Monday, April 16, 2007

First in Defense of the Union. . ."The First Defenders"

I could have titled this post "Shameless Plug," but with April 18 just a few days away, I felt it proper to update my blog with the following. . .
This Wednesday, April 18, marks the 146th Anniversary of the First Defenders' arrival in Washington. The First Defenders were the first northern volunteer troops to arrive in the nation's capital following the firing on Fort Sumter and the start of the American Civil War. Five companies of Pennsylvania soldiers--the Washington Artillerists, the National Light Infantry, the Logan Guards, the Allen Infantry, and the Ringgold Light Artillery--consisting of some 500 troops marched into Washington on the night of April 18, 1861, and were there met by a thankful President Lincoln and members of his cabinet. Just a few days earlier, Lincoln issued his first call-to-arms, and these Pennsylvanians were the first to respond.
In 2004, my book First in Defense of the Union: The Civil War History of the First Defenders was published. It is a small book, and was intended for a regional audience, namely the home communities of these five companies. Now, three years later, I believe that close to 350 copies have been sold. . .not great, but not bad either.
I wrote the following article in 2004 to correspond with the release of my book. I hope you enjoy.
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Throughout the American Civil War, an estimated 2,100,000 men served for a time in Union blue, and while the service and sacrifice of most of these men have been properly recognized in the vast annals of Civil War historiography, there still remain many soldiers who history seemingly forgot. Interestingly and perhaps most notably is the forgotten history of the very first northern volunteers to arrive in Washington after President Lincoln’s April 15, 1861, call-to-arms. Three days after the president’s call, some 475 Pennsylvanians, comprising the ranks of five volunteer militia companies, arrived in the nation’s capital, and as historian Samuel Bates later romanticized, at “the head of the grand column of the two million men, who afterwards . . . marched in their footprints.”[i] Yet, despite their distinguished place in American history, very little is known about these men. It is my hope that with this article, and with my recently published book entitled First in Defense of the Union: The Civil War History of the First Defenders, I am able to bring the story of these soldiers to the attention of scholar and enthusiast alike and thus help correct a void in historiography.
Following the bombardment and subsequent capitulation of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln, after only one month in office, found himself faced with the greatest crisis to ever confront the young American nation. Recognizing the southern rebellion can now be reconciled only with force, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for a period of three months. Throughout northern communities, eager men of all ages and from all socio-economic and occupational backgrounds flooded recruiting offices to answer the call. Within a few days, and in many instances, within a matter of hours, thousands of volunteers departed home and family to begin their journey as soldiers. Three days after Lincoln’s call, the first volunteer troops arrived in Washington.
The first troops to reach the nation’s capital were 475 men from eastern and central Pennsylvania, organized into five militia companies whose origins predated the outbreak of sectional hostilities. The oldest of the five companies was the National Light Infantry from Pottsville, which was organized thirty years before the Civil War in the summer of 1831. Organized in 1842, the Washington Artillery, also of Pottsville, was the only company of the five with any wartime experience, as this unit served as Company B, 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Mexican-American War. The Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading was formed in 1850, while the Logan Guards of Lewistown came into being eight years later. The youngest of the five companies was the Allen Infantry of Allentown, which was organized just two years before the outbreak of civil war.
The organization of these five companies was regularly maintained during the antebellum years and the volunteers who served in the ranks were drilled much more frequently than most Pennsylvania militiamen in the years leading to the war. This put them in an anomalous position within the state militia system, and their readiness to serve in the case of emergency caught the attention of state officials. When the call for volunteers went out in April, 1861, it was perhaps no surprise to Governor Andrew Curtin that these five companies were among the first to offer their services, which occurred almost immediately upon receiving word of Lincoln’s request. Of course, their offers were accepted by both state and federal officials without delay.
Crowds by the thousands gathered to witness the departure of these companies from their hometowns. While surviving letters and diaries from these men overwhelmingly cite patriotic love of country as the primary reason behind their enlistment, they also suggest that these men envisioned none of what war was really about. James Schaadt of the Allen Infantry, for example, wrote that when leaving Allentown, most men “regarded the journey as a pleasant change from daily occupations, a picnic and agreeable visit to the Capital.”
[ii] They quickly discovered, however, that war was no picnic.
On the evening of April 17, 1861, all five companies arrived in Harrisburg, where, on the following morning, they were mustered into Federal service. Almost as soon as they were mustered, the men of the five companies boarded train cars and set off for the nation’s beleaguered capital via Baltimore. Traveling along with the volunteers was a detachment of regular army troops who were ordered to report to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. Commanding this detachment was a man who in less than a week resigned his commission in the United States Army to take up arms with the Confederacy, and who, in July 1863, surrendered the city of Vicksburg to General U.S. Grant: John C. Pemberton.
With but a few exceptions, the volunteer militiamen made this journey unarmed as they were ordered to leave behind their weapons in their respective armories, and promised modern guns upon their arrival in Washington. Because no continuous rail line linked Harrisburg to Washington, it was necessary for the men to detrain in Baltimore, march two miles through the city to Camden Station, and board the railcars of another line. Unknown to most of the Pennsylvanians, however, the people of Baltimore were largely sympathetic to the Confederacy, and when word arrived that northern volunteer troops were on their way, a mob began forming around the depot, determined to prevent these men from marching through their city.
Around 1p.m. on the afternoon of April 18, the train cars carrying the volunteers came to a halt in Baltimore. The crowd, which numbered around 2,500—five times the size of the unarmed Pennsylvanians—greeted the arriving soldiers with insults and threats. Cries of “Three Cheers for Jeff Davis,” and “Damn the Northern Abolitionists” were raised, and it became very clear to the Pennsylvanians that their time in service would be no pleasant change from daily occupations. The Baltimore City Police were soon called to provide safe passage for the troops through the city, but with each step the mob grew more vehement and more violent. Some rushed toward the unarmed Pennsylvanians, landing a few well-thrown punches, while others spit on Lincoln’s eager volunteers. When the five companies reached Camden Station, events took a turn for the worse. Here, many in the mob threw bricks, stones, and pieces of lumber, while others, yielding clubs, ran towards the Pennsylvanians. Many of the projectiles hit their mark. Some members of the Allen Infantry suffered broken bones, and a few others were knocked unconscious. Perhaps the most notable casualty that day, however, was Nick Biddle, the elderly African-American servant to Captain James Wren of the Washington Artillery, who was struck in the head with a brick-bat. Biddle survived the gruesome wound, and went down in much popular thought as the Civil War’s very first casualty.
Ultimately, the members of the five companies boarded the train cars and nursed their wounded comrades. Around 7:00 p.m. on the evening of April 18, the volunteers finally arrived in Washington, where they were assigned quarters in the halls and chambers of the United States Capitol Building. Early the next day, a very much gratified and relieved President Lincoln met and shook hands with all 475 men and thanked them for their service and prompt arrival.
The First Defenders—as these companies would later be termed—spent the majority of their three-month term of service in guard and garrison duty in and around the nation’s capital. The majority of these men would, however, reenlist in the summer of 1861 into three-year units, such as the 48th and 49th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry. During their terms of service with these three-year organizations, many First Defenders became officers. Indeed, more than half of the soldiers who comprised the ranks of the Logan Guards alone became commissioned officers throughout the war, including no less than four brigadier generals. Sadly, there were also many First Defenders who would give their lives for their country.
Years after the cessation of hostilities, Heber Thompson wrote that “Hardly a single great battle was fought in the four years of the war—from Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Five Forks to Appomattox in the East, and from Shiloh to Stone’s River, Mufreesboro, Chickamauga, Resaca and Atlanta in the Middle West—in which the First Defenders were not represented. Their individual war records would fill volumes of history.”
[iii] Although these soldiers witnessed much more of the brutalities and hardships of war than during their three-month term of service as members of the First Defender units, they would always carry the torch of their achievement and take great pride in being the very first volunteer troops to arrive in Washington after President Lincoln’s April 1861 call-to-arms.

[i] Samuel Penniman Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865. Vol. I (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Publisher, 1869):8.
[ii] Heber Thompson, The First Defenders, (n.p. 1910): 123.
[iii] Ibid., 95. oy.

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