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“Charming in every degree”: York impressed Altoona soldiers — Part 1

Camp Scott in York PA (New York Illustrated news, May 25, 1861)

Within weeks of the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in mid-April 1861, the U. S. army established a military training camp in York, Pennsylvania, calling it Camp Scott in honor of the army’s commanding general-in-chief, Winfield Scott. Situated on the York fairgrounds, the camp soon became a major staging point for troops headed to Maryland and Virginia. Thousands of new volunteers, having responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms, spent time in Camp Scott before moving southward.

They included several men of the 3rd Pennsylvania Infantry from Altoona, Pennsylvania, a couple of which sent home letters to the editor of the Altoona Tribune. The paper published the letters in its May 30, 1861, edition. The soldiers, “A.J.G.” and Ben Bolt, included descriptions of routine life in Camp Scott and how they were adjusting to being Union soldiers. They also commented on the town and its people.

Here are some of their observations, as printed in the Tribune.

A.J.G., accompanied by his lieutenant and sergeant, visited the home of J. Welsh, stating that “a more patriotic man does not breathe the pure air of Heaven.” Welsh lived in a colonial-era house that had once served as the headquarters of George Washington. Welsh’s sons were now soldiers in the Union army. The writer compared Welsh’s patriotism favorably to Washington and then left a detailed description of the house’s interior and the room in which the famed general had slept.

He went on to talk about York in his expansive letter, written from the Franklin House hotel on May 27.

“York, though of early foundation, is yet one of the most beautiful towns in Pennsylvania, and has a population of over 10,000. To the uninitiated it gives every evidence of having been of very recent origin — so fresh and cleanly is the aspect presented. Within her borough limits lie buried two of the immortal signers of the Declaration of Independence — Livingston and Smith. Her citizens are patriotic, and to a man are for the Union, the Constitution, and the enforcement of the laws. Have they not every incentive to patriotic feeling in behalf of our beloved country, surrounded as they are by so many pleasing memories and relics of the past.

“Coupled with their patriotism comes their benevolence, their sociability and hospitality to all who have the characteristics of gentlemen. The walks about town are very pleasant, and the green hills and cultivated fields render this spot charming in every degree. But among the not less charming beauties of the place, is the pretty, patriotic women that grace its habitations. There is no place of its size I have ever seen that can boast of so many. They, too, like the men, are all on the side of their country — and where else could pretty be found? The Cemetery is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen in the country.”

A.J.G. added that the flags of the town were all at half mast in memory of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a personal friend of Lincoln who had been recently shot to death in Virginia. Ellsworth had taken down a rebel flag waving from a hotel and, as he was descending the stairs, the owner, an ardent secessionist, killed him with a shotgun blast. The event made national headlines. Many Yorkers, like hundreds of thousands of people across the North, came to view Ellsworth as a martyr for the cause of preserving the Union and putting down the rebellion. Cries of “Remember Ellsworth” led to a surge in recruiting. “His death will be avenged a thousand fold,” A.J.G. believed.

He went on to describe some of the men in Camp Scott, a few of which were veterans of the Mexican War. His regiment had given its accoutrements to the 12th Pennsylvania, which had recently departed Camp Scott via train to Baltimore County, Maryland, to guard the vulnerable Northern Central Railway. Rebel raiders had recently destroyed several bridges, which were now being reconstructed.

In our next blog post, we will look at excerpts from Ben Bolt’s letter to the Tribune.