Civil War in Pennsylvania is a special edition of 6 features commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in Pennsylvania, published as the Summer 2013 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage in collaboration with Pennsylvania Legacies and Western Pennsylvania History magazines.

Throughout the four years of the American Civil War, more than two million men served the Union, some for months, others for years. The vast majority were volunteers, young boys and aging men who willingly left home behind to fight for the preservation of the Union and the eradication of slavery.1 Historians have documented the stories of countless citizens-turned-soldiers, recalling the hardships they endured in camp and while on campaign, and describing in detail the horrors they endured in combat. Despite these vast annals of war history, many soldiers’ stories are lost to time or overlooked.

Perhaps most notable is the forgotten history of the first Northern volunteers to arrive in Washington, D.C., following President Abraham Lincoln’s call-to-arms. On Thursday, April 18, 1861, less than one week after the opening salvos of the war fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, 475 Pennsylvania volunteers, in five volunteer militia companies, arrived in the nation’s capital. Their timely arrival earned them the distinguished title of First Defenders.

Historian Samuel Penniman Bates later romanticized that these Pennsylvanians arrived in Washington at “the head of the grand column of the two million men, who afterwards … marched in their footprints.”2 In spite of this notable achievement, the history of the First Defenders remains overshadowed by famous officers, epic battles, and prominent military units. “In the progress of the gigantic struggle which ensued, of which the most farsighted had then no conception,” Bates wrote, “so many and such brilliant services have been rendered by the soldiers of the National armies, that the timely arrival of these companies had been little noted.” It is time, then, to rescue these soldiers from drifting further into the shadows of neglect.3

On Friday, April 12, 1861, the decades – long sectional tensions that defined – and divided – the young nation broke out after Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter. Following the fortification’s capitulation two days later, President Lincoln, just one month in office, found himself faced with the greatest crisis to ever confront the United States. Realizing the rebellion could now be reconciled only by force, he issued a call on Monday, April 15, for 75,000 volunteers to serve for a period of three months. Enthusiastic men and boys swarmed recruiting offices throughout the North in response to the president’s urgent summons. Within several days – and, in many instances, within a matter of hours – thousands began their journeys as soldiers, embarking on one of the most ferocious and deadly experiences of their lives. Only three days after Lincoln’s request, the first volunteer troops arrived in Washington.

These early troops came from eastern and central Pennsylvania, organized into five militia companies whose origins predated the outbreak of sectional hostilities. The oldest of the five companies, the National Light Infantry of Pottsville, Schuylkill County, had been organized in 1831. The Washington Artillery, organized in Pottsville in 1842, was the only company with wartime experience; the unit served as Company B, 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers, in the Mexican-American War, waged from 1846 to 1848 in the wake of the annexation of Texas in 1845 by the United States. The Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, Berks County, was formed in 1850 and commanded by Captain James McKnight, while the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Mifflin County, came into existence eight years later at the behest of Major Daniel Eisenbise. The newest company, the Allen Infantry of Allentown, Lehigh County, under the command of Captain James Yeager, was organized two years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

During the antebellum era, the organization of these companies was regularly maintained, and their members were drilled much more frequently than most of the Keystone State’s militiamen. The Logan Guards, for example, met monthly for parade and drill practice and participated in encampments at Lewistown in 1859 and at Huntingdon, Huntingdon County, the following year. Such rigorous training put the companies in an anomalous position within the state militia system, but their readiness to serve in the event of emergency caught the attention of state officials. After Lincoln’s call for volunteers went out, it was little surprise to Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin that they were among the first to offer their services. In fact, anticipating hostilities, Pottsville’s National Light Infantry telegraphed their willingness to serve to Secretary of War Simon Cameron on April 11, a day before the attack on Fort Sumter. Writing after the war, Cameron declared the company “was the first company of volunteers whose services were offered for the defense of the Capital,” and it “with four additional companies from Pennsylvania . . . were the first troops to reach the seat of government at the beginning of the war of the rebellion.”4

Reading’s volunteers fired off a telegram on April 15 to Governor Curtin5 after receiving Lincoln’s request: “The Ringgold Light Artillery are parading this morning with their guns for practice; have ninety men on parade, every one of them expecting to be ordered on duty for the U.S. service before they leave their guns.” Secretary of the Commonwealth Eli Slifer responded the following day, “Captain James McKnight: Bring your command to Harrisburg by first train. If any of your men need equipments, they will be provided by the general Government. Lose no time.”

With the offers of these companies immediately accepted, thousands turned out to witness the departure of eager volunteers from their respective hometowns. In its April 20 edition, the Miners Journal of Pottsville recounted the departure of the Schuylkill County companies: As the companies proceeded down Centre street, to the depot of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, they were greeted with cheers from the thousands who lined each side of the street, and a perfect ocean of handkerchiefs waved by the ladies, who had taken possession of all the windows, and every available situation along the street. All the stores were closed and business entirely suspended. At the depot the crowd was immense, and it was almost impossible to force your way through it. The tops of the passenger and freight cars, the roofs of the depot and neighboring houses, were black with spectators. Never had so great a concourse assembled on any one occasion before in Pottsville.

The Pottsville Cornet Band, which had escorted the companies to the depot, immediately before the starting of the cars played “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle.” As the train slowly left the depot, cheer upon cheer went up from the assembled thousands. The men were in good spirits, but there were some, who though possessed of manly hearts, who could brave toil and danger without complaint or fear, who could endure suffering with stoical indifference, but who could not prevent the tear starting to the eye, when called upon to bid farewell to all their friends.

Surviving letters and diaries written by First Defenders overwhelmingly cite a patriotic love of country and the desire to see the nation restored as the primary motivations behind their enlistment, but they also reveal a naiveté in realizing what war was really about. James L. Schaadt, historian for the Allen Infantry, wrote that when leaving Allentown, most of the volunteers “regarded the journey as a pleasant change from daily occupations, a picnic and agreeable visit to the Capital; a very few, more serious, realized it was the beginning of war, with its horrors, cruelties, and privations.” It would not be long before naïve notions about warfare would be laid to rest.6

By the evening of Wednesday, April 17, all five companies had arrived in Harrisburg. Early the following morning, Captain Seneca Simmons of the 7th U.S. Infantry mustered the Pennsylvanians into federal service at Camp Curtin, the largest training facility for Northern soldiers during the war. Following their swearing-in, the soldiers boarded two trains of the North Central Railroad, each pulling 21 cars, and set off for the nation’s beleaguered capital via Baltimore, Maryland. Traveling with the volunteers was a detachment of 50 Regular Army troops who were ordered to report to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. Commanding this detachment was John C. Pemberton, who, a few days later, resigned his commission in the United States Army to take up arms with the Confederate States of America. (In July 1863, Pemberton would surrender Vicksburg, Mississippi, to General Ulysses S. Grant.) With few exceptions, the volunteer militiamen made the journey unarmed as they were ordered to leave their weapons behind in their respective armories and were promised modern guns upon their arrival in Washington.

Because no continuous rail line linked Pennsylvania’s state capital to the nation’s capital, it was necessary for the men to detrain in Baltimore, march two miles through the city to Camden Station, and board the railcars of another railroad line for the final leg of their journey. Baltimore was a hotbed of Confederate sympathy, whose residents had conspired to prevent the passage of any Northern volunteer through their city.7 When word arrived that a train full of “Abe Lincoln’s damned Black Republican militia” was on its way, people began congregating at the depot.8 The Pennsylvanians were soon to discover that soldiering was, indeed, no small feat.

Around one o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, April 18, the train cars carrying the volunteers lurched to a halt in Baltimore. The crowd, which numbered approximately 2,500 – five times the size of the unarmed Pennsylvanians – greeted the arriving soldiers with insults, jeers, and threats. Cries of “three cheers for Jeff Davis,” and “damn the Northern abolitionists” went up among the crowd. Baltimore’s entire police force was called to provide a safe passage for the troops through the city, but with each step the mob grew increasingly vehement and violent. Some rushed toward the Pennsylvania contingent, landing a few well-thrown punches, while others spit on Lincoln’s eager volunteers. James Schaadt recalled, “Roughs and toughs, longshoremen, gamblers, floaters, red-hot secessionists, as well as men ordinarily sober and steady, crowded upon, pushed and hustled the little band and made every effort to break the thin line…. It was,” he concluded, “a severe trial for the volunteers with not a charge of ball or powder in their pockets.”9

After the companies reached Camden Station, events became even worse. Many detractors began hurling bricks, stones, bottles, and pieces of wood; others, wielding clubs, surged towards the Pennsylvanians. Many of the projectiles hit their mark. Several members of the Allen Infantry suffered broken bones, while others were knocked unconscious. The most notable casualty that day, however, was Nicholas “Nick” Biddle, the frail, 65-year-old African American orderly (an attendant to an officer) to Captain James Wren of the Washington Artillery. The sight of a black man in uniform provoked the ire of the hotheaded crowd. To screams of “Nigger in uniform!” Biddle was struck in the head with a brick, which reportedly left a wound deep enough to expose bone.10 Badly injured, he nonetheless survived the gruesome wound and has gone down in popular thought as the Civil War’s first casualty.

The members of the five companies boarded cattle cars and nursed their wounded comrades as they steamed out of Baltimore. James Schaadt wrote, “Fortunately, the cars into which the infantry clambered were box or freight cars not furnished with seats, but whose wooden roofs and sides protected the volunteers from the cobbles and bricks now rained upon them by the rioters, more than ever infuriated at seeing their prey escape.”11

About seven o’clock that evening, they arrived in Washington, where they were met by Major Irvin McDowell, who three months later led the Union army to ignominious defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. He escorted them to temporary quarters in the halls and chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building. The Allen Guards, for instance, were assigned to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin’s office in the building. “Captain McKnight was asleep in the Speaker’s chair,” the April 18 edition of the Pennsylvania Telegraph, published in Harrisburg, reported, “while his first two officers were sleeping in chairs at the Clerk’s desk.” Early the following morning, a gratified and relieved President Lincoln, accompanied by Cameron and Secretary of State William H. Seward, met and shook hands with each of the men, thanking them for their service and, especially, their prompt arrival. A number of volunteers from Pottsville’s Washington Artillery enthusiastically called upon the commander-in-chief to speak, but he declined.

“Officers and soldiers of the Washington Artillery,” the president responded, “I did not come here to make a speech; the time for speechmaking has gone by, the time for action is at hand. I have come here to give you a warm welcome to the city of Washington, and to shake hands with every officer and soldier in your company providing you grant me the privilege.”12 No one denied Lincoln his request.

As he made his way through the ranks of volunteers, the president noticed many bloodied bandages, bruises, and injuries. Most of the injured soldiers were members of the Allen Infantry. Twenty-five-year-old Ignatz Gresser, a native of Germany, suffered an ankle wound.13 Private David Jacobs endured a fractured left wrist and several broken teeth. Henry Wilson Derr was struck in the head by a brick, which left him deaf for the rest of his life. And then there was Nick Biddle.

Biddle had been associated with the Washington Artillery since its formation in 1842 and was so highly regarded by Wren and members that he was permitted to wear the company’s uniform. Lincoln was shocked by the sight of the former slave in uniform with his head wrapped in blood-soaked bandages.14 The president urged Biddle to seek medical treatment, but he refused, determined to remain with Wren and the company.

The soldiers of Pennsylvania’s First Defender companies spent most of their three-month term of service in guard and garrison duty in and around Washington, experiencing little in the way of active campaigning or battle. On May 1, the Allen Infantry and the National Light Artillery were transferred to the United States Arsenal, two miles south of Washington, on the Potomac River to guard large quantities of materiel, including “70,000 stands of arms and heavy guns, with powder.”15 The Allen Infantry was first quartered on the second floor of the complex’s Penitentiary Building and then in the rooms of the arsenal building itself. The unit was later joined by the Ringgold Light Artillery. The companies of the First Defenders marched in late June to Maryland, where they slept in a building used by the Rockville Fair. The following morning they took up the march to Poolesville, Point of Rocks, and Sandy Hook, Maryland, and to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. They then proceeded to Williamsport and across the Potomac River to Martinsburg where they camped.

Following several more uneventful encampments, their term of enlistment expired and they were mustered out in late July and returned home. Throughout the summer of 1861, however, the overwhelming majority of the soldiers reenlisted to serve in the scores of three-year regiments that were being speedily organized throughout the state, filling the ranks of such units as the 48th, the 49th, the 53rd, and 96th Infantry Regiments as well as the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry. During their terms of service with the three-year units, many First Defenders became officers. More than half of the soldiers who comprised the ranks of the Logan Guards became commissioned officers during the war, including no less than four brigadier generals. By war’s end, many former First Defenders would be among those killed in action or lost to disease.

Years later, Heber S. Thompson, a private in the Washington Artillery and later a captain in the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, wrote: Hardly a single great battle was fought in the four years of the war – from Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Five Forks to Appomattox in the East, and from Shiloh to Stone’s River, Mufreesboro, Chickamauga, Resaca and Atlanta in the Middle West – in which the First Defenders were not represented. Their individual war records would fill volumes of history.

Although these soldiers witnessed much more of the brutalities and harrowing hardships of war than during their three-month term of service as members of the First Defender units, they would long carry the torch of their achievement and take great pride in being the very first volunteer troops to arrive in Washington after President Lincoln’s April 1861 call-to-arms.16

Even though the early volunteers were the first to defend the Union, they are among the last to be duly recognized for their contributions to the North during the American Civil War. “And so, in time to come, the example of the First Defenders will remain an inspiration whenever our flag and country shall need prompt, ready and unhesitating defenders,” opined James Schaadt in December 1909.17 They indeed remain an inspiration.

 

Notes

  1. Some men also joined the ranks as conscripts or substitutes.
  2. Samuel Penniman Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869), 1:8.
  3. Ibid., 1:8.
  4. Schuylkill County in the Civil War (Pottsville: Historical Society of Schuylkill County, 1961), 14.
  5. William Muhlenberg Hiester, The Place of the Reading Light Artillery of Reading Among the First five Companies Which Marched to the Defense of Washington, April, 1861 (Reading: Historical Society of Berks County, 1870), 6.
  6. Heber Thompson, The First Defenders (First Defenders Association, 1910), 30.
  7. John David Hoptak, “A Forgotten Hero of the Civil War” in Pennsylvania Heritage 36, 2 (Spring 2010), 8.
  8. Ibid., 8.
  9. James A. Schaadt, “The Allen Infantry in 1861” in The First Defenders by Thompson, 139.
  10. Hoptak, 9.
  11. Thompson, The First Defenders.
  12. Hoptak, 6-7.
  13. For his bravery during the Battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, Maryland, in September 1862, Ignatz Gresser was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1895 – three decades after the war ended.
  14. Hoptak, 7.
  15. Schaadt, 2.
  16. Thompson, 95.
  17. Schaadt gave an address to the Lehigh County Historical Society on December 15, 1909, which appeared the following year in Thompson’s The First Defenders, and as a 16-page booklet titled The Allen Infantry in 1861, in 1911.

 

John David Hoptak, a lifelong student of the American Civil War, is a native of Schuylkill County, home to two First Defender companies. He is the author of several books, including First in Defense of the Union: The Civil War History of the First Defenders (2004), The Battle of South Mountain (2011), and Confrontation at Gettysburg (2012). He resides with his wife Laura in Bendersville, Adams County, and is employed as a park ranger by the National Park Service at Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland, and Gettysburg National Military Park. His work has appeared in America’s Civil War magazine.