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Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Speeding to the front" in defense of the nation

Once more war's alarm is heard - the Government is shaken to its foundation, and now General Scott is called upon to save the Capital. Will the men of the North arise? Will they come to protect the nation? Yes, they spring forward to the fray and the veteran chieftain knows that thousands are rushing to his aid. The flower of the country are speeding to the front - but the first to meet his sight, the First Defenders appear, and two of the five companies are from Pottsville! Should any ask what town this is whose men have passed all others in the race, he would learn of a people who have already made history enough to fill a folio, and the story of whose energetic career would be the story of the anthracite coal trade.

This glowing description of the citizens of Pottsville was written in 1876 by George Chambers. His Historical Sketch of Pottsville: Schuylkill County, Pa. is interesting reading, particularly when you understand that Pottsville as a town had been in existence for less than a century at the time this history was written.

Among the First Defenders mentioned by Chambers, were two from the Cowhey family: William and Thomas. Part of their volunteer tour of duty (which lasted only three months) was a turn guarding the nation's capital.

Here is a partial description of the movements of Company I-16 according to Samuel P. Bates' History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5:

Joining in the general forward movement, which commenced about the middle of June, the regiment proceeded to the Potomac, and on the 16th, crossed with the advance Division; but soon after returned and remained encamped near the river until the 2nd day of July.

Getting across the Potomac seems to have been quite an ordeal for the brothers. Having read Thomas' handwritten account of their crossing, I was very happy to find E.G. Arnold's 1862 map of the District of Columbia and the defenses surrounding and protecting it at the time.

Its official title is Topographical Map of the Original District of Columbia and Environs: Showing the Fortifications around the City of Washington. The publication of the map has an interesting story. The Alexandria Library website states that:

According to the Spring/Summer 2003 (Vol. 15, No. 1) issue of Washington History, two days after the map went on sale in various shops in 1862, the War Department confiscated most copies, as was the copper plate that was used to print the original maps. In addition, the Department obtained the names of purchasers and seized the maps from the homes of private citizens to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands insofar as the map identifies and locates 51 forts that defended Washington, D.C. during the Civil War.

Surviving copies of the map can now be found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (Cartographic & Architectural Section) in addition to the Alexandria Library in Virginia.

E.G. Arnold's pastel map is quite a work of art. It shows Washington, D.C.'s wards, watercourses and original boundary in addition to its various defenses circa 1862. It is a fascinating look back at a time when the nation's capital faced not armies of hot, summer tourists, but a more threatening force. Thanks to the defense of volunteers like the Cowhey brothers, the nation's capital remains as we know it today.

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