Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (part II)

Check out The Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (Part I) here. 

The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, still remains the bloodiest single day in American history, however, for the Pennsylvania Reserves, it would be two unforgettably brutal days.  On September 16th, the Reserves, now under the command of Brig. Gen. George Meade, crossed the Antietam Creek at the "Upper Bridge", and battled until dark to gain a toehold in the now famous "East Woods".  During the fighting, the brave Col. Hugh McNeil of the 13th Reserves "Bucktails" Regiment (named for the deer tails worn in their caps to show off their marksmanship prowess)  was killed leading his men forward.  That night, the Reserves remained on the battlefield, "sleeping feet to feet with the rebels", all the while exchanging fire with them.  With the rising sun on the morning of the 17th came all-out battle, as the remainder of the I Corps, under the command of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, joined in the fight.  Under Meade's command, the Reserve Corps performed very well, at one point bracing the Union line by beating back a Confederate counterattack through the hotly contested cornfield of farmer David Miller.  Still, they had been severely bloodied.  With the arrival of the XII Corps, the Reserves were finally able to fall back, and nurse their wounds.  

It is worthy to note that while the Reserves were going into action on the morning of September 17, 1862, Gen. Reynolds, their former commander, was not far.  Ten miles to the north, in Hagerstown, he desperately tried to get the Emergency Militia troops to move forward toward the sound of battle.  Frustrated, and always one to ride toward the sound of battle, Reynolds galloped to McClellan's headquarters, without his men, but that is a story for a future post.

The Battle of Antietam had been a battle the likes no one had ever experienced before.  At the end of twelve hours of fighting, there had been 23,110 Americans killed, wounded, or missing.  The Pennsylvania Reserve Corps had suffered roughly 500 casualties in a span of a few hours.  Antietam had been another crippling blow to the Division, as it had with the majority of the Union Army.  However, for the Reserves, who had been through many terrible battles over the past four months, including the often forgotten, yet just as fierce, Battle of South Mountain, a few days earlier, Antietam had left the Division in a deplorable condition.  

On October 15, Lieutenant John Mitchell of Co. A, 136th Pennsylvania, a new regiment, wrote home to the The Agitator, a weekly newspaper from Wellsboro.  While writing from camp near Sharpsburg, and describing the adventures, thus far, of the boys from Tioga County, Mitchell notes, "The Reserves and Bucktails are near by."  Discussing the abysmal condition of the Reserves,  he continued,  "They are veterans, worthy the names, soldiers and patriots.  They deserve a discharge from all danger, and the praise of Americans for their bravery and great sacrifices.  To see these old regiments so dwindled down makes one shudder for those who are left.  I saw the Bucktails going out to drill.  Their whole regiment numbers scarcely more than two of our Companies."

After taking command of the Reserves from Meade, who himself had taken command of the I Corps from a wounded Gen. Hooker, Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour sent a letter to the Adjutant General of Pennsylvania, painting a startling picture of what months and months of hard fighting had done to the proud Reserves.

Head Quarters Penn Vol Reserve Corps.
near Sharpsburg. Md.
September 27, 1862.
            I beg leave to present to you, for the urgent consideration of His Excellency, the Governor, the general condition of the Regiments comprising this Division – a body of soldiery which has justly won every title to esteem, whether as respects the honor its services have already conferred upon the State, or those it is expected yet to render to the cause in which it is engaged.
           The numerical force of the Corps is 10,259 – its effective strength only 5050.
           The Effective [strength] of the strongest Regiment is 575 – of the weakest, 184.  Several Regiments are commanded by Captains: some have no Field Officers, and but one or two Captains. 
           The average strength of the strong Companies is 36 – many number not over 15 men, and not a few are commanded by Sergeants: several Companies in the same Regiment, even, are so commanded.
           After a few more Battles the “Reserve Corps” must become entirely dissolved, and cease to exist, except in name or on paper – unless its ranks are promptly filled.  Recruiting has thus far proved a failure, and cannot be relied upon.  It is respectfully suggested that, if the requisite number of men cannot be added by draft, or otherwise, to these skeleton companies (which is the best possible course to pursue) that new companies should be sent out with organization complete – and that those now in the field be consolidated in the proper standard.
           Failing some such actions it must very soon become necessary – and due to the public good – that these Regiments should be re-organized – the companies consolidated – and the Field Officers limited in number and rank to the then condition of their commands.

Very Respectfully, General,
            your most obe serv
T. Seymour
Brig. Genl comm. of Div

Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour - Library of Congress

In less than a year of hard fighting, the Reserve Corps had been dwindled down from the force of 15,000 that had left Pennsylvania for the front lines.  Seymour's letter, with it's staggering numbers, must have found it's way to Gov. Curtin, for on September 30, 1862, Curtin wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, requesting permission to bring the Reserves home in order to properly recruit and replenish the ranks.  "Most of our regiments that have participated in the recent battles are reduced to mere skeleton," Curtin wrote.  "The brilliant history of the Reserve Corps in the war, and the State pride which has followed them since they entered the service, together with the circumstances surrounding their organization, would, I have no doubt, prove such incentives to enlistment that the Corps could be filled to the maximum in a short space of time."  After receiving no response from Lincoln, Curtin pressed the issue to McClellan, who also declined to allow the Reserves to be removed from the front.  In the end, the companies and regiments of the Reserves were consolidated and reorganized, as Truman had described.  

The skeletal division that would remain after Antietam continued to fight on.  In December of 1862, the Reserve Corps produced the only bright spot for the Union Army during the Battle of Fredericksburg, as they pushed their way through a freezing swamp, to punch a hole in the position of Stonewall Jackson's troops.  Unsupported, however, they were forced to fall back after Jackson counterattacked, shedding more Keystone blood.  During the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the Reserves would arrive on the battlefield in time to hold back a Confederate force that was making a clean sweep through the hotly contested Wheatfield.  Six members of the 6th Reserves Regiment would earn the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg (most of their photographs can be seen here).  By the time enlistments ran out for the Reserve Corps in mid 1864, the division numbered some three thousand men, nearly one thousand of which would re-enlist for the remainder of the war, fighting with the 190th & 191st Pennsylvania Volunteers.

The story of the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, while somewhat less known, intermingles with the story of the famed Pennsylvania Reserve Corps.  The men of the Corps kept alive the tradition of the Pennsylvania Militiamen who rushed to the call of 1776, and became everything many in the Emergency Militia of 1862 and 1863 hoped to live up to.  However, as Seymour's letter to Pennsylvania's Adjutant General Russel illustrates, the Reserves paid dearly for their legendary status, and for their beloved state.

"Last fight of the Pennsylvania Reserves" - Library of Congress

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

Glover, Edwin A,. Bucktailed Wildcats: A Regiment of Civil War Volunteers. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1960.

Mitchell, John. "From Hammond's Company", The Agitator [Wellsboro, PA], October 29, 1862.

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.

Seymour, Truman. Letter to Adj. Gen. of Pennsylvania, September 27, 1862. Pennsylvania State Archives, Record Group 19, Office of the Adjutant General, Series 19.29, General Correspondence.

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

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