Hanover Militia Company Fights at Witmer Farm, Part 2
The boys from Hanover, PA, arrived via train in downtown Harrisburg. They joined thousands of eager volunteers who milled about the city while awaiting instructions from military and civil authorities. Confusion reigned, as no one was certain if they would be asked to sign up for the Federal army as state troops for nine months or, worse yet for many, three years. Many had thought they were only enlisting until the Rebels left Pennsylvania, which Governor Andrew G. Curtin had originally envisioned.
However, all sorts of rumors circulated about the military’s intentions. Hundreds of frustrated volunteers went home, and the outbound trains from Harrisburg were filled with angry men who had spent their own money for the fruitless trip. Among them likely were several men from Hanover, although records are unclear as to how many of the men who had traveled at their expense to the capital returned without mustering into the service.
The group from Hanover was not the only party from south-central Pennsylvania. Fifty-seven Pennsylvania College students departed Gettysburg via train on June 17, along with more than two dozen other townsmen, including four students from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. The company sang The Battle Cry of Freedom as they embarked for the state capital. A few of them were also from York County.
The Hanover men and the Gettysburg group joined thousands of volunteers from throughout the state who arrived in the state capital to discover that no one had made provisions for their arrival. They had to seek their own accommodations and meals, at their expense. Many slept outside, including a large contingent who curled up on the steps of the statehouse. Ironically, inside the capitol building was the Democratic political convention, which met to nominate their candidate to oppose Governor Curtin in the fall election. A “Peace Democrat” (a.k.a. a Copperhead) judge named George Woodward received the nomination. The volunteers could hear the raucous from the late night sessions while they tried catching some sleep.
According to young volunteer Samuel W. Pennypacker (who years after the Civil War would be Governor of Pennsylvania), “The streets of Harrisburg were filled with unorganized crowds, roaming about aimlessly. Utterly discouraged, many returned home. Finally order began to appear from well nigh chaos.” After quite some deliberation, military authorities agreed with the governor, and Major General Darius N. Couch began organizing the remaining recruits into seven volunteer militia regiments of roughly one thousand men apiece. They mustered into state service “for the duration of the emergency.”
The Hanover company mustered into service as Company I of the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia, with the Gettysburg contingent as Company A. The commander of the 743-man regiment was a wealthy Harrisburg industrialist named William Wesley Jennings. He had been colonel of the 127th Pennsylvania, a nine-month regiment that fought at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Among his officers and men were a scattering of veterans of that regiment, but the majority of the men in the 26th had never before fired a weapon. Many were factory workers, school students, store clerks, coal miners, and similar jobs. The farmers in the crowd had more familiarity with weapons, as many were hunters, but squirrel guns were not the same as firing a rifled musket while an enemy fired at you.
After mustering in on Friday the 19th of June, the men marched north of Harrisburg to Camp Curtin (pictured), where they were issued wedge tents. The facilities were crude, and a nearby wheatfield “answered the same purpose for which an out-house is used generally,” according to Pennypacker. He added, “On the opposite side of the railroad, and some distance off was a farm house where we got water, went to wash, and sometimes bought milk. It had also attached to it, a fine orchard, the shade of whose trees afforded a pleasant spot to loll and rest upon.”
Officers drilled the new soldiers for a couple of days, trying to instill a cursory understanding of military protocol before the regiment had to face Robert E. Lee’s experienced Army of Northern Virginia. It was a daunting task.
Previous posts in this series: