Basic Training at Camp Wilkins and Camp Wright

by John J. Matviya

Preface: This article originally appeared on the old website years ago. This transcript has been recovered from internet archives.

Lincoln’s “call to arms” succeeded in attracting thousands of volunteers from throughout the state, more than could be accepted. But Pennsylvania was not prepared to do anything with these excited, patriotic men. Not only were there no guns, uniforms or provisions, there were no training camps to organize them into fighting units. Because the initial 75,000 volunteers had only enlisted for three months’ service, something had to be done quickly before the country found itself without an army. Governor Curtin recommended organizing the “extra” volunteers into a corps of state “reserves” to be trained in camps throughout the state.

In early May 1861 companies from throughout western Pennsylvania began filing into Pittsburgh for a rendezvous at the old Allegheny County Fairgrounds, renamed “Camp Wilkins,” on Penn Street in the Lawrenceville section of the city. All were hopeful of being accepted into state service. The barracks at Camp Wilkins were rough wooden sheds originally built and used for the Allegheny County Fair. The animal stalls, pens and sties were fitted up along the sides with boards two or three feet wide. On these boards the boys–now far from the friends and family and the excitement of enlistment day–would sleep. One boy wrote home, “I never before realized just how hard a plank was or how sharp were bones until I had occupied one of these bunks for a couple of nights.” The recruits were turned into these enclosures “like animals” and told to make themselves comfortable. Here these young men began to comprehend the difference between the comforts of home and the uncomfortable life of a military camp. No change was more noticeable than at mealtimes. They were divided into Messes each containing six members. The boys lined up single file and each took a tin plate, knife, fork, a large and a small spoon, and a tin cup before receiving their portions of hard tack, salt pork, beans, coffee and sugar. Occasionally they received corned beef instead of salt pork. At first rations were poor and irregular and consequently much sickness prevailed.

In only a few days these greenhorns were turning into professionals at least as far as camp life was concerned. A company cook was found, which improved the food and led to them being treated to such luxuries and delicacies as fresh beef, potatoes, bean or vegetable soup, and “soft bread” (as baker’s bread was called to distinguish it from hard tack). In addition to the food of the “Camp Wilkins Cafe” (the mess hall), there was a “fair supply of delicate edibles from the loved ones at home” and from the ladies of Pittsburgh. Before long even those hard wooden planks they called beds began to seem comfortable. The boys joked that either the planks were softer or the sharp points of their hip bones had become rounded off because they found that they could sleep comfortably anywhere now. The recruits wrote home of improved health and strength.

Camp Wright, as it appeared in 1861 in this artists rendering.

At Camp Wilkins the young recruits became acquainted with the one military exercise that would fill most of their daylight hours throughout the war–drill. But this exercise was much lighter during their first two months than they would experience later. There was only company drill from 10 a.m. until noon, regimental drill from 2 to 4 p.m., and “dress parade” at 5:00 p.m. all performed without uniforms or guns. Their evenings were free; they participated in a variety of amusements of their own invention until lights out at nine. Not yet tainted by the immorality that would become associated with army camplife, their spare time was spent in meditation, reading (primarily the Bible) and writing. One Jefferson Light Guard wrote in his diary, “We have in sight, and around us, the roar of the steamboat whistle, the green hills and gardens, with all the incidentals attending upon terraculture, to which is added, the productions of the pen and press, to beguile our leisure hours.”

The one wartime “vice” which they had already adopted was the “appropriating system”; as one described it, they “make free use of all the milk cows, ducks, chickens, etc. that come into camp; and whatever of onions, lettuce, and other vegetables they may meet with in their strolls through the neighborhood.”

Despite the good food, “softening” bunks and courteous townspeople, all was not well at Camp Wilkins. A Jefferson Guard complained, “Our experience here has been a series of disappointed expectations resulting from alternate orders and countermands; while our position is a fixed institution, viz: in the boggy corner of the old Fairgrounds.” Another wrote, “I can conceive of no excuse for feeding two thousand men in a camp of instruction and not providing them with uniforms or guns to drill with. Just imagine, two thousand men receiving one month’s instruction and not knowing hos to load a gun or make a charge. It looks like child’s play to us, and we perform our duties with like seriousness and interest. Consequently if fifty armed secessionists were to break in upon us we would all probably run like so many sheep.”

Even as he wrote wagon loads of guns entered the campground amid “outbursts of delight” from the unarmed recruits. But a week later he reports that “those guns … which caused to much joy among the boys when they came into camp were carefully piled up in the headquarters and nobody has seen them since.” Another month would pass with the “constant promises of guns, uniforms and pay” before, on July 15, each man in the Jefferson Guards received his gun. The “gun” he received was an 1818-vintage flint-lock musket. Finally receiving arms after a two month wait, their disappointment could not have been greater. The Guards, who had expected to be a rifle company, realized that they would probably never get rifles and instead be compelled to fight with the old muskets “which should be placed in some safe-keeping as relics of olden time.”

Allegheny County and Western Pennsylvania Fair Grounds as it appeared four years prior to the beginning of the war. Courtesy of the The Pittsburgh Press.

Although Camp Wilkins, the old Fairgrounds, had been made as comfortable as possible, it was not a true military camp and the recruits were anxious to move to new quarters. At the beginning of June there was “great rejoicing” with a report that the camp would move that week twelve miles up the Allegheny River to “Hulton Station.” Named after Colonel S. A. Wright of the Governor’s staff, the barracks at Camp Wright were built at present-day Verona/Oakmont “… on rising ground, between two ravines, surrounded by a dense forest on three sides, an orchard in the centre, two beautiful springs of water–one on either side–which are conveyed to the centre of camp by pipes. The Allegheny Valley Railroad passes immediately below the camp, and beyond it again is that delightful old river, clear and fresh from the blue forests of the North.”

The soldiers found the new camp very pleasing. While the companies busily engaged in building their barracks, many of the nearly four thousand soldiers in camp were temporarily quartered in tents. (Some not so “temporarily” as the quartermaster did not distribute enough timber to finish the barracks.) Erecting the tents was rather perplexing to these greenhorns; some had to set them three or four times before they got them arranged properly. The furnishings of most of the tents consisted of carpet bags, overcoats, a small box containing a tin cup, plate, spoon, knife and fork for each man, and a candlestick made of a block of pipe. The tents were “warm as a bake oven in daytime and cold as an ice house at night.”

Every morning the guard was mounted at 8:00 for a 24 hour duty. The guard was divided into three reliefs, each relief standing two hours alternately throughout the twenty-four. For those not on guard duty, or engatged in building barracks, there was the daily squad, company and regimental drills. Meal times were greatly looked forward to and food was plentiful. Water was also plentiful at Camp Wright with pure spring water on both sides and the Allegheny River below about 1/4 mile. The river, “were it not for all of the oil floating on the surface, would afford a splendid place for bathing.” The nation’s first oil well had been drilled in Titusville just two years before and the oil boom was in full swing. The oil that was not collected was conveniently swept away by Oil Creek and the Allegheny River. But the oil covered river did not stop the boys from enjoying the water every evening. One to two thousand men could be seen scattered along the river bank enjoying the breeze, absorbed in thought or writing letters. (One soldier wrote from “a very romantic sot on the river bank. My desk is a pine board, laid across my knees, and my seat is the green sward, cushioned with a limestone.”) Hundreds left the beach and struck out for a … “bold swim for the other shore. But the object of greatest interest, at the present time, is the number of soldiers scattered along the river’s edge trying to cleanse their shirts in the greasy waters. The oil wells in the country along the head of the river has rendered its watyers utterly unfit for washing clothes. By the time the soldier has managed by dint of hard rubbing and a free use of soap, to remove the dirt from his shirt, it is not only washed, but it is pretty thoroughly oiled.”

On the 28th of June the Jefferson Light Guards, along with six other companies at Camp Wilkins and three others at Camp Wright, were organized as “The Tenth Regiment of Infantry of the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps.” The Pittsburgh Rifles were designated “A” Company of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves. The remaining companies at Camp Wilkins were organized as the 8th Reserves, while those at Camp Wright were placed in the 9th and the 11th. That camp itself, beautiful when first seen by the troops, had by the beginning of July been noticeably damaged by the four regiments of soldiers then in camp (the 9th, 10th and 11th Reserves plus Colonel J. W. McLane’s old Erie Regiment). “The fresh, young grass” which covered the campground only a few weeks before was “crushed beneath the measured tread of near four thousand men who now make this their home, and a daily crowd of visitors from Pittsburgh and the surrounding country; and the beautiful, young orchard, in which we are emcamped, bears evidence that many of its boughs have been visited by ruthless hands.” These regiments would only remain in Camp Wright another two weeks. On June 22, following the rout of the 3-month volunteers at Bull Run, the “reserves” were called up for federal service and left Camp Wright forever.

The soldiers would not find such a beautiful campground again throughout the war. Even at new campsites, the presence of thousands of men would rapidly overtax the land. More often, the troops would camp in places that had been used before. These old campgrounds, with their accumulation of ruined structures, stripped vegetation and heaps of garbage, were always uninviting and often dangerously unsanitary. In wet weather the ground was converted to quagmire. In summer, the mud turned to dust. The 9th and 10th Reserves would long remember Camp Wilkins and Camp Wright with a great fondness.

City Letter Carrier at USPS | | Website | + posts

Currently a resident of Burke, Virginia - I'm originally from the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have been a student of the Pennsylvania Reserves since 1997 and thoroughly enjoy telling their story. By trade I'm a former IT Professional but presently working as a Letter Carrier for the United States Postal Service.