April 17, 1861 – Wednesday.
When Andrew Curtin returned to the state capital on Wednesday, April 17, no one person was happier about it than his beleaguered Secretary of the Commonwealth, Eli Slifer. During the governor’s absence, Slifer stood in his stead as a nominal head of government. Under ordinary circumstances, performing double-duty would have amounted to a minor inconvenience; to have the nation violently break apart during his watch, however, was a development no underling would wish for.
Since Monday morning, messengers of the Pennsylvania Railroad wore a steady path to the capital building bearing dispatches for the governor. They came from financiers and men of influence from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and from local militia leaders at all points in between. Other militia officers arrived at Harrisburg throughout the weekend, unannounced and unaware that Curtin was in Washington. They swarmed to the capital building, hours and even days before the president’s proclamation made war a certainty. The Patriot & Union took note; whether intentional or not, the newspaper’s report on Tuesday, April 16th, suggests the early arrivals were motivated as much by opportunity as patriotism:
“MILITARY MEN IN TOWN: Quite a number of military men from the country have paid our city a visit since the recent war news have come to hand, and doubtless they have come here to receive appointments from the Governor. We met Gen. James S. Negly, of Allegheny county, in the city yesterday. Gen. N is the Brigadier General of the Allegheny volunteers, and has come to this city . . . for the appointment of Adjutant General. The General is an affable gentleman, but from what we could learn yesterday his aspirations would have to give way to a gentleman from Philadelphia, who, it was generally acceded, had the inside track for the appointment.”
Tuesday evening saw the first militia company reach Harrisburg, the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading. They arrived about 8 p.m., 102 men led and drilled to surprising efficiency by Mexican War veteran, Captain James McKnight. The company was inspiring to behold. They were equipped with all the trappings of regular army artillerists, down to their well polished sabers. Throughout the preceding weekend the men drilled with their pieces; four, beautifully burnished, six-pound brass cannon they doted over like adoring parents. Such was their devotion that pet names were bestowed on guns that “had come to be regarded with an attachment which only soldiers know.” But the federal requisition was for infantry only; the necessity of leaving their guns behind was the cause of disconsolation. The company was steered to the abandoned site of the old Pennsylvania depot, where they bed down with the forlorn expectation of never again being reunited with their charges.
Wednesday saw the arrival of four more companies, of which the Logan Guards of Lewistown were the first. They reached the capital during the morning hours, 106 men led by Captain John Selheimer. The company was a product of Pennsylvania’s previous attempt to repair its militia system in 1858; its thirty-four original members were uniformed in the fashion of regulars and to whom the state had furnished Springfield muskets. The weapons were no worse for wear since issued, the unintended but happy result of not having a fleck of powder with which to fire them. Of the remaining men a few carried loaded revolvers, but the balance of the company were completely unarmed and indifferently attired.
The evening train from Pottsville delivered three more companies; the Washington Artillery and National Light Infantry of that place, and accompanied by the Allen Rifles of Allentown. The latter company was armed with flintlocks and were well drilled under the stern tutelage of Captain Thomas Yeager. They presented a soldierly appearance in uniforms of gray cloth, trimmed in black and gold bullion. Upon closer inspection, however, it could be seen that many of their ancient weapons were in disrepair, being without locks or flints. Those that were in were working order, the men attested, bucked like artillery pieces and spit blinding, hot powder smoke into their faces – more prone to inflict injury upon the man firing them than an enemy downrange. The company was without field equipments of any kind. They carried with them only a box of underclothing provided by the citizens of Allentown.
These companies, too, were marched to the old depot, but the space was found insufficient to house them all. Lodging for Captain James Wren and the Washington Artillery was secured in a meeting hall above a saloon, which the volunteers immediately modified by procuring bundles of straw bedding from a nearby livery stable. It was the best arrangement to be had on short notice, and one which the men cheerfully endured.
The needs of the inner man, though, was a cause that drew some complaint. “We had our supper in the saloon,” said Private Curtis Pollock, bemoaning a meal that consisted solely of “beans and coffee without any sugar or milk.” More appalling was the establishment’s manner of conducting business. “It was the dirtiest I have been in for a long time. After a person was done they took the plate and threw what was on it on the floor and then wiped the plate with a dirty towel.” The artillerists hoped to fare better in Washington.
Captain Wren displayed great zeal for drilling his charges – perhaps overmuch – keeping the Washington Artillery from mischief in the saloon below by working them until the small hours of the morning.
At some point during the day or night of Wednesday, the harried Eli Slifer found a moment, and a moment only, to dash off the briefest of letters to his wife, Catharine. “I am so busy that I cannot say more than that the town is full of soldiers.”
Slifer hadn’t seen anything, yet.
The late Justin Sanders (1957-2016) hailed from Astoria, New York. Long time Civil War enthusiast whose focus has been sighted in on the History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps.