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Your Brother in ArmsA UNION SOLDIER'S ODYSSEY
By Robert C. Plumb
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Volunteer
National War Climate, Recruitment, and War Preparations, August—September 862
Now we are in a state of war which will yield for nothing. —Robert E. Lee, letter to his sister, April 20, 1861
The election of 1860—when Abraham Lincoln, under the Republican Party banner, carried every free state except New Jersey—was the spark that set off the tinderbox of secession. During the preceding campaign, Southern leaders had threatened secession if the Republicans won the election. Such threats had been raised in the South since 1850, but none was taken seriously. Now, with the sweep of free states in the North bringing Lincoln to the White House, the South was done with empty threats and poised to take action.
It was the South's contention that individual states had joined the Union as sovereign units, able to sever their connection to this "association of sovereign states" whenever they wished and on any substantial grounds. Secession was, to be sure, a drastic measure, but, in the minds of Southern political leaders, it was a lawful act.
South Carolina led, withdrawing from the Union in December 1860. Six other states quickly followed: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The group of seven was joined by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861.
The residents of the North observed the process of secession with almost uniform feelings of shock and disbelief. Most Northern free-state citizens and politicians were too stunned by the abrupt unraveling of the Union to consider what policies and strategies were required to meet the crisis head on. Reaction in the North was slow, but momentum was building.
"Keep a Sharp Lookout for Traitors" —Rallying cry of Pittsburgh's Committee of Public Safety, 1861
From 1860 on, the well of pro-Union sentiment ran deep in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the closing days of 1860, Secretary of War John B. Floyd had directed the shipment of heavy ordnance (cannons) from the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh to Southern military posts. Residents of Pittsburgh, already suspicious of Southern intentions, organized a rally at the Pittsburgh courthouse to protest the action. Angry citizens pushed for retraction of the order at the highest level. A formal protest was sent by telegram over the names of four prominent Pittsburgh residents to President Buchanan requesting that the transfer of ordnance be "immediately countermanded." The president took notice of these outraged constituents and promptly asked his secretary of war to cancel the order for the removal of ordnance to military posts in the South. The cannons remained in Pittsburgh.
The following January, President-elect Lincoln stopped in Pittsburgh en route from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., where he was to be inaugurated. On his way to the Monongahela House to spend the night, he found the crush of Pittsburgh citizens so large that the military was asked to clear a way for the travel-weary president-elect and his small party. The friendly pro-Union crowd begged Lincoln to address them. Climbing onto a chair in the hotel lobby, Lincoln implored the assembled admirers to come back in the morning, when he would have a "few words" for them. The next morning ten thousand eager Pittsburgh residents assembled in front of the Monongahela House to hear their next president deliver a fifteen-minute speech. At the conclusion of his talk, twenty thousand hands came together in a rousing applause of approval.
Some pro-Union sentiment was less benign. Right after the news of the fall of Fort Sumter reached Pittsburgh, reports tell of hangman's nooses appearing on lampposts throughout the city attached to signs that read "Death to Traitors."
Despite the bad news from the battlefields, the growing list of casualties and the seeming disarray in the Union's general officer leadership throughout 1861, the people of Pittsburgh did not waver in their strong Union support. The favorable results of several waves of recruiting in the Pittsburgh area are compelling evidence of the breadth and depth of support for the Union cause in both the city and surrounding Allegheny County.
"Young Men, Your Country Demands Your Service!" —1861 recruiting poster in Pittsburgh
Realizing that the regular army strength of 16,000 troops was inadequate to suppress the "rebellion" that was quickly unfolding after the fall of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, Lincoln issued his first call for 75,000 state militia to serve ninety days. The quota set for Pennsylvania—drawing heavily from Pittsburgh and its surrounding towns—was 12,500 troops. Charged with post-Fort Sumter patriotic enthusiasm, the state exceeded the quota, providing 20,000 troops that were drawn in large part from volunteers in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Between April 14 and April 24, 2,000 volunteers from Allegheny County—including Pittsburgh—were recruited, outfitted, and sent to the front.
Two days after the fall of Fort Sumter, a mass meeting was held at city hall in Pittsburgh to rally citizens with an appeal to save the Union. Hundreds had to be turned away because the building would not accommodate all the citizens who wanted to express their anxiety over the secessionist threat to the Union. Prominent citizens and civic leaders spoke eloquently about the need to snuff out the rebellion in its early stages and defend the Constitution. Appeals were made to support the new president—regardless of party affiliation—and to be especially vigilant by keeping "a sharp eye out for traitors."
A Committee of Public Safety was quickly formed in Pittsburgh, and General Thomas M. Howe, a prominent Pittsburgh businessman, was chosen to lead the group.
The Board of Bank Presidents of Pittsburgh, during this same period, committed to the governor that their banks would help fund the war effort. The Pennsylvania Railroad Company president stepped forward to promise his company's cooperation with any military use required of the railroad. He also made it possible for the bright young man who was his superintendent of the railroad's Pittsburgh division—Andrew Carnegie—to leave his post to take on the responsibility of launching the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps. Carnegie organized the corps and ran it successfully before he was called back to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The organizational genius he exhibited in starting the U.S. Telegraph Corps and providing the operational framework for this vital communication service was an early display of the entrepreneurial talents that would propel him into national prominence in post-Civil War America.
As the secession continued to gain momentum in the late spring and early summer of 1861, Lincoln responded by taking bold steps to bolster troop strength that, in several ways, went beyond his constitutional powers as commander in chief. He called for 42,000 volunteers for three years of service. In addition, Lincoln called for an extra 23,000 men in the Regular Army. Sensing the urgency of the situation and putting aside separation-of-powers issues, Congress met in July and backed the president by authorizing his actions and—at his urging—providing for the enlistment of 500,000 volunteers to serve for three years.
Despite the longer terms of service and news of Union losses at Bull Run in Virginia and casualties at Wilson's Creek in Missouri, recruitment fervor continued to run high in Pittsburgh. Senior officers had little difficulty recruiting companies and regiments within Allegheny County. By the autumn of 1861, the county had recruited eleven infantry regiments, two cavalry regiments, and three artillery companies.
In October 1861 one of the final brigades to be recruited in Allegheny County before the end of the year was to leave for duty in Louisville, Kentucky, but not until a full parade and review could be held for Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin at West Common in Allegheny. The governor, accompanied by his staff and decked out in full uniform, presented regimental colors to the troops. Then, in a speech called "eloquent and soul-stirring" by one observer, the charismatic governor bid the troops farewell. No doubt many in the crowd on that clear, crisp fall day thought sending out this latest round of fresh, eager volunteers meant the end of the national nightmare of secession and that the dissolution of the Union would soon be over. But it was only the beginning.
Governor Curtin returned to West Common nine months later to address a large crowd assembled to hear a group of notable political, business, and religious leaders. This time the tone was grim. Curtin began his speech to the crowd with a startling admission: "The Peninsula campaign is a failure! The Union armies have not been victorious! They have been driven to the gates of Washington!"
The Regiment—The 155th Pennsylvania Infantry
Come forward to crush out treason! —Headline from an 1861 recruiting poster in Pittsburgh.
Summer's languid days of 1862 in Pittsburgh brought with them more bad news from the front lines of the war. On the eastern front, the Seven Days' Battles between June 25 and July 1 resulted in nearly 16,000 Federal casualties and the end of the Peninsula campaign. It was small consolation that Confederate losses were even higher (20,000 casualties). Coming close on the heels of the battle of Shiloh on the western front in April where 13,000 Union soldiers died—20 percent of the total Union forces on the field of battle—and "Stonewall" Jackson's drubbing of Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley in May, the Seven Days' Battles dashed any hopes for a swift conclusion to the eighteen-month-old secession. The memory of the Union humiliation at Bull Run was still bitter even after a year. These battlefield disappointments, coupled with the ongoing shuffle of commanding generals through leadership positions within the Union army, rounded out the glum war picture for the residents of "Smoky City."
On July 2, 1862, President Lincoln issued his third call for volunteers to fill the growing needs of the Union army. Within days, the adjutant general of the U.S. Army requested that Governor Curtin raise twenty-one new regiments of volunteers in Pennsylvania as soon as possible.
Curtin, in issuing a proclamation, appealed to the patriotic sentiment of the people of Pennsylvania:
To sustain Government in times of common peril by all his energies, his means and his life, if need be, is the duty of every loyal citizen ... The existence of the present emergency is well understood. I call on the inhabitants of the counties, cities, boroughs and townships throughout our borders to meet and take active measures for the immediate furnishings of the quota of our state.
A "Great War Meeting" was convened in Pittsburgh on July 24, 1862, to kick off an intensive effort to fill the ranks of the twenty-one desired regiments. At this meeting Curtin made his shocking "The Peninsula campaign is a failure" statement. Scores of local and state dignitaries implored young men to "fall in" and join the companies being formed. Singers and instrumentalists filled the air with patriotic music. Upwards of twenty thousand people heard the governor, a former governor, numerous judges, professors, clergy, and prominent businessmen urge the young men to rally for the Union.
Judge William Wilken, eighty-seven, with a head of snow-white hair, standing six feet tall, and bearing a passing resemblance to Andrew Jackson, seemed to one observer in the audience "like a voice from the Revolutionary period in which he was born." Wilken appealed to the supremacy of law and the preservation of the Union. Samuel Wilson, a professor at Western Theological Seminary, asked of the assembled crowd: "What is gold—what is silver—as compared with the honor of the Nation? It is offal when thrown into the balance against the liberties of our country!"
Speakers took up positions on four corners of the West Common to literally surround the crowd with rhetoric. All the stops had been pulled out to ensure that the citizens of Pittsburgh–especially the young men who were candidates for recruitment in the Union army—heard the very best motivational speakers of the day and were inspired by the most rousing patriotic music that the participating bands and singers had to offer.
In addition to the appeals by political and civic leaders, the clergy of all denominations in Pittsburgh played an active role by urging enlistments among those in their congregations and parishes. Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics set aside doctrinal differences to rally around the preservation of the Union and to encourage enlistments to bolster Union ranks. At this stage in the war, there was little public discussion among clergy in western Pennsylvania about slavery and abolition. Unlike the feeling among their counterparts in New England, the prevailing motivation for urging enlistment among the clergy in Pittsburgh was the preservation of the Union, not an end to slavery.
It was in this highly charged atmosphere of Union fervor and patriotic sentiment from all quarters of influence in Pittsburgh that the 155th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment was formed. From the nucleus of Companies A and B of the Kier Rifles, named for S. M. Kier, a major financial contributor to the Union cause, came the other eight companies that would form the 155th.
Recruited from the City of Pittsburgh and the surrounding countryside, the majority of members of the 155th were processed in Pittsburgh recruiting centers, with the rest being handled in the surrounding counties of Armstrong and Clarion. Outside the conventional recruiting venues of public buildings and hastily built recruiting shacks, Company G was organized at the home of Dr. Charles Klotz, a physician, who was made captain of the company after it was fully manned.
Once the men had been examined by the U.S. Army surgeons assigned to recruiting, they were formally mustered into U.S. service by the mustering officer of the 17th U.S. Infantry. Physical examinations were perfunctory at best or, at worst, not performed at all. Since the majority of the 155th's recruits were boys between the ages of sixteen and twenty, the presumption of the examining surgeons was that this youthful group was healthy. The surgeons, under intense pressure to accept all volunteers, viewed the overall group of recruits as "sturdy, healthy, athletic boys" based on their observed vitality during the cursory physical "exams."
The price for these lackadaisical physical exams was paid later, when scores of soldiers proved to be physically unfit for the rigorous demands of service. Those who did not die of illness were quickly mustered out on certificates of disability by army surgeons.
Congress had set a bounty for volunteers of $100 (about $2,000 in current dollars). One quarter of the amount was to be paid at the time of enlistment and the balance paid at the end of the enlistment period. Furthermore, Congress had permitted the payment of one month's pay in advance, resulting in a total enlistment bounty of up to $38 to start. While some governors in Northern states added bonuses of $50 or more to sweeten the enlistment appeal, Governor Curtin—perhaps confident that Pennsylvania would draw the necessary number of recruits based on past successes without additional incentives—scotched any idea of a state bonus for recruits.
The first assemblage and residence of the Companies in Camp Howe was marked with great spirit and gayety. Under the Maltese Cross
Once mustered in, the companies that would form the 155th Regiment were ordered to report to Camp Howe, a fifty-acre tract of land close to Pittsburgh with ample, comfortable barracks and a parade ground for conducting drills and reviews. The first step in turning raw recruits into soldiers was to issue uniforms. Ill-fitting coats and trousers, oafish leather brogues, and coarse woolen underwear were distributed to the men. Only camp guards were provided muskets for guard duty; the rest of the recruits remained unarmed—for the time being.
Excerpted from Your Brother in Arms by Robert C. Plumb Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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