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

Although Colonel John Frederick Hartranft (1830-1889) was only in his thirties during the Civil War, the rank and file of his 51st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment fondly called him “Old Johnny.” His soldiers especially respected his ability to make the right decisions in combat and his altogether impartial and basically humane discipline. With a mind and eye trained as a civil engineer at Union College, in Schenectady, New York, Hartranft, in several crucial battles, advanta­geously repositioned his troops to thwart the Confederates. Under fire he would order his men to lie quietly, prone to the ground, until he judged it time for them to rise, fire, and charge. Their disci­pline born of drilling and their personal loyalty to him made such commands feasible. He was also especially careful in positioning the artillery batteries assigned to his sector of the battle­field.

John Frederick Hartranft was a Schwenkfelder. This small Christian sect, not even a church until 1909, is made up of followers of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (1489-1561), a Silesian religious reformer. Persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities, members of Schwenkfelder’s flock immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1734, settling in the area known since 1784 as Montgomery County. Never numbering more than a few thousand, Schwenkfelders elevate individual thought to so high a level that they have no dogma, holy sacraments, biblical venera­tion, or system for proselytizing. Although the eigh­teenth-century migrants were all farmers and hand craftsmen, members later began to enter commercial and professional callings – the knowledge needed for this involved individual thinking. Unlike some sects, they did not seek a return to the simple, apostolic age, and advances in culture were accepted. Somewhat like the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, they believed in an Inner Light. Some of them hoped for a gradual progress of the human condition based on the connection between the individual and the divine. An aphorism from the Corpus Schwenckfel­dianorum, the religious writings assembled by John Frederick’s cousin, the Reverend Chester D. Hartran­ft (1839-1914), seems to epitomize the young soldier-statesman’s guiding principle: “The more I have made of myself the better I can help my fellows.”

John Frederick Hartranft was the only child of Samuel and Lydia (Bucher) Hartranft, who were devoted parents. Originally a farmer, Samuel became an inn proprietor and branched out into real estate and a stagecoach business. In 1844, he purchased an inn in Norristown, which made better schooling available for his son. The younger Hartranft proved to be a bright youth. He briefly attended Marshall College in Mercersburg, Franklin County, and then transferred to Union College where he specialized in civil engineering, an elective augmenting the standard arts and classics curriculum. Graduating in 1853, he found little opportunity as an engineer, and soon became a deputy sheriff in Norristown, rose to be a lieutenant colonel in the militia, was admitted to the bar and, in 1854, married Sallie Douglas Sebring of Easton, a judge’s daughter, with whom he began to raise a family. In politics, he was at the time a Democrat.

When the Civil War began, Hartranft was chosen to command Montgomery County’s regiment of ninety-day enlistees, the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers. The regiment humiliated Colonel Hartranft at the Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861, by walking away because their enlistments expired that very day. His speech to them a few hours before the battle, pleading with them to serve on voluntarily just for the engagement, fell on deaf ears. They turned and marched homeward. Although Hartranft stayed and fought, his personal reputation fell under a shadow. By November 1861, he commanded a new regiment, the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, raised half in Montgomery County and also in Centre, Northampton, Union, and Snyder Counties.

He drilled the 51st incessantly, but preferred to use group ridicule to punish routine discipli­nary violations. A wayward soldier might be forced to wear a wooden barrel, and shirkers would be assigned to lengthy periods of pick and shovel duty. Although always insisting on the respect he believed his rank demand­ed, Hartranft played baseball with the men during at least one encampment. In December 1863, when a mere one hundred eighty men remained after several years of grisly campaigning, the 51st’s enlistments expired. Camped in Tennessee and longing for their families and homes in Pennsylvania, the men were cold, went without shoes, and resorted to grubbing meals from dried corncobs. On their last official day of duty, Old Johnny addressed them, extolling the Union’s grand cause. Slowly over the following two weeks, one-by-one, the veterans signed on again. It was as if his humiliating failure at Bull Run had been reversed.

His immediate superiors soon recognized early on his good judgment in battlefield situations, and Hartranft was frequently placed in temporary command of brigades and divisions, beginning in February 1862. He was not promoted to general’s rank until he led the recapture of Fort Stedman, outside Petersburg, Virginia, on March 25, 1865. That victory crushed the last significant counterattack of the doomed Confederate army.

Historian Al M. Gambone has traced Hartranft’s role in twenty-three major battles in Major General John Frederick Hartranft: Citizen Soldier and Pennsyl­vania Statesman, published in 1995. Old Johnny missed the Battle of Gettysburg because he served in the grueling 1863 campaigns in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee, under Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Ambrose E. Burnside. He was called east again, with the Ninth Corps, for the bloody spring campaigns of 1864 in Virginia – the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor. In the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, in July 1864, his courage and decisiveness put to shame Generals James H. Ledlie, a fellow Union College graduate, and Edward Ferrero, who had commanded him at the Battle of Anti­etam. Those two took shelter in a bombproof bunker and got drunk on Medical Corps alcohol.

At last having received the promotion he deserved, to brevet major general, Hartranft briefly considered a post-war career in the professional army, in the footsteps of his fellow Montgomery County native, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. During the hysteria following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, Hancock was made emergency commander in the District of Columbia. Hartranft served under him as provost martial of the Washington Arsenal Prison, where the accused accomplices of assassin John Wilkes Booth were held and where four of them were hanged on July 7. Unset­tling rumors of a major Confederate coup d’etat haunted the public. It fell to Old Johnny Hartranft to give the final order to spring the gallows on the condemned conspirators, after their appeals had failed. Mary Surratt, owner of the Washington boardinghouse where Booth’s accomplices had met, was convict­ed on highly controverted testimony. On the morning of the hangings, two congressmen physically blocked Surratt’s daughter, Annie, from entering President Andrew Johnson’s office to make a final plea. Hartranft was obligated to give the execution order. At 1:26 P.M., before a crowd of one thou­sand spectators, Hartranft clapped his hands together three times. Upon this signal, two soldiers beneath the gallows knocked down the supporting posts, allowing the trap doors to open above. The condemned dropped down, ropes snapping around their necks, and stopped with a sharp jerk. After about twenty-five minutes, the four, including Mary Surratt, whom many thought would be pardoned, were cut down and pronounced dead. (Surratt, age forty-two, was the first woman hanged by the U.S. government.) The bodies, hanging caps still on their heads, were placed unceremoniously in crude coffins and buried in shallow graves next to the gallows. Outside the prison, crowds celebrated with lemonade and cakes. The awesome power of the political system, for which he had risked his life for so many years, so sickened Hartranft that he decided against a military career.

Returning to civilian life, having abandoned the Democratic Party some­time during the war years, he was elected state auditor general in 1865, serving from May 1866 to January 1873 under Governor John White Geary (1819-1873), also a Civil War major general, within the political power sphere of the Senator Simon Cameron Repub­lican Party system – or “machine” – in Pennsylvania. State politics, plus the Simon Cameron­-Matthew S. Quay affiliation with President Ulysses S. Grant and the “Stalwarts” (the patronage wing of the national Republican Party) shaped the rest of Hartranft’s career.

The so-called “Treasury Ring,” which blemished Pennsylvania politics by the 1870s, paralleled the many scandals disgracing the federal government. Historian and Pennsylvania State Archivist Frank B. Evans traced the ring’s story in the 1960s, using newspapers and contemporary accounts, but he noted that the public record – government adminis­trative documents – is virtually nonexistent. Archaic state fiscal proce­dures may have led to the use of shortcuts that were interpreted as dishonest. Hartranft and Geary were dose to the officials alleged to be part of the ring; it was considered part of Cameron’s system.

The month after Governor Geary left office, angry legislators were mounting an embezzlement investigation that would have implicated him, but the proposal was dropped when he died suddenly of a heart attack on February 8, 1873. With far less political and financial backing than Geary, Hartranft could not have remained in state politics without the Cameron association. The anti-Cameron Republi­cans clustered around former Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin, but they had little organization or the backing of major economic interests. As it was, the gover­nor’s salary had to be doubled in 1872 to make a viable situation for candidates, such as Hartranft, of modest personal means.

John Frederick Hartranft ran for governor on his record as auditor general and his integrity as a war hero. A reticent public speaker, he did not use emotional, demagogic stump speeches. He was elected governor in October 1872, and reelected in November 1875, serving from January 18, 1873 to January 21, 1879. The emotional “Bloody Shirt” attitude among northern voters – veneration for politi­cians and policies associated with the Union cause in the Civil War – guaran­teed Hartranft some underpinning of public support. The Bloody Shirt was evoked by common knowledge of Hartranft’s military record, not by his boisterously proclaiming it. Hartranft agreed with most of his predecessor’s policies. Both favored stimulating business for the general good, including altering tax provisions to lessen the burden on business, but Geary tended to propose far-reaching, untried reforms. Although enthusiastic about railroads, Geary had sought a standardized method for incorporating new railroads, to end the favoritism inherent in individually granted charters. If he had had his way, the Commonwealth would have con­trolled railroad rates. Hartranft did not possess Geary’s aggressive, confrontation­al style. Geary’s insistence on state constitutional revision did much to bring about the yearlong convention in Philadelphia that produced the Constitu­tion of 1874. Hartranft’s administration saw it put into practice.

Geary, Hartranft, and the Constitution­al Convention agreed that two types of legislation were ruining Pennsylvania: laws favoring localities and those favoring special and private interests. The Constitution of 1874 created strong safeguards against both. Hartranft had to deal with the avalanche of special interests’ measures that arose when legislators in 1873 saw what was coming and with a series of measures passed from 1874 through 1878 seeking to achieve favoritism through various loopholes. Much like a good regimental commander, Old Johnny imposed strict but even-handed discipline by writing or by threatening vetoes. In 1874, he began the practice of proclaiming groups of bills vetoed, which earned him another moniker, “Veto Jack.” His even-handed policy led him to veto such apparently worthy bills as relief funding for the community of Somerset, in southwestern Pennsylvania, which had been largely destroyed by fire; honest but unanticipat­ed expenses incurred for the National Guard arsenal in Harrisburg; and printing costs of the 1873 constitutional conven­tion. Colleges and churches sought special privileges; local governments sought charter alterations and tax-exempt bond issues; and financial companies reached out for dictatorial power over depositors’ accounts. All fell to “Veto Jack.”

Hartranft’s victory in Pennsylvania, in October 1872, helped to assure Ulysses S. Grant’s majority in the Commonwealth in the presidential election the following month. At the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati in 1876, Hartranft’s “favorite son” nomination as presidential candidate was advanced by the Stalwarts to stop Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, a native Pennsylvanian and idol of the Half-Breed Republican wing, from winning. The ploy succeeded to the extent that the convention compro­mised on an “independent” Republican and Civil War general, Governor Ruther­ford 13. Hayes of Ohio, who then won the presidency.

The economic depression of the 1870s, now generally remembered only by the name of its opening weeks, the “Panic of 1873,” actually lasted sixty-five months. Factory closings, unemployment and underemployment, and market collapse were extensive. The initial panic occurred from the inability of the preemi­nent banking house ofJay Cooke & Son to sell bonds of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which it had underwritten. Neither state nor federal administrations considered public works as a way to alleviate unemployment or the funding of private enterprise to “prime the economic pump.” For reasons that remain unknown, oddly enough, economic benchmarks had risen sufficiently by the close of the first quarter of 1879 to end the depression.

Exacerbated by the depression and outliving it was the national mood of agrarian discontent. Pennsylvania had its share, but it arose among the less success­ful farmers. The powerful groundswell of National Grange and Populist Party politics of the Midwestern and prairie states did not surface in Pennsylvania since its farms were not the recently opened, high risk ventures of the West.

In the ninth month of Hartranft’s administration, unexpected calamities of the Panic of 1873 arose; they would plague him until he left office six years later. His administration’s best remem­bered crises – the Molly Maguires, a group of workers which terrorized mine owners and operators in tile anthracite coal region, and the great railroad strike and riots of 1877 – were linked to depression conditions (see “The Molly Maguires: Fighting for Justice” by William C. Kashatus III, Fall 1987).

Although Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party was not committed to debtor relief in the form of expansion of the money supply at this time, it did grow stronger the year following the Panic and challenged Republican control, in part by associating Republican policies with the hard times. Hartranft was reelected in 1875 by a narrow margin, and rumors arose that he had carried Schuylkill County, in the southern anthracite fields, by promising alleged Molly Maguires leader Jack Kehoe, convicted for perpetrating clandestine murders, that he would be pardoned and his death sentence commuted. Hartranft denied such a promise and did not convene the Board of Pardons. Although he did carry the precinct in which Kehoe lived, he lost Schuylkill County to the Democrats.

He employed the State Militia (gradually assuming the name National Guard) against labor strikes as early as 1874, apologizing to critics that he would stop when the state legislature changed the law. The Railroad Riots in the summer of 1877, a national move­ment, brought violence and extensive property destruction to Scranton, Harrisburg, Reading and, especially, Pittsburgh. Hartranft received the news while on a goodwill excursion in Nevada and Wyoming. The situation grew so perilous in Pittsburgh that he called for federal troops to augment the militia. Detractors pointed to testimony that the very decision to use troops infuriated the Pittsburgh mobs to a level beyond their complaints against railroad labor policies. Many placed the blame on Hartranft. An Allegheny County grand jury subpoenaed him, but the state Supreme Court upheld his refusal to appear. In the end, the state treasury paid the costs of the militia, but Allegheny County had to sell bonds to pay for millions of dollars in destroyed railroad property. Hartranft blamed local law enforcement officers, especially sheriffs who, he argued, had gradually neglected and forgotten their lawful duty to curtail riots.

Avoiding any state obligation for Pittsburgh’s destroyed property was just one of Hartranft’s moves to keep the Commonwealth’s debts minimal. Another was reissuing, at five percent interest, eight million dollars of six percent indebtedness bonds originally issued in 1857. Although the Common­wealth fully cooperated and partially funded the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the governor made sure that much of the cost to stage the extravaganza was borne by private funding.

The Centennial Exhibition may have made Philadelphia’s merchants and businessmen happy, but what was the governor’s impact on western Pennsyl­vania? Although criticized for his actions during the Railroad Riots, Hartranft helped the region by bringing government attention to the emerging oil industry. On May 22, 1878, he signed an oil marketing inspection law and, with the same pen, wrote the legislature asking for a study commis­sion to produce data on which to further evaluate this lucrative Pennsyl­vania enterprise. To further aid the western counties, he spearheaded the Commonwealth’s surrender of the Davis Island swamp areas on the upper Ohio to United States jurisdiction, so that the federal government would complete the first of the slackwater dams that have been so beneficial to Ohio River commerce.

The Insurance Department, created in 1872, was Hartranft’s vehicle for thwarting insurance companies that were using irregular charters, obtained decades earlier, to take advantage of innocent policyholders. He also used the department to keep out-of-state companies from dominating Pennsyl­vania’s insurance industry. He tried to dissuade working families from depositing their savings with financial institutions serving large business interests – commercial banks, or “banks of discount,” in his lexicon. To Hartran­ft, a bank whose principal profits involved loans to, and capitalization of, large companies should not be permit­ted to risk the working man’s small savings. Old Johnny lost the battle, however.

Noteworthy programs that bore his personal stamp included public schools to teach vocational skills, review boards for the early release of prisoners for good behavior, and enlarged facilities for the insane. Such policies recognized the inevitable problems of an increas­ingly industrialized society.

Hartranft worked wider the constraints of the governmental machinery of the period. His fiscal methods involved rough estimates of revenue and expenditures for each coming year, which he would present to the legislature in his annual January message. Compared to today’s greater efficient administrations, it was a slipshod method, but in capable hands it worked fairly well. However, he had no legal power to stop the legislature from appropriating amounts far more than could be realistically expected to come in as revenue. In spite of revenue reductions resulting from the depres­sion and business tax breaks implemented to help businesses grow, his record in fiscal affairs was a good one.

Hartranft had a basic understanding and respect for the power of large amounts of invested money. Although irresistible, capital could be channeled to achieve improvements for humani­ty. After three years of struggling with depression­-related problems, he expounded his economic beliefs as a vision for the future in his annual address to the General
Assembly of Pennsyl­vania on January 3, 1877. Sounding not unlike a twentieth­-century economist, Hartranft’ s scenario also suggested the Schwenk­feldrian theme of gradual progress.

That [these periodic depressions] have not been caused by public and private extravagance and are no proof of corruption and degeneracy of the times is easily shown . … That the people spend more and live better [than those of other nations] is undoubtedly true. Such expenditures are not harmful in themselves unless their impair the principal of the nation’s wealth . … Nations, as well as individuals, ought to live within their incomes and save wealth fast enough to employ the natural increase of laborers . … The capital of the country . .. is locked up in unprofitable enterprises. Over-production and not over consumption is the cause of the stagnation in business . … When the [Civil] war ceased, there was in certain industries an enormous production that could not be absorbed by a peaceful community. Capital sought an outlet by projecting new railroad enterprises and other improvements far in advance of the natural growth of the country. For a while there existed a period of intense activity and apparently of extraordinary growth. But capital invested in unduly inflated industries will in time become unremunerative. When that happens those industries and the interests connected with them will wholly or partially fail; the capital, or so much thereof as can be realized, must seek other investments and the labor engaged find other employment. Hard times are the period of inactivity consequent upon the readjustment of those relations . … Congress should have devised measures to release capital from temporarily unproductive enterprises to assist labor in changing to other fields of operations, and to foster, encourage and protect the neglected industries of the country. … For such legislation, we must depend almost entirely on the National Government. … By encouraging the closer cooperation of capital and labor … so that proportionately large amounts of capital will not be suddenly transferred from one to another, and by establishing savings funds … whereby the savings of the laboring classes will be made absolutely secure, much can be done to prevent hard times and mitigate their evils when they come.

In his address the following year, he expressed a belief in unfolding histori­cal events that justified both labor unionization and government checks on big business.

While capital held labor in ignorance and bondage, strikes were rare. Their frequent [recent] occurrence is a proof that labor is growing, more and more, to an equality in strength and importance to capital. Intelligence has spread itself among the laboring classes; they have learned to read and write … and formed associations for their protection and advancement. … Under the influence of civilization, wealth became more and more diffused and corporations grew up to collect the large and small amounts of unemployed capital … These great corporations are of necessity in most cases monopolies. As such, the people have a right to demand . .. their management shall rise above merely selfish aims, and [they] consult also the public utility and welfare.

When Hartranft left the governorship on January 21, 1879, he was succeeded by another Civil War general, Henry Martyn Hoyt, also sponsored by the Simon Cameron system. Hartranft sought federal political appointments. Without the personal wealth needed for a diplomatic assignment overseas, he obtained briefly the postmastership of Philadelphia, and then for ten years served as United States customs collector for Philadelphia. He also worked with the Pennsylvania National Guard and was its commander until his death in 1889, striving always to keep standards high. In his final years, he supported the collecting of Schwenkfelder materials, the Schwenkfelder Library, located in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, and the publication of its Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum.

In 1899, ten years after his death, an equestrian statue of Governor John Frederick Hartranft, in full major general’s military uniform, was erected on the State Capitol grounds. No state records are known to exist to document the history of the monumental bronze, so it is likely that the commission was private and funded by private contributions, not public monies – a fitting memorial to an individual who kept an ever-watchful eye on the Commonwealth’s purse strings. When the memorial was dedicated in May 1899, Civil War veterans turned out en masse for the ceremonies, a tribute to a great leader. The powerful mounted figure stands just to the south of the State Capitol building, symbolic of the awe­some power of government, a factor that played so great a part in Old Johnny’s career.


For Further Reading

Bruce, Robert V. 1877: Year of Violence. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

Evans, Frank B. Pennsylvania Politics, 1872-1877: A Study in Political Leader­ship. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1966.

Gambone, A. M. Major-General John Frederick Hartranft: Citizen Soldier and Pennsylvania Statesman. Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1995.

Kehl, James. Boss Rule in the Gilded Age: Matt Quay of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Parker, Thomas H. A History of the 51st Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers and Veteran Volunteers, 1861-1865. Baltimore: Butternut and Blue, 1998.


The author wishes to thank the Hartranft­-Stockham-Shireman families for making available papers of John Frederick Hartranft at the Pennsylvania State Archives. For information about these records, including those which document his duties as Special Provost Marshall at the Military Prison at the Washington Arsenal for the trial and execution of the assassination conspirators of President Abraham Lincoln, and his service as Pennsylvania’s governor during a period of labor unrest, write: Pennsylvania State Archives, Post Office Box 1026, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1026; telephone (717) 783-3281; or visit the Pennsylvania State Archives website.


Louis M. Waddell is associate historian of the PHMC’s Division of Archives and Manu­scripts, CORE Services Section. He is also the Associate Editor of Pennsylvania Heritage and has authored the articles on Berks, Cumberland, and Greene Counties, as well as “Against All Odds: Chevalier Jackson, Physician and Painter,” in the summer 1992 issue.