Henry Clay Pleasants (February 16, 1833 - March 26, 1880) was a coal mining engineer and a brigadier general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He is best known for organizing the building of an underground tunnel filled with explosives under the Confederate lines outside Petersburg, Virginia, resulting in the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, an opportunity for Union troops to break the defense of Petersburg.
Early life and career
Pleasants was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to an American father and a Spanish mother, and did not live in the United States until age 13, when he was sent to school in Philadelphia. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and in anthracite coal mines. In 1857, he moved to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to become a civil engineer in the local mining industry. In 1860, he married Sarah "Sallie" Bannan, daughter of publisher Benjamin Bannan, but she died of illness on October 15 of that same year. A tradition, probably apocryphal, states that Pleasants' decision to join the army the following year was motivated by a desire to be killed in battle and join her in death.
With the outbreak of hostilities, Pleasants became a second lieutenant in the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which enlisted for only three months. He re-enlisted as a captain in the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment in July 1861. The regiment initially saw service in the Western Theater, but came east and fought in such battles as Antietam, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and in the Wilderness.
By 1864, Pleasants had risen to lieutenant colonel and commanded the 48th Pennsylvania, which was one of the units outside Petersburg. Many of the 48th were coal miners, and Pleasants supposedly heard his men suggest running a shaft under the Confederate lines. Pleasants went to his superiors, who approved the plan. He battled a lack of supplies, as well as a lack of interest on the part of Union generals (until other attacks on Petersburg failed). He was successful in his construction to such an extent that the explosion killed nearly three hundred Confederate soldiers. However, the Union troops under Ambrose Burnside failed to take advantage of the explosion and suffered considerable casualties in what is known as the Battle of the Crater. The Confederates recovered their original position.
On August 1, 1864, Pleasants was rewarded for his ingenuity and efforts by being promoted to command the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, IX Corps by Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter, the division commander.
Pleasants was brevetted as a brigadier general on March 13, 1865. The citation brevetting him specifically mentions his service at Petersburg—it was not his fault that other officers bungled the opportunity.
Pleasants returned to Pottsville after mustering out of the army in 1865 and resumed his role as a mining engineer for the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, rising to the positions of Chief Engineer and then Superintendent.
Pleasants died at the age of 47 and was buried in the Charles Baber Cemetery in Pottsville.
In popular culture
Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel The Guns of the South features Pleasants as a significant character