THE 48TH PENNSYLVANIAS VOLUNTEERS LAST ASSAULT
APRIL 2ND , 1865
"BYS, WE’RE GOING TO EARLY MASS!”
One can only wonder how a soldier feels as he waits for battle. But to know the war is almost over and you are asked to go against enemy fire one more time has got to be one of the most terrifying experiences on earth. On a foggy Sunday morning on April 2nd , 1865 men of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment , one of Schuylkill Counties finest regiments would experience that fear and make a charge against the rebel held Fort Mahone.
In the report of Lt. Col. J.F. Branner who stated, “The rebels surprised a portion of our lines a short time ago, and after a short but desperate struggle, were driven back to their lines with considerable loss. Hardily a week had elapsed before the compliment was returned, with comparatively light loss to our arms. The fighting was terrific and the men fully determined, soon sealed the fate of the once strongly fortified city of Petersburg, Va.”
As the winter months were coming to an end the 48th was in a position near the Union Fort Sedgwick. Directly opposite Fort Sedgwick on a hill back of the main line of entrenchments, was the rebel fort, Mahone, an earthwork which would be the 48th final assault and battle. While in the area of Fort Sedgwick the 48th was in constant harassment from the rebels in Fort Mahone, continuous annoyance by rebel sharp shooters, and artillery. Major Oliver Bosbyshell of the 48th stated, “The 48th was a regiment of resolute soldiers, however, and this daily dealing with death and destruction only nerved them to greater zeal in the discharge of the important work assigned to the command. As the spring came on all felt that decisive action would surely ensue.”
The plans for the final assault on the rebels was laid out, when unexpectedly the rebels launched a full scale assault on the 25th of March. At 4 a.m. Confederate General Gordon advanced his troops against the Union strongpoint and completely overwhelmed Fort Stedman, one of the weakest positions in the Union line. Completely surprising the troops the rebels swarmed over the defenses. General Hartranft immediately attacked the rebels with his Pennsylvania Division and turned back the charging rebels. Fortunately there was not enough weight behind the rebel attack and it flat out faltered. Giving the Union troops time to regroup and drive the rebels back to their own lines. The rebels were penned in at Fort Steadman, and many were captured while the remaining disorganized troops retreated back to their lines.
The 48th stood their ground and helped hold Fort Sedgwick. And praise was put on the men of the Pennsylvania Division under the bold and able commander General John F. Hartranft.
On the 29th of March orders were issued to the Army of the Potomac to be ready to move at a moments notice. Orders arrived stating that the Ninth Corps holding the line directly in front of Petersburg, was ordered to assault the enemy’s works at 4 a.m. the next morning. Waiting in readiness the 48th was in position, when the orders were to stand-down and remain in their old position. While waiting for the advance the artillery duel going on was so intense that the men witnessed two mortar shells one union and the other rebel meet in mid air, and whirl in a circle and burst between the lines. Orders were once again issued on April 1st, to make the assault the next morning. Fort Mahone was the objective of the 48th.
Prior to the assault, on the evening of the 1st General Curtin Brigade commander summoned all the commanders of his regiments and told each one what their objective was, “To storm Fort Mahone and break the enemy’s line around Petersburg.” Before leaving General Curtin’s tent Col. George W. Gowen the 48th’s commanding officer who served on General Curtin’s staff and knew the general well bid him good bye and stated “Tomorrow will be my last battle.” The general concerned at what Col. Gowen stated offered to have is 48th regiment put in reserve, and put another regiment to lead the assault. Gowen being the soldier he was refused such an offer and insisted in taking the place assigned to him.
At 4 a.m. on the 2nd of April a heavy artillery fire opened up on the rebel lines. The weather was foggy with a fine mist. The long roll of the drums sounded and the 48th awoke and fell into the company street. Just finishing their coffee and half rations the 48th was ready to move. The regiment moved in column toward the rear of Fort Sedgwick, marching through the deep muddy cuts that were knee deep in mud at places, these cuts were made in the road by the wagons used for carrying supplies to the front. The roads were all filled with a slushy mud; slowly the men emerged near the Jerusalem Plank road, and crossed near the left rear of the fort. Pioneers had cut open an area in the abates during the evening. The 48th passed through the narrow opening and moved toward the Union picket line.
Dead Reb in Trenches of Fort Mahone
When standing in line and facing the inevitable fear of charging into enemy fire, silence prevails leaving everyman to his own thoughts of family, friends and the heavenly spirit. When suddenly the silence was broken by an irrepressible Irishman in company “C” who sang out, in a thick Irish brogue. Almost everyman in the regiment could hear him say, “Bys, were goin to early mass”. The thought of what he said caused most of the boys to let out a nervous laugh.
Shortly the command, “Forward” was given and away went the 48th at rush. Leading the regiment was the fearless Col. Gowen along with General Curtin. The 48th moved off at a rapid pace, with rebel guns firing a deadly inferno of shot and shell at them. On they pushed into this hail of fire, with one objective in mind to take that rebel fort that had harassed them all winter long. The charge was temporarily halted by a depression in the field in which many of the men sought shelter from the terrific storm of lead coming at them. After a brief rest the men advanced quickly rushing the rebel picket line and capturing it and using the refuse side of the fort as a temporary shelter.
Fort Mahone defences
With General Curtin and Colonel Gowen running ahead they were immediately stopped by the rebel abates and chevaux-de-frise which consisted of a good sized timber, round or square, through which are bored holes, some six or eight inches apart and in opposite directions. When bored, stout sharp pointed wooden bars, about two inches thick were forced forming a four pronged obstruction making a good defense and very hard to remove. With their own hands the Colonel and General began to tear apart the sharpened wooden abates, pulling and ripping they threw it beneath their feet when suddenly Colonel Gowen was struck in the face with a piece of shell, carrying away half his face, and killing him instantly. His prophecy of being killed in this battle came true.
Dead in Fort Mahone
As the men began tearing apart the rebel obstructions it became apparent that they were in a very dangerous situation, unable to pass the obstructions most of the men fell back to the enemy’s picket line for reformation. Grasping the bloody lifeless body of Col. Gowen the men removed him to the rear. Leaning on his sword General Curtin seemed unconcerned about the intensity of the rebel fire calling to the men of the 48th , he yelled above the din of battle, “ Rally boys once more for the honor of the old Keystone state.” Looking at Sergeant William J. Wells of Company F, he ordered the colors brought to him. Rushing forward Sgt. Taylor of Co. A and Sgt. Sam Beddall of Co. E two of the best and most gallant soldiers in the 48th promptly moved forward and rallied around General Curtin ready to advance. And without much care as to company formation the men rushed forward with a loud and continuous huzzas the colors flying high and wanting nothing more than to avenge the death of their brave commander the boys of the 48th advanced over dead and dying rebels. They finally reached the fort and met the rebel soldiers face to face, muzzle to muzzle, blazing away at each other.
48TH VETERANS SAM BEDALL ON THE LEFT, AND THE FAMED CAPT. JACK CRAWFORD WHO MADE THE ASSAULT.
Here Corpl. James Horan, of company “C”, , urged his comrades forward and to the cannon's mouth and entered the rebel fort. He has belonged to this regiment ever since its organization, has always been a good and faithful soldier, and has several scars on his person from wounds received in action during this rebellion. Color-Sergt. John Taylor, Company A, carried the colors of the regiment through Fort Mahone to the enemy's second line. The color staff was twice shot off while in his hands. While the boys were engaged in the heavy combat going on the fort, the 39th New Jersey’s color bearer comes bounding into the fort. Seeing this gallant act Captain John L. Williams of Co. F, called out: “Forward boys, and save the Jersey colors,” which order was promptly obeyed. As the battle raged on the men began to gain the upper hand and slowly the rebels retreated and the fort was taken. At this time in the battle Private James Mullen, of Company I, who was one of the first to enter Fort Mahone, turned one of the enemy's guns upon them, exerted himself in every way to use it to good advantage upon the flying foe.
The Victors in Fort Mahone
During the assault the 48th lost :
Colonel George W. Gowen, stuck with a piece of exploding shell.
Company B: Sgt. John Homer, John Coalts Company E: Pvt. Daniel D. Barnett
Company F: Pvt. David McCloir
Company H: Pvt. James King, William Donnelly, George Uhl.
Company I: Pvt. Albert Mack, Albert Zimmerman, Wesley Boyer.
Company A: Pvt. John Adams, slight in the foot.
Company B: 1st Sgt. John Watkins, severe in the thigh, Sgt. Robert Campbell, slight in the wrist, Sgt. William H. Ward, slight in the thumb, Pvt. Robert Jones, sever in the face.
Company C: Pvt. George C. Seibert, severe in head, Corp. James Nichelson, slight in right foot, Pvt. Jasper Goodvant, slight in shoulder, Albert Kurtz, Sever in thigh, James T. Martin, Slight in finger, Paul Dehne, Slight in the hand.
CompanyD: Sgt. Henry Rothenberger, severe in eye, Corp. Levi Derr, slight in foot, Aaron Wagner, sever in left leg, Jacob Schmidt, severe in head, E. McGuire, slight in finger, Joseph Buddinger, slight in shoulder, Chester Phillips, slight in the shoulder, Thomas Whische, slight in the head.
Company E: Corporal William D. Morgan, slight in leg, Pvt. William C. James, slight in the arm, Robert Meredith, sever in right knee and hand, Fredrick Goodwin, sever in right hand and neck, Thomas Hayes slight in wrist.
Company F: 2nd Lieut. Henry Reese, slight in the arm, Sgt. William J. Wells, sever in shoulder, Corpl. John Devlin, sever in hand, James Deneey, severe in leg, John Crawford, Slight in leg.
Company G: Pvt. Peter bailey, slight hand, John Droble, sever in right shoulder, Patrick Dailey, slight in finger, Nick feers, sever in left thigh, Thomas Howell, slight abdomen, Thomas Smith, flesh in thigh, John Wright, sever in thigh, George Kane, severe in leg, 1st Lieut. William Auman, sever in mouth.
Company H: Sgt. Peter Hadelberger, sever right arm and breast, Willoughby Lentz, slight in shoulder, George Lewis, Slight in thigh, Benjamin Koller, slight arm, Henry Matthews, slight in arm, 2nd Lieut. Thomas H. Silliman , severe in throat.
Company I: Pvt. Jonathan Mowery, sever both thighs, Charles Wagner, sever in right leg, Joseoh Shoener, severe right leg, John Road, sever right leg and wrist, Henry Goodman, dangerous in the face.
Company K: S. Hoffman, flesh wound leg, Benjamin Kline, slight in the back, Paul Snyder, Slight in the back, Jacob Ebert, severe in thigh, David Phillips, slight in the side, John Williams, slight in the arm, John Windermuth, sever right shoulder.
Company B: Sgt. Isaac L. Fritz, Pvt. William Reppert, Mike Kingeley, Nicholas Stephens, Lewis Kieckner, Hnery Rinker, Daniel Hurley.
Company C: Pvt. James Hanan
Company D: Pvt. Samuel Kessler
Company E: 1st Sgt. John C. McElrath, Corp. George W. James. Pvt. David McGeary, John O’Neil.
Company F: Pvt. Albert Fisher
Company G: Pvt. Patrick Galligan
Company I: Sgt. James McReynolds, Pvt. James Mullen, Theo. Rett, Johan OAtres, Thomas J. Reed, Jacob Reichmine.
Company K: Pvt. William Pelton, John Marshall, George Shaners.
If you want the history of the 48th P.V.I. and great stories concerning the regiment check out John Hoptak's blog the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry.