|The Remnants of the First State Flag Presented to the 48th Pennsylvania|
in September 1861
150 years ago today. . .on July 22, 1865, the 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry would cease to any longer exist. The regiment was disbanded, its soldiers and officers mustered out of service, its veterans returning to their homes. Having been first organized in the late summer of 1861, the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry served throughout nearly all four years of the conflict, campaigning in various theaters of the war, and seeing action in dozens of engagements and major battles. By foot, by rail, and on the water, the regiment traversed thousands of miles. . .through Virginia and North Carolina, in Maryland, and across Pennsylvania, through Ohio and across Kentucky and deep into eastern Tennessee, before returning once more to Virginia for the final twelve months of the fratricidal slaughter. Throughout the four years of the regiment's existence, more than 1,800 soldiers had served in the ranks of the 48th for varying lengths of time. . .some for a few weeks, others for all four years. Most had entered voluntarily, though there were also present in all ten of its companies a number of drafted men. At least 329 soldiers of the 48th had given their lives in the contest while hundreds of others sustained non-fatal wounds or were wracked with illness and disease. The regiment's dead were buried in no fewer than seven different states, a testament to the miles traveled and the wide extent of their service. Of course, the 48th had inscribed its name forever in the war's history by its remarkably successful tunneling operation in the summer of 1864 south and east of Petersburg, when the regiment, with little in the way of help and assistance, dug a tunnel and exploded a mine under a portion of the Confederate defensive position known as Elliot's Salient. This action had made the 48th Pennsylvania famous and still today there remains few other single regimental actions of the war that garners as much attention as the 48th's tunneling of the Petersburg Mine. 150 years ago many of the regiment's veterans no doubt still harbored disbelief and a little resentment that the higher ups had failed so miserably to capitalize on their great success. Still, though, that was in the past; a part of history. The regiment itself would soon become part of history when, 150 years ago this day, the men returned home to a hero's ovation.
Since April 28, 1865, the soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania had been encamped at Fort Lyon in Alexandria, Virginia. The war was all but officially over and the weary veterans looked forward to returning back to their families in Schuylkill County. Some had not seen home or their loved ones for well over a year. Camp life at Alexandria was dull, the monotony broken only on May 23 when the regiment paraded down the streets of Washington, D.C., in that majestic Grand Review. Following the memorable event, the 48th returned to Fort Lyon and awaited their discharge. That moment finally arrived on July 17, 1865. It was on that day--a Monday--that the soldiers who remained in the ranks of the 48th were officially mustered out of service. Just a short time later the men started for home. They traveled, most likely by rail, back to Harrisburg, the place where its ten companies were first organized in the late summer of 1861, for what must have seemed like an eternity earlier for those grizzled and tried veteran warriors who were there when the 48th was born and for when it was forever disbanded. At Harrisburg the soldiers would have to wait until all the paperwork was completed, for all of the regimental reports and muster sheets to be filled out, for the regimental officers to prepare their final reports. . .and. . .for the paymaster to arrive with their final draw of army pay. Finally, on Saturday, July 22, the soldiers boarded train cars and began the final journey home. After all the marching and all the campaigning. . .all the trips via steamer and after all the marching. . .this would be the final leg of the regiment's wartime record. Oliver Bobsyshell, formerly a lieutenant then the captain of Company G before becoming the regiment's major, beautifully described that last fifty-five-mile-long journey home in his regimental history, published more than three decades later: "Finally, on the twenty-second, every detail having been completed, the regiment started from Harrisburg for home. Oh how sweet the word to the brave fellows who had been spared through so many and great dangers. Home, blessed name, so soon to be realized! How the hearts of the men on that train throbbed as each mile carried them nearer and nearer to that sacred place! Many could have hugged the trainman when 'Reading' was shouted into the cars! And then the welcome towns of Hamburg, Port Clinton, Auburn, and Schuylkill Haven flew by--then every man on his feet ready to spring to the ground when Pottsville was reached, where great crowds roared, cheered and cried such a hearty welcome, all knew it was HOME!"
And, indeed, did the people of Pottsville turn out to welcome home these veteran soldiers! They were there by the many hundreds, nay, many thousands. The city and its people had been preparing for the return home of the 48th for the past week, having held special meetings and appointing delegates to officially welcome the boys back home. Banners of red, white, and blue decorated the facades of homes and businesses all throughout the city; flags were raised and a festive atmosphere permeated the streets of Schuylkill County's largest town and seat of government. Then, at last, with the crowd now thronged at the train station and gathered along the city streets, the train carrying the veteran soldiers of the 48th arrived, sometime around 3:00 p.m. They were met there by the welcoming home committee and then escorted up Centre Street amid the thunderous applause, the singing of songs, and even the firing of cannons. The first stop for these men, once they arrived in Pottsville, was the Union Hotel, where speeches were made. The veterans appreciated the kind and thoughtful words, but were no doubt straining their necks, looking about for the faces of their loved ones--their mothers, fathers, wives, children--gathered there, somewhere in the vast crowd. Finally, after a few spontaneous words, and after a few toasts to Nagle, to Sigfried, and to Pleasants, the men dispersed. Bosbyshell captured the scene: "The meetings of the wives and children, with their husbands and fathers, were in many instances touching, in all joyful. When the men reached the corner of Centre and Market, a wife or sweetheart of one of the soldiers in the ranks saw him. His eye caught hers at the same moment. Impulsively they flew with open arms toward each other, and the next moment were locked in a fond embrace. Neither, from emotion, could speak; but tears of joy trickled down their cheeks. It was a scene the sacredness of which the publicity could not destroy."
And so the soldiers of the 48th were back at home after so grueling and so heartbreaking an absence. The regiment itself no longer existed; it was the end of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. And no matter how thankful they were and how happy these weary soldiers now civilians once more were to be home, it must have been a very bittersweet moment. Not there to welcome them home were the widows of those who had fallen, or the mothers and fathers who had already buried a son, or whose child now lay buried hundreds of miles away from home, in Virginia, in North Carolina, in east Tennessee, or even outside of Andersonville, Georgia. Many were the women in black dress; many were the children who would never again see their father. Indeed, many was the child who would never meet his father. So many of the 48th's fallen had long been in the ground in nearby cemeteries, some in Pottsville, where their silent graves lay less than a mile from the triumphant scene. Many of these graves were no doubt visited that day. And all throughout the rest of Schuylkill County were other graves, the final resting places of those who succumbed to disease or who fell at such places as Antietam, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and on and on and on. What were the feelings, the thoughts, the emotions of the families of these soldiers when they learned the war was over and that the surviving veterans of the 48th were once more back home? And what were the thoughts and feelings of those surviving veteran soldiers, now once more civilians, upon returning home and seeing the graves of departed comrades and friends, and upon seeing the widows and the mothers and the children whose husband, son, father gave his life while serving in the war?
And what now? Now that the war was over and the men were back at home, at last, in Schuylkill County. . .How long was it before they returned to work, on the farms, in the office, or in the coal mines? How long was it before the illness and scars and wounds they sustained in the war came back to haunt them? For how many would their lives be cut short because these wartime injuries and wounds? How long was it before these civilian volunteer soldiers turned civilian once more tried to bury and suppress the scenes of carnage, the memories of the hell of war? The whole of the rest of their lives now lay before them, their soldier days were done. And the 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry was now but a reminiscence, a memory. . .part of history.
|Record Banner of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry|