Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Medal of Honor: John Hartranft at the Battle of Bull Run

For obvious reasons I have had Bull Run on the brain this week.  I'm very much looking forward to this weekend, where I will be participating in the 150th Battle of Bull Run reenactment, as a member of the recreated 69th New York State Militia color guard.  I am not looking forward to the brutal heat that will be awaiting me, however.  So, for the time being, while I can still enjoy modern A/C, I thought I'd write another post.

Since today marks 150 years since the first major battle of the American Civil War, I thought I'd take a moment to recant the story of one Pennsylvanian who left his mark on history at the Battle of 1st Bull Run.  When the Civil War broke out, John Hartranft, of Norristown, PA, was, among other things, the commander of the 1st Pennsylvania Militia.  Rushing to defend the flag, and answer President Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion, Hartranft, immediately offered his service to the federal government.  On April 20, 1861, Hartranft and his men were sworn into federal service as the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteers, for an enlistment period of three months.

Maj. Gen. Hartranft in 1865.  Library of Congress

Arriving in Washington on May 8, the 4th Pennsylvania was quartered in government offices, and a local church, just as many other regiments from around the country flowed into the capital.  On June 30, in an early morning "scrap", pickets from the 4th exchanged fire with rebel troops near Fairfax, VA, killing and wounding several men of Company E.

Within days, the Union Army, under the command of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, began to push it's way south toward the railroad hub at Manassas, VA, near a stream known as Bull Run.  By July 20, the Army stood poised on the banks of Bull Run, with Confederate forces clinging to the opposite banks; a decisive battle was surely immanent.  However, July 20 also marked the last day of service for Hartranft and the men of the 4th.  Realizing that every soldier would be needed in the coming fight, McDowell tried to convince the men of the 4th to stay on past their term of enlistment: 
"The General commanding has learned with regret that the time of service of the Fourth regiment, Pennsylvania volunteers, is about to expire. The services of the regiment have been so important, its good conduct so general, its patience under privation so constant, its state of efficiency so good, that its departure, at this time, can only be considered an important loss to the army. Fully recognizing the right of the regiment to its discharge and payment, at the time agreed upon, when it was mustered into service, and determined to carry out, literally, the agreement of the government in this respect, the General commanding, nevertheless, requests the regiment to continue in service for a few days longer, pledging that the time of muster out of service shall not exceed two weeks. Such members of the regiment, as do not accede to this request, will be placed under the command of proper officers, to be marched to the rear, mustered out of service, and paid, as soon as possible, after the expiration of the term of service."     

After some discussion among the men, the majority elected to return to Harrisburg, and be mustered out of service, having fulfilled their three month enlistments.  

Hartranft, and several other men of the 4th were very embarrassed by this turn of events.  How his fellow soldiers could turn back for home with the enemy so near, and a brewing battle that many believed would decide the national conflict, Hartranft could not understand.  He quickly volunteered to stay with the Army in whatever capacity he might be able to fill.  Colonel Hartranft was placed on the staff of the 4th Pennsylvania's brigade commander, Col. William Franklin.  

The following day, July 21, the Battle of Bull Run commenced.  Hartranft, and the men of Franklin's brigade pushed their way across Bull Run.  Just as Franklin's men were moving forward, the 4th Pennsylvania boarded trains bound for Harrisburg.  

Early on, the first major battle between the North and South seemed to be going just as Gen. McDowell had hoped, the rebels were on the run, but soon the Union lines began to give way in utter confusion and chaos as casualties mounted, and rebel reinforcements appeared on the field.  Col. Samuel Heintzelman, who commanded the division in which Franklin was a part, wrote in his official report, "Such a rout I never witnessed before.  No efforts could induce a single regiment to form after the retreat was commenced."  Continuing on with a scathing review of the actions of the "green" volunteers, Heintzelman stated, "...much excuse can be made for those who fled, as few of the enemy could at any time be seen.  Raw troops cannot be expected to stand long against an unseen enemy."

One of the new volunteers that was standing was Col. Hartranft.  As Col. Franklin noted in his after action report, Hartranft was, "...exceedingly valuable to me, and he distinguished himself in his attempts to rally the regiments which had been thrown into confusion."  For a time Hartranft's efforts paid off, as he was able to get Franklin's men to hold some resemblance of order, but as more and more of the Union Army began to melt away in panic, Hartranft could no longer hold back the inevitable.  The Union forces continued to rapidly retreat all the way back to the safety of Washington; the battle was lost.

For his actions at the Battle of Bull Run, John Hartranft received the Medal of Honor in 1886.  His citation reads, "Voluntarily served as an aide and participated in the battle after expiration of his term of service, distinguishing himself in rallying several regiments which had been thrown into confusion."

Hartranft would never live down the embarrassment felt at Bull Run as his regiment began to travel back to Pennsylvania, despite the raging battle of that summer day.  Seemingly, neither did most of the men of the 4th Pennsylvania.  After returning home, Hartranft raised another regiment, the 51st, which would be made up of many members of his old regiment.  The stigma of the 4th at Bull Run also appeared to have stunted Hartranft's rise to higher rank.  Three times, from September 1862 to June 1863, Ambrose Burnside, Hartranft's then commanding officer, unsuccessfully petitioned for Hartranft's promotion.  Even Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, when commenting on Hartranft's potential promotion, would remark, "Why, this is the Colonel of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment that refused to go into service at First Bull Run."

John Hartranft would go on to fight bravely with the 51st Pennsylvania, most notably as they stormed the now famous "Burnside's Bridge" during the Battle of Antietam.  Commanding a division in the Union Army's 9th Corps, Hartranft would capture Fort Stedman, outside Petersburg, VA in 1865, delivering a final blow to the crumbling Confederate Army, just weeks before it's surrender.  In the wake of  the assassination of President Lincoln, Hartranft would oversee the execution of the remaining conspirators.

After the war, Hartranft would serve as Pennsylvania's Auditor General, and as it's Governor from 1873 - 1879.  During his time as Governer, he quelled many uprisings and riots, most notably the famous "Molly Maguires" in the coal region.  He also restructured the Pennsylvania Militias into what we know of today as the Pennsylvania National Guard (28th Division), and after his service as Governor, he was named as the Guards' commander.

In 1889, John Hartranft died and was buried in his native Norristown.  A decade later, an equestrian statue of Hartranft was unveiled in front of the Pennsylvania State Capital in Harrisburg.  One of the speakers at the ceremony was the Confederate Henry Kyd Douglas.  Aside from his role during the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Douglas commanded a rebel brigade which faced off against Hartranft during the fighting for Fort Stedman in 1865.  Of Hartranft, Douglas stated that, "he was true to his friends and to his word of honor.  He was never known to desert a friend for any purpose on earth." 

Douglas' words rang true that day, and exactly 150 years after Hartranft's actions at the Battle of Bull Run, we remember why.

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

"Governor John Frederick Hartranft," accessed 20 July 2011; available from; Internet

"Medal of Honor: John F. Hartranft," accessed 20 July 2011: available from; Internet.

Report of Col. Samuel P. Heintzelman, July 31, 1861. found in: Series I, Vol. II, United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

Report of Col. William B. Franklin, July 28, 1861. found in: Series I, Vol. II, United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

Saylor, Richard. Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania's Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, 2010.

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