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Civil War unit, often called Schuylkill Regiment, focus of presentation

Civil War historian Ben Varner discussed the explosive history of the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment recently at the Orwigsburg Historical Society.

Explosive, indeed.

Members of the unit, made up largely of Schuylkill County coal miners, dug a tunnel beneath Confederate Army lines and detonated explosives that opened an immense hole in a battlefield near Petersburg, Va., in July 1864.

So large was the indentation it gave the encounter its name: the Battle of the Crater.

Varner, a descendant of families in Pine Grove and Hamburg, devoted years to compiling a detailed history of the 48th Regiment, sometimes referred to as the Schuylkill Regiment.

“I fell in love with the 48th,” said Varner, temporarily setting aside the objectivity of a historian.

“Walking In Their Shoes: Heroes of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry” is part of an ongoing study of the Civil War by Varner, who lives in northern Berks County.

He plans to share the database of his intensive study with historical societies and churches in the county.

Recruited in Pottsville in August 1861, only four months after the start of the Civil War, the Schuylkill Regiment was commanded by Col. James Nagle, a Reading native who lived in Pottsville.

Over a three-year period, the 48th would participate in some of the most intense and bloody fighting of the Civil War, including the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Court House.

Varner, in his talk before about a dozen people in a program made possible by the Schuylkill Area Community Foundation, described horrific scenes of hand-to-hand combat and trench warfare in battles in which casualties exceeded 30,000.

“The experience of the 48th,” he said, “would make a ‘Band of Brothers’ type miniseries.”

During the Siege of Petersburg, which began in June 1864, Union and Confederate forces engaged in combat Varner compared with the trench warfare along the Western Front in France during World War II.

In late July, Col. Henry Pleasants, who commanded the 48th Regiment, advanced a plan to dig a tunnel under and detonate explosives beneath an entrenched Confederate Army position.

A mining engineer, Pleasants assured Union Army brass that the plan would work. Army engineers said it couldn’t be done. The longest wartime tunnel ever built was 400 feet long, and Pleasants wanted to go more than 500 feet.

Undeterred, Pleasants gave the go-ahead to construct a 3-foot-wide, 4½-foot-high tunnel under Confederate lines.

With makeshift shovels, Schuylkill County miners dug a 50-foot-deep, 580-foot-long tunnel in three weeks. At its end, they placed 320 kegs, or 8,000 pounds, of gunpowder.

On July 30, 1864, after a failed attempt, the explosives ignited.

“An onlooker from the 20th Michigan said a great spout of red earth rose to a great height,” Varner said. “It mingled with men, guns, timbers and planks, ascending, swirling, scattering and falling with great concussion to the earth.”

Another Union soldier, Varner said, remarked that he saw the smoke rising to the sky with the detonation of thunder and spread out like a mushroom, whose stem seemed to be made of fire and its head made of smoke.

When the smoke cleared, there was a crater 170 feet long and 120 feet wide, a giant gaping hole about 30 feet deep in Confederate defenses.

The 48th had done its job, Varner said, and it was now time for the rest of the Union Army to step up.

Confused and unprepared Union Army forces ventured into the void and stalled. Confederate troops attacked in what Varner described as a “turkey shoot,” inflicting heavy casualties on the north.

What had the potential for victory turned out to be a disaster for Union forces.

In the aftermath, one Union commander was court-martialed. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commander of the IX Corps, was relieved of command.

The 48th Regiment participated in the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, its last campaign, in early April 1865.

Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, ending the bloodiest conflict in American history. Over 600,000 American soldiers died in the four-year war.

Headed back to Washington on April 19, Varner said, troops in the 48th Regiment heard the news that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated.

On July 17, 1865, the 48th was mustered out and headed home.

Two Schuylkill County soldiers would receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, which recognizes valor in combat, for action taken under fire.

Pvt. Robert Reid, a Scottish man from Pottsville, was decorated for capturing the battle flag of the 44th Tennessee regiment. Cpl. Patrick H. Monaghan, an Irishman from Minersville, was recognized for recapturing a New York unit battle flag.

Throughout the course of the war, the 48th lost 156 men to combat and 145 men to disease, for a total of 301 of 1,000 troops in the regiment.

“Of all the units I have researched, the story of the 48th is one of the most epic,” Varner said. “They went through a lot.”

Companies in 48th Regiment

Organized in August 1861, the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment consisted of volunteers divided into companies based on their hometown areas:

Company A: Tamaqua, Port Clinton and northern Berks County.

Companies B, C, D, G, H: Pottsville.

Company E: New Philadelphia and Silver Creek.

Company F: Minersville.

Company I: Middleport and Tuscarora.

Company K: Cressona and Schuylkill Haven.


Source: Berkshire mont

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