By Ned Frear
When Lincoln called for an army, the boys of Pennsylvania came out of the hills to volunteer for three months, then three years. Pennsylvania was the first solid Union state north of Washington, and would be the first invaded.
The most famous of the units was the Bucktails, from the northern counties. But there were many colorful names given the units as the men hurried in to enlist: Brandywine Guards, Safe Harbor Artillery, Archy Dick Rifles, Carlisle Light Infantry, The Duquesne Grays, Anderson Life Guards, Raftsmen’s Guards, Tioga Rifles, Irish Infantry, to name a few. The men formed units then elected their leaders, in the Reserves.
One of the outfits which was to achieve its place in history was the Hopewell Rifles, Company F of the 8th Regiment of Pennsylvania Reserves. The Rifles were to muster in near Pittsburgh on June 28.
In the meantime, the Bucktails had made their first encounter. On June 21, General Winfield Scott told Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin to send two of his regiments to relieve General Lew Wallace at Cumberland. The troops came by train through Huntingdon. They got aboard the Huntingdon and Broad Top to reach Hopewell, the end of the line. They camped there June 22.
The History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, by J. R. Sypher, Esq., records the feeling: “The citizens along the line of the railroad cheered on the soldiers as they hurried away to the threatened border. At the stations where the trains stopped, baskets of provisions were distributed…The ladies of Huntingdon excelled,” he notes. They had provided an ample dinner for the men.
“Early on Sunday morning the command resumed the march, moving in the direction of Bedford Springs. At Bloody Run the command halted to partake of a dinner prepared by the citizens of that village. The brigade encamped that night near Bedford Springs, where it remained three days.” They called it Camp McCall, for their commanding general, George McCall.
A two-day march put the Bucktails at the border. The residents of Cumberland called in alarm two weeks later, and the troops went across the line to repulse a band of Confederate cavalry.
Bruce Catton, the eminent Civil War historian, spotlights the moment in his history of the Army of the Potomac, “Mr. Lincoln’s Army”:
“The regiment marched overland (sic) from Harrisburg into Maryland in the summer of 1861, and as it drew near to Maryland the men were tense: crossing the Mason and Dixon line would mean stepping into slave territory, into the war itself. So they halted, while a lieutenant seized the colors, ran across the state line, and boldly planted the flag on Maryland soil, where at the regiment fired a salute, ragged but noisy.”
A week later, perhaps inspired by the men who had traveled through, the Hopewell Rifles had formed. They were to get involved in the very thickest battles of the war, and to become wrapped in glory or controversy, depending on who wrote their story. Twice they would be accused of running, but both times their generals would vehemently defend them. Both times they would be in the most awful battles, and once virtually cut down by ambush. (We say “they”; it is impossible to pinpoint the actions of Company F in any of the battles. It is more a case of following the 8th Regiment, or the second Brigade, or the whole of the Pennsylvania Reserves.)
The Hopewell Rifles were commanded by Capt. John Eichelberger. When he was wounded, his place would be taken by his brother, Capt. Eli Eichelberger. Eli would be captured in the Wilderness, one of the last battles for this depleted unit.
They fought at Dranesville, Va., then at Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, and New Market Crossroads in the battles of the peninsula in the first summer. They fought at Malvern Hill, second Bull Run, South Mountain, and the biggest battle, An tie tarn, and finally Fredericksburg, in the fall of 1862. They were in the army, but apparently not in action, at Gettysburg, but back in the thick of it at Bristoe Station, Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, and Bethesda.
It is hard to imagine the panic in Washington when the Federal army went out to Bull Run, fought hard, then broke and ran. Stragglers— Congressmen and ladies in buggies, sightseers, and soldiers— came streaming back into Washington all night. Gov. Curtin got this telegram that night: To-morrow won’t do for your regiments. We must have them to-night. Send them to-night. It is of the utmost importance
Thos A. Scott, ass’t Sec. of War The Pennsylvania Reserves went to Washington and camped there protectively. Then they went joyously into Virginia and met the rebels at Dranesville, and beat them. It was a small engagement, but it was the first time the Federals had won anything, and it began to give people hope.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We are hopeful, that, as we progress with the history of one Civil War unit from Bedford County, we will learn more about it and others. We have, for instance, the full roster of Co. K, of the 55th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, which fought several battles in South Carolina and Virginia from 1861 through 1864. If you have pictures, letters, or other items of interest relating to these or other units, we would be obliged to use it, in an effort to complete the story. Tomorrow: The Rifles are blooded on the peninsula.
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.