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

It is widely conceded that the major military event of summer 1861 was the First Battle of Bull Run on Sun­day, July 21. The battle lasted only one day, but it caused great humiliation and forced important changes in the North’s subsequent approach to conducting the war. The creation of the Military District of the Potomac under Gen. George B. McClellan several days later signaled a reform of the system.

Much less well known, and what could be dubbed the “First Battle of Harrisburg,” began nearly the same time as First Bull Run, but it raged more than a week . Although no shots were fired, this battle caused considerable embar­rassment if not humiliation. It, too, echoed a desperate need for substantially improved military procedures. Unlike the First Battle of Bull Run, however, the enemy did not wear Confederate gray.

The embarrassing episode at Harrisburg, the dismissing of regiments raised to serve for only three months, reflected badly on nearly everyone concerned, particularly Com­monwealth authorities, the War Department, and the troops involved. As a result, there seems to have been an unspoken alliance by those involved to pretend the entire affair had been only a minor disturbance. However, the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, and the local newspapers of the day offer a distinctly different impression. For example, while it was going on, Pennsylvania’s Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin was reporting to Secretary of War Simon Cameron that the citi­zens of Harrisburg were “much alarmed” and the city was in danger as it lacked adequate protection. The Har­risburg Patriot and Union edito­rialized about the imminent explosion of what it called “the mine upon which we have been standing.” During the chaos, War Secretary Cameron, headquartered in Washington, was bombarding his son Donald with a barrage of telegrams demanding, “What is the trouble in Harrisburg?”

To provide some answers to Cameron’s question, one must examine the events that began in mid-April when Pres. Abra­ham Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volun­teers to serve for a period of three months. Pennsylvania responded by quickly forming twenty-five regiments. A few of these regiments were based on existing militia units but most were manned by enthusi­astic but novice recruits. After minimal training at best, these regiments were deployed to various assignments. By mid­-July three provided security duty at Baltimore, Maryland, one (the Fifth Pennsylvania) served as provost guard in Alexandria, Virginia, and one was in Maryland, guarding the railroad between York and Baltimore.

The remaining regiments were divided between the two main maneuver forces in the East. The Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment was with Gen. Irvin McDowell’s army in northern Virginia, facing Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard’s Confederate army near Manassas, while nineteen regiments were part of a force under Gen. Robert Patterson that was moving toward Harpers Ferry. Patter­son’s mission was to halt Con­federates under Gen. J. E. Johnston and keep them from uniting with Beauregard.

With the end of July ap­proaching, the enlistments of all the three-month Volunteers were about to expire, and so on July 21 General McDowell moved out to do battle before his army dissolved. In fact, the Fifth Pennsylvania had already departed for home, and its train pulled into Harrisburg before the day was over. Mean­while, the Fourth Pennsylva­nia had started with the rest of McDowell’s army that morn­ing. On the way to the battle­field, however, the volunteers realized that their enlistments had expired the day before, announced that they were not going to fight a battle on their own time, and marched back to Washington to board trains bound for Pennsylvania.

Legally, they may have been within their rights, but the Northern public and press failed to appreciate the volun­teers’ judgment. Particularly because the battle ended in a shameful Union rout, the regiment became the target of extensive condemnation. Since McDowell’s defeat was blamed largely on the failure of Patter­son’s force to keep Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard, the Pennsylvania regiments aiding that command were also harshly criticized.

At least some of the troops streaming into Harrisburg, stung by the bitter public out­cry, felt resentful, ashamed, or both. Pvt. Samuel Craig, of the Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment in Patterson’s force, confessed to “a feeling of disappointment over our failure of achieving the results intended by our expedition.” Significantly, he rationalized that, “I was sure it was not the men’s fault.” All the men were tired, dirty, hungry, and ragged; the historian of the Eleventh Pennsylvania Regiment reported that their shoes were worn out, their coats lost, and “the nether garments of many … were out at the knees and out at the seat, flaunting their shoddy fragments to the breeze.”

The procedure for demobi­lizing Volunteer troops called for the regiments to turn in their weapons and equipment, and return to the location where they originally had been mustered in. For seventeen of Pennsylvania’s twenty-five regiments, that meant Harris­burg. Each regiment would then have its muster rolls brought up to date to account for every man, and then be officially mustered out. Follow­ing that, the muster rolls would be submitted to a mili­tary paymaster. When the paymaster was satisfied that the records were correct, he would compensate the men one by one, and they would then, finally, be actually dis­charged.

The strategy’s theory may have been well conceived, but in practice, it posed a number of problems in July 1861. Few adjutants of Volunteer regi­ments had any experience, and many muster rolls were either incomplete or incorrect. Since military paymasters assumed personal financial liability for monies they dis­bursed, no sane paymaster would pay a single cent until the rolls were complete and accurate. At the same time, the Paymaster Department itself was still geared to a peacetime system of “paying off” soldiers one at a time, as their individ­ual enlistments expired – no one had compensated entire regiments all at once since 1848, when troops returned from the Mexican War.

Even more fundamentally, it appears that neither the commanders in the field nor the responsible authorities in Harrisburg had anticipated the requirements for housing and feeding the troops when the three-month enlistments con­cluded simultaneously. The arrival of these regiments caught everyone unprepared. Camp Curtin, the only military installation in the vicinity, was jammed with recruits waiting to he organized into three-year regiments. Consequently, when the Fifth Pennsylvania Regiment arrived from Alexan­dria, Virginia, on Sunday, July 21, it had to be billeted in the Capitol building – leaving no room for anyone else. On the following day troop trains crowded with more men awaiting discharge began pulling into the station at the rate of one nearly every hour!

And so began the inevitable – and the deplorable.

The returning regiments had been in uniform for only three months. Many of the officers, inexperienced as they were, had no inkling that they had any responsibility for looking out for their troops upon their return home. They simply took rooms in hotels and turned the men loose to fend for themselves. Many Harrisburg residents opened their homes to soldiers, but their generosity met barely a fraction of the need. The city’s total population numbered thirteen thousand, and by Wednesday, more than eight thousand troops roamed the streets.

Actually, housing was not the first priority problem. The weather was very warm, reaching into the nineties, so sleeping out-of-doors was no real hardship for soldiers just returning from the field. In fact, the park surrounding the State Capitol and the nearby State Arsenal was soon crowded by veterans in im­promptu bivouac. The imme­diate difficulty was the lack of food. The Commissary of Subsistence at Camp Curtin had no authority to issue ra­tions to anyone but the three­-year recruits stationed there. As with the Paymaster, it was a matter of personal pecuniary liability of the issuing officer, and the Volunteers who trav­eled to the camp for food were brusquely turned away. A large number of them took to the streets begging, although many were fed in private homes, and several hotels set up soup lines. Not until Fri­day, July 26, did an indignant article in the Harrisburg Tele­graph goad some of the officers into making the effort to ob­tain authority for rations to be issued to their men. Not that this did much good. What was issued to each man was the prescribed daily ration of one pound of hardtack and a quarter-pound of raw beef. Unfortunately, the soldiers had turned in their camp gear when they left the field for Harrisburg. They may have finally acquired rations, but they nothing to cook them in, and no place to cook them.

If the officers were inexperi­enced, the men were hardly disciplined. They were con­fused about what obligations remained in force between muster-out and discharge. What a contemporaneous account called “demagogues” were haranguing their fellow soldiers with claims that they no longer had to obey military orders. Along with this, the combination of being away from home and being released from control gave a feeling of freedom and license that soon gave rise to rowdy behavior. Drunken brawls became wide­spread. On Thursday night an epidemic of fights erupted. One of them, at the bar of the Warfield Hotel, on Market Street between Third and Fourth streets, involved twenty or thirty men. Separate fights broke out at several other taverns, on Capitol Hill, at Camp Curtin, and – of all places – the Baptist Church at the corner of Second and Pine streets. The Harrisburg Tele­graph reported that “broken heads and bloody faces were the order of the day.” Two men were badly injured by knife wounds, and one of them­ – Pvt. George Reiff of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment – died two days later.

On Friday, Harrisburg Mayor William H. Kepner hastily issued a proclamation closing until further notice all liquor sales outlets from one o’clock in the afternoon to nine o’clock the next morning. Kepner’s order had only lim­ited effect. The men could still drink in Harrisburg in the morning. Since they were under no restrictions, in the afternoon they could cross the Susquehanna River to Bridge­port (present-day Lemoyne), where the mayor’s writ did not run. The Harrisburg Telegraph complained somewhat bitterly that while Harrisburg’s saloon­keepers were making “great pecuniary sacrifice,” those on the West Shore were “reaping a harvest of dimes.”

One instance of violence did win editorial approval, however, when a group of soldiers demolished what the newspapers delicately charac­terized as “a disreputable institution” in one of the alleys behind the State Capitol in the notorious Eighth Ward. The newspapers reported that “the female occupants were driven out, and have not ventured to return,” and continued to opine that, “The storming party would have conferred a benefit. upon the city by crush­ing out other equally infamous dens.” Notwithstanding these socially redeeming actions by some of the soldiers, Harris­burgers’ uneasiness was turning to panic. The mood of the troops, which had begun prin­cipally as mere rowdiness, was turning ugly as their frustra­tion rose. In the absence of any authoritative information, conflicting rumors spread, adding to the prevailing sense of uncertainty and anger. Clearly the men’s inexperience played a part; the treatment they had received had been unforgivable. Obviously, it was in everyone’s best interest to speedily discharge the Vol­unteers and send them on their way. But first they had to be paid – and therein lay a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

When the troops began arriving there was only one paymaster in Harrisburg, a recently appointed major of Volunteers, Andrew Sallado, and the funds he had in hand were nowhere near enough to meet the need. He telegraphed the War Department in Wash­ington for help, and then began processing the muster rolls. By Wednesday, July 24, he finished paying off the first two units that had arrived, exhausting his available allot­ment. Paper money, which had been authorized by Con­gress only weeks before, en­joyed little public acceptance. In any case, Donald Cameron, presumably acting for his father, prohibited Sallado from using the new currency.

Col. Benjamin F. Larned, the Paymaster General of the Army, telegraphed from Wash­ington, promising to send three paymasters to Harris­burg as soon as they could withdraw funds from the Treasury. The paymaster in charge would be Maj. Brua Cameron. He had held his commission only since May 1, but even so he ranked Sallado by a month. The fact that he was a relative of the Secretary of War presumably endowed him with any qualifications required.

Major Cameron and his reinforcements arrived on Thursday, bearing substantial but inadequate funds. They did have drafts on the Federal Sub-Treasury in New York, but the Sub-Treasurer had to count and check the money before expressing it to Harrisburg. Payment itself was a slow process: each man’s pay, at the rate of eleven dollars a month, had to be computed for the exact number of days from his muster-in to his muster-out. To this had to be added travel pay back to the place of his enlist­ment, at the rate of one day’s pay for each fourteen miles. Delaying matters further, regimental adjutants protested that their records were accu­rate, regimental commanders demanded action, and Major Cameron and his beleaguered staff were so busy attempting to satisfy these complaints that there was little – if any – time to complete preparations to pay those units that had satis­factory rolls. These distractions continued through Friday, and resumed early the next day. Finally Major Cameron lost his temper and told one fuming colonel that he would pay when he was good and ready.

This word spread like wild­fire. The men of the Second Pennsylvania Regiment, a largely South-Central Pennsyl­vania regiment, due to be paid off next, were particularly outraged at the delay, and incited rancor among other troops. In short order, the soldiers were crowding into Market Square in front of the Jones House, a hotel in which Major Cameron had set up his operation. Before long they became what the Harrisburg Patriot called “clamorous.” with some of them being “exceed­ingly infuriated.” Someone produced an effigy wearing a placard labelled “Paymaster,” strung it up on a lamp post in front of the hotel, and set it on fire while the mob cheered. There was every sign of an imminent explosion.

The senior military officer available to quell the growing disturbance, Gen. William H. Keim, had been second in command to General Patterson at Harpers Ferry. He already had been mustered out of federal service, but he was also a major general in the state militia. To keep order, he turned to the three year men at Camp Curtin, but most were unorganized, untrained re­cruits. Only one regiment had actually completed organiza­tion, the Twelfth Pennsylvania Reserves, and was so new that it had yet to be officially mus­tered into the federal service. Under the circumstances, that was an advantage as it still came under state control and Keim could legally issue orders to it.

On his instructions, the regiment formed, bearing loaded muskets and moved out. The men were untrained, but their commander, Col. John M. Taggart, had lengthy experience as a militia officer, including active duty in quash­ing the Philadelphia riots of 1844. Colonel Taggart led his troops down Second Street to Market Square, forcing the mob to give way ahead of them until some of the men in the crowd began threatening that they would break into the State Arsenal and get weapons of their own. Others took up the cry, and the mob started surging toward Capitol Hill. Taggart reacted quickly, leading his men in a race north on Third Street in time to sur­round the State Arsenal before many of the three-month men arrived. There followed a good deal of what the Twelfth Penn­sylvania Reserves’ regimental history called “loud talk,” but eventually the crowd began to thin.

The end was still not in sight. Some of the protesters made off with an old dis­mounted cannon lying outside the State Arsenal. Placing it on a dray, they hauled it down to the Jones House and threat­ened to blow in the door and drag Major Cameron out. “The threats to hang the Paymaster were very fierce,” the Patriot observed, but fortunately the Volunteers lacked ammunition to carry out their siege. Major Cameron promised to resume paying on the next day with­out fail and the crowd dis­persed. Nevertheless, Colonel Taggart posted a guard at the hotel. But the trouble still did not end.

With the temper of the three-month men now only too evident, not one of the Harrisburg banks was willing to allow the paymasters to store money in their vaults. The money had to be kept with the paymasters at the Jones House, under guard but not really secure. The gold and silver sent from New York had finally arrived, but Governor Curtin telegraphed Secretary Cameron, fearing that the men might storm the Express Office and make off with all the money. Taggart’s regiment had been scheduled to leave for Harpers Ferry, but Curtin prudently rescinded its move­ment orders. He explained to Cameron that he had to keep it at Harrisburg “for the preser­vation of life and public prop­erty” but this was only a temporary measure. “Some­thing has to be done,” he cau­tioned the Secretary of War, clearly implying that whatever that “something” might be, it was the responsibility of the War Department.

Simon Cameron was not much help. His only response was to advise Curtin to move aU the three-month regiments to their respective homes with a promise to send paymasters after them. However desirable, scattering the men was hardly practical; even if they could be persuaded to leave unpaid, it would be impossible to arrange trains and schedule their simultaneous movements to all corners of the Commonwealth in time to do any good. Curtin did try, though, arranging a train for two western Pennsyl­vania regiments, the Twelfth and the Thirteenth, which had been among the louder pro­testers. He also sent orders to the Fourteenth and the Fif­teenth, which were traveling from Harpers Ferry, to cut their trip short and make camp at Carlisle, Cumberland County, until further notice. Even so, no less than eleven regiments still remained in Harrisburg.

Actually, payment moved along smoothly-if not rapidly – on Sunday, July 28, with the processing of pay­ment for members of the Sec­ond Pennsylvania, the regiment that had sparked the protest. The Third Pennsylva­nia Regiment, largely from Blair and Cambria counties, was promised that it could start to draw its pay at eight o’clock the next morning. During the evening, though, Colonel Larned, the Paymaster General himself, arrived from Washington to personally investigate the situation. Origi­nally commissioned in 1813, Larned was elderly and needed to rest overnight and, following that, he needed to be properly briefed about the turn of events.

The clock struck eight o’clock the following morning and nothing happened. An hour later, still nothing had occurred. At ten o’clock Col. Francis P. Minier of the Third Pennsylvania Regiment went to see Major Cameron and asked when payment would begin. Beset by demands and probably overwhelmed by Colonel Lamed’s close super­vision of his procedures, Cam­eron snapped at Minier and gave him what local newspa­pers called an “uncivil an­swer.”

By this time, the Third Pennsylvania Regiment, thronging in front of the hotel, was growing increasingly noisy, threatening to storm the building and take what was due them. Minier appeared on the hotel portico and tried with some success to calm the crowd, but someone rushed to warn General Keim. Showing what the Patriot uncharitably called “more zeal than judge­ment,” Keim sent Capt. D.M. Matthewson’s Company B of the Twelfth Reserves marching west toward Market Square with orders to crush the im­pending riot. Company B’s approach only further antago­nized the demonstrators and they began dismantling a nearby pile of bricks. It ap­peared that a violent confron­tation was about to erupt.

Fortunately, James C. Noon, adjutant of the Third Pennsylvania Regiment, reached the advancing com­pany as it approached the Dauphin Deposit Bank – barely outside of brick-throwing range. Even more fortunately, Noon was able to convince Captain Matthewson to lead his company away. Colonel Minier’s pleas and the promise that the Volunteers would absolutely receive their pay the following day mollified them and the crowd dispersed. True to his word, the Volunteers were, indeed, paid on Tues­day, July 30. The operation moved smoothly and as regi­ments were compensated, they hastily departed for home. The entire process was completed by August 3 – and the so-called First Battle of Harrisburg was history.

Despite broken promises and flaring tempers, the First Battle of Harrisburg ended without further violence. And only inexperience was to blame in the first place.

Pennsylvania authorities simply failed to realize the implications of the fact that when the Volunteers were mustered out of the federal service they became the re­sponsibility of the Common­wealth until officially discharged. The War Depart­ment at the time was a small administrative organization swamped by many urgent tasks. In fairness, too, to Si­mon Cameron, he was trau­matized, and on the verge of collapse, on the death of his brother James who, as colonel of a New York regiment, had been killed at the First Battle of Bull Run. The behavior of the Volunteers themselves is less excusable. They did have am­ple reason to be resentful, but they were not subjected to any real hardships. The official rationing system did fail, but one of the men himself wrote that “Citizens and ladies was generous and hospitable, offering in the front yards of their private dwellings, coffee, sandwiches, pies, cakes, fruit and refreshments of all kinds everywhere, and invitations to breakfast, dinner or supper in their homes.” In fact, the only participants to emerge from this sorry affair with nothing but credit were the citizens of Harrisburg.

All the same, the experi­ence proved salutary. Large­-scale demobilizations occurred in Pennsylvania in 1863, and again in 1864 and 1865, but none was marred by lack of housing, food, or payment. In part, this was due to the greater professional maturity of the troops, but it was pri­marily because the military’s administrative machinery was in place and functioning. In one sense, it might be said that, like a number of other Civil War conflicts, the First Battle of Harrisburg may have ended in a tactical stand-off, but in the lessons it taught it was a strategic victory.


For Further Reading

Barton, Michael. Life by the Moving Road: An Illustrated History of Greater Harrisburg. Woodland Hills, Ca.: Windsor Publications, 1983.

Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865. Harrisburg: State Printer, 1869.

Donehoo, George P, ed. Penn­sylvania: A History. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Com­pany, Inc., 1926.

Egle, William H. Commemora­tive Biographical Encyclopedia of Dauphin County, Pennsyl­vania. Chambersburg, Pa.: J.M. Runk and Company, 1896.

____. Life and Times of Andrew Gregg Curtin. Philadel­phia: Thompson Publishing Company, 1896.

Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865. New York: Harper Brothers, 1941.

Long, E. B. The Civil War Day by Day. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1971.

Miller, William J. The Training of an Army: Camp Curtin and the North’s Civil War. Ship­pensburg, Pa.: White Mane Pub­lishing Company, 1990.

Morgan, George H. Annals of Harrisburg. Harrisburg: United Evangelical Church, 1906.


The editor wishes to thank Peter S. Seibert, executive director of the Historical Society of Dauphin County, Harrisburg, for his in­valuable assistance in locating, identifying, and lending photo­graphs from the society’s extensive holdings to illustrate this article.


John B. B. Trussell retired from the United States Army as colonel in 1972 after thirty years of serv­ice and joined the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commis­sion (PHMC) as a historian. He retired from the Commission in 1988 as chief of the agency’s Divi­sion of History. Author of numer­ous articles in military history, he also wrote William Penn, Archi­tect of a Nation and The Pennsylvania Line: Regimental Organizations and Operations, 1776-1783, both published by the PHMC. He has recently com­pleted a history of Pennsylvania’s volunteer regiments in the Civil War.