Lieutenant Edwards's Final Resting Place,
Union Cemetery, Schuylkill Haven, PA.
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April 18, 2011, marks the 150th Anniversary of the First Defenders' arrival in Washington. Overlooked, indeed, largely forgotten in the vast annals of Civil War historiography, the First Defenders were the first Northern volunteers to reach the nation's capital following the outbreak of civil war in April 1861. They numbered some 475 strong, composing the ranks of five militia companies, and all of them hailed from Pennsylvania. The Ringgold Light Artillery from Reading had been drilling since January 1861, in response to militia general William Keim's urging that they be prepared should sectional hostilities erupt. Those hostilities did erupt on April 12, when Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter. After a 36 hour-long bombardment, Major Robert Anderson ordered the white flag be raised, and the nation was thus plunged into fratricidal war. The day after the capitulation of Sumter, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers, to serve a three-month term of service. Among the first companies to respond were the five First Defender units. In fact, in 1866, former Secretary of War Simon Cameron stated that the very first unit to do so was the National Light Infantry, from Pottsville. On April 17, the National Light Infantry, under the command of Captain Edmund McDonald, left Pottsville, along with the city's other pre-war militia unit, the Washington Artillerists, formed in 1840 by the then eighteen-year-old James Nagle, who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Civil War. When the two companies departed Pottsville on that "cold, raw, and disagreeable" day, Captain James Wren led the Washington Artillerists. He travelled along with his orderly, sixty-five-year-old Nicholas Biddle, a former slave who escaped bondage some forty years earlier via the Underground Railroad. The Pottsville units arrived in Harrisburg late on the evening of April 17, joining the Ringgold Light Artillery, under Captain James McKnight, which had arrived hours earlier. Later on, the Logan Rifles from Lewistown and the Allen Infantry from Allentown arrived in the Pennsylvania capital.
Early the following morning, April 18, the militia troops were mustered into Federal service by Captain Seneca Simmons, who, one year later, met his death on the fields of Gaines's Mill. After taking the oath, the volunteers boarded train cars and set out for Baltimore. Arriving in the secessionist-leaning Maryland city, the Pennsylvanians were greeted with insults and threats and then, as they marched through the city, to Camden Station, they were pelted with bricks, rocks, bottles, and just about everything else the mob of some 2,500 "hot-blooded secessionists" could get ahold of. Nicholas Biddle was among the first struck; so too would fall a number of the members of the Allen Infantry. These men, all of them painfully wounded, thus shed the first blood of the Civil War. After this rather harrowing ordeal, the men reached Washington around 8:00 p.m. on the night of April 18. They were greeted at the depot by Major Irvin McDowell, who escorted the troops to their quarters. . .in the U.S. Capitol building. Later that night they received their muskets and accoutrements. Their uniforms would be weeks in arriving. After their three month term of service, which they spent guarding the government buildings, the First Defenders were mustered out. Most of them reenlisted in three-year organizations, mainly the 48th, 49th, 50th, 53rd, and 96th Pennsylvania Infantry and the 7th PA Cavalry. Many of these men were destined to become listed among the 620,000+ war dead. The First Defenders remain forgotten; not even a footnote. Most accounts of the war have the famed 6th Massachusetts Infantry, which marched through Baltimore on April 19, suffering several fatalities from that same mob, as the first northern volunteers to reach the nation's capital upon the commencement of sectional hostilities. They were not the first, of course. There to greet them when they arrived were the 475 Pennsylvanians who arrived 24 hours earlier.
Civil War Soldiers' Monument, Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Two of the five First Defender Companies hailed from the Schuylkill County seat.
Lieutenant William Graeff
Lieutenant Henry Nagle
Sergeant Daniel Kreishner
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The Allen Infantry was organized in 1859 and was commanded by Captain Thomas Yeager, who, by most accounts, was a good officer though a strict disciplinarian. As the company’s historian, James Schaadt, wrote, Yeager regularly drilled his company, which, by the outbreak of war, “had arrived at a fair stage of efficiency in Scott’s Tactics.” The uniform worn by the Allen Infantry was gray, with gold trimmings. In February 1861, Yeager and his men paraded with President-Elect Lincoln through the streets of Philadelphia, and accompanied the soon to be sworn in president on his journey to Harrisburg. Two months later, when Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 volunteers to serve a three-month term of enlistment, the soldiers of the Allen Infantry were quick to respond.
As soon as word arrived of the firing upon Fort Sumter, Thomas Yeager boarded a train car and headed for Harrisburg to personally offer the services of his company to Governor Andrew Curtin. The governor issued him a captain’s commission, certainly one of the first issued during the war, and Yeager returned to Allentown to call up his men. “Men, especially young men,” said Schaadt, “left furrow and workshop and office in obedience to the call,” and it was not long before the muster-rolls were full. The citizens of Allentown prepared a farewell dinner for Yeager and his men, placing a five-dollar bill under each of the plates for the men to use on their journey. No matter how kind and thoughtful the gesture, these five-dollar bills were issued by local banks and could not be used anywhere other than Lehigh County.
After dinner, the soldiers of the Allen Infantry departed their homes and families, setting off by rail to Harrisburg. April 17 was a cold day and a layer of snow still covered the ground, even at that late spring date; still, this did not prevent the people of Allentown from turning out in large numbers to bid farewell to their gallant company of volunteers. As the train sped away from East Penn Junction, “Most of the volunteers then regarded the journey as a pleasant change from daily occupation, a picnic and agreeable visit to the National Capital; a very few, more serious, realized it was the beginning of war, with its horrors, cruelties, and privations,” wrote James Schaadt.
Crowds turned out at various stations along the route to Harrisburg, cheering the volunteer soldiers along the way. They arrived in the state capital that evening, where they joined up the Logan Guard, Ringgold Light Artillery, Washington Artillerists, and National Light Infantry. Unfortunately for Captain Yeager, he did not get much sleep that night. Around 1:00 a.m. on the morning of April 18, a loud knock came on the captain’s door. It was militia General William Keim, telling Yeager that he and his men were to head immediately to Washington with their muskets loaded. Yeager, still groggy, replied that his men’s weapons were useless, having no locks and no flints. Keim responded by telling Yeager that they could be used as clubs. Clearly, there were some who anticipated trouble during their journey to Washington.
Despite his early wake-up call, Yeager and the soldiers of the Allen Infantry would not depart Harrisburg until 8:10 a.m. on the morning of April 18, having just been sworn into Federal service. Two trains of the Northern Central Railroad, each pulling twenty-one cars, departed Harrisburg and headed south toward Baltimore, where they arrived at 2:00 p.m. Of course, a mob of nearly 2,500 Baltimoreans had gathered, determined to prevent the Yankee troops from passing through their city. Mayor George Brown and Marshal George Kane arrived with the city police force, which was to escort the largely unarmed Pennsylvanians through the city to Camden Station, where they were to board another train for Washington. The men marched nervously through the city, subjected to the jeers and insults of an increasingly angry mob. “Roughs and toughs, longshoremen, gamblers, floaters, idlers, red-hot secessionists, as well as men ordinarily sober ad steady,” described Schaadt, “crowded upon, pushed and hustled the little band and made every effort to break the thin line. Some, mounted upon horses, were prevented with difficulty by the policemen from riding down the volunteers. The mob heaped insults upon the men, taunted them, cursed them, called to them, ‘Let the police go and we will lick you,’ ‘You will never get back to Pennsylvania,’ ‘Abolitionists! Convicts! Stone them, kill them,’ . . . ‘Hurrah for Jeff Davis,’ ‘Hurrah for South Carolina.’” As Schaadt concluded, “It was a severe trial for the volunteers with not a charge of ball or powder in their pockets. . . .”
At last, the Pennsylvanians reached Camden Station, but this is where the mob’s anger turned to violence. Bricks, bottles, stones, and anything else the mob could get their hands on, were hurled at the Pennsylvanians, causing a number of painful injuries, particularly in the ranks of the Allen Infantry. Privates Edwin Hittle and Ignatz Gresser were struck down; Private David Jacobs was hit in the mouth by a brick, which knocked out his front teeth before he fell unconscious to the ground. Private Henry Wilson Derr was struck in the ear, which caused him to lose his hearing.
“Fortunately, the cars into which the infantry clambered were box or freight cars not furnished with seats,” said Schaadt, “but whose wooden roof and sides protected the volunteers from the shower of cobbles and bricks now rained upon them by the rioters, more than ever infuriated at seeing their prey escape.” At long last, having made their way through this harrowing ordeal in the streets of Baltimore, the First Defenders arrived in Washington and were assigned quarters. The Allen Infantry was assigned to the Vice President’s Office in the Capitol Building.
The First Defenders remained in the defenses of Washington for the entirety of their three-month term of service before being mustered out in late July 1861. Returning to Allentown, the soldiers of the Allen Infantry were quick to reenlist in other organizations, especially the 47th, 53rd, and 128th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Many of them would give their lives during the course of the conflict, including Thomas Yeager who, as Major of the 53rd Pennsylvania, was killed in action at Fair Oaks, Virginia, on June 1, 1862. His remains were returned to Allentown where they were interred in the Union Cemetery.
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The Allen Infantry
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Captain Thomas Yeager
1st Lieutenant James M. Wilson
2nd Sergeant Solomon Goebel
Sergeant John Winne
Sergeant Henry Sawyer
Sergeant George Junker
Sergeant Charles W. Abbott
Corporal John E. Webster
Corporal Ignatz Gresser
Corporal Daniel Kramer
George W. Keiper
James Schaadt, Company Historian