Petersburg Mine "The Coal Miners' Plan" June 25 - July 30, 1864
Union Col. Henry Pleasants had been a mining engineer before the war, and his 48th Pennsylvania Regiment was composed of coal miners. In June 1864 he and his men were engaged in trench warfare at Petersburg, VA, occupying a position just 130 yards from the Confederate lines. They developed a plan to build a tunnel from their position to a point under the Confederate fortification and then blow it up. Corps commander Gen. Ambrose Burnside quickly approved the plan, and the regiment began work on June 25.
Day after day, working in shifts around the clock, the 48th Pennsylvania slaved on the tunnel. Colonel Pleasants calculated that it needed to be 511 feet long and would require the removal of 18,000 cubic feet of dirt and clay. The tunnel was four feet wide at the bottom, two feet wide at the top, and five feet high. The longest military tunnel built before this had been a 400-foot tunnel that had to be abandoned because the air became too stale to support the miners. Pleasants, however, cane up with a clever way to get enough fresh air to the workers, and by July 23 the men had excavated the main tunnel as far as the Confederate position and had built two 40-foot-long side galleries under the Rebels on each side of the tunnel.
On July 27, the miners carried four tons of black powder to the end of the tunnel and placed it in the side galleries. Then they carried dirt back into the main tunnel and tamped it into the last 34 feet so that the blast would not come back out the entrance. Burnside organized an assault force to rush through the gap the mine blast would create in the Rebel defenses.
At 3:15am on July 30, Colonel Pleasants lit the 98-foot fuse and sprinted back out of the tunnel. When the explosion had not happened after 45 minutes, two volunteers entered the tunnel, found the fuse had gone out, relit it, and dashed back to the entrance. At 4:30am a 170-foot section of the Confederate entrenchments suddenly erupted 100 feet up in the air.
Fascinating Fact: The miners were not furnished wheelbarrows to build the tunnel. They made do by using cracker boxes to carry the dirt out.
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