This is a initial sketch of the organization of the “Venango Grays”, which was assigned as Company C, 10th Pennsylvania Reserves.
The Venango Grays were organized in late April of 1861 by a culminated effort on behalf of three gentlemen; Christopher M. Over, 20, Charles W. Mackey, 20 and Charles C. Cochran, 21.
These three men undertook efforts to raise a company of volunteers to answer President Lincolcn’s first call for troops which was issued on April 15. The area in which they focused their recruitment effort was in the vicinity of the Franklin, Venango County area. This part of the State of Pennsylvania was a valuable asset to the Commonwealth at this time, as it encompassed the largest region where petroleum was regularly drilled for. Needless to say, by far the largest source of employment in this area was in the oil production industry.
Christopher M. Over seems to have been the chief organizer of this company. Over was actually from neighboring Armstrong County, specifically Kittanning. When hostilities began, he was employed as a clerk at the courthouse at Franklin, in Venango County. It is also believed that Over may have had some connection with mining in the area as well, this is evidenced by the “residence” he originally gives on the enrollment form as “Saltanning.” After some digging, it has been determined that this location was apparently the name of a mine in the area. Even with the wealth of information at our fingertips today, here in 2024, I am unable to locate any information about this locality.
Rendering assistance to Over were Charles Mackey and “Coop” Cochran. Mackey had been working as a painter, and “Coop” gave his occupation at the time as a student; both were from Franklin.
The company was pulled together with men from all over the northwestern Pennsylvania region; but mainly composed of men from Franklin, the county seat of Venango. In order to meet the standard quota of men set forth by the military guidelines of the state, the company needed to fill its ranks to a minimum of 77 officers and men. This number was obtained in a relatively short period of time, recruiting men largely connected to the oil fields. Many of them were engineers, oil borers, bloomers, and other types of “Oil men.” There were also a number of farmers, laborers and even students as well that enlisted in Over’s company.
On April 25, after the organization reached its quota, an election was held to determine who the officers would be to lead it to war. The results of course, were as follows:
- Christopher Miller Over, of Kittanning, Armstrong County; a clerk at the courthouse in Franklin, and chief organizer of the company, was elected Captain.
- Charles William Mackey, of Franklin, Venango County; a painter in the area, was elected First Lieutenant.
- Charles Cooper Cochran, also of Franklin, Venango County; a student who was fondly known in the vicinity simply as “Coop” – was selected as Second Lieutenant.
Captain Over promptly informed the Executive Office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that his company was tendering its services as it was formed and ready. The company most likely had an armory in Franklin, from which they based their operations and remained in a holding pattern until further notice was had from Harrisburg.
At some point during the recruitment of Over’s company, nearly $1,000 had been raised by the local populace and contributed towards the quippingage and uniforms of the company. “…the uniforms were of local manufacture, made by the ladies of the town from cloth obtained at the Kennderdell Mills in Clinton Township.” Gray cloth had been obtained by these ladies who eagerly went to work in the painstaking process of piecing together article after article. My theory is that the company’s nickname, the “Venango Grays” could have been derived from the choice of color cloth obtained by the ladies, or vice versa, the gray cloth had been obtained to match their company’s name.
Word was not received from State Authorities until late May or early June informing Capt. Over that the Venango Grays had been accepted under the May 15 Act authorizing the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. They were ordered to report to Camp Wilkins near Pittsburgh on June 8.
Just three days shy of leaving Franklin, the ladies had completed all the uniforms, which the volunteers donned proudly. It was decided the route of travel from Franklin to Pittsburgh would be via the Allegheny River. The company departed on June 8, leaving in keelboats – floating down the Allegheny River, arriving at Pittsburgh the same day.
Strict authority was maintained over the entrance of companies into Camps of Instruction. Only a certain number of accepted troops could be taken in. The temporary commandant at Camp Wilkins at this point was Col. John McLane. McLane that day received a telegraphic communication from General George A. McCall which stated, “If Capt. Over’s company from Venango County is in Pittsburg, admit them to Camp.”
It was remembered by a member of the Venango Grays, after arriving at Camp Wilkins, the “…officer in charge there immediately directed that the gray uniforms be taken off and the regular army – blue – ones substituted…I remember that these uniforms of which we were so proud were immediately put into packing boxes and, if I recall correctly, were sent directly home and stored in the court house. Perhaps in some secluded corner of the court house basement they may be there now, but we never saw those gray uniforms again.”
The Venango Grays remained at Camp Wilkins, awaiting the arrival of additional companies of volunteers so that a regimental organization could be effected. During this waiting period, there had been some riotous behavior which had occurred a couple weeks after their arrival.
On June 17, 1861 – a deadly brawl broke out between companies of Home Guards (mostly of German origin) and the volunteers within Camp Wilkins. The Home Guards were not quartered at the Camp, as they resided in the city of Pittsburgh itself. This conflict had been initiated when the Home Guards, as they were marching past the camp, were the victims of verbal insults cast towards them from rowdies at Camp Wilkins. Soon insults turned into violence when stones and sticks were thrown, and blank rifle cartridges were fired. Soon a general melee ensued between the two forces, A few officers came running out of Camp Wilkins in effort to quell the fighting, by corralling as many volunteers from the camp as they could. Among these officers was Capt. Over, who drew his sword and began directing men back into the camp.
Although the only weapons used during this squabble were sticks, stones and blank musket rounds – one of the German Home Guards was hit in the forehead with a rock so hard, that actually died shortly after receiving the blow. As a result of this fatality, a coroner’s inquest was held and participants from both sides were interviewed.
The German witnesses from the Home Guards either could not speak English, or spoke very little of it, to the point where the hearing relied on translators to record their testimony. These Germans claimed that they witnessed volunteer officers from Camp Wilkins come out of the camp, swords drawn, believing that they were urging on the volunteers during the scuffle that had happened. These accusations resulted in Capt. Over, and others, being held by bail bond until the conclusion of the hearing.
It was opined that “This testimony is, I think, easily reconcilable with that of the members of the Home Guards that … Captain [Over] was urging it on. It will be remembered that the witnesses of the Home Guards imperfectly understand English, as they refused to give their evidence in English. That being the case at the time Capt. Over appeared, – stones throwing and firing of muskets – some of the members of the Home Guards might honestly have supposed, without hearing or understanding the words of the Captain, that he was urging it on, especially as the affair was rapid and exciting.”
Over and others were acquitted, and the case was dropped. The death of the poor German, George Eichenmiller, was the result of a mere folly.
On June 19, enough companies had gathered at Camp Wilkins that a regiment could effectively be organized. That day, an election was held by the Captains, commonly known as the “Council of Captains,” for field officers of the new regiment. This regiment was designated the 10th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps; and the Venango Grays were assigned Company “C” of that regiment.
Nearly a month later, as McDowell’s Army at First Bull Run was retreating back to Washington, D.C., Gov. Curtin was immediately requested by the Federal Government to send on his Pennsylvania Reserves to protect the city. The 10th Regiment, and others, were forwarded as quickly as possible. The 10th Reserves arrived at Harrisburg first on July 21, where it was quickly mustered into service of the Federal Government, and forwarded south to Washington D.C.
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.