Harrisburg: April 18th, 1861

April 18, 1861 – Thursday.

The Washington Artillery’s overnight stay at Harrisburg amounted to a two-hour nap in straw, heaped on the floor of a meeting hall. Worn by a long day of travel and a night of drill practice, at 3:30 a.m. Captain James Wren rousted the Pottsville volunteers from their bundles, and put them through the paces again. At 5 a.m. Wren broke off drill and the volunteers summoned the courage to take another meal in the saloon below. Breakfast’s fare, Pollock reported, was no different than supper – departing, the men were mindful to tread carefully over a floor made slick by their leftovers. The weary volunteers were marched to the depot where they joined the other four companies, and sworn into United States service by Captain Seneca Simmons of the regular army.1

The assembled men represented only one quarter of the amount Curtin had pledged to send the president within three days – another battalion of unarmed men at Philadelphia, he hoped, would be underway before the day was out. They were almost completely without the accoutrements of the soldier, but arms awaited them at Washington and the necessities of the moment outweighed the need for equipment. He could delay no longer; the men must go forward.

At an early hour on Thursday morning, Lieutenant John C. Pemberton and a detachment of fifty regulars from company H, 4th Artillery, arrived at Harrisburg. Pemberton’s men left their post at St. Paul on Monday morning with orders to reinforce Fort McHenry in Baltimore’s harbor. Their long journey was nearly at end, needing only to change to the Northern Central line to carry them the remainder of the distance. They threw in with the five volunteer companies, crowded onto a train of twenty-one cars.

It was about 8 a.m. when the train departed Harrisburg, the first battalion of soldiers to go in defense of the national capital. Most of the 476 volunteers left their outdated and unreliable militia muskets at home on the promise of receiving new Springfield rifles at Washington; of those that bore weapons there was not a single charge of powder among them. But few, if any, anticipated a need for arms between Harrisburg and Washington. Their visit to the nation’s capital was to be a welcome diversion from the drudgery of daily occupations.


The first leg of the defender’s journey was uneventful. There was little of interest for the volunteers to see, and nothing that required their attention until changing rail lines at Baltimore. Sleep, like all other commodities, had been in short supply over the previous two days; many dozed as the trains glided past the plush farms and elaborate barns of York County. Those that did not sleep took note of a peculiar phenomenon. Crossing over the Mason and Dixon line into Maryland, the small clots of bystanders they passed along the roadway were less friendly than before, cheers becoming more frequently mixed with jeers and insults. The deeper the train progressed into Maryland the more unfriendly the citizens became. But the battalion passed through without incident, encountering nothing more serious than the waving of disloyal flags from a women’s college. There was no indication that trouble might lie ahead.2

The volunteers arrived at Camden’s Bolton depot on the outskirts of Baltimore about 2 p.m., relieved to have put the longest leg of their trip behind them. A march of a little more than two miles through the Monumental City would bring them to the Mount Clare depot, where they would board trains to carry them the remainder of the distance to Washington. The volunteers hopped down off of the cars glad for the opportunity to stretch their legs.

Their arrival was expected. News of the troops train’s departure from Harrisburg was telegraphed to Baltimore shortly after it pulled away that morning. Word quickly spread through the city of deeply divided loyalties that pro-Union volunteers would soon be in their midst, stirring the pro-secession faction to fury. Inflammatory speeches were made throughout the morning, decrying the movement as an invasion by the Federal government upon one of its own sovereign states. By the time the train appeared at Camden several thousand angry secessionists awaited them, haranguing the Pennsylvanian’s as they disembarked. A reporter for the Baltimore Sun diagnosed the situation as showing all the “strong symptoms of a riot” in the making.

The volunteers’ trek had taken a sudden turn from a leisurely excursion to a dangerous endeavor. Captain McKnight ordered the men back onto the train, leaving Lieutenant Pemberton and his small band of regulars alone to face the angry throng. Aboard the train hurried discussions took place as to what should be done next. One member of the Logan Guards carried with him a box of percussion caps and dispersed them to his comrades. Dressed in uniforms identical to the regulars, carrying capped and half-cocked Springfield muskets, they might be mistaken for seasoned veterans bearing loaded weapons. But such a ruse was not an option for most of the men, especially the Allen Rifles, many of whose muskets were without locks and were serviceable only as clubs. The Ringgold Light Artillery still possessed their sabers, but the majority of the other men were without any means to defend themselves. Forcing a passage through the streets of Baltimore seemed a proposition with little merit.

The standoff was soon broken by Baltimore’s Marshal of Police, George Kane, who arrived on the scene with “the whole force of the city police, about 200,” estimated Curtis Pollock. With a police escort in place the volunteers warily climbed back down out of the cars and formed ranks. Pemberton’s regulars took the point of the march and Captain Yeager’s Allen Rifles, the rear. The captains admonished “the men to preserve their temper and to make no reply” to the taunts of the crowd; with equal amounts of trepidation and pluck, the column stepped off.

The Washington Artillerists marched empty-handed at the center of the column, their position offering protection more perceived than real. “We had two miles to go to the depot where the Washington train started from. We were hissed and hooted and called all manner of hard names and the people were hurrahing for Jeff Davis and the Confederacy. It would have taken very little to raise a row but we had no arms and we did not say anything to them.” One member of the company, Nick Biddle, had more cause for uneasiness than the rest. A Negro of advanced age, Biddle was barred from military service by virtue of his race, but was voted into the ranks as an honorary member. He donned a uniform and accompanied his comrades on the grand excursion, serving the unit in an unofficial capacity under the ambiguous title of orderly. The sight of a black man in uniform was more than many of the antagonists could bear; the taunts and insults hurled at Biddle were particularly unsparing.

The mob fell in behind the volunteers as they passed, and pressed in ever closer. The rear of the column was a particularly unnerving place to be. Privates William Kress and William Ruhe of the Allen Infantry represented the rear guard, tabbed for the dubious honor by Captain Yeager on account of being the largest men in his command. The crowd berated the Allentown company for going to war with defective weapons: “What muskets! no lock, no powder.” Emboldened by the knowledge they could not be fired upon, the Marylanders challenged the Pennsylvanians: “Let the police go and we will lick you.”

The battalion snaked through the northern reaches of Baltimore by a series of hard turns: south a short distance down Howard Street to Camden Street; southwest up Camden before turning south again on Eutaw, marching to where it formed a disjointed intersection with Paca Street. They tramped southward down the latter street the better part of mile, taking them through the heart of Baltimore. Although this segment of the march may have seemed an eternity to the men, the column was better able to close ranks, allowing the police force to form an impenetrable cordon around them.

Upon reaching Pratt Street, Lieutenant Pemberton and his company of regulars filed off to the left, taking the road to Fort McHenry, while the volunteers turned west toward the depot. The departure of the professional soldiers left the full brunt of the crowd’s angst to fall upon the true object of their ire, the volunteers – men arrogant or naïve enough to voluntarily undertake an invasion of southern soil without arms. To have done so was a grave mistake, the secessionists assured them, and to which they wagered:  “You will never get back to Pennsylvania.” At the moment, the threat did not seem too far fetched.

With the regulars out of the way the mob became bolder, whipping itself to a frenzy with screamed oaths and insults. “Longshoremen, gamblers, floaters, idlers, red-hot secessionists, as well as men ordinarily sober and steady, crowded upon, pushed and hustled the band and made every effort to break the thin line. Some, mounted upon horses, were prevented with difficulty by the police from riding down the volunteers.” Here and there, individuals and small groups of rioters momentarily broke the police line, attempting to sever the column by “pushing through the files of men.” They clutched at the volunteers and struck them with their fists, but were overpowered, too few in numbers to succeed at their mission.

The column at last came tumbling upon the Mount Clare depot and the train that would deliver it from torment. The Logan Guards were the first company to reach the station. They awaited neither orders nor further motivation to break ranks and make a headlong dash for the cars. The precedent was followed by the remaining companies and within moments the column dissolved into a disorganized mass. Reduced to a series of entangled clusters at the doors of the freight cars, the battalion was at its most vulnerable moment when boarding the train.

Seeing their quarry on the verge of escape the mob made a last, desperate lunge at the volunteers. The Baltimore Sun correspondent watched the scene in disbelief. “While the troops were occupying the cars at Mount Clare, a perfect pandemonium existed.”

Many of the rioters brandished knives and drew pistols, but the police line resolutely stood its ground. Frustrated in their attempt to break the line, cobblestones and bricks rained down into the mass of volunteers, hurled from a distance of only a few feet. Nick Biddle was an especial target of the mob. “Nick Biddle had his head cut open to the bone with a stone thrown by one Sesess [sic],” wrote Pollock. The Allen Infantry, being the last company in the line of march suffered the largest amount of abuse. Many sustained lumps and bruises, but some of the injuries were more serious. Privates Edwin Hittle and Ignatz Gresser were badly lamed; Private David Jacobs was struck square in the mouth with a brick, knocking out most of his teeth. Falling unconscious to the ground, Jacobs suffered further injury, fracturing his wrist.

In the open expanse of the depot the police could not secure all points, allowing an opportunity for a portion of the mob to outflank their line. One rioter, determined to improve his chances of an accurate throw, ran up behind Private Wilson Derr and hurled a brick at his head from point blank range. The brick struck the soldier flush against the ear, inflicting a dangerous wound that left him partially deaf for the remainder of his life. What the assailant had not counted on, was that Derr would remain on his feet after absorbing such punishment. As gouts of blood gushed from his head, the wounded Pennsylvanian wheeled and struck the man a savage blow with the butt of his otherwise useless musket, the force of which sheared off the attacker’s ear – retribution on a biblical scale of justice.

The mob continued to vent its fury, even after the last of the injured were hoisted aboard and doors secured. They pelted the wooden cars with bricks and cobblestones, the continuous thudding resonating inside like a violent hailstorm. Some of the men were worse for wear, but all were accounted for. The only numerical loss to the battalion was suffered by the Allen Infantry. The box of underclothing donated by the citizens of Allentown became a trophy of war, its contents shredded and  strewn throughout the streets of Baltimore.

Although the train sheltered the volunteers from a stoning, they were not yet out of danger. It was discovered that an attempt was made to sabotage the cars by dusting the floorboards with gunpowder. The perpetrators hoped that within the darkened interior someone would strike a match, and turn the tinderbox train into a deathtrap from which few would escape. While the men disarmed the plot by whisking the floorboards, more direct measures were afoot to prevent the battalion’s departure. A handful of rioters descended upon the engine, determined to detach it from the cars and run it off. The gambit was foiled by the engineer and crew by drawing pistols on the attackers; their countenances bore grim assurance they fully intended to shoot anyone who dared the attempt. Even as this coup was being thwarted, the engineer spied a squad of men setting fire to the Pratt Street bridge a short distance down the track. Wielding a pistol in one hand, he lurched the train forward and raced to clear the bridge before it became fully engulfed. The cars crossed without mishap as the flames began to lap higher, and the volunteers were at long last put beyond the reach and wrath of the mob.


It was about 7 p.m. when the troop train reached the Washington depot. The Pennsylvanians were the first volunteers to reach the nation’s capital, and though few in number, their presence gladdened the hearts of inhabitants.

But, their arrival also brought an unintended sense of disquiet. Many of the men bore marks of their recent experience, and some, badly injured, had to be helped down from the cars. As the volunteers recounted their harrowing passage and hair’s-breadth escape from Baltimore, citizens listened with growing unease. Their tales only confirmed the citizen’s worst fears regarding the state of affairs in Maryland. Hereafter, they would watch developments to the immediate north with a wary eye and a ready steamer trunk.

The battalion marched the two blocks to the vacant and dimly lit Capitol building. There they were met by Major Irvin McDowell, who was overseeing its defense with only a company of District militiamen. The major hurriedly passed the formality of an inspection and set the men to fortifying the structure. Iron boiler plating was used to obstruct windows, and 3o,ooo barrels of flour were rolled into place to barricade doorways, until the building could be entered by only two, well guarded entrances. The finishing touch of the Capitol’s defense was added when Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, appeared on the scene. After  saluting his fellow Pennsylvanians, he led a portion of them to the basement. Here old muskets were discarded and empty hands filled with new Springfield rifles. To the remainder of the men, Cameron vouched for the delivery of Harper’s Ferry muskets in the morning.

Only when the work was completed did McDowell make a move towards the comfort of the travel-weary and harried men. He could offer little; indeed, it seemed the volunteer’s arrival had not been expected. Two of the companies were dispatched to join the Washington militia in the building’s north wing, where they quartered in the lap of luxurious committee rooms. Two others were led to the south wing, lighting the furnace and chandeliers as they went. The Allen Infantry received the honor of hunkering down in the vice president’s offices adjoining the Senate chamber. They sprawled on plush Belgian carpets and refreshed themselves in marble washstands, giddy over the oddity of their unlikely bivouac.

But the novelty of their surroundings fast wore off. They soon enough came to the painful realization that even less preparation had been made to feed them. Their first meal required as much courage and constitution as anything they had endured the whole day long, consisting solely of sides of bacon that were either improperly cured or too long in storage. The pork “was green and unpalatable,” and every bit as dangerous as the Baltimore plug-uglies. Making matters worse was the knowledge that the quality of their provender was not likely to improve until the city was fully secured.

Doctors soon arrived to administer to the injured. It was of consolation to the wounded when  informed that, in light of the bloodless capitulation of Fort Sumter, they would be denoted as the first official casualties of the war.

Cameron was not the only Pennsylvania dignitary who visited the Capitol building that night to pay tribute. Speaker of the House, Galusha Grow – Susquehanna County native and successor to David Wilmot – came accompanied by a Keystone congressman and a Philadelphia newspaper editor. Their attention could not help to be drawn to Nick Biddle, regaled in full uniform and crowned with blood-soaked bandages. He was not afraid to fight and die for the Union cause, Biddle told them, but if he had his druthers he would just as soon not pass through Baltimore again. It was a sentiment shared by many of his comrades.

For the congressmen, however, the wounded men were of great significance regarding the future of the Lincoln government: Baltimore, the Monumental City, was now a monumental concern.


At Harrisburg that evening, Governor Curtin and a few aides took up vigil at the telegraph station of the Pennsylvania Railroad, where they anxiously awaited word of the battalion’s fate.  When it was at last learned that the volunteers arrived at Washington, but a number sustained injury at the hands of a pro-secession mob at Baltimore, Curtin’s worst fears were realized. It had been folly to send unarmed men through Baltimore, especially when federal armory at Harrisburg remained locked tight by what appeared to him to be a combination of red tape and ineptitude. His anger and frustration with authorities at Washington boiled over. He raised his hand into the air and made a solemn, dramatic oath that not another Pennsylvania volunteer would “leave the state unarmed, if the capital should be razed to the ground.”

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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.

  1. Ward, Leo. The First Defenders Answered Lincoln’s Call 137 Years Ago, in Pottsville Republican, April 18-19, 1998. Letter of Curtis Clay Pollock, April 19, 1861.
  2. Thompson, p. 136.