In July of 1864, John W. Derr would give insight into one of the most (in)famous battles of the Civil War. Outside of Petersburg, Va, and during a stalemate in what would become the newest of battlefield tactics...trench warfare...officers of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment devised a scheme to break the lines of the enemy. The plan consisted of tunneling under the lines of the enemy and filling the resulting chamber with black powder...exploding the black powder...and thus undermining the lines of the enemy. While the plan was good and the engineering was revolutionary...the follow-up attack was a disaster resulting in a failure of the union army to rout the enemy.
During the digging of what became known as "the Petersburg Mine", men of the 48th PVI spent over a month using knowledge obtained from coal mining in the anthracite regions of Pennsylvania to develop an effective mine tunnel under the Confederate lines. It would later be filled with black powder and on July 30, 1864, exploded resulting in the famous Civil War "Battle of the Crater". John was part of this mining effort and the letter below is a precursor to the execution of the attack.
I find this letter extremely fascinating and it provides an insight to the man and the effort. It also gives me connection to the battle, whenever I visit the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. Additionally, his bit of humor in the closing gives me a feel for the man...
"G.D. the mules they shake too much I can’t write anymore."
John would die a young man in 1876 at age 37. Depositions provided in the widow pension application reference both his wounds received in battle, as well as his service in digging the mine.
*This is an uncensored reference in advance of the mining and preparation for the upcoming explosion which did occur on July 30, 1864 and resulted in the famous Petersburg “crater” and the breeching of the Confederate lines. The 48th Pa. conceived the plan for the mining and destruction of these fortifications; however, an otherwise brilliant plan deteriorated into a debacle when, after the successful detonation of explosives and breeching of fortifications, failed to follow up forcefully with the scheduled infantry attack (Depositions from Official Records (O.R.) indicated that J.W. Derr was actually more involved in the undermining than he indicated in this letter- See deposition of Sgt Otto Bodo, dated June 23, 1880).
Camp near Petersburg, Va.
July 13th, 1864
My Dear Father and Mother,
I take the present opportunity to inform this few lines to you to let you know that I am well at present time and I hope that this few lines will find you in the same state of good health. I received your letter today and I was very glad to hear that you are well all the time and I am happy that I can say the same. I am also glad to hear that you got my money and I hope you will take good care of it, as you did before. And if we don’t soon get paid I will be very apt to send for some of it but I hope we will soon get paid off. We don’t need much money, but I want some once in a while. I suppose you took good care that you got my pay all in good money for I wouldn’t like to have any bad money for I have to work hard for it. We hear that the rebels are making a raid into Pennsylvania again but I hope it will be to their sorrow. I hope they will lose more men then they did last summer at Gettysburg and they didn’t gain much that time by all appearances. It is for no use to write anything to you about the war for you know more at home then we do out here for we do hear very little but what we see. But I will let you know that we will have a great explosion here before very long. We are going to blow up the rebels forts. They are undermining them now. They have two or three all ready now and our regiment is working at one and they are near done with it and I hope it will work all right, if they get it going. *
I have no more to write today so I will bring these few lines to a close for this time with the intention of hearing from you soon again. So I will remain your affectionate son.
John W. Derr
Answer soon and direct your letter as before. Give my love to my brothers and sisters and to all inquiring friends. Tell Josiah Fetterolf if he wouldn’t write a letter to me I would pin his nose up on his forehead. G.D. the mules they shake too much I can’t write anymore.
|Pension Deposition of Sgt. Otto Bodo referencing JWD's participation in the mine|