Letter from Thomas McKean, from Camp Pierpont, November 19, 1861

Camp Pierpont,
Nov. 19th 1861.

Dear Rachel – I wrote you last night, but a new movement appearing to be on foot. I think it proper to let you know at the earliest chance, all that is going on. Today an order was received by Gen. McCall, directing him to have his division under arms and in light marching order by 4’o clock A.M on Wednesday morning, 20th inst, and at 6’o clock, the 1st and 2nd Brigades should march out the Levinsville road to Bailey’s Cross Road, to be received, in connection with Smithe’s, Hunter’s and Porter’s Divisions.

The 3rd Brigade (our’s) is to remain, to guard the camps of the other two Brigades. We are selected for this home guard duty, because Col. McCalmout, acting Brigadier General is absent, and the new Brigadier has not arrived yet. The purpose of concentrating so large a body of men at Bailey’s X Roads simply to be reviewed, is, to my mind nonsense.

A sudden movement against the enemy is evidently in his programme, especially as the order direct that each man should have 40 rounds of ball cartridge with him, and one days provisions in his haversack. It is seven miles from here to Bailey’s X roads, and I have no idea that they intend to take our 1 st and 2 nd Brigades away there for any such holiday performance as a review. Before they come back, I fancy they will smell powder. Our brigade is down in the mouth about being left behind, but it suits me well enough, for I am not at all anxious for an encounter with the rebels.

I hope this will reach you before you hear of the movement through the papers, for very likely they will state that McCall’s division formed part of the expedition and you would of course suppose that I was with them. It may be only for the purpose of review, and in that event, I can make nothing out of it, for it is out of the common order of reviews altogether.

I neglected to tell you, in my letter yesterday, that I happen, on Sunday, to see the effect of a shell exploding in a crowd of soldiers. I was standing in my tent door, on Sunday about 9 o’clock in the morning looking towards the camp fire of Company B, Middlesex Rangers, where a crowd of soldiers were gathered, warming themselves. Suddenly I heard a loud report, and a cloud of smoke shot up out of the fire.

Instantly I saw two men fell, and a third, after helping to carry the men into tents, I learned that an old shell, that had been picked up somewhere, and been lying about the camp, had been thrown into the fire to heat up, to be put into a tent to warm somebody’s feet. When it got hot enough, it exploded. It was supposed that all the power had been picked out of it, and it had been used as a candlestick for weeks. There were six men more less hurt, but fortunately none of them very seriously.

There was not more than half a charge of powder in the shell, or some of them would have been killed. The suddenness of the affair and the falling and shrieking of the men formed a strong picture on my mind, which I will never forget. I heard today that a part of the troops south of us are going to Annapolis soon, to embark on another naval expedition.

The Erie regiment is said to be among them, and Ellsworth Avenger, a crack regiment from New York. A regiment of Penna Cavalry is also under orders. It is one of the independent regiments. So that for the present, at least, we are not to go on an expedition by sea. Our Penna Reserve is organized under a peculiar law of the State of Penn’s. and is only partially under the control of the U.S. authorities. The President cannot appoint officers over or among us. If a vacancy happens, the vacancy is filled by election and the commission is issued by Gov. Curtin. In other regiments outside the Reserve, the Government appoints and commissions officers.

On this account the Government does not feel so free to move us about, as it does its own regiments. The Secretary of War (Cameron) cannot make much off us in the way of commissions etc. and hence does not count us as very much in his military calculations, and we are likely to be always a Reserve.

I have already written more than I intended and will not write much more. Our boys are all quite well. Fisher told me yesterday that his wife thinks I am a model husband – I write home so often; and yet you complain about my not writing often enough. Put that into your pipe. Give my love to all our folks, Kisses to the children.

Ever yours,