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.

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.