Harrisburg: April 23, 1861

April 23, 1861 – Tuesday.
Harrisburg –

Mayor William H. Kepner could not recall a time when Harrisburg was gripped by greater excitement. The city’s transformation from a peaceful seat of government into an armed camp had been rapid and fitful – from one Sunday to the next the metamorphosis was scarcely believable. Tensions were ratcheted taught as each passing day brought word of unfathomable events taking place to the immediate south: the president’s call for troops was followed by Virginia’s secession, and subsequent seizure of the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal; two days of rioting at Baltimore plunged the nation’s capital into isolated silence. Maryland too, it now seemed, had quit the Union, bringing rebellion to Pennsylvania’s border, less than forty miles away. 

The appearance of militia units at the capital only heightened the sense that matters were spinning out of control. The First Defenders had scarcely left town on Thursday morning before the quarters they abandoned were filled with new arrivals. All day long, each train that pulled into the state capital disgorged volunteers by the hundreds, filling the old depot, meeting halls, hotels, parks and streets until Harrisburg floundered in a sea of excited patriots. The margin between order and chaos, Kepner feared, could prove to be no more than a mere fistfight or pistol shot — an inevitable outcome as combative young men filled the city’s taverns to capacity, fueling volatile rhetoric with dangerous accelerants. With the contagion of anarchy riding an ill southerly breeze, the mayor placed all within his bailiwick on notice. 

“As Mayor of the city of Harrisburg, I feel it to be my duty, in the present critical condition of public events, to impress upon all loyal citizens the importance of observing moderation in their speech and actions. In the inflammatory state of the popular mind, all exciting topics should be suppressed as far as practicable. An ill-advised word may prove the unfortunate cause of much trouble to our community. The baleful cloud which now hangs over us ought not to be blackened by any rashness on the part of any class of our people. Let quietness prevail, and let every effort be made to restrain and direct into a proper channel the enthusiasm which glows in ever patriotic heart.

Mayor William H. Kepner, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (1860-1863)

“To this end, I urge upon all who are engaged in the sale of liquors to be exceedingly cautious to whom they sell. Whilst it is at all times against the law to furnish intoxicating drink to a minor or to any one who may already be under its influence, it would be now doubly criminal, because of the serious and disastrous consequences it might lead to. Let those concerned in this traffic exercise a proper care in this particular, in order to preserve this community from riot, bloodshed and confusion.

“The citizens may feel assured that more than ordinary vigilance shall be exerted to prevent any encroachments upon the public during the present exciting period.”

Lodging and feeding the volunteers was tantamount to maintaining order, and became the top priority of the governor’s office. A solution was found that afternoon when the Dauphin County Agricultural Society offered use of its fairground one mile north of the city, and which offer was graciously accepted by Governor Curtin.

Towards dusk, Brigadier General Edward Williams of Pennsylvania State Militia descended the granite steps of the capitol building accompanied by Major Joseph Knipe, with orders to begin preparations for receiving many thousands of men. Crews had earlier been dispatched to the site to erect tents; the officers would look the property over to sketch out a blueprint for converting it into a military encampment. Their carriage set out up Ridge Road in the direction of the grounds followed by a procession of volunteers and citizens – delighting the Major’s two young daughters at the head of the impromptu parade. Passing through the main gate of the fairground Major Knipe scaled the main building, bringing him to the base of the flagpole perched atop. He attached an ensign to the halyards, christened the camp in honor of Governor Curtin, and hoisted the flag into the twilight amid the cheers of the throng.

On Friday morning General Williams’ first order of business was to round up all the volunteers then roaming the city. Four or five companies that were already armed were dispatched towards York; the remainder were marched to the fairgrounds to take possession of Camp Curtin, where they would remain until armed and equipped. The militia’s removal instantly relieved the pressure on Harrisburg. “The wild excitement has somewhat abated, and things have settled down to matter of fact detail. . . .” The timing was propitious, coming just hours before word of Union fatalities in Baltimore. With the volunteers now beyond city limits, the shocking news was absorbed without flare-up. Although tensions eased with the return of elbow room to the city’s streets, the Patriot & Union acknowledged that “war fever still runs high in our midst.” In taking the city’s pulse following the attacks against the First Defenders and the 6th Massachusetts, it concluded “the enthusiasm of the people seems rather on the increase.” Be that as it may, for the first time in days, Harrisburg exhaled.

Once tapped, the well of manpower gushed without letup throughout the weekend. The accession of troops nothing short of overwhelming. The Patriot & Union vainly attempted to keep abreast of the situation: “All day yesterday troops came into town, and so much was our attention engrossed by the tap of the drum that we could not find time to hunt up local items.” The newspaper compiled a list of twenty-eight companies then known to be in camp, with the admission that “the list is doubtless imperfect, all of the companies not having reported at headquarters.” Volunteers came in a steady torrent at all hours of the day and night. By the time the roster was published it was long since outdated, made more obsolete by each arriving train. 

Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

On Saturday morning individual companies came from Scranton, Wilkes-barre, Sunbury and Carlisle; the afternoon saw the arrival of Colonel Hartranft of Norristown with nearly an entire regiment from Montgomery County; the evening train from Reading came hours behind schedule, bearing upwards of two thousand men from Northampton, Lehigh, Berks and Lebanon counties, swelling the camp to overflowing. The situation was in a constant state of flux, the status of one moment passé the next. The afternoon newspaper advertised what was to be the final performance in Harrisburg of Wood’s Minstrel Show, scheduled for that same evening at Brant’s Concert Hall. Would-be patrons turned out a few hours later only to find the show canceled, the hall since possessed by five hundred Ohio volunteers.

Harrisburg awoke Sunday to discover it was once again inundated with volunteers. Trains arrived throughout the night, bringing two companies from Centre County, one each from Huntingdon and McVeytown, and several from the vicinity of Pittsburgh. It was by now evident that merely providing for Pennsylvania’s own would not be enough. Troops hailing from the northwest were forced to change rail lines at Harrisburg, creating backlogs and necessitating layovers. Among those found milling about at daybreak were two thousand more men from Ohio, whose unexpected presence touched off another scramble for shelter space. With the legislature away on recess, the Capitol building represented the last unoccupied dwelling in the city. The Ohioans were marched there to bivouac in the House and Senate chambers. When the Reading Railroad delivered another thousand men in the afternoon, space at Camp Curtin was made available that evening only after an equal number of men shipped out for Philadelphia – the same place the new arrivals had just come from.

Managing the ebb and flow of volunteers was an inexact science. The newly installed telegraph station at the state capitol building became the war room from where Governor Curtin oversaw Pennsylvania’s military buildup. From here, he kept apprised of developments and exercised a modicum of control over the mad dash of volunteers. Each day brought a new spate of dispatches to and from railroad companies, military authorities gathering troops at Pittsburgh, General Patterson at Philadelphia and, until Sunday morning, the War Department at Washington. 

The ominous silence from the nation’s capital added an entirely new dimension to operations. Andrew Curtin – his assessment of the general-in-chief already low after Monday’s boisterous claim that Washington was not in danger – issued a flat rejection to the last proposal heard from General Scott before the wires went dead; reopening the route through Baltimore by force of arms was out of the question. In this, General Patterson, regiment commanders and the proprietors of the railroad companies all concurred. The troops would now be funneled to Philadelphia to employ the water route from Havre de Grace to Annapolis. Washington’s relief was beyond its own ability to affect, resting almost solely in the hands of men operating independently from a distance; men not under its physical or official control, yet willing to take extraordinary measures to sustain it. The roles of Curtin and Patterson now loomed even larger than before, the screws of anxiety turned tighter still.

The onrush of volunteers was every bit as impressive as the governor had counted on, had promised the president it would be. That much of the equation was never in doubt. But, equipping those men to take the field was a logistical nightmare, the scope and scale of which was never before experienced. The state was bereft of almost all military essentials, and such was the demand for them everywhere they could not be purchased. Pie-in-the-sky hopes that warehouses in Washington contained all it lacked were quickly dashed. 

The foremost shortage was in armament. There was not enough arms on hand to meet the quota and ammunition was more precious than gold. Reports began coming back to Harrisburg that regiments already enumerated against the quota, carried muskets that were ineffective and past the point of repair, possessed ordinance not suitable to their weapon or had no ammunition at all. Even those properly armed were without cartridge and cap boxes, and were forced to carry their meager supply thrust into trouser pockets. To date, the state had furnished regiments that were soldiers in name only, so ill-equipped as to be unable to function beyond a musket shot of their quarters. Pennsylvania would ramp up for war starting at square one.

The need for uniforms was arguably the tallest order to be filled. Earlier in the week the article was added to the governor’s lengthy list of woes, when Washington cited a little known piece of legislation dating back to 1795, informing individual states that they were responsible for clothing the troops requisitioned by the federal government. To resolve this dilemma he turned to one Robert Martin, Esq. The prominent Philadelphia attorney had traveled to Harrisburg to tender his services to the governor in whatever capacity he might. Curtin availed himself of the offer, charging Martin with the procurement of ten thousand uniforms in as short a space of time as possible, and to whom he lent a Captain Gibson of the regular army to assist him. The two men returned to Philadelphia where the Girard House on Chestnut Street was secured as their base of operations. By Saturday night upwards of twenty cutters were deployed to their trade, and Martin claimed an army of one thousand women would be brought into action on Monday morning, and confidently predicted the entire order, sans jackets, would be filled by the end of the month. With all Pennsylvania troops now being routed through Philadelphia, the volunteers would lay up there, donning the uniforms within moments of receiving a final button stitch.

The governor’s more pressing and immediate concern was in obtaining provision for the volunteers quartered at Camp Curtin. The rush of volunteers outdistanced the government’s ability to supply them and threatened to place the capital under economic stress. So acute had the shortage of foodstuffs grown over the weekend, soldiers were bedding down at night hungry, fueling rumors amongst citizens that Harrisburg would at any moment be subjected to the ravages of hording, inflation and speculation. The Patriot & Union, hoping to stem an escalation of market prices that was already beginning, reported relief from this prospect was now at hand. A large part of that relief  came on Monday from an unexpected, and unsolicited source.

“At the beginning of operations at Camp Curtin, the commissariat was somewhat confused and defective. The people of Berks county hearing this, yesterday forwarded fifteen tons of provisions for the soldiers from that region. We are gratified to learn that the Commissary Department is now on good footing. Several hundred tons of hams, beans and crackers have arrived, the groceries and warehouses have an abundance of flour, and the butchers are receiving cattle by the car load from the West.

“We hope that there will be no fears on the part of our citizens as to the shortness of supplies. The presence of the army should have no effect whatever upon the price of articles offered in market on Wednesday morning, and we do hope that if any person makes the attempt to extort, under the delusion that the supply will not be equal to the demand, our citizens will stint themselves a little in order to rebuke those who are always ready to increase prices under the slightest pretext.”

The novelty of the state capital as an armed camp was not lost on Harrisburg’s citizens. Camp Curtin was a considerable attraction to the locals. Their curiosity was a boon to omnibus drivers who plied a steady trade up and down Ridge Road, joining the steady flow of supply vehicles and private carriages tracking to and from the facility. Visitors found the entrance guarded, although to what effect could be fairly questioned. The townspeople passed  the gates with little or no interference from sentinels. A few had business to conduct there, but most were merely inquisitive; a friendly halloo was sufficient password to all who approached.

Once through the gate, the eye was treated to a scene livelier than could be anticipated. Almost overnight, a sizable town had been erected at Harrisburg’s outskirts. On Monday afternoon it was estimated that some four thousand men were within the enclosure – there was no one person at headquarters who could offer a more precise number with any degree of certainty. The centerpiece of the camp was the Agricultural Society’s main exhibition building, known only days earlier as Floral Hall. It was the temporary site of the commissary, and the one area of the camp that knew no peace. Between five and six hundred tents were then up, neatly arranged into company streets at the northern end of the camp. The tents were christened by their occupants, each dwelling identifiable by names emblazoned in charcoal – The Lazy Club, Fort Pickens, The Quaker Bridal Chamber. Many were adorned with comical sketches, one bearing a life size caricature of Jefferson Davis. At any given moment, one-half of the men were taking their turn drilling in squads or companies, while those left off drill amused themselves and one another as best they might. Crowds gathered around acrobats whose feats were worthy of the circus, or watched a creditable impersonation of Negro minstrelsy; a group of Zouaves turning somersaults in brightly burnished pantaloons was hard to overlook.

In addition to the soldiers a small army of carpenters labored ceaselessly at the camp since Friday, and would find employment there for some time to come. Many of the fairground’s ancient and flimsy buildings required much repair, and plans were underway to raise new structures as well. Livestock stalls along the western fence were boarded up for use as quarters, while barracks of a similar design were being erected around the entire perimeter of the enclosure. Although the grounds were spacious enough to be suitable, when viewed through the perspective of military men the setting was less than idyllic. The eighty square acres lay across the spine of a ridge like an unevenly draped saddle blanket, the largest portion of the property on a steady incline rising up from the Susquehanna River to the immediate west. The brow of the ridge formed a narrow and only somewhat level plateau in the eastern third of the grounds. The fences bordering on the east and west sides, where permanent quarters were under construction, were considerably beneath the crest; during severe weather – of which the spring of 1861 had thus far produced an abundance – those areas would likely prove a quagmire to the men quartered there. But the minutiae of its shortcomings were more than overshadowed when placed on a grander scale. Should the rebellion prove to be a lengthier affair than common wisdom allowed, Camp Curtin would prove an invaluable military asset.

Throughout the day on Monday newly armed troops shipped out for Philadelphia with as much frequency as available rolling stock would allow; throughout the night new companies were brought forward to take their places at the camp. While Harrisburg slept, four hundred men arrived from Westmoreland County and two more units from Blair – to date, the diminutive county had produced seven companies in all, and boasted more would soon be on their way.

But as the governor examined tally sheets on Tuesday morning it was concluded that no more men were needed from Blair County or anywhere else. By day’s end, it was calculated, Pennsylvania would have enough men to form twenty-three regiments, nine more than was prescribed by the revised quota of April 16. Known to be en route to the capital were at least six more companies from Schuylkill – making more than two full regiments supplied by that county – and a train bearing eight hundred men from Wyoming County, along with three hundred volunteers from Northampton. In addition to these, it stood to reason other units would appear unannounced; which indeed proved to be the case. By noon divers trains brought another five hundred men from Muncy, Mauch Chunk and Wilkesbarre. Governor Curtin gave the word and orders were sent out over the wires in all directions, commanding any militia units who had not yet departed from home to stand down. 

Less than nine full days since the presidential proclamation became public, no more troops were wanted at Harrisburg.

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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.