Pennsylvania Reserves

Glimpses of the Nation's Struggle


(Read February 11, 1890)

When the War of the Rebellion commenced my home was near a quiet village in western Pennsylvania. My father was a clergyman and a man of peace. My mother had borne in holy wedlock six sons and four daughters. Of these, three sons and two daughters had fallen asleep, and their dust reposed in the village church-yard. I was the eldest son, and had not quite reached my seventeenth birthday when the conspirators at Charleston opened fire on Fort Sumter. I was then attending school preparatory to entering the junior year at college; but with the fall of Sumter my books fell from my hands, never again to be resumed in orderly course.

Although my home was somewhat remote from railway communication, yet almost daily we received news concerning the progress of the war. Occasionally a daily paper would reach us, and would be read with an eagerness that might be photographed, but not described. I can well remember the pictures of Fort Sumter: the rebel batteries, the curved lines of fire, the bursting shells, the turbulent waters, the dead and wounded men. My great desire, day and night, was to enlist; but my youth, and the fact that the President's call for seventy-five thousand men had been met within a few days after it had been made, satisfied me that I had been born under an unlucky star.

But momentous events succeeded each other with great rapidity in those d ays, and it was not long until an opportunity was afforded me to enlist. It was in the month of June, and a few days after Colonel Ellsworth had been killed while attempting to take down a Rebel flag from the Marshall House at Alexandria, Va.

I was the only member of the family that possessed a gun, and being a good marksman, I felt sure that I was called upon to become one of the great army of "Ellsworth's Avengers." My influence was principally with my mother. So I renewed my previous earnest solicitation that she would consent to my entering the army. To my great gratification, she yielded, and I at once hastened to my father's study, and with a faltering voice asked his permission to go.

For a few moments he looked me in the face and answered not a word. Then, laying down his pen, he asked me to be seated, and enquired as to my motives for desiring to enter the service. Fortunately for me, his questions were so framed that I could readily give favorable answers. In substance I replied that I was prompted by patriotic motives; that I regarded it a duty to serve my country in her hour of peril, and that I was willing, if necessary, to die in her defence. It is my present impression, however, in the light of what followed, that I scarcely comprehended the full significance of his questions, but I answered them to his satisfaction, and obtained his consent also.

My mother gave me a change of raiment, and out of an old rosewood box in her bureau drawer took some pieces of silver and gave them to me, and in almost the twinkling of an eye I was gone. It was a beautiful morning in June, the air was redolent with the perfume of flowers and blossoms. A company of soldiers from a neighboring town were to pass through Greensburg on their way to Pittsburg about noon of that day, and it was necessary for me to walk nine miles to reach the station.

I had not a moment to spare, and in haste I departed from the shelter and protection of a good and safe home to enter upon the untried and unknown realities of grim-visaged war. The road was winding, and with a light and happy heart I hurried along, here and there crossing fields to save distance, meeting, now and again, neighbors and acquaintances, who, when I told them I was going to the war, looked incredulous.

Great was my disappointment when reaching Greensburg to find that the train carrying the troops I expected to join had passed through a short time before. However, I followed after on the next train, and when I reached Camp Wright, situated on the Allegheny River a few miles above Pittsburg, I met a friend of my father's, who gave me the welcome information that there was a vacancy in the Pittsburg Rifles, and that he would use his influence to get me the place.

The Pittsburg Rifles was a company composed of some of the best young men of the cities of Pittsburg and Allegheny. They were picked men, and it required as much influence to get into the ranks of that company as it did to hold a commission in many other organizations. The company was armed with Sharpe's rifles, the gift of leading citizens, and the men were uniformed in gray, presenting a very attractive appearance indeed.

One of its members, a private, had resigned, which was the vacancy above referred to, and I was honored with his place, his uniform, and his gun; and in less than forty-eight hours after I had left my home I was a soldier, enjoying, to the utmost of my capacity, the noise and dust and din and excitement of camp life. And this was my introduction to the Pennsylvania Reserves.

For three years the Pennsylvania Reserves constituted one of the most efficient and valuable divisions in the Army of the Potomac, and it is my desire in this paper very briefly but imperfectly to sum up its magnificent record. It consisted of thirteen regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, and one of artillery, numbering in all more than fifteen thousand men, and was recruited at the very beginning of the war.

When President Lincoln issued his proclamation for seventy-five thousand men, Pennsylvania not only furnished her assigned quota of fourteen regiments, but increased the number to twenty-five. The patriotic ardor of the people was so great that this did not suffice, and the services of about thirty additional regiments were tendered, but had to be refused.

Pennsylvania had then in the public service many great and patriotic men, but none greater or more patriotic than her chief-executive, Andrew G. Curtin. With rare good judgment he forecast the future, and was convinced that the rebellion could not be suppressed until the government used every element of strength within its reach. Preparations for a long and severe contest were necessary, and upon a scale vastly greater than had yet been contemplated by the general government.

In addition to this, it was deemed prudent and necessary to take some immediate steps for the protection of the commonwealth. With three hundred miles of frontier lying along the borders of slave States, she was open to invasion at any moment. Accordingly, Governor Curtin convened the legislature of the State in extra session on the 30th of April, 1861, and on the 15th of May following the legislature passed an act providing for an organization to be known as the "Reserve Corps of the Commonwealth." Camps of instruction were at once formed at West Chester, Easton, Pittsburg, and Harrisburg, where the troops convened and were organized into regiments and received military instruction.

In many cases men who had organized companies under the call of the President for troops, but which had not been accepted because of the great numbers offering, preserved their organizations intact at their own expense and immediately reported to these camps of instruction, so that in a few days after the passage of the law the troops offered were greatly in excess of the number required. General George A. McCall, who had rendered distinquished services in the Mexican War, was placed in command, and under experienced army officers the men were drilled and disciplined, and soon became well prepared for active service

Every portion of the State was represented in this organization. It was composed almost entirely of young men in the flower of their manhood. The cities, the villages, the farms, the mountains, and backwoods all contributed to make up this magnificent body of troops. The renowned regiment of skirmishers known throughout the country as the "Bucktails" belonged to this division. Its officers and men each wore a buck's tail, secured like a band on the side of their caps, which gave them a sort of a Daniel Boone appearance. They were also armed with breech-loading rifles, and were expert marksmen.

On the 21st of July, 1861, the first great disaster befell the Union Army at Bull Run. No provision had been made for an emergency of this sort, and comparatively few, if any, reenforcements were at the disposal of the commanding general. Calls were at once made summoning to Washington all the available forces in the country. On the 22nd of July a requisition was made upon the State of Pennsylvania for the immediate services of the Reserves, and in response to this urgent demand the advance regiments of the division reached Washington City within twenty-four hours after the close of the battle.

Colonel R. Biddle Roberts, of the First Regiment, was in the advance when we reached Baltimore. At the depot a body of the city police met Colonel Roberts and advised him not to attempt to march his men through the city, as the people were in a state of intense excitement and thoroughly armed, and that it would be very unsafe for him to march his regiment through the streets. His answer was, "Gentlemen, I have not come here hunting for safe places; my men are thoroughly armed and equipped, and will march through your city." The march was taken up, and regiment after regiment filed into the heart of the city. The sidewalks and buildings were crowded with people, most of whom were bitter secessionists, who looked upon us with sullen astonishment, but not a sound was heard save the tap of the drum and the resistless tread of the moving columns.

When we reached Washington it caused much rejoicing, and aided greatly in restoring confidence to the generally demoralized state of affairs. Upon arriving at the depot, President Lincoln, accompanied by members of his Cabinet, came out to meet the men, and thanked them for having insured the safety of the capital by their timely presence. Within a few days the entire division, numbering 15,856 officers and men, was mustered into the United States service, and became a part of the historic Army of the Potomac, with the express understanding, however, that the unity of the command should be maintained during their three years' term of service.

On the 5th of August, 1861, the division moved to Tenallytown, a village six miles northwest of the capital, where it went into camp. "The officers immediately organized classes for instruction in military tactics and army regulations. The zeal to acquire a knowledge of military duties manifested by the officers was equalled only by their efforts to instruct the men in the manual and use of arms, and their duties and behavior as soldiers. Never, perhaps, was there so general a diffusion of intelligence extending through all of the companies of a division of an army as was the case in this corps."

Many teachers, students from colleges and academies, lawyers, physicians, preachers, merchants, and manufacturers were found not only among its officers, but in the ranks as well. To make soldiers of citizens like these was not a difficult task, and it was a just tribute paid to the valor and intelligence of these men when, a little more than a year afterwards, General Meade, who had witnessed their intrepid and gallant behavior at Fredericksburg as they swept over the earthworks of the Rebels, in admiration exclaimed, "Every one of them is fit to be a general officer!"

On the 16th of September, 1861, the corps was divided into three brigades, the first commanded by General John F. Reynolds, the second by General George G. Meade, and the third by General Edward O.C. Ord--a trinity of soldiers whose fame is imperishable. Under one or the other of these great leaders all the battles in which the Reserves participated were fought, and the glory of one was the glory of the other.

On the 9th of October, 1861, the division crossed the Potomac River, and for the first time set foot upon the "sacred soil," or rather "mud", of Virginia. The men carried two days' cooked rations and sixty rounds of ammunition, and felt that they were going to battle. They were in the best of spirits, and, as they crossed the river on what was called the Chain Bridge, rent the air with patriotic cheers, while the bands played "Dixie's Land." The division encamped at Langely, two miles west of the Chain Bridge. Here we went into winter quarters, and became the right wing of the Army of the Potomac; and apart from the incidents usual to camp life and picket duty in the presence of the enemy, and an occasional foraging party, nothing of importance occurred until the 20th day of December, 1861, when the Reserves fought and won their first battle.

On the 19th of December it was reported to General McCall that on the following day the enemy would be at Dranesville with a large force, and a wagon-train, for the purpose of carrying away all the forage, hay, and grain in the country in front of the camp of the Reserves. This General McCall was unwilling to permit, and he ordered his entire division to be ready to march at daylight on the following morning for Dranesville, twelve miles distant.

The brigade of General Ord, to which I belonged, was in the advance, followed by Reynolds and Meade respectively. About noon the head of the column reached Dranesville, where it met the brigade of the Rebel General Jeb. Stuart, consisting of a squadron of cavalry, Cutt's Battery, and four regiments of infantry, as follows: The First Kentucky, the Sixth South Carolina, the Tenth Alabama, and the Eleventh Virginia. General Ord's Brigade consisted of four regiments of infantry, Easton`s Battery, and a squadron of cavalry. The Pittsburg Rifles, which had become Company A of the Ninth Regiment, was with Company E of the "Bucktails," advanced some distance on the Centerville road as skirmishers, and were the first to meet the enemy.

No time was wasted in useless preliminaries, and the engagement came on with the swiftness of a storm, and in a short time the artillery and infantry were all engaged on both sides at close range. As I came in from the skirmish line it was a beautiful sight to see the magnificent regiments in blue, numbering seven or eight hundred men each, with arms at "right shoulder, shift," the stars and stripes streaming in the breeze, marching to the front to meet the foe. As we hurriedly passed General Ord to join our regiment, which, in line of battle, was about entering a dense wood on the right, he returned our salute and said, "Come down on them, boys, like the wild-cat in the mountain."

In a few moments we reached our regiment, forming in our places on its right. After advancing a couple of hundred yards into the woods, we met the First Kentucky, commanded by Colonel Tom Taylor, and opened fire at pistol range. Our fire was very effective, as attested by the dead and wounded in our front, which was larger than in any other part of the field. The fight lasted but a short time, when the enemy gave way and hastily abandoned our front. Here I saw the first living sacrifice offered upon my country's altar. After firing several shots, I turned to my left to observe the position of our line, when I saw a comrade, in whose tent I had spent most of the previous evening, rise on his knee to fire. Instantly a bullet struck him in the neck, cutting the jugular vein, and the hot, red blood gushed out in a great stream. Without a murmur he sank upon the ground, dead. I turned away from the sickening sight, and had not courage to look upon his face again.

Everywhere along our line we were successful, and in less than an hour we had achieved a splendid victory. Easton's Battery, which proved to be one of the best in the service, went into action under fire, but in a short time exploded one of the enemy's caissons, killed many of the gunners and horses, and silenced the battery. The enemy's loss was two hundred and thirty, while our loss in killed and wounded was sixty-eight, including one lieutenant-colonel and four captains. This was a great day for the Pennsylvania Reserves, and was the first victory won by the Army of the Potomac. Many disasters had befallen our armies. The battle of Wilson's Creek had been fought and lost, and the brave General Lyon slain. The disaster at Ball's Bluff a few weeks previous, and the death of the patriotic Baker, had overwhelmed the country with sorrow, and it fell to the Pennsylvania Reserves to turn the tide in favor of the Union arms.

In the early part of March, 1862, the division was assigned to the corps commanded by General McDowell, and in the following June was transferred to the Peninsula and attached to the corps commanded by General Fitz John Porter. On the 19th of June General McCall was ordered to take his division to Mechanicsville, and to occupy the extreme right of the Army of the Potomac This was the post greatest danger, and accordingly the post of honor. The spires of Richmond were within sight of our camps, and we confidently believed that we could triumphantly march into that city whenever the word of command was given. But that was not the sort of commands that were issued in those days, and we were never so near to Richmond again.

Our position at Mechanicsville was naturally a strong one, and it was further strengthened by fortifications, so, when the great drama of the seven days' fighting opened on the 26th of June, 1862, we were ready for battle and confident of success. I have not time to go into the details of this battle, but it was easily fought by us against overwhelming numbers, and with great loss to the enemy. Our pickets were driven in about noon, but the battle did not really begin until three o'clock, and from that time continued with great energy until dark. Two brigades of Morrell's Division went to the assistance of General Reynolds on the extreme right, about sunset, but by the time they got into position Reynolds with his own brigade had repelled the last charge with great slaughter, and had cleared his front of the enemy. The fighting on the part of the Reserves was splendid. Not a regiment or company wavered anywhere along the line. They were cool and steady, and without bluster or noise, except such as was made by their guns, continued the fight for more than five hours, without relief or assistance from any quarter.

As night settled down the firing gradually ceased, and with the exception of an occasional screaming, fiery shell that made the darkness hideous, no sounds were heard save the moans and sad refrain of the wounded and dying men. To me this was a new experience, and filled my heart with indescribable emotions; but "tired nature's sweet restorer" soon came to my relief, and I fell fast asleep.

At four o'clock in the morning we were quietly wakened, and Company A and two other companies of the Ninth Regiment were ordered to occupy the rifle-pits on either side of the road overlooking the approach to the bridge spanning Beaver Dam Creek at Ellerson's Mill. Our position was an admirable one, on elevated ground, and was the key to the situation on that part of the field. Soon after taking possession of the pits the firing began, and continued without abatement until about seven o'clock, when we were ordered to evacuate them. At that time we were practically without ammunition. Of the sixty rounds I had when I went in but two remained, and these I proposed to keep for use at close quarters, for I was of too delicate a build to cope successfully in a bayonet charge with that mythical person styled "a Southern fire-eater who could whip five Yankees." Three different Confederate regiments were put into the fight against our three companies that morning, but they accomplished nothing. As we effectually commanded the approaches to the bridge, we had a fine opportunity afforded us for doing good execution, and during all the hours we were there we could see wounded men constantly going to the rear, while in my company we did not sustain the loss of a single man. It was the only experience I had of fighting behind breastworks, but is was enough to satisfy me that they are a good thing to have, and about the only good thing that you cannot have too much of. When we retired from the rifle-pits we found, to our utter astonishment, that the entire division had been ordered back to Gaines's Mill, and that we were the rear-guard in that movement. The enemy did not follow us, and unmolested, we found our way to the new line of operations.

I have now described with some detail the two battles which had been fought and won exclusively by the Reserves. During all my four years' experience in the service I never saw better disciplined soldiers than the Reserves were at this time. They had implicit confidence in their commanders, and could be depended upon to execute any duty, however perilous. They were the sons of a State within whose boundaries the true principles of human liberty were first promulgated to the world; they were familiar with the Constitution, had an intelligent comprehension of its true scope and meaning, and could not be misled by the sophistries of conspirators and traitors; they had an unfaltering faith that the right would succeed, and stood ready, not only to pledge their lives, but to give them, rather than treason should succeed and the government be destroyed.

Another advantage this division enjoyed was that they were bound together by mutual interests. At home they were neighbors, friends, schoolmates--they were bound together by ties of kinship and of personal friendship and acquaintanceship. They could not betray their country, and they could not desert each other.

In the trying hour of battle they had confidence in each other--they never lost the touch of elbows--they remained together on the field until victory was won, or together they retired from the field, contesting every inch of ground.

In a paper of this character it is impossible for me to dwell at any considerable length upon the great events in which these troops bore so honorable and conspicuous a part.

At Gaines's Mill they were held in reserve, but soon after the battle opened were distributed all along the line, and wherever the peril was greatest they were put into the fight. Here the brave Easton lost his life. His splendid battery, when in action, seemed to have the power of a whirlwind sweeping everything before it. It had a potent voice, and to the sound of its guns the Reserves always marched with elastic step. Towards evening the Rebels made repeated attempts to take the battery, and finally succeeded by the sheer force of overwhelming numbers. As the heavy columns advanced the brave Easton shouted, "Pour in the double canister, boys; this battery can never be taken but over my dead body!" And only after the gunners had been bayonetted and Easton slain did the enemy lay hands upon it.

That night the Reserves crossed the Chickahominy, and on the following day were assigned the important duty of safely protecting the Reserve artillery until it could be removed to Malvern Hill, without which the army would be helpless. With Lee in close pursuit, heavy rains, almost impassable roads, and the confusion attending a change of base in the face of a powerful enemy, it was no small responsibility to be entrusted with this task. This artillery was under General Hunt, and consisted of eighteen splendid batteries; but a single road was accessible for the purpose, and through the deep forest, in darkness and rain, wet, hungry, and covered with mud, the Reserves marched by the side of the artillery, ready to defend it until the point of danger was passed and its safety assured.

For this service General McClellan expressed his highest gratification and thanks. On the 30th of June the Reserves were again assigned the post of danger, and for four hours bore the brunt of battle at Charles City Crossroads. In this battle the bayonet was freely used, and the losses were very heavy on both sides. Here General Meade was wounded, General McCall was taken prisoner, and Colonel Seneca K. Simmons, commanding the First Brigade, was killed. In the death of Colonel Simmons the Reserves lost an able and experienced soldier of the highest military attainments. N.P. Willis, who saw him during a storm, thus describes him: "Of a most warlike cast of feature, his slightly grizzled beard was impearled with glistening drops, and with horse and accoutrements all dripping, he rode calmly through the heavy rain, like a Triton taking his leisure in his native element. It was the finest of countenances and the best of figures for a horseman. He looked indomitable in spirit." In this battle the Ninth Regiment again met the Tenth Alabama, which was one of the regiments with Stuart at Dranesville, and captured its stand of colors.

It was also in this battle that I first lost a messmate, J. McDonald Smith. He was the only one of our mess that was married. A short time before the battle opened, when everything was in readiness and the silence was oppressive, I saw him sitting at the foot of a small tree reading his bible. By an arrangement between him and his young wife, portions of Scripture were selected for daily reading weeks in advance, so that they would always read the same chapter on the same day. I can now see his serious, anxious face as he again and again looked at his watch and remarked, "I wish this day was over." In changing front to meet an attack from the left flank he was shot through the heart, and to our great distress his body fell into the hands of the enemy and was buried in an unknown grave. But this was only the beginning of sorrows, for soon after, while storming the rocky heights of South Mountain, William McClurg, another messmate, fell, mortally wounded, and a few days afterwards died in one of the rooms of the national Capitol. He was a graduate of Yale, a fine mathematician, could translate with elegance the Latin and Greek authors, was a perfect gentleman, and brave beyond criticism.

And afterwards, in the terrible battles of the Wilderness, Dick Dale gave his life for his country. He was promoted from the ranks to lieutenant-colonel, and when last seen was at the head of his regiment, sword in hand, leading his men across the Rebel earthworks. Like Smith, his body was never recovered, and lies buried in the soil of treason, and like McClurg, he was an only son. They were all young men of the purest patriotism, and the soil of the "Old Dominion" is past redemption if it can drink up such loyal blood and hold the dust of such true patriots without bringing forth fruits meet for repentance.

As I have referred to some of my messmates, I will speak of them all. Robert Whiteman, the youngest, whose cheeks were as rosy as those of a school-girl, fell into the hands of the enemy, and the hardships of prison life were so great that he only reached home to die. Three others besides myself reached home--one alone escaping the scars of war--all of whom are still living. Andrew P. Morrison is an attorney of long and honorable practice in the city of Pittsburg, Pa. Murt K. Salsbury is a prosperous manufacturer in the same city, and Todd W.N. Wallace is a successful merchant at Washington, Pa. They are men worthy of the country they helped to save, and in this brief reference to my messmates, living and dead, you will recognize the sterling worth of the men who composed the "Keystone" Division of the Army of the Potomac.

In addition to the engagements already mentioned, the Reserves took part in the battles of Malvern Hill, Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court-house, North Anna, and Bethesda Church, and on all these fields distinguished themselves by their valor and soldierly bearing. They never disappointed the expectations of their officers, but performed their full duty without regard to cost.

On the 30th of May, 1864, which was the last day of their term of service, they participated in the battle of Bethesda Church. This battle-field was within six miles of Mechanicsville, where, less than two years before, they had won a great victory over a vastly superior foe. "At the battle of Mechanicsville more than ten thousand men fought in the ranks of the division; at Bethesda Church less than two thousand fought, but they resolved that the end of their service should be as glorious as its beginning was patriotic. To a succession of brilliant achievements, from Dranesville to Gettysburg, without a blemish to mar the story of their greatness, without a stain to tarnish their unsullied banners or a defect to detract from their fame, the battle of Bethesda Church was a most honorable and fitting conclusion."

"From the beginning of the war until its close no body of troops achieved a fame so distinct and universal as that of the Pennsylvania Reserves. Other troops fought equally well, and wrought out glorious histories that will ever be remembered by a grateful posterity, but the Reserves fought battles and won victories of their own, and thus secured to themselves a wider fame in the history of the nation's struggle." Their patriotic dead sleep upon many a well-fought field.

The illustrious Reynolds, who had risen to the command of a corps, and was one of the ablest and most trusted officers in the Army of the Potomac, laid down his life upon the soil of his native State, at Gettysburg. Generals C.F. Jackson and George D. Bayard fell at Fredericksburg. Colonels Simmons, McNeil, Taylor, Dare, and Woolworth died among their men upon the field of battle; and your ears would grow dull with weariness should I enumerate all those of lesser rank, to say nothing of the great host from the rank and file, who died that the nation might live. A quarter of a century has passed away since the remnant of this magnificent division was mustered out amid the joyous acclaims of their countrymen, and time has well-nigh completed the work that the enemies of the flag so well commenced, but the glory of their achievements remain, and the record of their heroic deeds is fadeless.



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(c) December 2019