150 YEARS AGO TODAY the siege of Petersburg continued into its fourth week. Men of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Burnside’s Ninth Corps, many of whom had been coal miners before the war, were busy tunneling under the Confederate fortifications along the Jerusalem Plank Road line about two miles southeast of the center of the city. The tunnel would extend over 500 feet. Chambers dug at the far end would be packed with 8,000 lbs. of black powder. On July 30th, at 4:44 a.m. a tremendous explosion would blow a huge hole in the Confederate line and the ensuing Battle of the Crater would prove exceedingly ghastly and bloody, particularly for the men of the Ninth Corps.
But little of great consequence, except for the incessant sharpshooting was happening elsewhere along the siege lines. When Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early advanced into Maryland and caused panic to sweep through Washington, Wright’s Sixth Corps was dispatched to deal with the threat.
For our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut, it was a time of being always at the ready, but not being called upon to go into battle. To celebrate July 4th, they turned out in their best, and probably only, attire for dress parade, their first in over two months. Over the following days, they formed up to march, but only went a short distance one way or another. On the 15th, the regiment marched some distance toward the rear, likely in the direction of City Point again, and it looked like they were in for an extended stay. “Clean up the area, lay out streets, and set up camp,” were the orders. No doubt the men were pleased with this development.
Then, at about 11:00 p.m., after most of the men were enjoying deepest slumber, their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth galloped through the quiet camp. “Fall in immediately,” he cried. “Light marching gear.”
We must be needed desperately at the front, the men must have thought. Battle must be imminent for such an alarm to be raised. The regiment was ready to march in eight minutes, but it was only a work detail. Just as the Pennsylvania men were doing miles away, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut manned picks and shovels in the heat and dust to level a portion of the fortifications abandoned by the Rebels weeks earlier. The work lasted two or three days and then on Tuesday, July 19th, it rained long and hard, blessed and refreshing, the first such rain in six weeks.