Tuesday, April 12, 2011

150 Years Ago: The Civil War Comes to Schuylkill County

On April 12, 2011 the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War with the firing on Fort Sumter.  Back in April 1861, it did not take long for the news to arrive in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.  In fact, it was the first northern town to hear the news, as Stu Richards explains on his blog Schuylkill County Pennsylvania Military History.
View of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, October 1854
from Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion
The firing on Fort Sumter had begun on a Friday.  By Sunday afternoon, April 14, Union forces had surrendered to the Southerners.  The next day, aware of the great danger facing the nation, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call-to-arms for 75,000 able-bodied men. 

A portion of the President's proclamation read:
"Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power in me vested by the Constitution and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress the said combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.  The details for this object will be immediately communicated to the State authorities through the War Department.

"I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of the popular Government, and to redress the wrongs already long enough endured."
Abraham Lincoln's April 15, 1861 call-to-arms
Word of Lincoln's proclamation was received that Monday, April 15 in Pottsville at the noon hour.  By Tuesday evening, April 16, 1861, a meeting of the citizens of Pottsville convened at the county Court House.  The purpose of the meeting was "to take into account the state of the country, and make the necessary arrangements to provide for the families of soldiers then leaving us."  That evening, the citizens of Schuylkill County made the following resolution in support of their country:
"Resolved, That the citizens of Schuylkill County, in reply to the Proclamation of the President, adopt as the expression of their sentiments, the address now being signed in the city of Philadelphia, in the following words: - 'The unparalleled event of the past week has revealed to the citizens of the United States, beyond question or possibility of doubt, that a peaceful reconciliation under the form of our Constitution, is repelled and scorned, and that secession means, in the hearts of its supporters, both treason and war, against our country and nation.  We, therefore, the undersigned, loyal citizens of the United States and inhabitants of Schuykill County, responding to the proclamation of the President of the United States, hereby declare our unalterable determination to sustain the government in its efforts to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union and the perpetuity of the popular government, and to redress the wrongs already long enough endured.  No differences of political opinion, no name or badge of diversity upon points of party distinction, shall restrain or withhold us in the devotion of all we have, or can command, to the vindication of the Constitution, the maintenance of the laws, and the defence of the Flag of our Country.' "
And their word was good.  That very day, Captain Wren and Captain McDonald, both of Pottsville, telegraphed Governor Curtin offering the services of their militia companies: the Washington Artillery and the National Light Infantry.  Along with three other companies from southeastern Pennsylvania, they were the first to respond to Lincoln's call, and are known to history as the First Defenders.  (Read more about these companies in John David Hoptak's book First in Defense of the Union: The Civil War History of the First Defenders.) The five companies were told to set out for Harrisburg on April 17. The Miner's Journal reported on April 20, 1861 about the day the first troops departed Schuylkill County earlier that week:
"During the whole day the greatest excitement prevailed among our citizens, and the scene at the armories of the respective companies was quite lively and spirited.  New recruits were rolling in at every moment, and the lists soon swelled to above the requisite number...

"The day was very cold, raw, and disagreeable; but notwithstanding this, the people flocked in by thousands from all parts of the County, and it seemed as if its whole population had been poured forth to witness the departure of our gallant volunteers, who with a noble spirit of self-sacrifice, have exchanged the comforts of home, for the fatigue and labor of a soldier's life...

"As the companies proceeded down Centre Street, to the depot of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, they were greeted with cheers from thousands who lined each side of the street, and a perfect ocean of handkerchiefs waved by the ladies, who had taken possession of all the windows, and every available situation along the street. All the stores were closed and business entirely suspended.  At the depot the crowd was immense, and it was almost impossible to force your way through it.  The tops of the passenger and freight cars, the roofs of the depot and neighboring houses, were black with spectators.  Never had so great a concourse assembled on any one occasion before in Pottsville...

"The Pottsville Cornet Band, which had escorted the companies to the depot, immediately before the starting of the cars played 'Hail Columbia' and 'Yankee Doodle'.  As the train slowly left the depot, cheer upon cheer went up from the assembled thousands.  The men were in good spirits, but there were some, who though possessed of manly hearts, who could brave toil and danger without complaint or fear, who could endure suffering with stoical indifference, but who could not prevent the tear from starting to the eye, when called upon to bid farewell to all their friends."
As Francis B. Wallace wrote in his 1865 Memorial of the Patriotism of Schuylkill County in the American Slaveholder's Rebellion:
"The spirit of patriotism that pervaded the County in those April days, when the Government was in imminent danger at the hands of traitors, is illustrated in the fact that an entire brigade of troops was offered, and that gray-haired men, and lads scarcely seventeen years of age, wished to be enrolled as volunteers, and were much depressed when refused. Another gratifying exhibition of the hour, was the spectacle of men of all parties, Democrats, Republicans, etc., vieing with each other in proclaiming their determination to stand by the Government in its hour of trial, in sustaining the Constitution, the Union and the laws."
The brave and patriotic men of Schuylkill County would play a very important role in the defense of the Union during those crucial years 1861-1865.  Among them were my great-great-grandfather William Cowhey and his brother Thomas.  Stay tuned here at Small-leaved Shamrock as we follow in their footsteps 150 years ago, commemorate their heroism, and remember the years that the young United States of America became a house divided.

Sources:

Wallace, Francis B. Memorial of the Patriotism of Schuylkill County in the American Slaveholder's Rebellion Embracing a Complete List of the Names of All the Volunteers from the County during the War, Patriotic Contributions by the Citizens ... Pottsville, PA: B. Bannan, 1865. Print. (Online here at Internet Archive.)

Lincoln, Abraham. Proclamation on State Militia, April 15, 1861. Digital image. American Memory Collection. Library of Congress. Web. 1 May 2011.

For further reading:

For more on Lincoln's April 15, 1861 call to arms, you might enjoy reading Ted Widmer's Lincoln Declares War on The Opinion Pages of The New York Times website.

5 comments:

Linda Gartz said...

Lisa,
Thank you for this excellent review of the Civil War's beginning! Check out my storyteller friend's great about Lincoln written for his 200th Birthday: Abraham and Isaac, Sacrifice at Gettysburg. You can download it for free at http://www.sydlieberman.com/recordings/index.php
i know you'll love it.

Lisa / Smallest Leaf said...

Thanks for the comment and the suggestion, Linda! I look forward to checking it out.

Lisa
Smallest Leaf

jutka said...

Happy Mother's Day, Lisa!
Hugs,
Jutka

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Sheryl said...

Thanks for sharing! Before reading your posting, I'd never really thought about how soldiers were recruited for the Civil War in central Pennsylvania. My ancestors are from Northumberland County--I suppose similar offers to help were made by officials in that county.

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