Problems Leading to Muster Out Formation: The 54th, 190th, 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers

The Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Infantry Corps, composed of 13 infantry regiments, formed in June 1861 for a three-year enlistment by Gov. Andrew Curtin. With a few minor exceptions, they were part of the Army of the Potomac from August 1861, until the end of May 1864.1  At muster-out, those members who reenlisted or still had time left on their original enlistment (enlisting for three years after the initial formation of the regiments; August 1, 1861, seems to be the cut-off date) were consolidated to form the 190th and 191st Regiments.

As the month of May (1864) approached, a small storm cloud, which had nothing to do with the Virginia weather, was building in the Reserves winter camps. To those men who were not re-enlisting, May meant the end of their three-year enlistment. The different regiments of the Reserves had different dates in June for their federal muster. Different companies in each regiment had different dates in May for their state muster. The Bucktails had another major problem; they never formally mustered into federal service. When was the three years over, state muster or federal muster? No one seemed to be able to tell them when they were going home.

In early March, Governor Curtin had sent a letter to President Lincoln relative to mustering out and re-enlistment of the Reserves which read, in part, “Last December I urged that this corps be sent home to be recruited. It has so much the esteem of our people that if my wish had then been complied with you would now have it in the field with nearly all the veterans re-enlisted and with the corps recruited to its maximum of 15,000 men.

Unfortunately, my request was refused. The three years for which the men enlisted count from the date of their entry into the service of the State. They are now told, I understand, that they will be held for three years from the date of their being mustered into the service of the United States. The United States may thus gain a few days, or even a month’s service, at the expense of creating dissatisfaction and losing the men for a new period of three years.

“Agents from other states are allowed or encouraged to go among the men and try to tempt them into the service of their States. By this means a few men are obtained at the great injustice to Pennsylvania, and the great body of them are disgusted and prevented from re-entering the service at all. Neither the government or people of this State have ever resorted to this mode of obtaining men. Pennsylvania has answered all the calls of the United States with her own men and from her own resources.”

On the last day of March Governor Curtin received a reply from an underling in the War Department which read, in part, “As regards re-enlistments, I have to say that the existing orders require them to be made in the same regiments to which the soldiers belong.

The term of service of the veterans, as in fact of all soldiers, is calculated from the date of muster into the service of the United States, and not into the service of the State.”

Meanwhile, seven members of the 6th Reserves who considered their term already expired “refused to do duty and are now in the guard.”

“Existing Orders #48, series of 1863 from the War Department stated ‘All Volunteer Soldiers shall be held to the date of muster into the U.S. Service.”

A violation of this order was considered mutiny which was the reason for the arrest of the 6 Reserves. Colonel McCandless, temporary division commander during the absence of General Crawford, knew he had a problem beyond the scope of his authority so he sent a letter up the chain of command explaining this growing problem and the possible mutiny.

“These men are all in arrest, and will be tried for mutiny if it is decided that they are not entitled to a discharge, which they claim for the following reasons: That the time of their comrades who have re-enlisted as veterans was calculated from the date of enrollment, otherwise many would not have been eligible; that the Pension Bureau, in granting pensions to those of the division who have been disabled, has calculated the time from date of enrollment, otherwise numbers of men who have received pensions would not be entitled to receive such, not serving two years; that their comrades transferred to the regular service, under orders at Berlin in the fall of 1862, have been discharged, three years having elapsed from date of enrollment; that three years have elapsed since the date of enrollment in the caption of one of the columns of their original muster-roll, and consequently they are entitled to their discharge under paragraph 14 of “instructions for making muster-rolls, &c.,’ issued by the War Department November 20, 1863.”

When the letter reached General Meade, he took immediate action. As a former commander of the Reserves, he was aware of the problem and knew the seriousness of the situation. He added the following endorsement to the letter and sent it to Washington.

“The Pennsylvania Reserves are a peculiar organization, having been regularly mustered into the service of the state of Pennsylvania, and afterward transferred to the U.S.

One of the regiments, 1″ Pennsylvania Rifles, were never mustered into the U.S. service, but have been held on their muster into the state service, which provided for their transfer to the United States.”

“My experience is decided that it is expedient and impolite to retain men beyond the period which they honestly believe they are entitled to a discharge, and I would therefore recommend the Reserves be discharged from the date of enrollment or muster into the state service. It is of the utmost importance that a speedy decision thereon be made, as there are symptoms of disorder and mutiny appearing in this command. I beg to be advised of the decision by telegraph.”

Somehow, somewhere, someone solved the confusion of the muster out date for the Reserves. About a week later General Meade received a reply from the War Department.  “Your recommendation that the regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps be discharged from their respective dates of muster into the service of the State has been approved by the Secretary of War.”

On May 16, 1864, an order from Meade’s headquarters to General Warren stated, “… you are authorized to order home in a body, on the 31S of the present month, for muster out and discharge, the officers and men of the several regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserves whose term of service are about expiring, subject to the condition, however, that the officers and men of the Reserves who, under the decision already given, are entitled to their discharge before the 31″ of May shall agree to serve with this army until that date. The 31st of May has been selected as being about the average date of discharge of the regiments to be discharged between now and the 20th of June.”

The 3rd and 4th Reserves, serving in West Virginia, were not subject to this order while the affected 8th Reserves, insisting their time was already expired, were sent home during the 3rd week of May and the affected It Reserves, for the same reason, were sent home at the end of April.

For those approximately 209 members of the 11th Reserves who finally had a date when they were going home, their spirits rose. However, one member of the regiment was not totally happy about the decision. 

Pvt. John P. Elliott (11th Reserves, Co. D) was “not certain whether the government has a right to hold me any longer or not; but I will stay till it sees fit to discharge me. The country needs soldiers this Spring. I would like to visit home. It’s been three years since I saw mother and the boys; but it’s all right. God has kept me safely through all these battles, and I can trust him for time to come.” Private Elliott was captured in the Wilderness and died in Andersonville Prison.

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Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.

  1. Four companies of the 13th Reserves went to the Shenandoah Valley in 1862 to fight against Stonewall Jackson, the 3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th Reserves were held in Washington during the Gettysburg Campaign and the 3rd and 4th Reserves finished their enlistment in West Virginia when they were released from the Washington defensive perimeter in early 1864. The 3rd and 4th Regiments did not participate in the formation of the 190th and 191st Regiments.