Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania supplied approximately 362,000 soldiers to the Union effort in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. This was more than any other Northern state except New York. The Keystone State suffered the loss of 33,183 sons to death while in war service, and virtually every aspect of Pennsylvania society was affected by the pervasive nature of the great conflict and its staggering cost in terms of human life, suffering and devastation. While countless books and articles have been written about leaders, battles, tactics and, in more recent years, the home front, stories about individual soldiers can always bear further examination.

The following vignettes offer insight into five obscure Pennsylvania soldiers and their activities during the war. The stories are not intended to be biographies, but rather glimpses into the wartime experiences of a cross section of Pennsylvania men who fought for the Union.

 

The Signal Officer

In 1862 two red flags with white stars were awarded to Capt. Benjamin Franklin Fisher (1834-1915) after he carried his signal flags in battles during the Peninsula Campaign. In the points of the white stars are stitched the names of battles: “Williamsburg,” “Gaines Mill” and “Malvern Hill” on one flag and “Lee’s Mills” and “Williamsburg” on the other. Signal Corps Battle Flags, as they are called, are rare. Instead of the block or square shape that is at the center of a regular signal flag, Signal Corps Battle Flags each feature a star with the names of the engagements in which the officer earned the privilege to display the star. These flags are considered by historians to be the first United States Army combat awards for service rather than gallantry.

Signal Corps Battle Flag awarded to Benjamin Franklin Fisher, now in the collection of The state Museum of Pennsylvania.

    Signal Corps Battle Flag awarded to Benjamin Franklin Fisher. PHMC/The State Museum of Pennsylvania

This practice came from Signal Corps General Order 24 of March 19, 1862, that stated “every signal officer who shall skillfully and bravely carry in action and use his signal flag shall hereafter while serving as a signal officer bear upon his service flags a star in place of the block now occupying the center.” The order continues, “The name of the action in which the star is won shall be inscribed in black letters upon the upper point of the star. The names of subsequent actions in which this flag is distinguished shall be borne upon the other arms of the star.”

The authorization for the flags was modified on February 7, 1863, mandating that they would be deposited in the signal office until the end of the war when they would be decorated and issued. They were to become the property of the awardees at the end of the conflict. In the interim, signal officers who had earned Battle Flags were authorized to use flags with plain white stars during the rest of the war.

Benjamin Fisher was a 26-year-old attorney from Bucks County when he enlisted at Easton in June 1861 in Company H, 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves (also known as the 32nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry). He mustered into service at Harrisburg on July 29 as a 1st lieutenant. The muster roll for the 32nd Pennsylvania Volunteers indicates that Fisher was 5 feet, 81⁄2 inches tall and had a dark complexion, dark eyes and dark hair. He was detached to the Signal Corps on August 27 by special order. On July 7, 1862, he was promoted to captain.

Fisher was commended for his actions at Mechanicsville and Gaines’ Mill by Maj. Albert J. Myer, Chief Signal Officer, on July 18, 1862. Myer stated that Fisher and several other officers were exposed under fire in the discharge of their duties during the recent movements and engagements of the Army of the Potomac. In each case the officers performed their duties well, regardless of the danger.

While conducting reconnaissance for Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, Fisher was captured by Confederate Col. John S. Mosby’s cavalry near Aldie, Virginia, in June 1863. Taken to Libby Prison in Richmond and held there for eight months, Fisher was one of 109 officers who tunneled their way to freedom on February 9, 1864. After escaping he was one of the few who eluded recapture. He traveled at night and hid in the daytime before making his way back to Union lines. After he returned to duty he was promoted to major in the Signal Corps. He was subsequently advanced to colonel and appointed Chief Signal Officer of the Union Army on December 3, 1864, serving in that capacity until 1866. He was repeatedly commended for bravery while in action. On March 13, 1865, he was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers.

 

The Surgeon

During the Civil War, physicians obtaining surgeon’s or assistant surgeon’s commissions with Pennsylvania volunteer regiments were selected on the basis of written examinations and consideration of their medical education and previous years in practice, usually serving the general civilian population. But neither depth of knowledge nor background in treating a variety of conditions prepared the new surgeon for unanticipated responsibilities that went with his commission. He had to maintain his own horse, transport supplies, set up field hospitals, mix medications and take responsibility for transporting his patients to the next point at which they would receive treatment at another level. Regimental surgeons were also concerned with soldiers’ personal hygiene, diet and shelter. Some otherwise excellent physicians could not, or would not, cover these points in a satisfactory manner and the number of resignations was always high.

William Egle's military diary is preserved in the Pennsylvania State Archives.

        Dr. William Egle’s military diary. Pennsylvania State Archives/MG-6

The diary of Dr. William Henry Egle (1830–1901) – later the state librarian of Pennsylvania, the surgeon general of the Pennsylvania National Guard and a much-respected historian – described aspects of his career as a regimental surgeon from July 14, 1863, to July 13, 1865. It is a valuable item not only because Egle never published an account of his own military medical experience, but also because it comments about the African American soldiers with whom he served. The diary is a rough, personal reminder of events.

Born in Harrisburg on September 17, 1830, Egle graduated in 1859 from the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania. After some experience as an assistant surgeon in 1862, he was appointed to the 47th Regiment of the 1863 Emergency Militia. His diary opens with his leaving home in Harrisburg on July 14, 1863, to serve in the 47th Militia, a unit raised on July 9 in response to the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, commanded by the famous educator James P. Wickersham.

Egle’s duty began 10 days after the Battle of Gettysburg, and his comments centered on maintaining contact with the moving regiment and the inadequacies of his personal mount. Egle’s words suggest that he served only because the spirit moved him to do so. With Lee’s Confederate army pushed out of Pennsylvania, Egle simply left the unit and went home. But when the 47th Militia was sent to enforce the draft in Pottsville, Egle’s conscience compelled him to rejoin the regiment for several days of duty facing down antidraft rioters in the mining districts of Schuylkill County. The 47th Emergency Militia Regiment was disbanded on August 14.

Egle rejoined the Army in August 1864 with a surgeon’s appointment from President Abraham Lincoln to work with United States Colored Troops (USCT) being raised at Camp Nelson in Kentucky. He became surgeon of the 116th USCT Regiment, and his diary reflects many aspects of black soldier life, although only in the form of very short comments. Little medical analysis is included, except when Egle complained that the sick call lists were long. This unit did not see combat, but Egle’s responsibilities were heavy because the daily sick call usually presented large numbers of soldiers needing attention. Among the reasons mentioned for the soldiers’ illnesses were “the mess disrupted” (meaning the food was bad) and the excessive fatigue duty forced on the enlisted men.

After leaving Camp Nelson, Egle became executive medical officer for Gen. William Birney’s division of the 24th Corps, which included African American units and served in the Petersburg and Appomattox Campaigns. He was ordered to Texas with the 116th USCT Regiment and sailed with it on steam transport ships from City Point on May 25, arriving in the Rio Grande Valley on June 25, 1865. He liked the warm Texas weather, although the enlisted soldiers from the North found it exhausting. This postwar border force was meant to check problems arising from possible intrigue between Mexicans and former Confederates and to repel any aggression from Mexico’s Emperor Maximilian.

When the 116th was shipped to the Rio Grande River region in 1865, Egle became concerned about mistreatment of the African American rank and file. He harangued his superiors about excess fatigue duty and bad food allotted to the enlisted men, but his objections were ignored by senior officers. The diary ends on July 13, 1865, for reasons not stated. Egle remained in Roma, Texas, until he resigned from the service in December 1865, long after most of the Army had been discharged. After he left Texas he returned to Harrisburg, where he practiced medicine part-time and began to write An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

 

The United States Colored Troops

Approximately 8,612 African Americans from Pennsylvania volunteered to fight for the Union, more than from any other Northern state. (Five states where more black soldiers were recruited were all Southern or border states.) Pennsylvania raised 11 regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT), as well as furnishing hundreds of other black recruits to other states’ regiments.

The Gillmore Medal, presented to David Ramsey of the 3rd United State Colored Troops, are both part of the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The Gillmore Medal, presented to David Ramsey of the 3rd United State Colored Troops. PHMC/The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Edward Stewart (1839-1865) was a native Pennsylvanian who worked as a fireman, or boiler stoker, in Pittsburgh prior to his enlistment in Company E of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a private on May 5, 1863. He was 24 years old and married at the time of his enrollment, and on October 10, 1863, he was promoted to corporal. Wounded at the Battle of Honey Hill on November 30, 1864, Stewart died of typhoid pneumonia in a military hospital at Beaufort, South Carolina, in February 1865. An identity badge was created for Stewart, sometime after the Battle of Olustee in 1864. The arms of the silver Maltese cross on the badge list campaigns in which the 54th Massachusetts fought: Fort Wagner, James Island, Olustee and Darien. The center of the badge depicts an island fort reminiscent of Fort Sumter. Items such as this, related to black soldiers in the Civil War, are extremely scarce.

Pennsylvania contributed 314 volunteers to the 54th Massachusetts. Pennsylvanians, therefore, made up 21.7 percent of that regiment, with Franklin and Cumberland Counties represented heavily in the Commonwealth’s total enrollments. Why did so many Pennsylvania black men enlist in Massachusetts regiments like the 54th and 55th? It was because the state did not allow African Americans to enlist in regiments raised in Pennsylvania until the federal government clarified the recruiting policy and established the USCT. The first black regiment was raised in Pennsylvania between July and August 1863. Before this, African Americans throughout Pennsylvania who were eager to fight in defense of the Union and against slavery had to sign up in a different state. Many like Edward Stewart chose to go to Massachusetts to enlist.

Lt. Col. Louis Wagner was given command of Camp William Penn at his own request. He opened the camp, located eight miles outside of Philadelphia near present-day LaMott, on June 26, 1863. Wagner was previously an officer in the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and had been badly wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, rendering him unfit for further command in the field. He was a highly capable commander who enforced strict discipline.

Camp William Penn had the important distinction of being the only Northern training camp set up for black troops exclusively. From late June until December 1863 recruits were relegated to living in tents. By December adequate wooden barracks had been constructed at the camp for enlisted men and officers. Each of the 11 regiments that were trained at Camp William Penn averaged a scarce two months at the site. Generally no more than two regiments were in residence at the camp at any one time. Recruits came from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

The identity badge created for Cpl.Edward Stewart, Company E, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

The identity badge created for Cpl. Edward Stewart, Company E, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. PHMC/The State Museum of Pennsylvania

The 3rd United States Colored Troops was the first USCT regiment to rendezvous and train at Camp William Penn. Black regiments in the Civil War were typically commanded by white officers, and the 3rd USCT was no exception. Unlike the officers in the state-raised white volunteer regiments, who often attained their rank through political appointments or were popularly elected by fellow recruits, candidates for command positions in the federal USCT regiments had to pass examinations and have combat experience. Although racially discriminatory this policy insured that the USCT units had experienced leadership. In compliance with this policy, the 3rd USCT’s commanding officer was Col. Benjamin C. Tilghman. Tilghman was severely wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, while serving as colonel of the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Upon his recovery he was given command of the 3rd USCT.

In October 1863 Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore ordered the creation of bronze medals for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” during the Charleston operations and he awarded them to 400 of his men, regardless of race. Gillmore purchased these medals himself and allotted them to his regimental commanders. David Ramsey (1837-1882) of Pennsylvania was one of the soldiers presented with the award, although the specific action for which he received it is unknown. The award was not an official Army decoration, so there was no review process or formal citation.

Ramsey was a resident of both Chambersburg and Harrisburg at various times in his life. He enlisted in Company H of the 3rd USCT at the age of 26 on July 18, 1863. He was wounded once in November 1863 during the siege of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by debris from a log during a Confederate bombardment, and again on February 20, 1864, in the shoulder and groin during the Battle of Olustee in Florida. On October 31, 1865, Ramsey mustered out with his regiment in Philadelphia.

 

The Delinquent

Not all stories about Pennsylvania Civil War soldiers are replete with heroism or bravery. Like society in general, there were also malcontents, malingerers and outright criminals in the ranks. Military justice was often swift and severe in regard to punishing soldiers who were convicted of crimes while in the service.

Close up of the Remarks Section of the Muster-Out Roll for Company F, 187th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Close up of the Remarks Section of the Muster-Out Roll for Company F, 187th Pennsylvania Volunteers, showing Charles Trice’s military punishment. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-19.11

The 187th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment was formed between February and April 1864. The regiment was ordered to join the Army of the Potomac in Virginia the following May. Its most notable engagements were at Cold Harbor and siege operations at Petersburg, Virginia. In particular the regiment took part in the attack, capture and defense of the Weldon Railroad’s line on August 18. On September 22, 1864, the 187th was ordered to Philadelphia and posted at Camp Cadwalader.

Pvt. Charles Trice (1845-?) was 19 years old when he enlisted in Company F, 187th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at Scranton on March 31, 1864. Along with most of his family, Trice was born in Germany. He was mustered into service on April 8, 1864, in Scranton and was paid an initial bounty of $60, with the balance of $240 due.

Trice, however, was not a model soldier. His troubles in the Army began once the 187th PVI left the battlefields of Virginia and returned to Pennsylvania for garrison and escort duty. He ran afoul of Union military authorities twice in the span of one month and faced two military trials for his actions.

Trice was first tried in a military court at Philadelphia on January 5, 1865, for his actions on October 20, 1864. He faced two charges at the court martial. The first was for “Sleeping on post.” While serving as a sentinel over prisoners at the Guard House, he fell asleep and remained so until awakened by the sergeant of the guard. The second charge was for “Neglect of Duty.” When he fell asleep a prisoner escaped. Trice pleaded not guilty to all charges and specifications against him.

The main witness for the prosecution was J.E. Zimmer, sergeant of the Camp Guard at Camp Cadwalader. Zimmer testified that between 9 and 11 o’clock at night on October 20, he “found him asleep, lying on the bench at the door of No. 3 Barracks where he was posted.”

The chief witness for the defense was Pvt. Daniel H. Kenneley. Kenneley was a prisoner in the Guard House the night Trice was accused of falling asleep while on duty. He testified that he believed that Trice had fallen asleep because chloroform was put on him. He stated that he “smelled it in the Guard House. I told the guard to be careful that there was chloroform in there. No man who was only asleep would ever have been so hard to awaken. The corporal tried to awaken him and could not. At last he stood on his feet and said I ain’t asleep and fell right over on the ground. He was sober when he was placed on guard.”

Trice was found guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to forfeit $8 per month of his monthly pay during the balance of his term of enlistment.

On January 31, 1865, Trice was again brought before a General Court Martial. The first charge was “Conduct prejudicial to good order and Military Discipline.” He was accused of attempting to bribe a sentinel on duty at Camp Cadwalader to allow two men to desert from the camp by offering and paying him a sum of money. This event occurred on November 19, 1864. The second charge was “Aiding and Abetting Desertion.” Trice attempted to aid a recruit to desert from Camp Cadwalader by offering and paying a sum of money to a sentinel on duty to allow the recruit to escape. This also occurred on November 19, 1864. Trice pleaded not guilty to both charges and specifications.

Two witnesses for the prosecution testified. The first was Lt. Samuel B. McCahen, who was officer of the guard at Camp Cadwalader. “On that night I heard a sentry call for the sergeant of the guard. I was near there and went to the post. I found the guard at the gate holding a man named Butler – a recruit. The guard said he had received ten dollars to pass Butler out. I asked him who offered it. He said a man of my company. I went to my company’s quarters and found Trice lying there as if asleep clothing all on and boots muddy. I made him get up and go with me to the guard, who recognizing him as being the man who had handed him the $10.”

Pvt. Lyman P. Potter was the second witness for the prosecution. He was on sentry duty at the gate on November 19, 1864. “The accused on that night came to me – he had two men – recruits I think – He said they – the two men – wanted to go to town to get their money and he offered me $10 to let them out.”

The defense called no witnesses. Trice was found guilty on all charges and specifications. He was sentenced on April 12, 1865, by Special Order 169 of the Adjutant General’s Office, “To forfeit all pay now due, and eight dollars per month of his monthly pay which may become due him: to be placed at hard labor, on Government Works, for a period of eighteen months, from the date of promulgation of this sentence, and during that time to wear a ball weighing twenty pounds, attached to his right leg by a chain six feet in length.” Wearing a ball and chain while performing normal military duties was considered “hard labor” in many Union military prisons of the time.

The order continued, “Fort Delaware, Delaware, is designated as the place of confinement, to which place the prisoner will be sent under proper guard, without delay.” During the Civil War, Fort Delaware was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers, convicted Union soldiers and political prisoners. While confined at Fort Delaware in 1865 with up to 300 other Union soldiers, Trice and his fellow inmates were derisively called “Company Q” (a term for the sick list), housed in a special barracks building and uniformed with outdated dragoon coats to distinguish them from other Union soldiers.

Trice served three months of his 18 month sentence. On July 15, 1865, the secretary of war issued Special Order 372 through the Adjutant General’s Office: “The unexpired portions of the sentences of the General Courts Martial . . . are remitted. They will be released from confinement at Fort Delaware, Delaware, (where they are now supposed to be) and dishonorably discharged from the service of the United States, upon the receipt of this Order at the place where they may be serving.” This was most likely done because the war was over, and the War Department had begun to separate as many men from service as possible, including Union soldiers who were convicts.

 

The author would like to thank PHMC retirees Bruce Bazelon and Dr. Louis Waddell, who provided background research for a few of these stories, and give special thanks to State Museum of Pennsylvania curator Bob Hill for being a sounding board for ideas for this article.

 

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders.