Following President Abraham Lincoln's April 15, 1861, call-to-arms, tens of thousands of eager Northerners volunteered their services to help quell the now hostile rebellion of Southern states. But the very first to arrive in Washington after the commencement of sectional hostilities were roughly 500 men from Pennsylvania, comprising the ranks of the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, the Logan Rifles of Lewistown, the Allen Infantry of Allentown, and the National Light Infantry and Washington, both of Pottsville, seat of Schuylkill County. I have long held an interest in these volunteers--so much so that I even wrote a book about them. After passing through a trying ordeal in Baltimore, where some of the men--including Nicholas Biddle, a free black man in the Washington Artillerists--were wounded by stones, bricks, and bottles, hurled by an angry mob, the five companies reached Washington on the evening of April 18, 1861. Because they were the first to arrive, they would go down in history as the "First Defenders." As Heber Thompson--a soldier in the Washington Artillery--declared, "The First Defenders had the honor of blazing the way for 2,788,304 soldiers, who followed them into the army of the United States for the preservation of the Union."
The men of the five First Defender companies met and were personally thanked by President Lincoln, and on July 22, 1861, they received the official Thanks of Congress. More honors for these men followed. . .particularly in the post-war years.
On May 26, 1891, more than thirty years after the famed arrival of the First Defenders in Washington, the Pennsylvania State Legislature "made an appropriation for medals of honor to be presented to be presented to the First Defenders." As excerpted from the law:
"Be it Enacted, That the sum of one thousand five hundred dollars, or so much thereof as may be necessary, is hereby specifically appropriated for the purpose of procuring a suitable medal with commemorative devices, for each of the surviving members or their heirs, of the National Light Infantry of Pottsville, Pennsylvania; the Washington Artillerists of Pottsville, Pennsylvania; the Reading [Ringgold] Artillery, of Reading, Pennsylvania; the Allen Infantry, of Allentown, Pennsylvania; and the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the event of the said five companies being the first to respond to the call for troops by President Lincoln, of date April 15th, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, mustered in at Harriburg, Pennsylvania, on the 18th day of April one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and reached Washington, District of Columbia, and were stationed in the Capitol building for its defense on the 18th day of April, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one."
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These First Defenders' medals, made of bronze at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, featured the Capitol on the front, and, on the back, the names of the five companies and the name of one of the soldiers. As you might then imagine, these medals of honor are incredibly rare, with one being made for each of the 475 First Defenders.
Up until a few months ago, I have only seen them in photographs or on-line. But, oh I would say back in August 2007 or so, I received an email from a very nice couple from near Lancaster who just so happened to have in their possession a real First Defenders Medal. They asked if I would be interested in seeing it and, of course, I jumped at the opportunity. Very generously, they stopped by in Gettysburg earlier this year and gave me a great thrill to see, with my own eyes and hold with my own hands, a real First Defenders Medal. Having spent so much time studying these units, it was really special for me to actually hold one. I snapped a few pictures, but upon returning home discovered they did not turn out so well. Then, just two and a half weeks ago, this very pleasant family stopped by at Antietam, with the Medal, allowing me to try it again. . .and this time it worked.
The Medal belonged to one Emmanuel Saylor, of Pottsville, who served first in the National Light Infantry and then in the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry.
I was struck firstly by how small the Medal actually is (about the size of a quarter), and its incredible amount of detail. The front reads: "First in Defence of the Capitol: April 18, 1861."
In the world of Civil War collecting, these Medals are among the rarest items imaginable. But far more importantly to me, of course, was the fact that after all these years, I actually had the opportunity to see and to hold one. It was a thrill, and I cannot thank enough the pleasant couple who made it possible. I truly do appreciate your kindness.