Curtis Clay Pollock served bravely with the 48th Pennsylvania, one of the Civil War's most famous fighting regiments, from the regiment’s organization in September 1861 until his mortal wounding at the Battle of Petersburg in June 1864, participating in the regiment’s many campaigns in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee and seeing action at some of the war’s most sanguinary battles, including 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Knoxville. Prior to his service in the 48th, Pollock also served as a member of the Washington Artillery, a Pottsville-based militia company that marched off to war in response to President Lincoln’s first call-to-arms in April 1861 and a company that would have the distinction of being among the very first Northern volunteer units to arrive in Washington following the outbreak of war, reaching the capital on the evening of April 18, 1861, after coming under attack in the streets of Baltimore. In recognition of their timely response and prompt arrival in the capital, Pollock and the other members of the Washington Artillery, would be among those who earned the proud title of First Defender.
All throughout his time in uniform—from the day after he first arrived in Washington with the First Defenders until a few days before receiving his fatal wound at Petersburg—Curtis Pollock wrote letters home. Many of these letters were written to his younger siblings, some were addressed to his father. Most, however, were written to his mother, Emily, whom he affectionately referred to as his “Dear Ma.” Fortunately, many of these letters survive and are held today in the archives of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County in Pottsville. The letters of Curtis Pollock provide us with a window to view the history and experiences of one of the war’s most famous and most well-traveled regiments—the 48thPennsylvania—a regiment that served in many theaters of the war, under many different commanders, and in many of the war’s largest and bloodiest battles; a regiment that endured many battlefield defeats as well as many battlefield triumphs. More than this, though, Pollock’s letters home enable us to gain a further glimpse of the war from the inside. They chronicle and document the actions, the experiences, and the thoughts of a brave young man, who like so many others, volunteered his services and ultimately gave his life fighting in defense of his nation.
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About the Author
A native of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, and lifelong student of the Civil War, John's primary focus has been on the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry and the role of his native area during the conflict.
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With the First Defenders in Washington
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 17, 1861, was a "very cold, raw, and disagreeable" day in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, yet the poor weather and cold temperatures did little to deter thousands of men, women, and children from lining the streets to cheer on the soldiers of the city's two militia companies as they marched off to war. With bands leading the way, the 244 members of the Washington Artillery and National Light Infantry marched down Centre Street to the depot of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad where, amid much fanfare, they boarded train cars and readied for their journey to the state capital of Harrisburg. All along the parade route, these volunteer soldiers were greeted with thunderous cheers and a "perfect ocean of handkerchiefs waved by the ladies, who had taken possession of all the windows, and every available situation along the streets." When they arrived at the station the Pottsville Cornet Band struck up "Hail Columbia" and "Yankee Doodle." "The men were in good spirits," recorded the Miners' Journal, "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."
Among those bidding farewell to his home and his family by marching off to war that afternoon was eighteen-year-old Curtis Clay Pollock, a private in the Washington Artillery. Born on July 28, 1842, Curtis was the first child born to William and Emily Clay Pollock. A native of Milton, in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, Curtis's father, William Pollock, was a lumber merchant by profession and a nephew of James Pollock, who, in the 1840s, served as a Whig in the United States House of Representatives and who, from 1855-1858, served the people of Pennsylvania as the Commonwealth's Thirteenth Governor. In October 1841, twenty-five-year-old William Pollock married Emily Clay, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of Reverend Jehu Curtis Clay, the prominent pastor of the Gloria Dei Episcopal Church of Philadelphia. Nine months after their marriage, William and Emily Pollock, now having settled in Pottsville, welcomed Curtis, their first child, into the world. Their second, a daughter Mary, was born in 1844, and over the next fifteen years, Emily would give birth to five more children: Margaret (1847); Julia (1848); James (1853); Francis (1854); and Anne (1860). It appears that William was doing quite well in the lumber business in Pottsville and comfortably supported his growing family. By 1860 the value of the family's home and property was placed at $2,500, while the census of that year also reveals that the Pollock's employed a twenty-two-year-old house servant named Mary Dalton. All of Curtis's younger siblings — excepting Anne, who was yet an infant — were attending school while eighteen-year-old Curtis declared his occupation as an engineer, though it is most likely he would have worked with his father in various capacities at the lumber mill. Yet, whatever aspirations young Curtis may have had for his future were dashed the following year when those looming and long-threatening clouds of civil war at last erupted with a savage fury over the young American nation.
The first shots of America's deadliest war were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, during the early morning hours of April 12, 1861. Following a thirty-four-hour-long bombardment, Major Robert Anderson, in command of the United States soldiers stationed inside the fort, raised the white flag of surrender. In response, President Abraham Lincoln — who had taken the Oath of Office just five weeks earlier and who now found himself confronted with the greatest crisis to ever befall the nation — called upon the militias of all the states remaining in the Union, seeking a total of 75,000 men to serve a ninety-day enlistment to quell the now hostile rebellion of Southern states. Lincoln's call-to-arms was announced on April 15 and instantly a pronounced and profound patriotic fervor swept across the North as eager volunteers responded to their nation's call.
Among the very first to respond were the 244 volunteers of Pottsville's National Light Infantry and Washington Artillery, militia companies of long standing, which, upon offering their services to the distressed nation, were directed to proceed immediately to Harrisburg. Less than forty-eight hours later, on that wintry April 17, the soldiers of these two companies — Curtis Pollock included — paraded down Centre Street amid all that fanfare and celebration as the city turned out to bid farewell to their gallant volunteers. More than likely, Curtis's family was there, among the gathered thousands, and no matter whether young Curtis caught a glimpse of his mother and father and younger siblings as he marched his way through the city, their thoughts and prayers for a safe return surely traveled with him.
With snow flurries dancing to the ground, the volunteer soldiers of the two companies climbed aboard the train cars and, at 2:15 p.m., departed Pottsville. Later that evening they arrived in Harrisburg where they joined three other militia companies that had arrived earlier that same day: the Ringgold Light Artillery from Reading, the Logan Guards from Lewistown, and the Allen Infantry from Allentown. Taking up quarters in some of the city's hotels and saloons, the men enjoyed only a few hours' rest before waking early the next morning, anticipating an early departure for the nation's capital. Before setting out, Captain Seneca G. Simmons of the 7th U.S. Infantry formally mustered these men into Federal service, having them take the oath of allegiance by raising their right hands and swearing that they would obey the Constitution of the United States, the laws of the nation and of the state of Pennsylvania, as well as the orders of their superior officers. Once officially sworn into service as soldiers of the United States, the 475 soldiers of these five Pennsylvania volunteer companies — most of them unarmed and in various clothing and uniforms — climbed aboard the box cars of the North Central Railroad and at ten minutes past 8:00on the morning of April 18, set off from Harrisburg to Washington.
Few — if any — of the men anticipated much trouble on the journey south and fewer still could have predicted that this was just the start of what would become America's bloodiest war. As the historian of the Allen Infantry later wrote, most of these volunteer soldiers "regarded the journey [to Washington] as a pleasant change from daily occupations, a picnic and [an] agreeable visit to the Capital." But as they would soon find out, war was serious business and, indeed, trouble loomed directly ahead.
Because there was no direct rail line from Harrisburg to Washington, the eager, mostly naïve Pennsylvania soldiers would be forced to detrain at Baltimore and make their way two miles through the city to Camden Station where they would board a new train for the final leg of their journey. Baltimore was a hot-bed of secessionist sympathy and, when some Confederate-leaning citizens got word that northern volunteers were heading their way, they determined to prevent them from marching through their city. As the cars of the North Central Railroad drew to a halt, a mob of some 2,500 vehement secessionists rushed toward and swarmed around the train — approaching, said Captain James Wren of the Washington Artillery, "like a lot of angry wolves" — and soon began crowding around the nervous Pennsylvanians, screaming and yelling obscenities, threatening the volunteer soldiers while also raising shouts in support of Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy. The situation grew tense but, wishing to avoid any kind of physical confrontation, the five companies were ordered back on board the train where they awaited the arrival of Mayor George Brown and the 120 members of the city's police force who would escort them through the city.
The crowd grew increasingly irate and more brazen in their words and actions as the police finally arrived and led the Pennsylvanians toward Camden Station. It must have been an incredibly anxious march for young Curtis Pollock and his fellow volunteer soldiers. Excepting just 34 members of the Logan Guards and a handful of officers with side arms, the Pennsylvanians were entirely unarmed and only a thin line of policemen protected them from the mob. Unable to control themselves any longer, the mob turned violent once the Pennsylvanians reached Camden Station. Bricks, stones, sticks, bottles, and a host of other projectiles were hurled at the volunteers as they attempted to get on board the awaiting trains. Several soldiers were struck, sustaining painful wounds. Among the injured was Nicholas Biddle, a sixty-five-year-old African-American who had escaped slavery and who now served as an aide to Captain James Wren of the Washington Artillery. Biddle was wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillery and the sight of a black man in uniform especially infuriated the already frenzied mob. Biddle was struck in the head with a brick leaving a wound deep enough to expose bone. Though no one sustained fatal injuries that day, the elderly Biddle along with several other soldiers in the ranks of the five Pennsylvania companies, shed some of the very first blood in what would prove to be America's bloodiest war. The events in Baltimore no doubt left the Pennsylvanians shaken and made them fully aware to the fact that the nation was now fully in the throes of civil war.
Amidst the flying bricks and bottles and amidst the threats and obscenities, the Pennsylvania volunteers boarded the train cars at Camden Station and were soon on their way to Washington, where they would finally arrive sometime around 7:00 p.m. on the evening of April 18, following their long and eventful day's journey. Stepping off the cars, the soldiers were greeted by Major Irvin McDowell who then led them on a short march to their assigned quarters: the spacious chambers and committee rooms of the Capitol Building. There they would remain for the next several days, marveling at the interiors of the Capitol and fortifying the building against a Confederate attack most in the city believed to be imminent.
During those heady days following the attack on Fort Sumter, Washington was a city very much on edge. Most expected it would come under attack, especially after Virginia declared its secession from the Union and particularly after word arrived that Virginia forces had seized the U.S. Navy Yard at Norfolk and the Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The Capitol, the White House — Washington itself — was expected to be attacked next. The tension and anxiety was great but it began to subside once the Northern volunteers began arriving in the city, and the first to arrive were these 475 men from Pennsylvania, including young Curtis Clay Pollock. For their timely response and in recognition of the fact that they were the nation's first volunteer troops to reach Washington following the outbreak of war, these men would soon earn the title of "First Defenders." So relieved and so thankful were they for the prompt arrival of these Pennsylvania soldiers that for days afterward several high-ranking government officials traveled to the Capitol Building to meet and to personally thank these soldiers from Pottsville, Reading, Lewistown, and Allentown. Among them was Speaker of the House Galusha Grow, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Secretary of State William Seward, and, of course, President Abraham Lincoln, who shook hands with Pollock and all the other First Defenders.
The excitement and the anxieties that defined the days immediately following Sumter continued to abate as thousands of more volunteers began to arrive in Washington in the wake of the First Defenders. The famed 6th Massachusetts arrived on April 19, followed by scores of other companies from throughout the North. And as the days and weeks passed, Private Curtis Pollock and his comrades settled into the routine of soldier life with the men spending almost every day of the next three months engaged in drill, parades, and in target practice. While they may have enlisted for the glory or for the adventure of soldiering, or for the chance to defend the nation on the field of battle, most of the soldiers of all five First Defender companies would, instead, spend the entirety of their ninety-day term of service stationed either inside Washington or in any number of the city's important military installations. Some of them were assigned to man the heavy guns inside the fortifications that ringed the city, while others were sent to either the Navy Yard or to the Washington Arsenal. For Curtis Pollock and most of his comrades in the Washington Artillery, orders arrived on April 28 to proceed to Fort Washington.
Located along the banks of the Potomac River just a few miles south of the city, Fort Washington, "an old-fashioned case-mate work, built of brick" in 1809, was destroyed in 1814 during the War of 1812, but was rebuilt ten years later under the direction of Pierre L'Enfant and Lieutenant Colonel Walker Armistead. In 1861, Fort Washington was under the command of Major Joseph A. Haskin, an 1839 graduate of West Point and a thoroughly professional officer who had lost an arm while storming Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War. Haskin and his small contingent of Regular Army soldiers stationed at Fort Washington immediately began drilling the volunteers from Pennsylvania, working "zealously and kindly" with them and "perfecting them in their duties as soldiers." It was while stationed at Fort Washington that Curtis Pollock and the other members of the Washington Artillery, having already been in the service several weeks, finally received their uniforms.
Drill, guard mounting, and fatigue duty were the orders of the day as Major Haskin continued to transform his civilian volunteers into soldiers. Near the end of May, the various First Defender companies were officially incorporated and organized into a regiment. Because they were the first volunteers to respond and to arrive in Washington, most of the First Defenders naturally expected the honor of having their companies be organized into the ranks of the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. They were greatly disappointed, however, when, instead, they learned that they would become part of the 25 th Pennsylvania Volunteers, which was the last of Pennsylvania's three-month regiments to be formally organized. In those hectic early days of the war, as state and federal military and civil authorities faced the monumental task of organizing tens of thousands of volunteer soldiers, the five First Defender companies were simply overlooked, and as Historian Samuel Bates, in his History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers pointed out, it was not until after 240 other companies of Pennsylvania volunteers were organized that the First Defenders "were remembered as a part of the Pennsylvania troops." Curtis Pollock and the other members of the Washington Artillery were reorganized and designated as Companies B & H of the 25th Pennsylvania. Having been officially organized, the time came for the members of the 25th to elect its leaders, a somewhat difficult task considering that the regiment's ten companies were located at various posts in and around Washington. In the end, it was Henry Lutz Cake, a lieutenant in the National Light Infantry, who was elected colonel. Born on October 6, 1827, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Cake later settled in Pottsville where he founded the Mining Record and where he became heavily involved in local politics and in the city's militia, joining the National Light Infantry. Cake's standing in the community, his experience in the militia, and his political connections all helped get him elected colonel of the 25th Pennsylvania Infantry, although there were some in the regiment, Pollock included, who had some doubts about Cake's qualifications and his leadership.
Excerpted from "Dear Ma"
Copyright © 2017 John David Hoptak.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE: With the First Defenders in Washington, April-July 1861
CHAPTER TWO: To War Once More: With the 48th Pennsylvania to Fortress Monroe, July-November 1861
CHAPTER THREE: “Here We Are Away Down on the Coast of North Carolina,” November 1861–July 1862
CHAPTER FOUR: “Here We Are Once More, On the Sacred Soil of Virginia,” July-August 1862
CHAPTER FIVE: Campaigning in Maryland, September-October 1862
CHAPTER SIX: A Winter of Despair, November 1862–February 1863
CHAPTER SEVEN: Springtime in Kentucky, a Summer in New England, and a Winter in East Tennessee, February 1863–January 1864
CHAPTER EIGHT: “Wasn’t That a Splendid Charge?,” February-June 1864