Colonel William B. Thomas commanded York County’s defenses during the Gettysburg Campaign: Part 1
One of the forgotten men of the rich Civil War history of York County, Pennsylvania, is Colonel William Brooke Thomas, the commander of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia. Thomas was perhaps the most politically powerful man in uniform here in south-central Pennsylvania during the early part of the Gettysburg Campaign, yet his name has drifted into obscurity with the passage of time.
In the mid-19th century, however, Thomas was widely known throughout the Keystone State. The founder of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, wealthy businessman, staunch ally of President Lincoln, the Port Collector of Philadelphia (an important and lucrative position gained through political patronage), and the organizer and financial backer of several Philadelphia-based regiments in the Union Army, Thomas was among the more important movers and shakers of this state, yet he is scarcely remembered today in Civil War circles.
So who was William Thomas, and why was he important in York County’s Civil War history?
William B. Thomas was a prominent businessman and abolitionist who had helped organize the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. President Lincoln had rewarded Thomas in 1861 by appointing him as the customs collector for the port of Philadelphia, after considering him for a cabinet position.
Thomas was born in Upper Merion Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, on May 25, 1811, the son of Reese and Rebecca Brooke Thomas, of “The Gulf.” As a young man, he was involved in the manufacture of flour. By 1832, he owned his own flour mill at Gulph Mills and a mercantile store in Lyonsville. He moved in 1834 to Philadelphia where he was an early adopter of steam power for his newest milling enterprise. Using an 80-horsepower steam engine, he soon prospered to the point where he purchased competitors’ mills and converted them also to steam power, replacing the traditional water wheels. Eventually he had one of the most modern and efficient mills in the country, with sixteen mill stones and three steam engines. His output was a staggering 1200 barrels of flour a day or 360,000 barrels a year. He soon became one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest citizens.
On September 22, 1836, Thomas married 26-year-old Emily Wilson Holstein, a descendant of an early Swedish settler.
He was one of the founders of the Corn Exchange Association–an organization that in effect was an early futures stock market, trading on the value of the corn crop. He also served in prominent posts as the Board of Trade and as a director of the Manufacturers’ Insurance Company.
In the 1850s, Thomas championed “free labor, free soil, free speech and free men,” and became a leading abolitionist and early supporter of the new Republican Party. In 1860 he backed Abraham Lincoln at the Republican National Convention and helped sway fellow Pennsylvania delegates to support the nomination of the Illinois lawyer. He happened to be in Baltimore during the secession fervor in Maryland in April 1861 and wielded a rifle to help defend the Union cause in the city.
During the ensuing war, he raised several regiments for the Union service and served as the colonel of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia during both the Emergency of 1862 and then again in the Emergency of 1863. He raised the regiment from among his workers in the Customs House and the Port of Philadelphia, as well as from the working class of the city’s factories and light industries.
When it became clear that the Confederates intended to invade Pennsylvania in June 1863, Colonel Thomas and his regiment took a train from Philly to Harrisburg, where they were mustered into service on June 17 at Camp Curtin. After receiving their uniforms, weapons, accouterments, and supplies, they were hastily trained for three days before being sent to defend York County. The 20th traveled via the Pennsylvania Railroad to Columbia, crossed the Susquehanna River via the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, and then took the Northern Central Railway to downtown York. From there, the regiment fanned out over a 20-mile stretch of the NCR to defend key bridges and the Hanover Junction interchange. Colonel Thomas made his headquarters in a York hotel.
During the Confederate invasion of York County, Thomas and his men had a less-than-stellar performance, but one that is understandable given their lack of military experience and training. His second-in-command, Lt. Colonel William H. SIckles, failed to protect Hanover Junction with his battalion of the regiment and then he and 20-men were captured in the Skirmish of Wrightsville. Thomas’s northernmost units, accompanied by the political colonel, retreated at York Haven and used rowboats to cross the broad river to Lancaster County and safety. They failed to protect the railroad bridges at York Haven from being burned by the 17th Virginia Cavalry, despite outnumbering the Rebels and having longer range weapons. Still, Thomas was described as energetic and efficient, and his men deserve recognition for what they did accomplish – delaying the Confederates for hours and thwarting the Rebel timetable for seizing York County and the vital river crossing.
After being mustered out on August 10 in Harrisburg, Thomas returned to his job as Port Collector at Philadelphia. In July 1864, he raised a “Hundred Days Regiment,” the 192nd Pennsylvania. It was one of the hundreds of regiments recruited that summer to provide manpower for the rear lines to free veteran troops up for Grant’s push on Richmond and Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. After training at Camp Cadwalader until July 23, Thomas and the 192nd (many of which served in the 20th PVM in York County the previous year) moved to Baltimore on July 23 where they were attached to the 2nd Separate Brigade, 8th Corps, Middle Department. Later, Thomas and the regiment were stationed at Gallipolis, Ohio, until being mustered out in November.
One of his soldiers in the hundred days regiment kept a journal which has been published as A Daily Journal of the 192d Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers Commanded by Colonel William B. Thomas in the Service of the United States for One Hundred Days. Unfortunately, a corresponding journal for the 20th PVM’s time in York County has never been published to my knowledge. That is a shame, for the writer’s thoughts and observations would be invaluable for the modern scholar in helping to better understand the performance of the 20th PVM during the Gettysburg Campaign.
For some reason, the Philadelphians under his command left the fewest written records of any of the three emergency militia units that played a key role in York County (20th, 26th, and 27th PVM). Some has to do with their public reputation, which took a trashing in some newspapers; some had to do with the haste by which they left the county in the wake of the oncoming Confederates.
Here is one of the few surviving accounts of the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia in the Gettysburg Campaign…
Part 2 of my brief account of William B. Thomas and the 20th PVM will be published tomorrow. It is a contemporary biographer’s account of Thomas’s regiment in York County and has not to my knowledge been republished since the 1880s.