Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Meet a Militiaman: Jacob C. Higgins (part II)

(read Part I here)

Higgins in a post-Civil War photo - Cambria County, PA Genealogy

Within weeks of returning home from service with the 125th Pennsylvania, Jacob Higgins found himself heading back to the army.  In early June 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia was once again moving northward toward Maryland and Pennsylvania.  A small Union force, under Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy, was scattered from their post at Winchester, VA as the rebels advanced.  Some of Milroy's force fled east to Harper's Ferry, but most, including Milroy, fled north into Pennsylvania, all the way to Bloody Run [now Everett], Hollidaysburg, and Altoona.  As in September 1862, panic began to spread through Pennsylvania, as it looked more and more likely that the Rebel army would soon be invading the Commonwealth.  An "Emergency" force of Pennsylvanians would again be called upon.

On June 10, 1863, the United States War Department created two new military departments [regions] in Pennsylvania, whose commanders would coordinate a defense against Lee's threatening army.  Western Pennsylvania [everything west of Johnstown, and parts of Ohio and West Virginia] became the Department of the Monongohela, while everything in Pennsylvania east of Johnstown became the Department of the Susquehanna.  Higgins' own Huntingdon/Blair County region would lie in the western reaches of the latter.  Selected to command the Dept. of the Susquehanna was Maj. Gen. Darius Couch.  Couch, and Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin immediately sent representatives to Blair County in search of a capable officer who could organize and lead a defense of the mountainous valleys which Rebel forces were slowly creeping toward.  The vital Pennsylvania Railroad facilities at Altoona and Hollidaysburg were seen as potential targets, as were the important iron industries of the region also known as Morrison's Cove.  Without hesitation, the experienced Jacob Higgins was selected for the task.  "To Col. Higgins," telegraphed Couch on June 13, "Can you raise a regiment under my orders?  The danger is imminent and immediate action is required."  On June 15, Curtin issued a proclamation calling for Pennsylvania to organize militias in response to the imminent Emergency.  The next day, Higgins received word from Harrisburg that he was, "...hereby directed to assume command of all the forces posted in the vicinity of Hollidaysburg, and the valley below [Morrison's Cove], and retain it until further orders..."

Morrison's Cove, based on Higgins's own sketched map - Minute Men of Pennsylvania

Col. Higgins quickly began to bring together men from the region.  Having commanded militia units in the Hollidaysburg area for many years before the war, Higgins knew just where to look for brave men to answer the call of "emergency".  Men from the railroad shops of Altoona, and the iron foundry at Duncansville turned out, as did farmers, carpenters, shop keepers, clerks, and miners from every corner of the region.  The officer pool that Higgins had to select from were surprisingly skilled and experienced, and well known by Higgins, since many were former members of the 125th Pennsylvania.  Men like Lt. Col. Jacob Szink, who left his job as foreman of the blacksmith shop at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Altoona Works.  Szink also recruited many of his own shop workers to follow him to Higgins' call.  Other men like Capts. William Wallace and Ulysses Huyett, of Cos. C and A respectfully, and undoubtedly countless more who were ready and willing to drop everything and face Lee's hoards once again.  A large group of 125th veterans organized in Mt. Union (in eastern Huntingdon County), under the command of their former Major, John J. Lawrence, who was now made Colonel of the 46th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia.  The 46th would later end their "emergency" service in Philadelphia, where Harrisburg was afraid draft riots would break out just as they had in New York City.   

Capt. Wallace
Lt. Col. Szink

While Higgins estimated that the force he was able to bring together numbered approximately 1,400 men, that number would ebb and flow over the course of the "emergency".  Higgins' troops were never officially mustered into state or federal service, and were, in fact, completely free to come and go as they pleased, just as the "Minute Men" of the Revolution.  During periods when it appeared that the region was most threatened by the Rebels' advance, Higgins' ranks would swell with men, ready to protect their homes, no matter how many of the enemy they might face.  For a brief time, a battalion of Emergency militiamen from Johnstown, commanded by William McCartney, former Lt. Col. of the 133rd Pennsylvania, arrived in Altoona and marched through Morrison's Cove.  McCartney's force quickly returned to the defenses of Johnstown when fears rose that the Rebels would soon be within striking distance of the city.  At the height of the invasion into Fulton, Bedford, and Blair Counties, it is thought that Higgins' force reached nearly 2,500 men.  
Once men began to assemble into Higgins' force, he quickly put them to work.  Using the abundant trees and large boulders of the mountainous region, Higgins' men constructed crib barriers, filled with stone, approximately eight feet wide and seven feet high, at the vital mountain passes and streams that could be used by the advancing Rebels.  "We need...Chains, Ropes & Axes," wrote one of Higgins's Captains, "By building fires we can work most of the night.  Send on fresh men as fast as possible.  Even in small squads they can be put to work at once."  At other locations, they dug systems of trenches, which can still be seen today along side Lower Snakespring Rd, north of Everett (noted as the 'Snakespring Gap Fort' on Higgins map).  Today, the spot is marked by a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker

remnants of trenches at Snakespring Gap - Google Street View

Sometime around June 17, while the hastened defensive construction in the passes continued, Higgins ordered Lt. Col. Szink to move south from Altoona and Hollidaysburg with a force of roughly 400 men, towards Bedford.  This force under Szink would push south and east toward the direction of the oncoming enemy.  On their march, Szink came upon some of Milroy's forces still making their exhaustive journey northward toward Altoona.  Szink's brave band constructed small fortifications and road blocks all along the way.  Being the veteran that he was, Higgins must have realized that if the Rebel army was indeed moving on Altoona, Szink's force would be no match for the oncoming hordes.  However, rather than sit in the mountain passes and wait for the waves of gray to crash up the slopes, a strong reconnaissance was necessary. 

Word soon reached the Rebel army marching in the Cumberland Valley, that fortifications were being constructed in the mountains to the west.  Confederates under Gen. George Hume Steuart started on the roads headed west toward Mercersburg, and McConnellsburg [roughly 40 miles east of Bedford] to determine who was defending the passes.  On June 24, a very small, joint force of Milroy's cavalry, and a squad of militia men [many former members of Higgins' 125th PA] under Capt. William Wallace startled a detachment of Rebel cavalry, that was sent to probe the mountain passes above McConnellsburg.  Cautiously the next day, Steuart's infantry searched the mountainside for the phantom Union force that had fired on the Rebel horsemen.  Wallace managed to retreat north to Fort Littleton, and Szink, who had also marched to McConnellsburg, had been able to escape back to the safety of the fortifications at Bloody Run.  The quick confrontation helped slow the advance of the Confederates, who regrouped after the attack by the unknown enemy force, of unknown strength.  

Over the next several days, Higgins continued to have his men construct fortifications, while he did all in his power to turn out more men for his force, as well as secure supplies for the defense of the region.  On the 28th of June, another wave of rebels entered the region, under the command of Gen. John Imboden.  However, Imboden's cavalry troopers were surprised and run off by another small group of Milroy's cavalry, and mounted militiamen.  Though Higgins' did not know it at the time, this small skirmish would be the last Southern push into the region.  As word that the Union army was fast approaching the Rebel army, and without the vital reconnaissance of Jeb Stuart's cavalry, Gen. Robert E. Lee began to concentrate his forces east of the Cumberland Valley.  Days later, on July 1, the opening shots of the great Battle of Gettysburg would change, for the better, the military landscape for Higgins, and the region he bravely defended.  

Morrison's Cove, looking North, with Loysburg Gap in the distance - Butch Rasmussen

With the defeat of Lee and his army, and their retreat back into Virginia, came and end to the "Emergency."  Higgins, and his men, soon returned to the homes they so quickly rushed to defend. 

As eventful as Higgins' story had been so far, the closing of the Gettysburg Campaign did not at all bring an end to his involvement in the war.  In early 1864, he helped raise what would become the nucleus of the 22nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, and would lead them in battles and skirmishes in West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.  Several times, Higgins was placed in command of the brigade in which the 22nd was a part, as well as the cavalry division of Gen. Julius Stahel.  Higgins was finally mustered out of service on July 21, 1865.

After the war, Higgins worked closely with Cambria Iron Co. in Johnstown.  He also ran the Henrietta Hotel, in Henrietta, PA.  Remaining active with his fellow veterans, Higgins was also a  member of the local G.A.R. post.  

In 1888, on the 26th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, Higgins, and other survivors of the 125th Pennsylvania, returned to site of their first fight; to remember comrades, to recall past glories, and to find meaning in an event so terrible.  To commemorate the occasion, the veterans present had their photograph taken behind the now famous Dunker Church, site of the 125th's "baptism of fire". 

History of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers

At the right of the image can be seen a 62 year old Higgins, on horseback, just as he would have been as he lead his men into battle exactly 26 years before.

Jacob C. Higgins passed away on June 1, 1893, and was buried in Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown, PA.  In 1921, the last remaining veterans of the 125th placed a memorial stone at Higgins' grave, illustrating that nearly 60 years after the events, and 33 years after his death, Jacob Higgins was still beloved and remembered for the life of service and bravery he rendered to his country, his state, his home, and his comrades. 

photo by annie -

(memorial inscription)
1861          1865
In Honor of
A Mexican War Veteran
Colonel of the
One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth
Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
in the War for the Union
and the Brave Young Men 
Who Served with Him from
Blair Huntingdon and
Cambria Counties

(to "meet" other militiamen, click here)

"125th Pennsylvania Volunteers Organization and Service", accessed 20 December 2011. available from; Internet.

"22th Cavalry Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers". accessed 28 December 2011. available from; Internet.

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

Burgess, Milton V. Minute Men of Pennsylvania. Martinsburg, PA: Morrison Cove Herald, 1962.

"Col Jacobs Higgins' Official Report", accessed 20 December 2011. available from; Internet.

Karns, Rev. C. W. Historical Sketches of Morrisons Cove. Altoona, PA: Mirror Press [originally printed in the Altoona Mirror], 1933. 

Regimental Committee, The. History of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers 1862-1863. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1906.

Storey, Henry Wilson. History of Cambria County Pennsylvania, vol. II. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1907.

United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. XXVII, Part III. US Government Printing Office, 1889.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Meet a Militiaman: Jacob C. Higgins (part I)

In 1826, Jacob Higgins was born in Williamsburg, PA, in what would later become part of Blair County.  Growing up in a rugged, mountainous region of the state, and coming from an ancestry of "hardy stock", Higgins learned early many of the characteristics of toughness, and independence.

"My father's side of the house," wrote Higgins, "came from the North of Ireland.  My mother's side came from Germany.  My mother died when I was seven years old.  My father died a year or two after and I was left penniless and to shift for myself as best I could.  I worked on a farm for a while for my victuals and clothes, then I got a few dollars per month, and finally went to the carpenter trade and worked at that until the Mexican War broke out."

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Higgins soon joined "the Wayne Guards", Co. M of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry in 1847.  Heading to their muster point at Pittsburgh, Higgins and his company floated along the Pennsylvania Canal, until reaching Hollidaysburg.  Here they boarded the famous Allegheny Portage Railroad, and rode it's series of incline planes up and over the rugged terrain of Blair and Cambria Counties, arriving at Johnstown.  From here, the Co. once again boarded canal boats for the final leg of their journey to Pittsburgh, where they would be sworn into Federal service, organized with the rest of the 2nd Regiment, and shipped off to the seat of war in Mexico, where they would fight in the army of Gen. Winfield Scott.

Jacob Higgins, ca. 1860 - Minute Men of Pennsylvania

While on picket duty one night, in the Sierra Madres, Higgins had a memorable run-in with a "local":
"I was quietly seated on the little knoll and no enemy appeared to be near me except the frisky mosquito, but all of a sudden some wild animal appeared in the forks of the road.  It looked to me to be about six feet long.  I at once cocked my gun and the click of the lock attracted the attention of the animal as it squatted down and then in one bound leaped across the road and disappeared.  I afterwards learned that the animal was a jaguar or American tiger."

Another dramatic moment took place in the small Mexican village of Azotla.  Trying to catch up with a group of his fellow soldiers, who had gone to the village earlier in the day, Higgins entered Azotla and found it deserted.  Entering a store, which was left wide open, Higgins recalled that he, "...heard a noise and on looking behind me saw three large brawny Mexicans standing at the front door with large knives or cutlasses in their hands and two others standing in the back door.  There I was without any arms whatever to defend myself.  I just leaned back against the counter shelf with a sigh of despair and as my eyes dropped down, as it were, I saw a large Mexican sabre lying under the counter unsheathed almost at my feet.  I stooped down, picked it up and walked out from behind the counter in a careless manner, but not a word had been spoken yet by the Mexicans or myself.  But at this time I raised my sabre, pointing up towards the stairs and called out to my comrades, which I knew were not there, to come down.  That threw the Mexicans off their guard and I kept advancing toward the door, swinging the sabre above my head and glancing toward the stair until I got close enough to strike which I did with all the strength I was able to command.  I struck one on the left side of the neck and another on the right side.  One fell to the right and the other the left and the third one jumped out of the way.  I jumped out the door and if ever I did any fast running it was at that time."

By September 1847, Winfield Scott's army had pushed within striking distance of the Mexican capitol, but first had to assault the remaining stronghold at Castle Chapultepec.  Higgins described the charge toward the castle gates: "The grape and canister came down on us thick, not to mention the continual rattle of the musketry which showered us with bullets as thick as hail.  Men were falling all around me, but I escaped unscathed.  Many of the bullets came so close that the wind off them nicked my hair.  I consider that close enough.  Some of the rascals stood until we ran bayonets through them or knocked them out with clubbed muskets.  We found the road strongly fortified and had to charge right up to the mouths of the cannons and turn them on the men that used them until we could reach the city gates.  It was at this point that I was struck on the leg by a splinter off of the gate.  We held our position all night and the next morning we marched into the besieged city.  Here we planted the stars and stripes on the capitol where they now proudly wave."

Lt. Col. Higgins, 1st PA Cav - AHEC
Upon returning home from the war, Higgins began work at the Portage Iron Works, while remaining active in the Pennsylvania Militia.  When the Civil War broke out, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin looked to all able military leaders of the Keystone State.  Higgins became commissioned as Colonel of the 1st Pennsylvania Militia (not to be confused with the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers, which served for three months).  In August of 1861, he raised and lead Co. G, 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, and was soon promoted to Lt. Col.  At the Battle of Drainesville, in December, Higgins personally lead the 1st Pennsylvania in an attack on the town.

In 1862, Higgins resigned from his position in the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, and was soon commissioned as Colonel of the 125th Pennsylvania Infantry, which he also helped raise.  Filled with over 900 men from Higgins' native Huntingdon/Blair County region, the 125th was to serve an enlistment of nine months.  Rushed to the front, the veteran Higgins would lead his "green" regiment into their first battle, the Battle of Antietam, as a part of the Union army's 12th Corps.

125th PA flag - Capital Preservation Comm.
 Just days before Antietam, the 125th was pushed towards the fighting at South Mountain, where they were spectators to some of the carnage of that battle.  The sight of the lifeless body of Union General Jesse Reno, who had been killed during the fight, and was being carried to the rear, was a memorable event for the men of the new Pennsylvania regiment.

Three days later, during the terrible Battle of Antietam, the 125th moved toward the battlefield to support the Union I Corps, already in action early in the morning.  Upon arriving at the gruesome scene that nearly two hours of prior combat had created, Higgins and the 125th advanced into the hotly contested West Woods.  "I gave the command," wrote Higgins in his Official Report, "and my men started forward with a yell, driving the enemy before them and gaining possession of the woods.  Here I took some prisoners whom I sent to the rear."  Soon, however, the overwhelming pressure of rebel reinforcements took it's toll on the 125th.  "[The rebels] continued to advance, when I ordered my skirmishers to rally, and gave the command to commence firing.  A most destructive fire caused the enemy to halt.  I held him here for some time, until I discovered two regiments of them moving around my right, while a brigade charged on my front.  On looking around and finding no support in sight I was compelled to retire.  Had I remained in my position two minutes longer I would have lost my whole command."  Within a very short time, the "green" 125th Pennsylvania suffered 229 casualties.  [to read Higgins' entire Report, click here.]

History of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers

Having been on the march from Harper's Ferry, the 125th was not engaged during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. 

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, in May 1863, after a surprise attack on the Union flank, the 125th helped to rally the shattered troops that were fleeing in confusion.  When their brigade commander, Thomas Kane, was injured, Higgins took command of the brigade and shepherded it through the chaotic battle.  The 125th performed admirably once again, and they, along with the rest of Gen. Geary's 12th Corps division, were one of the last units to leave the field at Chancellorsville.  Their coolness under the stress of battle was personally commended by both Geary and Gen. Henry Slocum, 12th Corps commander.  Within days of the fight, the Regiment was headed back to Harrisburg, having finally reached the end of their nine month enlistment.  The 125th Pennsylvania was officially mustered out of service on May 18, after which time, Higgins returned home to Duncansville, where he resumed his work at the Portage Iron Works. 

However, as events unfolded that summer, Higgins would soon be marching off to war again, but this time the march wouldn't be nearly as far.

(read Part II here)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

New National Park: Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I had the chance to take a short trip over to Paterson, NJ to visit America's newest National Park site; Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park.   Anyone who knows me, knows that that I have always had a love for our National Parks, and all they do to protect and interpret our natural and cultural past.  So, I certainly couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit a "new" Park.

Paterson Great Falls - Dave Maher

As a native of the Garden State, I was aware of the Falls, but I had never before visited them, or knew of its, and Paterson's prominent role in the birth of the industrial might of the United States.  In the earliest days of the nation, Alexander Hamilton saw the importance of the water power that could be harnessed by the 77ft drop (2nd highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River), by creating the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.).  He realized that to become truly independent from Great Britain, the United States would have to have the industry in place to create what it needed to thrive.  Soon, mills, power plants, and other industries sprung up near the Falls, making the growing city of Paterson a true powerhouse.  Due to the abundance of silk mills near the Falls, Paterson soon became nicknamed "the Silk City."

However, it wasn't just silk that was produced there.  In the 1830s, Samuel Colt's first production facility was located along the Passaic River, near the falls.  It was here that the very first models of his revolving hand gun would be produced.  The Colt plant is largely in ruins today, but there are plans to stabilize and reconstruct some portions, as well as turn other parts into an archaeological "park within a park."  [The Colt Mill was placed on Preservation New Jersey's "Most Endangered" List in 1995]  During the Civil War, steam locomotives were produced in Paterson at a staggering rate of nearly one per day.  In 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, Engine No. 119 (on the right of the image below), which was built by the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works in Paterson, was present at the "Golden Spike" ceremony, marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. 

"Golden Spike" ceremony -

In 1967, the Great Falls was named as a National Natural Landmark.

In 1976, a part of Paterson, including the Falls, became a National Historic Landmark.

In 1977, the raceway and power systems at the Falls were named as a National Civil Engineering Landmark.

And finally, in 2009, a commission was established to include the Great Falls into the nation's remarkable National Park system.  In November of 2011, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was officially designated.  Over the next several years, the National Park Service, and the community will plan for the park's interpretation and conservation, and make it one of the NPS's "must see" parks.  The city of Paterson, hoping to experience a tourism boom, is very excited to share their Falls with the rest of the world.

Currently there are no Park staff on site, and signage and interpretation are limited, but if you ever find yourself driving I-80 in NE New Jersey, make a quick stop and visit this great collection of industrial history and natural beauty.

Also, be sure to check out nearby attractions such as Hinchcliffe Stadium [which was placed on Preservation New Jersey's "Most Endangered" list in 1997, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "Most Endangered Historic Places" list in 2010], and the statue to Paterson native Lou Costello

Please check out these related links:
Paterson Friends of the Great Falls
Paterson Museum

A news story from 2009 about the Great Falls

A video of the Nov 7, 2011 dedication, and the behind the scenes story of making a National Park site

A video I put together of some of the pics and video I took during my visit to the Great Falls

Friday, December 9, 2011

"It's a beautiful day in Pennsylvania!"

As we get further into the holiday season, the spirit of traditions, customs, and memories of holidays past can be seen and heard everywhere.  As an American Studies student, and a transplanted Pennsylvanian, I have always loved learning about the traditions and cultures of all the small tucked away nooks and crannies of the Keystone State (which there are plenty!).

Every month or so, the Pennsylvania State Archives offers a small sampling of audio clips from Pennsylvania's own Pete Wambach, and his radio shorts, "It's a Beautiful Day in Pennsylvania!"  Like Charles Kuralt, who roamed the nation, Wambach takes listeners on a journey across the fascinating landscape of Pennsylvania, introducing them to local stories along the way, using an entertaining blend of anthropology, ethnography, history, tourism, and just plain curiosity.

Airing from 1964 to 1985, Wambach's radio broadcasts now have a home in the State Archives.  This month, archivists have posted a collection of holiday themed broadcasts that highlight everything from Pennsylvania German's early use of Christmas trees, to Ambridge, PA's snow shovel riding championships.

Now, I know it's not necessarily Civil War related (although he has done many programs on the topic), but take a few moments to explore this "beautiful day in Pennsylvania," and don't forget to check the State Archives' website often for new audio clips.

Listen here.
(read about Wambach and his radio program at the top of the page)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Antietam Memorial Illumination - 2011

After several attempts in past years (thanks to illnesses and weather), I was finally able to attend Antietam National Battlefield's Memorial Illumination on December 3.  Along with July's 'Salute to Independence' event, and of course Battle Anniversary weekend, the Illumination is a must attend for any Civil War, National Park, or history buff alike.

For the past 23 years, over one thousand volunteers gather in early December, to carefully place 23, 110 luminaries throughout the northern portion of the battlefield.  Each flame represents a casualty from the bloody, one day battle.  As darkness ascends, and droves of park visitors slowly drive through the battlefield, the scale of 23,110 human casualties becomes clearer.  Each curve in the tour road, and the cresting of a hill offers another stunning view.

Staying late into the night with my camera, I walked along the rows of luminaries as the tour roads became more and more still, before finally heading home.  Another amazing weekend at our National Parks.

Please enjoy a sampling of some of my photographs from this weekend (below), as well as photographs taken by the National Park Service's Capital Region Social Media Team: here and here

photo by Dave Maher

photo by Dave Maher

photo by Dave Maher

photo by Dave Maher

photo by Dave Maher

photo by Dave Maher

photo by Dave Maher