had,” recalled Pleasants, “was to dispose of the material got out of the mine. I found it impossible to get any assistance from anybody; I had to do all the work myself. I had to remove all the earth in old cracker boxes. I got pieces of hickory and nailed on the boxes in which we received our crackers, and then iron-cladded them with hoops of iron taken from old beef and pork barrels.”
Pleasants could not understand why nobody would allow him to use the proper mining tools. Many of the men in his regiment had been miners in Pennsylvania before the war. The only officer who seemed to look upon the idea favorably was Ambrose Burnside, but even he couldn’t get them what they needed.
Pleasants’ plan was to blow up the ground directly under the Rebel lines. If he mined too far or not far enough, the whole thing would be pointless. “Therefore,” continued Pleasants, “I wanted an accurate instrument with which to make the necessary triangulations. I had to make them on the furtherest from line, where the enemy’s sharpshooters could reach me. I could not get the instrument I wanted although there was one at army headquarters; and General Burnside had to send to Washington and get an old-fashioned theodolite, which was given to me.”
Part of the problem was General Meade, who, in his own words, did “not think that there was any reasonable chance of success by such and attack.” Had Pleasants been allowed the proper tools and instruments, he believed that he “could have done it in one-third or one-fourth of the time.”
But however long it would have taken, it was now finished, and since the explosion was to happen before Burnside’s lines, General Meade called upon him to submit a plan of attack. And while he did this, he first submitted a warning.
“It is altogether probable that the enemy are cognizant of the fact that we are mining,” wrote Burnside to Meade on this date, “because it is mentioned in their papers, and they have been heard to work on what are supposed to be shafts in close proximity to our galleries.”
This was true. The Confederates had some notion that something was going on under their feet and counter-shafts were dug straight down in hopes of hitting whatever was going on below. Thus far, they had met with no success.
Though it was completed, the shaft was in some danger of collapsing under the weight of the Confederate guns, especially when they were firing. “But all possible precautions have been taken to strengthen it,” assured Burnside, “and we hope to preserve it intact.”
Since it was pretty clear that the Confederates had not yet discovered the mine, Burnside urged that if it was used in two or three days, it was “probable that we will escape discovery.” Knowing that the army moved at a fairly slow rate, he urged that it was “highly important, in my opinion, that the mine should be exploded at the earliest possible moment consistent with the general interests of the campaign.”
With the caveats out of the way, Burnside graced Meade with his plan. For maximum surprise, he would “explode the mine just before daylight in the morning, or at about five o’clock in the afternoon. Mass two brigades of the colored division in rear of my first line, in columns of division… and as soon as the explosion has taken place, move them forward with instructions for the division to take half distance….”
As soon as it was exploded, the two brigades of black troops would rush forward into the gap. Once astride the Rebel works, each brigade would flank the now-dangling enemy lines. They would then be followed by more divisions of infantry “as soon as they can be thrown in.” He advised that even more troops be held in readiness if the whole thing was a smashing success, so they could pour through the widening gap. “It would, in my opinion, be advisable, if we succeed in gaining the crest, to throw the colored division right into the town.” He would meet with Meade two days later to discuss it further.1
- Sources: Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War; Attack on Petersburg; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]