Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Union's First Defenders: The Washington Artillerists

As mentioned in my previous post on the National Light Infantry, up until the Civil War's Sesquicentennial hits in mid-April, I am going to be focusing (almost exclusively) on Pennsylvania's First Defenders, the first five companies of Union volunteers to reach Washington upon the outbreak of hostilities. Over the next seven to eight weeks, most of the posts on this blog will be histories of these companies, biographies of many of the soldiers who composed their ranks, as well as photographs of the soldiers, newspaper accounts, letters, diaries, and other writings of these First Defenders during the war's first ninety days.

Being a native of Schuylkill County, home to two of these first five companies, I have long been interested in the story of the First Defenders and have sought to bring this story to light. Sadly, these Pennsylvanians are often overlooked when describing the Union response in the wake of Sumter. Other units, most notably the 6th Massachusetts, are often erroneously identified as the first to reach Washington, which is simply not the case. Indeed, when the bloodied 6th arrived on the night of April 19, Pennsylvania's First Defenders were there to greet them in their quarters of the U.S. Capitol Building. They had arrived twenty-four hours earlier. Nor was the 6th the first unit to shed blood at the beginning of the war, as is often related. It was, instead, Pennsylania's First Defenders, several of whom were bloodied while marching through Baltimore on April 18, one day ahead of the Massachusetts men.

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In my previous post, I looked at Pottsville's National Light Infantry, one of two First Defender companies to hail from the Schuylkill County seat. The other was the Washington Artillerists.

Eighteen-year-old James Nagle founded what would become the Washington Artillerists in 1840. Originally, they were called the "Pottsville Blues," but two years later, they switched their branch of service and adopted another name: the Washington Artillerists. Nagle regularly drilled his company, which was composed almost entirely of volunteers younger than twenty years of age.

Upon the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Captain Nagle tendered the services of his company to the United States. In December 1846, the company marched off to war, led by twenty-four-year-old James Nagle. His younger brother Daniel, at age eighteen, served as the company's drummer. Forming part of General Winfield Scott's army, the Washington Artillerists--officially designated as Company B, 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers, saw action at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, and on several other fields of battle. The men returned home to a hero's welcome on July 28, 1848.

Captain James Nagle in 1848

The organization of the Washington Artillerists was maintained throughout the 1850s, and in January 1861, it participated in the inauguration ceremony of Pennsylvania's Governor Andrew Curtin. By this time, however, the company was commanded by Captain James Wren. Nagle, in 1850, was promoted to the rank of colonel in the state militia system and Wren, an immigrant from Scotland, assumed command of the company.

The Washington Artillerists once more tendered its services to the nation following the outbreak of civil war in April 1861 and the offer was immediately accepted. The company departed Pottsville, along with the National Light Infantry, on the afternoon of April 17. While his former company was thus making its way to Harrisburg, so too was James Nagle, having been summoned to the state capital by Curtin. Nagle was put to work organizing the trainloads of volunteers expected to be arriving in the city. Curtin then commissioned Nagle as colonel of the 6th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a three-month unit that would be mustered out of service in July 1861. However, authorized to raise a regiment of 'three-year' troops, Nagle returned to Pottsville and organized what became the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. Many of the soldiers of this regiment, especially those who rose to officer's rank, were formerly members of the Washington Artillerists, which had also been mustered out of service in July following its three-month term of service. Among the officers in the 48th were James Wren and Daniel Nagle.

Daniel Nagle, pictured here as colonel of the 173rd Pennsylvania Infantry

The Washington Artillerists arrived in Harrisburg late on the evening of April 17, and the following morning were mustered into service by Captain Seneca Simmons of the 7th U.S. Infantry. Shortly after the swearing-in ceremony, after which these men were United States soldiers, the Washington Artillerists boarded traincars and headed toward Washington. Forced to switch cars in Baltimore, some of the members of the Washington Artillerists were injured by the mob of Confederate supporters who were determined to prevent the Pennsylvanians from marching through their city. Notable among those injured was Nicholas Biddle, the sixty-five-year-old African-American orderly to Captain Wren. Some even argue that Biddle, a black man in uniform, was the very first casualty of the American Civil War.

Nicholas Biddle, in the uniform of the Washington Artillerists

After serving three-months about Washington, the Artillerists were mustered out and began the long journey back to Pottsville. Most of them would re-enlist into the ranks of Schuylkill County's "three-year" regiments, including the 48th Pennsylvania, 96th Pennsylvania, and 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry. One of its privates, William Auman, would fight with Company G, 48th Pennsylvania throughout the Civil War, then remain in the army. . .working his way all the way up to the rank of Brigadier General. In the Spanish-American War, General Auman fought alongside Theodore Roosevelt at San Juan Hill.

The following is the roster of the Washington Artillerists when mustered into Federal service on the morning of April 18, 1861. These men, along with those of the other four First Defender companies, were among the very first volunteers for the United States during the Civil War.

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Washington Artillerists

Captain James Wren

James Wren, Commander of the Washington Artillerists

First Lieutenant David A. Smith

2nd Lieutenant Francis B. Wallace
3rd Lieutenant Philip Nagle

Philip Nagle, another of James's brothers, would go on to serve for a brief period of Captain, Co. G, 48th Pennsylvania

1st Sergeant Henry C. Russel

2nd Sergeant Joseph Gilmour

Joseph Gilmour would go on to serve as Major of the 48th PA Infantry. In late May 1864, near Cold Harbor, Virginia, Gilmour was struck down by a Confederate sharpshooter and mortally wounded. His uncle, James Wren, paid for his funeral and for his tombstone.

3rd Sergeant Cyrus Sheetz

Cyrus Sheetz would serve as Captain, Co. G, 48th Pennsylvania

4th Sergeant William McQuade
Quartermaster Sergeant George Gressang

Corporal Delaplain J. Ridgway
Corporal Samuel Russel
Corporal Charles Hinkle
Corporal Reuben Snyder


William Eagan
William Auman
Henry Alspach
William Bates
G. Wilson Bratton
Joel H. Betz
Henry Brobst
Charles E. Beck

Beck would go on to serve as 1st Lieutenant, Co. C, 15th PA Cavalry

Henry Bobbs
Richard Bartolett
Jeremiah Brandt
David B. Brown
J. Frank Barth
Anthony Burns
Albert Bowen
Alexander S. Bowen
Wiliam Brown
Oliver Bosbyshell

Bosbyshell, seated, would go on to serve as Major of the 48th PA Infantry. Standing on the left (behind the right shoulder of Bosbyshell) is another First Defender, Curtis C. Pollock. As 1st Lt., Co. G, 48th PA, Pollock would fall mortally wounded at Petersburg in June 1864.

Samuel Beard
David Boyer
William W. Clemens
William Cole
John Curry
Thomas Corby

Corby would turn to the Navy after serving as a First Defender. He was on the U.S. Steamship Hatteras when it was sunk by Rafael Semmes's Alabama off Galveston, Texas, on January 11, 1863. He was rescued from the waters and held a captive on the Alabama until later released on parole at Port Royal, Jamaica.

Daniel Christian
Benjamin C. Christian
John Christian
Frederick Christ
William Degan
Phillip Dentzer
Henry Dentzer
Nelson Drank
Francis P. Dewees
Louis Douglass
Henry K. Downing
John Engle
Charles Evans

Evans later served as a Sergeant in Co. G, 48th PA

Joseph Fyant
Peter H. Frailey
William J. Feger
Peter Fisher
Charles A. Glenn
Peter Grow
George H. Hill
James R. Hetherington
William H. Hardell
William Heffner
Alfred Huntzinger
Charles A. Hesser
John Hoffa
Benjamin F. Heffner
George H. Hartman
Thomas F.B. Hammer

Patrick Hanley
Henry H. Hill
Charles Haas
Frank Haas
Richard M. Hodgson
John J. Hetherington
Thomas Irwin
Thomas Jones
Thomas Johnson
Benjamin F. Jones
John Jones
Joseph Kear
Charles P. Loeser
William Lesher
Godfrey Leonard
Edward J. Leib

Leib would go on to serve as Brevet Major of the 5th U.S. Cavalry; he was wounded at Five Forks, VA, on April 2, 1865

Daniel Moser
George Myers
Nelson T. Major
William F. Maize
Charles Maurer
Edward Nagle
John Noble
Charles P. Potts

As a 2nd Lieutenant in command of Co. I, 151st PA, Potts would be captured on July 1, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg. He would be held a prisoner of war until March 1865, one month before the end of the war, being confined at Libby Prison for a portion of his captivity.

John Pass
Richard Price
Thomas Petherick, Jr.
Robert F. Potter
Richard Pott
William Ramsey Potts
Theodore H. Patterson
Curtis C. Pollock
Joseph Reed
August Reese
George Rice
William E. Riley
Samuel E. Shoener
James S. Silliman
Robert Smith
Frank A. Stitzer

Stitzer would go on to command Co. K, 48th PA. He was the last surviving veteran of the First Defenders.

Charles Slingluff

Slingluff later served in the 48th PA

Thomas Severn (Fifer)
Isaac Severn
Edward L. Severn
Edwin J. Shippen
Hugh Stevenson

Stevenson later served as 1st Lieutenant, Co. C, 96th PA

Lewis T. Snyder
William Spence
Valentine Stichter

Heber S. Thompson

Thompson later served as Captain, Co. I, 7th PA Cavalry. He was taken prisoner of war at Atlanta on April 20, 1864, and released on parole at Charleston, SC, on December 20, 1864. He would later pen the first history of the First Defenders.

Alba C. Thompson
Ambrose H. Titus
Charles Van Horn
Victor Wernert
John C. Weaver
Eli Williams
Albert G. Whitfield
David Williams

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Union's First Defenders~The National Light Infantry

Throughout the four years of the American Civil War, more than two million soldiers served in Union blue, some for a few weeks, others for the duration.

With the Sesquicentennial upon us—or almost upon us—my attention is now drawn to those first volunteers of the Union: Pennsylvania’s First Defenders.

In the wake of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 men to serve for a period of three months. Thousands turned out to answer the call, and on April 18, just 72 hours after Lincoln’s call, the first of these thousands reached Washington. Arriving around 7:00 p.m. that evening, were some 475 Pennsylvanians composing the ranks of five militia companies from Schuylkill, Lehigh, Berks, and Mifflin counties, 475 volunteer soldiers who thus go down in the history books as the First Defenders.

Most of these men spent their three month term of service in the defenses of Washington after being more formally organized into the ranks of the 25th Pennsylvania Infantry. When mustered out in July 1861, most would re-enlist in regiments formed that summer, to serve for three years, or the course of the war.

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Over the next several weeks, as we make our way toward the 150th Anniversary of the Firing on Fort Sumter and the inauguration of America's Civil War, I will be posting histories of these five First Defender companies, along with rosters, photographs, stories, and so on.

Up first, a brief history and the roster of Pottsville's National Light Infantry.

The National Light Infantry was formed in 1831, making it the oldest of the First Defenders companies, although its organization was not regularly maintained in those thirty years prior to the war. However, throughout the 1850s, and with war clouds building, interest in the militia company grew. To many of the soldiers comprising the ranks of the National Light Infantry, the war did indeed seem an "irrepressible conflict," in the words of New York Senator William Seward. Thus, on the evening of April 11, 1861, literally just hours before that first fateful shot hundreds of miles away at Sumter, the officers of the National Light Infantry met in Pottsville and drafted a series of resolutions. One of these resolutions was put forth by Corporal Henry Lutz Cake, who would later serve as colonel of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry, which read:

On motion of Corporal H.L. Cake that the services of this company be tendered to the Secretary of War and the Governor of Pennsylvania in defense of the Union, and that the company be ready to march at six hours' notice.

The motion accepted, a telegram was sent to Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania and Secretary of War Simon Cameron, making known the willingness of the National Light Infantry to serve, if needed. With that, the National Light Infantry became the very first company to offer its services to the government at the start of the Civil War. Cameron verified this when in 1866, he wrote the following note:

"I certify that the Pottsville National Light Infantry was the first company of volunteers whose services were offered for the defense of the Capital. A telegram reached the War Department on the 13th, notifying the tender. It was immediately accepted and the company reached Washington on the 18th of April, 1861, with four additional companies from Pennsylvania, and these were the first troops to reach the seat of government at the beginning of the war of the rebellion. ~Simon Cameron."

Their offer accepted, the National Light Infantry departed Pottsville on the afternoon of April 17, 1861, and headed for Harrisburg. With them traveled Pottsville's other militia company, the Washington Artillerists. The two companies, numbering around 230 men, arrived in the state capital that evening and on the following morning, were sworn into Federal service by Captain Seneca Simmons of the 7th U.S. Infantry. Their muster roll report is below, signed by Captain Simmons, who was later killed at Gaines's Mill in June 1862:

Hours after being sworn into U.S. service, the National Light Infantry, along with the Washington Artillerists, Logan Guards of Lewistown, Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, and Allen Infantry of Allentown, boarded train cars and headed off to Washington. Forced to switch trains in Baltimore, the largely unarmed Pennsylvanians marched through the city and were subjected to the jeers and insults of a large crowd, nearly 2,500 strong, of vehement Confederate supporters. When they reached Camden Station, the mob hurled bricks, stones, bottles, and whatever else they could get their hands on, at the Pennsylvanians. Many of the projectiles hit their mark, thus the first blood shed in America's bloodiest war was shed by Pennsylvania's First Defenders.

At last the weary Pennsylvanians reached Washington around 7:00 p.m. that evening--April 18--and went into quarters in the halls and chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building. So thankful was he of the timely arrival of these Pennsylvanians, that President Lincoln traveled from the White House and shook the hand of each of the 475 men, including, of course, those of the National Light Infantry.

Below is the roster of the National Light Infantry when first sworn into service by Captain Seneca Simmons during the late morning hours of April 18, 1861. These men, along with those who comprised the ranks of the other First Defenders units, were the first of the more than two million soldiers who would volunteer and fight for the Union in the American Civil War.

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The National Light Infantry
Captain Edmund McDonald

James Russell
Lewis J. Martin

Henry Lutz Cake

Lamar Hay

Abram McIntrye
William F. Huntzinger
George D. Boyer

Quartermaster Sergeant
D. Daniel Downey

Ernest Sourbray
Charles C. Russell
Edward Moran
Fred W. Conrad

Thomas Bull
William Buckley
John Burress
Jacob Bast
B.F. Bartlett
John E. Benedict
John Bodefield
William A. Beidleman
William Baker
William Britton
William Carroll
Patrick Curtin
William A. Christian
J.J. Dampman
John T. Deiner
John Dooley
George DeCoursey
Jeremiah Deitrich
John Donegan
James Donegan
James Evans
John Eppinger
Ernst Ellrich
David Eberle
Amos Forseman
Michael Foren
Edmund Foley
Charles F. Garrett
William F. Garrett
George W. Garber
Uriah Good
Henry Gehring
Levi Gloss
M. Goodyear
James M. Hughes
Thomas G. Houck
Charles F. Hoffman
Herman Hansen
Frank Hanley
David Howard
John Hartman
William H. Hodgson
John M. Howell
William Irving
Joseph Johnson
Enoch Lambert
William Morris Lashore
Anthony Lippman
George A. Lerch
Michael Larkin
Lawrence Mangen
James Marshall
James E. McDonald
Edward McCabe
James P. McGinnes
William Madeira
George W. Mennig
Henry C. Niece
Thomas H. Parker
William Pugh
Henry Quin
John Rauch
Jonas M. Rich
M. Edgar Richards
Charles J. Redkey, Jr.
William R. Roberts
John T. Simpson
Charles J. Shoemaker
Frederick Seltzer
Samuel Stager
James Sammen
F.W. Simpson
James R. Smith
Jacob Shoey
John Stodd
John Schmidt
Alexander Smith
Franklin A. Schoener
Terrence Smith
Emmanuel Saylor
George Schertle
Edward Thomas
Ira E. Troy
Elias Trifoos
C.F. Umbenhower
Mark Walker
Frank Wenrich
Charles Weber
Lewis Weber
William Weller
John P. Womelsdorf
Henry Yerger

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Monday, February 7, 2011

"The Battle of South Mountain" Now Available

It was in early March of last year when I signed a contract with the History Press to write a short, narrative history of the often overlooked Battle of South Mountain for publication as part of its Civil War Sesquicentennial Series.

Eleven months later, I am very pleased to say that that book is now available.

It has been a great, great pleasure working with the History Press, from my first telephone call with Doug Bostick, managing editor of the Sesquicentennial Series, through all the frequent interractions with Adam Ferrell, Jaime Muehl, and everyone else. They have all been extremely helpful and professional, and all have shown a willingness to work with me in bringing this book to print. I do hope I am able to work the History Press again someday.

The book was originally scheduled for release on March 8; then it got bumped up to February 11. Imagine my surprise, then, when this past Friday, February 4, when I was stepping out for a clear-your-head kind of trip down to Gettysburg when I saw the boxes piled up outside my back door.

I could not be more pleased with the finished product. The book looks great and my only hope is that I have met the expectations placed in me to write this history. The Battle of South Mountain is a tough one to explain and I am sure that despite my best efforts and despite the dozens of times I read through the manuscript, that there will inevitably be some mistakes/errors. But now that the book is done I can only hope that I have succeeded in my goal of helping to bring to light the history of this often forgotten battle, waged on September 14, 1862, just three days before Antietam, and further our understanding of the Maryland Campaign.

To everyone who helped me along the way. . .from Eric Wittenberg, who first put me in touch with Doug Bostick, and Mannie Gentile, who once again did an excellent job developing the maps for this book. . . .from my Park Service colleagues Brian Baracz and Christopher Gwinn who read the entire manuscript and offered very helpful suggestions and pointed out my errors, to Dr. Thomas Clemens, Scott Hartwig, and Ted Alexander who were each of great assistance, as were Isaac Forman, Dave Maher, Dan Vermilya, and James Rosebrock. . .to all of you, and to so many others, I say thanks. Your support, your assistance was all very much appreciated.

The Battle of South Mountain can be purchased either through its publisher at or through any of the major online book retailers. It will also soon be available at various bookstores in the area. I also have some book signing events lined up for ther year ahead, if you wanted to come on out and say hello.

The book runs 224 pages, with over 50 illustrations and eight maps. It retails for $21.99.

I would love to know your thoughts on the book; if you enjoyed it, post a review on amazon; if you didn't. . .well, you can always send me your thoughts via email ;)