Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The 106th Pennsylvania at Harpers Ferry, 150 years ago

The winter of 1861 and 1862 was very quiet for the new soldiers of the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Having joined the army in August of 1861, the first several months of the regiment’s service were spent in camp, training and waiting for action. In late February of 1862, for the first time, the regiment began to move out for active campaigning. Starting on February 25, the regiment began moving west into Maryland, heading toward Harpers Ferry, where their division had been temporarily assigned to the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks’s command. Banks was about to stage a campaign into the Shenandoah Valley, and the 106th was but one of the regiments sent as reinforcements for the movement.

On February 27, after arriving at Sandy Hook, Maryland, the 106th Pennsylvania led a column of Union soldiers across the Potomac and into Harpers Ferry, Virginia. After arriving in the town, the men were put up in homes and buildings abandoned by their previous tenants on account of the war. On their way across the bridge, the men of the 106th saw a most peculiar incident take place, peculiar enough in fact for the Josiah R.C. Ward to include it in his regimental history:

Part of the uniform of the Regiment consisted of high black felt hats with black feather plumes, and were worn with one side of the rim fastened up by a gilt eagle; a gilt bugle ornamented the front; these hats had never been much liked by the men and many were the attempts to get rid of them only to have a new one issued and the cost charged against the delinquent; but when about the head of the column was on the bridge a hat was mysteriously seen to drop overboard; soon another followed; that was sufficient; the signal had been given, the opportunity was just what the men wanted, and it was astonishing to see how easily the light breeze that hardly affected the surface of the water carried those hats overboard; their number increased as each succeeding company stepped on the bridge, until they presented the appearance of a large flock of ducks or other water fowls quietly floating down stream, or as if any army had been swept overboard and lost, with nothing left to tell the tale but their hats. Notwithstanding the positive orders of the officers and their strenuous efforts to prevent it, the number of hats increased until the last company had landed. The two day’s march and the night spent in the [railroad] cars but increased the men’s dislike to them, and some of those who had not taken advantage of the kindness of the breeze, disposed of their in other ways until upon coming on the first dress parade thereafter, so many were found missing that they were ordered to be abandoned.

Following the peculiar, if not comical, incident regarding the soldiers’ hats, some of the men of the 106th began to explore the town of Harpers Ferry. After all, this was the fabled place where, two and a half years earlier, the infamous John Brown had led a group of raiders in an attempt to launch a slave insurrection in Virginia. As the 106th Pennsylvania never saw action during Banks’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, there was ample time for exploring Harpers Ferry. As Ward recalls,

During that time we remained quiet, and the writer availed himself of the opportunity to take a run of the town, now deserted, many houses still containing the furniture, but the owners gone. A visit to what was the government buildings presented a deplorable sight; the buildings all burnt to the ground; nothing but the blackened wall standing [this is a reference to the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, which had been burned in early 1861]. These buildings, together with a large quantity of stores, had been destroyed. We also visited the old Engine House made famous by John Brown, and occupied by him during his invasion of Virginia in 1859 for the purpose of liberating the slaves, and in which he so long defended his life. We looked through the same hole that he fired through, sang “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the ground, but his soul goes marching on;” and finally chipped from the window-sash pieces of wood to be sent home as relics.

By March 2, the men of the 106th were ordered out of the town and sent to Bolivar Heights, west of Harpers Ferry. After marching through a fierce snow storm, the men bivouacked in their tents, quarters which were much less hospitable than those which they had enjoyed while in the town of Harpers Ferry. Thus, with this inauspicious start, the men of the 106th Pennsylvania had begun their first active campaign of the war.

Josiah R.C. Ward, The History of the 106th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (Philadelphia: Grant, Faires, & Rodgers, 1883), 21-22. 

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