Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Saturday, April 21, 2012

151st Camp Curtin Commemoration

Camp Curtin - Harper's Weekly

On April 18, 1861, while boarding trains headed to Washington, five companies of Pennsylvania volunteers, forever known as the "First Defenders", became the first Keystone men to be mustered into military service, and eventually the first Northern soldiers to arrive in Washington after President Lincoln's call for troops.  As the First Defenders continued their trip to Washington that day, more and more volunteer companies arrived.  The First Defenders, and several other companies, had occupied several hotels and boarding houses throughout the city.  It soon became clear to Gov. Andrew Curtin that Harrisburg needed to find a proper location for these men to camp, organize, and train.  Several companies from Johnstown had made camp at a fairgrounds about a mile north of the city.  It was soon determined that this spot, with it's wide open fields, proximity to the Susquehanna River,  and easy access to both the Pennsylvania Railroad and Pennsylvania Canal, was the best possible location.

layout of Camp Curtin - William J. Miller

Throughout the day, more and more volunteers began to arrive at, what had been named, "Camp Union".  Harrisburg native, major in the Pennsylvania Militia, and later the Col. of the 46th Pennsylvania at Antietam, Joseph Knipe was responsible with constructing and organizing the new camp of instruction.  Approaching one of the buildings at the old fairgrounds, "Major Knipe, apparently a man with a good sense of drama, climbed a ladder and appeared on the roof of the building clutching a national flag.  He wrestled with the halyards on the flag pole for a few moments, but soon had the flag attached to the ropes.  He turned to the crowd below and shouted, 'What shall we name the camp?  I propose the name of Governor Curtin!'  The suggestion was a popular one.  While Knipe ran the colors up the pole, the growing crowd cheered and sent hats sailing into the early twilight sky of that Thursday, April 18.  Camp Curtin was born."

Gov. Andrew Curtin
Maj. Joseph Knipe

Over the course of the bloody American Civil War, Camp Curtin would see over 300,000 soldiers pass through it's gates, including those of the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, as well as large amounts of food, supplies, and equipment.  Pennsylvania and Camp Curtin became vital for President Lincoln, and the Union war effort.  For the soldiers, Camp Curtin would change their lives forever.  "It was in Camp Curtin," writes historian William J. Miller, "that volunteers learned that the life of a soldier was one of discomfort and frustration.  There, amid the disease and discomfort, in leaky tents and on the sun-baked parade ground, boyish illusions died.  Men learned to tolerate and work with other men.  They made strong friendships, some of which ended on battlefields, some of which survived and endured for decades.  There, also, they said farewell, often tearfully, to friends and comrades and to the life of extreme excitement, danger and boredom they had lived in the army.  For these men, Camp Curtin was as much a part of their war experience as were the marches, battlefields and hospitals."

Almost immediately at the end of the Civil War, and with the closing of the Camp, the Harrisburg neighborhood, fittingly known as Camp Curtin, sprang up.  However, it wasn't until 1922 that Union veterans were finally able to place a fitting memorial to Camp Curtin, and the Pennsylvania Governor for which it was named.  Even though it was memorializing the nation's largest and most productive Civil War camp, Camp Curtin Park, at 6th & Woodbine Sts. became the country's smallest state park.

Gov. Curtin monument - Camp Curtin Park

151 years after Joseph Knipe's theatrics, and proclamation in which he named Camp Curtin, on April 18, 2012, nearly 100 people gathered in Harrisburg's Camp Curtin Park to honor the history made there.  Attendees and speakers included: Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson, Harrisburg City Council, James Schmick of the Camp Curtin Historical Society, David Demmy of the Sons of Union Veterans, Jean Cutler of the Bureau for Historic Preservation, Wayne Motts of the National Civil War Museum, members of the Camp Curtin Memorial-Mitchell United Methodist Church, a military honor guard from Fort Indiantown Gap, living historians portraying Camp Curtin's soldiers and carrying reproduction flags on loan from the Pennsylvania Capital Preservation Committee, and residents of the Camp Curtin neighborhood.  Organized by Jeremy Young, of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission - Bureau for Historic Preservation, the ceremony not only honored the history of the Camp, but also celebrated the listing of the neighboring Camp Curtin Memorial-Mitchell United Methodist Church in the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Camp Curtin neighborhood has experienced hard times in recent years, but it is the hope of everyone who attended Wednesday's ceremony that through a re-discovery and promotion of the city's rich history, and proper planning and historic preservation efforts, that this neighborhood, as well as the city and region, can reclaim the prominent and respected status that it is justly deserved.  The preservation and remembrance of Camp Curtin and it's surrounding neighborhood is much more than simply a local issue.  Camp Curtin's role in Pennsylvania and United States history is undeniable, and the pride seen on the faces of everyone who attended speaks volumes.  Let us hope that the remembrance of the sacrifices of Pennsylvania's Civil War generation will be the catalyst for remembrance, recognition of, and pride in, Harrisburg's (and beyond) other historically/culturally rich resources.


FOX 43:

ABC 27:
Miller, William J. The Training of an Army: Camp Curtin and the North's Civil War. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing Co., 1990.