Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (part I)

Recently, while digging through the collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives, I unearthed a very interesting letter written after the Battle of Antietam, by Brigadier General Truman Seymour, which described the condition of the famed Pennsylvania Reserve Corps.  Many letters and accounts written by members of the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia note the Reserves, and describe their own volunteerism as not only in defense of Pennsylvania, but as almost a sort of rear-guard support for the Reserve Corps, who had been called to the front.  "The Reserves," wrote a soldier in the 2nd Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, "had been called away to succor the hard-pressed army of McClellan, and the borders were left wholly unprotected at the inviting season of harvest."  This, coupled with the discovery of the letter, prompted me to write a brief overview of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps [a topic easily able to fill an entire blog...see], as another link in the story of Pennsylvania's Emergency Men.
Long before Pennsylvania men rushed to fill the ranks of the Emergency Militia to act as the Commonwealth’s last line of defense, or front line in some cases, the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps had been raised for that same purpose.  On April 15, 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to help quell the boiling rebellion in the southern states.  Initially, Pennsylvania’s quota was fourteen regiments (quickly raised to twenty five), which were to serve for a period of three months.  However, so many Keystone men marched forward, that nearly thirty whole regiments had to be turned away from Federal service.  "One of the greatest perplexities of the government," stated Lincoln, "is to avoid raising troops faster than we can provide for them."  

Harrisburg, at this point, had become overrun with organized militia companies from all over the state who were “itching to fight”.  Rather than waste the effort put forth by these troops, and the State, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin signed legislation on May 15, 1861, that would organize these militia companies into the “Reserve Volunteer Corps of the Commonwealth”.  According to the law, the Reserves would consist of thirteen infantry regiments, one cavalry, and one artillery regiment, to serve for a term of enlistment of three years, or for the duration of the conflict.  Similar to the Emergency Militia in the coming years, the Reserves were, “…liable to be called into the service of the State at such times as the Commander-in-Chief [Curtin] should deem their services necessary, for the purpose of suppressing insurrections, or to repel invasions."  

Gov. Curtin - Library of Congress
An early test for the Reserves came in late June 1861, when the 5th (aka 34th Pennsylvania Volunteers) and 13th (aka 42nd Pennsylvania, aka the “Bucktails”, aka the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles) Reserve regiments were ordered to protect the Pennsylvania/Maryland border in southern Bedford County.  Confederate forces had been in the area of Cumberland, MD, and many in Pennsylvania feared the rebels would continue to move north.  The citizens of Cumberland urged the men of the Reserve Corps to enter Maryland and protect their city.  Just as many in the Emergency Militia of ’62, some in the Reserves discussed the, “…constitutional propriety of passing State troops beyond the State limits”.  In the end, the Reserves did enter Maryland, and successfully defended the town from a rebel attack. 

Over the next month, Gov. Curtin offered, several times, the services of the Reserve Corps to the Federal government, and each time they were refused.  It wasn’t until the days leading up to the Battle of 1st Bull Run, that Curtin’s offer was finally accepted.  Perhaps this was due to the fact that many of the regiments in the Union Army would soon be heading home, since their enlistment periods were nearing an end, and a decisive battle had yet to be fought.  On the day of the Battle, July 21, and the days following the devastating Union defeat, Washington writhed in chaos.  The Capital sent many frantic messages to Gov. Curtin, demanding the assistance of the entire Reserve Corps for the stabilization and bolstering of the Union defenses.  From this point forward, the Pennsylvania Reserves would serve the Commonwealth, and the Nation, on the front lines.

Fighting with distinction and bravery during McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, the Battle of 2nd Bull Run, and the Battle of South Mountain, the Reserves earned a reputation as stubborn fighters that could be counted on in tough situations.  However, like most brave unit reputations earned during the Civil War, the Reserves paid for theirs in blood.  By the time the Reserve Division reached the battlefield along the Antietam in September of 1862 as part of the I Corps, they were hardened veterans, whose ranks continued to be cut down by enemy fire.  Again and again, newspapers around the state would note the actions and the losses in the Reserve regiments.  In the death notice of Capt. James S. Colwell, Co. A 7th Regt., who was killed at the Battle of Antietam, the author notes, "In the beginning of the war he volunteered his services to his country and was present with and participated in all the severe battles which will immortalize in history the names of the Pennsylvania Reserves."  

In the late summer of 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began to push north through Maryland.  Fearing a rebel army crossing the Pennsylvania border, while no longer having the protection of the Reserve Corps within the state, Gov. Curtin scrambled to put together a force of Emergency Militia in the hopes of turning back a rebel invasion.  Curtin sought out a tested and experienced soldier to lead men who were, for the most part, very much the opposite.  "We want an active, energetic officer to command the forces in the field, and one that could rally Pennsylvanians around him", wrote Curtin in a message to Washington, "It is believed that General Reynolds would be the most useful..."  At the outset of the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Gen. John Reynolds, a Pennsylvanian, commanded the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps.  Many in the Army of the Potomac tried to keep Reynolds from being ordered away from the army to command the Emergency Militia.  Gen. McClellan responded by telling Washington, "He has one of the best divisions [the Reserves] and is well acquainted with it.  I cannot see how his services can be spared at the present time."  Despite these efforts, Reynolds, for the remainder of the campaign, was in command of the militia, and not his beloved Reserve Corps.

Gen. Reynolds -
Check out The Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (part II) here.
"Another Hero Has Fallen," Cumberland Valley Journal, October 4, 1862.

Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania volunteers, 1861-5 : prepared in compliance with acts of the legislature. Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.

Newland, Ph.D., Samuel J. The Pennsylvania Militia: Defending the Commonwealth and the Nation 1669-1870. Annville, PA: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, 2002.

Nichols, Edward J. Toward Gettysburg: A Biography of General John F. Reynolds. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1958.

Richards, Louis. Eleven Days in the Militia During the War of the Rebellion; Being a Journal of the "Emergency" Campaign of 1862. Philadelphia: Collins, Printer, 1883. 

Sypher, Esq., J. R. History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr & Co., 1865.

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