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

During the summer of 1864 rumors began to circulate that Columbia County had become a place of refuge for hundreds of deserters from the Union army. The federal government promised a reward of $30 for every deserter captured. So on the night of July 31, 1864, eight men left neighboring Luzerne County hoping to track down some deserters around Benton. They cornered a house in Raven Creek Valley, a few miles east of town. The suspected deserters fled into a cornfield while the posse circled on the road. The wife of one of the deserters “set the dogs on us,” recalled one member of the posse, “and then went up stairs and blew a horn for some time and hollered to alarm the neighborhood.” Eventually the two groups met at a distance on the road, but the darkness concealed their identities from each other.

One of the pursuers yelled for no one to fire; the suspected deserters fired three shots. Lt. James Stewart Robinson, a Union veteran who had been wounded twice in battle and also had been a prisoner of war, was hit in the stomach. He would die two months later on November 3, at the age of 29. The inscription on Robinson’s headstone was an early step in the process of memorializing Benton as a northern annex of the Confederacy:

Lieut. J. Stewart Robinson,
of 7th Reg. P.R.V.C.
Was shot by a Rebel
sympathizer in Benton Tp
Columbia Co. Pa while
assisting a U.S. officer in attempting
to arrest deserters.

Word of the shooting soon reached Washington and rumors swirled of hundreds of deserters in Columbia County with a fort on North Mountain armed with cannons. “The Union men are overawed by the organized power of the malcontents,” wrote one military officer in Harrisburg to his superior in the nation’s capital. This officer planned to take his troops from county to county “with a force sufficiently strong . . . to overawe resistance” so that the government could avoid any possible “serious consequences” of inaction.

Republicans came to believe that the inhabitants of northern Columbia County were members of a secret traitorous society called the Knights of the Golden Circle. “They are said to be pretty strongly entrenched on the side of a mountain, with four pieces of artillery,” reported the Pittsburgh Gazette. The Philadelphia Press, another Republican paper, remarked, “People in our cities live and write about the war and the Jeff Davis Confederacy, and know nothing about the events which are taking place in the immediate neighborhood; yes, in this very State. There has been born to our dear Pennsylvania the changeling ‘Fishing creek Confederacy.’” With this title, Pennsylvania Republicans created a direct link between the townspeople of Benton and the rebels of the South. The military, as a consequence, had to be brought in to restore law and order and loyalty to the region.

On August 13, 1864, Union troops began to congregate in Bloomsburg, about 17 miles south of Benton. Soon,about 900 troops had assembled. One soldier noted that the people of Bloomsburg “told us terrific stories of forts and breastworks, garrisoned with well-armed and desperate men, to the number of four thousand. This number was said to be composed of deserters, bounty jumpers, and Copperheads, who had sworn to fight to the death sooner than submit to the coming draft.” As the Union soldiers marched northward toward Benton, they “discovered” that the local inhabitants became increasingly anti-Lincoln, “though they tried hard to conceal their rebellious sentiments under Union cloaks.”

Fear and alarm began to grip the farmers and shopkeepers of northern Columbia County. The locals believed that the soldiers were coming to burn their homes. On August 14 they gathered at the barn of John Rantz to determine a course of action. About 100 men were present at the meeting – some were draft dodgers, some were local town leaders, and some were just curious. Some men were armed and spoke of organizing into squads to combat the Yankee invaders, while others called only for peaceable resistance to the troops.

A Democratic newspaper editor in nearby Bellefonte watched with horror as the Union troops marched northward. “Fellow countrymen, do you observe the intentions of the despot!” he wrote of Lincoln. “Nerve yourselves with valor! Arm yourselves for fight! Prepare for the bitter end! Better let the fertile soil of your valleys be drenched with your blood; better to die amid the smouldering ruins of your cities, towns and dwellings, better to rend the heavens with your dying shrieks and groans, than to suffer the fiendish imposter who has enthroned himself at Washington to rivet the chains of slavery upon you!” He called on his readers to die gloriously in an apocalyptic battle in defense of their liberty: “Freemen the torch! Apply it to your homes – your property! Snatch the plunder and luxury from the Vandals! – Perish! PERISH! PERISH! WITH YOUR LIBERTIES!

On August 22 the troops reached Fishing Creek, just south of Benton. They called their encampment “Camp Misery.” “Here we have remained quietly ever since, mixing with the inhabitants of the country, and drawing our own conclusions concerning their politics, until last night, when it was whispered about camp that we were shortly to make some arrests. Accordingly, about midnight we were aroused from sleep and ordered to equip ourselves and our horses in light marching order, as quietly as possible.”

On the morning of August 31 the troops moved throughout the area in squads of about a dozen men. Each was assigned to a different house. They quietly approached each house and knocked on the door, called for the man of the house, “and politely informed him that Colonel Stewart would like to see him, and that I, with three guards, would escort him to the proper place for an interview.” One resident of Fishing Creek recalled being told “you can consider yourself a Prisoner.” When he asked whether he could take a few moments for breakfast, his request was refused.

Between 70 and 100 men were arrested in this manner in Benton and the surrounding area and were brought to the Benton Christian Church which stood on a hill overlooking the town. Union troops were posted at the doors and windows of the church to make sure that no one escaped and the locals were forced to stay silent as they sat in the pews. From the pulpit Col. Charles Stewart and another officer interrogated the men and selected 44 for further detention. The detainees were then marched the 17 miles to Bloomsburg where they boarded a train for Harrisburg, then another for Philadelphia. Friends and family tried to hand clothes and food to the prisoners as they passed but their guards would not allow it. Prisoner Daniel McHenry recounted the “difficulty” of that “force[d] march” for “some of the old men who had nothing to eat from the evening before. I was forced past my home; not allowed to go in to get a change of clothes. My wife followed me with some cakes and a few articles of clothing. Was forced past parents, sisters and brothers who stood by the wayside; not allowed to take them by the hand and bid them farewell. Their expressions were full of feeling, which came from the heart, and their eyes were filled to overflowing.” After more than thirty hours without food the prisoners reached Philadelphia and were finally given some rations. “Those of us who were not too much exhausted partook with a keen relish.”

The average age of the prisoners was about 40. The youngest was 19. The eldest, Joseph Coleman, at 68, was a veteran of the War of 1812. Most of the men were farmers, one was a distiller, a few were lumbermen and carpenters, several were merchants and tradesmen, and three held local office. These were men of some standing in the community and they were linked through kinship ties – there were McHenrys, Klines, Colleys, Applemans, and Colemans.

On September 1 the prisoners were taken to Fort Mifflin, an 18th-century star-shaped fortification on the Delaware River. They were placed in a chilly, 1000-square-foot bomb-proof that sat partly below water level. One military officer informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that the cells “are dark and the air is very foul. . . . These bomb-proofs are unwholesome places for prisoners, and . . . need then be used only for the worst class of prisoners.” Each prisoner was given only a single blanket and no straw with which to make a bed. After nearly two months imprisonment they received a second blanket. Prisoner William Appleman, a 51-year-old farmer who had been arrested with three of his sons and a brother, recalled: “The room was very damp, and at wet times the water came through the arch overhead from the earth upon it.” At night, “one half a single candle” provided all of the light for the cavernous room.

Daily rations consisted of a loaf of bread, one slice of beef or pork, two servings of coffee, and bean or pea soup. “Several times the meat was not good, and five or six times there was none furnished,” remembered Appleman.

The “filth-tub” was a barrel that had been sawed in half with a stick running through it so it could be easily carried by two men. “It had no cover,” recalled Appleman. “For about three weeks it stood in the gang-way or entrance passage, outside the door of our prison room, during the day-time. Afterwards, upon my application, we were permitted to keep it during the day, in an empty room adjoining the gang-way.” But at night, it was “necessarily kept in our room” since the door was locked, which was “a great grievance.” One observer noted with disgust: “They were compelled to eat and sleep with their excrement in the same room! During the first two weeks sickness bro’t on by a change of food, water, &c., caused them to fill a tub the size of a half barrel, twice a day. This was emptied into the bay and from the bay, their muddy, filthy water was pumped for coffee and drinking.”

Under these conditions the prisoners’ health rapidly deteriorated. One man died while in captivity. Another went insane. The prisoners passed their time singing hymns and reading the Bible, newspapers, and “inspected letters from home.” Gloom quickly set in. “For all my life I could not imagine what I was brought here for,” wrote James McHenry from Fort Mifflin, “having all my life been taught and endeavored to obey all legally enacted laws of my country, reserving the right to freely criticize the acts of this Administration as well as those that preceded it, without the least thought of violating the laws of the land.”

In late October, after spending about two months in a dungeon, 21 of the men were released from Fort Mifflin. U.S. Senator Charles R. Buckalew, a native of Fishing Creek, wrote to the military commander thanking him for the decision. “It will be joyful news for their families.” Sixteen of the remaining men were sent to Harrisburg for trial, although only 12 actually went to court. Rather than be brought before a civil court, as federal law required for those who resisted the draft, they were tried before a military tribunal. They were charged with conspiring to resist the draft and of various acts of disloyalty, including joining the Knights of the Golden Circle, arming themselves to resist the U.S. military, and “uttering disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object of defeating and weakening the power of the Government, in its efforts to suppress the unlawful rebellion now existing in the United States.”

The trials took place in Harrisburg between October 1864 and January 1865. Seven of the 12 were convicted by the commission, with punishments ranging from a $500 fine to two years in prison and a $1000 fine (however, all of the prisoners were released by presidential order by May 1865). William Appleman, who was sentenced to imprisonment for one year or until he paid a $500 fine, borrowed money from friends and family and quickly purchased his freedom. On December 22, 1864, Senator Buckalew introduced a petition on the floor of the U.S. Senate asking Congress to reimburse Appleman the $500. Nothing ever came of the petition, but it linked Buckalew to the Fishing Creek Confederates in a way that would be used against him for the remainder of his political career. More than a decade later, Republicans castigated Buckalew as a leader “in the Columbia County draft riots of 1864” and a friend of “the President of the Fishing Creek Confederacy.”

In the early years after the Civil War, Benton remained a Democratic stronghold in Pennsylvania. Republicans in the state sought to score political points from the Fishing Creek Confederacy in the same way that the party did by waving the “bloody shirt” in national elections. Being a Democrat from Benton tainted one with treason as if Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis were running for local office in central Pennsylvania.

Over time the Fishing Creek Confederacy receded from the local public memory. Journalists and historians occasionally recounted the event, and one of the attorneys for the defendants published an account of the “Military Occupation of Columbia County” in 1883. But as time dragged on, few people chose to remember the events that had brought so much terror, uncertainty, pain and disgrace to a small rural community in the backwoods of Pennsylvania.

About 1960 a 13-year-old boy in Benton listened to his schoolteacher say that she would now tell the class about the “Fishing Creek Confederacy” and that the class was honored to have a direct descendant in their presence. The boy looked around, eagerly wondering to which one of his friends she was referring. “Roy Colley,” she said. The boy “felt the floor fall out” from underneath him. He was dumbfounded. That night Roy went home and asked his father about the Fishing Creek Confederacy. “What do you know, and who told you?” came a stern reply. “We don’t talk about that in this family,” concluded Roy’s father as he broke down in tears.

Years later, after his father’s death, Roy worked up the courage to ask his uncle about the Fishing Creek Confederacy. He received the same reply. No one in Benton seemed willing to talk about it. As a young girl growing up in Benton in the 1940s and ’50s, Joselle Confair remembered making trips to Bloomsburg where she would be greeted, “Oh, you’re one of the Fishing Creek Confederates” – but she did not know what that meant.

In 1965 a young historian named George Turner joined the faculty of Bloomsburg University. In the 1970s a local man asked Turner if he knew anything about the Fishing Creek Confederacy, to which Turner replied that he did not. This conversation sparked a career-long drive to research and understand the event as it transpired in the very hot summer of 1864. In the process of learning this history, Turner has helped the local community of Benton recover its memory of what happened there. Working with direct descendants and residents of Benton, Turner and the community erected an official state marker commemorating the Fishing Creek Confederacy. The marker stands along Route 487 on the southern end of Benton, just below the site of the Benton Christian Churchwhere the 100 men had been rounded up on the morning of August 31, 1864.

On July 25 and 26, 2009, the Northern Columbia Community and Cultural Center (NCCCC) hosted a living history commemoration in Benton called the Fishing Creek Heritage Days. George Turner opened the festivities with a brief history of the sectional conflict that sundered American society in the antebellum period, placing the Fishing Creek Confederacy in its broader historical context. Descendants and curious onlookers sat outside the band shell to learn about what had happened in the fields and homes nearby.

The organizers of the event had originally planned to have a reenactment of the mass arrest but were unable to hold such a large-scale event. Instead, spectators met a few Civil War reenactors who talked about camp life, weaponry and 19th-century victuals. Local resident M.R. Daniels wrote and directed a play called The Dividing Line that recounted one fictional family’s experience in Benton in August 1864 as tensions over the war ran high and Union troops moved into the isolated community. The play showed four times in the local high school auditorium; all of the actors were part of the Fishing Creek Players, the town’s new community theater group. The use of common 19th-century language must have been jarring to some 21st-century ears, but it helped capture the fears and prejudices of 1860s America. A young man intent on avoiding the draft by fleeing to Canada speaks of Lincoln as a dishonest tyrant who was prosecuting an unnecessary war. “People are getting arrested for their ideas,” he exclaims. “This country fought for freedom so people could follow their own ideas. I don’t give a damn about the South and all its troubles. I don’t care about a bunch of darkies.”

On Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon Turner hosted roundtable events for descendants and community members to share their histories and memories of the Fishing Creek Confederacy. Most of the residents had more questions than information, and Turner patiently recounted the events of the summer of 1864. Turner asked a hardy man in a fire police shirt in the back of the room if he would be willing to share his connections to the Civil War. “My name is Roy Colley, and I am the great, great, great grandson of Stott Colley, and the great, great grandnephew of Benjamin Colley,” two of the men who had been arrested and tried before the military commission. On the verge of tears, and having to pause on several occasions to compose himself, Roy recounted how he had learned about the Fishing Creek Confederacy from his teacher, but how it would be years before he knew the full story.

One heated topic of conversation at the second round table was whether the deserters actually had a fort on North Mountain. Some believe that what was rumored to be a “fort” was really a giant pile of cut lumber in the shape of a square.

Others are not so sure. One older gentleman remembered being told about the fort when he was a young man. He saw it once, he claimed, but when he went back years later to find it he could not. The reality of the fort is central to the debate over whether these 44 men were actually part of an organized, treasonable conspiracy. Historians Richard A. Sauers and Peter Tomasak claim to have located what remains of the fort – a pile of stones and some cut nails. It was, they claim, a 20×20-foot, two-story log cabin. “It wasn’t a fort,” they write, “but a cabin, whose existence was exaggerated by Republicans for their own gain.”

When the Union troops came to Benton in August 1864, they scoured the area looking for deserters and the fort. They never found anything. George Turner’s theory is that deserters and draft evaders in the area had long since fled. Some documentary evidence supports this conclusion. Maj. Gen. George Cadwalader, the military officer commanding the expedition, wrote: “If as may probably be the case, these disaffected people have disappeared and dispersed it will be impossible to follow them in the mountainous country beyond with any chance of capturing them.” In truth, many deserters had gone further. A woman living in nearby Orangeville wrote to a friend that many locals were fleeing to Canada rather than submit to the draft: “I am thinking that if we were to go there we would feel quite at home, among so many of our Pennsylvanians.”

On Sunday morning of the Heritage Days, along the banks of Fishing Creek and to the sound of bagpipes, descendants ranging from ages 7 to 89 read the names of their 44 ancestors who had been forcibly removed from their homes 145 years earlier. The crowd then filed into the Presbyterian Church for an 1860s worship service that featured two local ministers portraying an abolitionist preacher and a Peace Democrat from Luzerne County named Rev. Alvah Rutan.

In real life Rutan had been a farmer and itinerant preacher just across the county line from Benton. He was arrested by the military three times during the war on the suspicion that he was disloyal. After his third arrest he was tried before a military commission in Harrisburg on charges of disloyalty and conspiring with others to resist the draft. At his December 1864 trial one of Rutan’s accusers said that the minister “remarked to me that he would like to see a ball put through Abraham Lincoln’s heart.” Another witness claimed that Rutan “did not blame” “the Rebel Camp[,] meaning the Copperheads encamped over in Fishing Creek” for resisting the draft and “that he would not go down there to fight for the niggers.” Rutan was sentenced to imprisonment at Fort Mifflin for six months and a $200 fine. Petitions flooded Lincoln’s desk in January 1865, however, and the president ordered Rutan’s release on February 23, 1865.

Churches in Benton, as in most of the North, were bitterly divided during the Civil War. Indeed, on the night before Lt. Robinson was shot, a gang of armed, drunken and rowdy Democrats burst into a church service and threatened to hang the clergyman if “you are an abolition preacher, . . . but if you are a democrat preacher you can preach on.” When the minister replied that he merely preached the Gospel, the men called him a “liar” and retorted, “If you want to preach niggar you must go South and preach to the niggar; for we are better than the niggars, and will have none of it here.” The intruders tried to force the minister out of the building threatening to “make short work of it by putting him out of the way,” but a few of the parishioners came to his aid. In the midst of the “riot” the preacher escaped out of a back window and into “the darkness of the night.”

The recreated service at the Benton Presbyterian Church on July 26, 2009, was much more subdued than its 1864 antecedent. The minister portraying Rutan led the morning worship. As the preachers preached their partisan sermons and the people sang “Amazing Grace,” the congregation could not help but experience for themselves how the Civil War had divided communities down partisan and moral lines. Did proslavery Northerners miss the irony when they sang “Amazing Grace,” a song of hope and repentance written by a man who had spent his life working in the slave trade? Towards the middle of the service the minister portraying Rutan called for the congregation to sing “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds,” reminding his flock that now, more than ever, such a melody was needed. In ways we can little appreciate today, the Civil War divided not only the North and South, but also communities, congregations and families in both sections of the nation.

On Sunday afternoon a crowd gathered on Route 487 to witness the unveiling of a state marker dedicated to the 44 men who had been arrested in August 1864. In late 2008 George Turner had prepared the application for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) with the NCCCC acting as the local sponsoring organization. In March 2009 the PHMC approved the request. Meanwhile, local resident Joselle Confair successfully raised $2,100 to pay for the marker. Finally, on July 26, 2009, the community could gather to celebrate their success and commemorate their heritage.

Carol Vance, whose family has been in Benton since only 1946, welcomed everyone to the event. “Today is the culmination of a dream,” she told the crowd. “Today is the end of many hours of research, team work and dedication. But most importantly, it is a day of vindication. Generations who never spoke of the imprisonment of their loved one – families who carried guilt and anger for years are honored on this Historical Marker. Today is the beginning of commemorating those forty-four men wrongly accused, wrongly arrested and wrongly detained so long ago. It is with great pride that we are here today to dedicate this marker.”

Several other speakers, including Benton mayor Jan Swan and historian Turner, also spoke. Then the descendants of the 44 were all called to the front to read again the names of their ancestors. Eleanor Fritz Sands, the 89-year-old granddaughter of William Appleman’s brother and a relative of four of the other detainees, opened the reading. Until July 2009 Sands did not even know that five of her ancestors had been arrested during the Civil War. It was at a planning meeting for the Heritage Days that Eleanor learned this piece of her family history. Her initial response was shock and disbelief. “Another family secret well kept,” observed one person present at the meeting. “This is just one of the poignant stories that grew out of this travesty in this small and beautiful valley tucked up here in northern Pennsylvania.”

After a few names were read the skies opened up in a downpour. Few people had brought umbrellas. Several spectators scurried for nearby porches while others tried to protect Mrs. Sands and the other elderly descendants. But after a few moments the rain subsided and sunlight broke through the clouds. The crowd reassembled as Roy Colley and his family read off a series of names. When the readings were complete the descendants gathered around the marker, each taking hold of its cover so that they could all participate in the unveiling.

The weekend’s events were a triumph for a community that to this point had felt only shame over its heritage. It was a chance for the people of Benton to remember their collective past and the larger Civil War in an altogether fitting and proper way. There may be larger historical reasons, however, for why such a commemoration might not have taken place earlier in our nation’s history. Perhaps it is only in the post-Vietnam era that a state would erect a monument to accused draft resistors.

 

Jonathan W. White is assistant professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. He is author of Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (LSU Press, 2011) and Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (LSU Press, 2014).