A Letter from Camp Scott (York, Pa.) – May 4, 1861
Pennsylvania and Ohio troops at Camp Scott in York, Pa. – May 25, 1861 (Harper’s Weekly)
Background post: “A Perfect Storm of Flowers“
In mid-April 1861, significant numbers of newly raised Union volunteer troops organized and trained at Camp Scott in York, Pennsylvania. Located on the the agricultural society’s fairgrounds southeast of the intersection of King and Queen streets, the camp was named for the commanding general of the United States Army, Mexican War hero Winfield Scott. It was a beehive of activity early in the war, with dozens of infantry regiments, several artillery batteries, and some cavalry being quartered there at various times during the year. Once trained and drilled, the majority were transported on the Northern Central Railway to Baltimore and from there conveyed to their assigned places throughout the Eastern Theater, with the majority stationed in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C.
There are quite a few contemporary descriptions of Camp Scott (later renamed as Camp Franklin in honor of one of York’s favorite sons, General William B. Franklin). Several old regimental histories from various states include passages about the soldiers’ stay in York, and there are numerous newspaper accounts from both soldiers and civilian correspondents.
Here are excerpts from one particularly interesting account of daily events at Camp Scott and its description, adapted and condensed from an article in the May 5, 1861 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The unknown soldier first relates the major news of the day, the trial of a pair of deserters who managed a plea bargain to escape being executed, and he briefly gives us a glimpse of the emotions of the men after their first foray from Camp Scott down into Maryland resulted in a hasty retreat back to York after encountering their first Rebels:
“A few gossiping items concerning our present condition and prospects for the future may not be uninteresting to you—at any rate they are the nearest approach to anything in the shape of news that I have access to, and I consider myself well posted.
The two deserters who, as you may recollect, were caught at Chambersburg a short time since, by Major McBride, have been court-martialled and acquitted, on condition that they immediately leave the camp. The only plea set up by them in extenuation of their conduct, was, that they had been home to see their mothers, and had intended to return again; which even though it were true, could not justify them. Some of us were foolish enough to imagine that they had been killed or captured at Cockeysville by the Baltimoreans who had so completely environed us at that point, on Saturday night week, that none of us expected to see the good old Keystone State again in this world!”
He then gives some idea of the forces assembled at Camp Scott and the sights the soldiers would have seen in the spring of 1861 at the encampment off of King Street.
“We have something like 18 pieces of artillery here—quite a sufficient number to make three rousing land batteries, in case their erection should be deemed necessary…”
“Near the entrance gate is the hydrant which furnishes all the water for our use. Dozens of men are constantly grouped around it with tin cups, kettles, or soup-pots, and a squabble for the right of precedence is not an unusual occurrence.
In the southeastern portion of the grounds we have what we call our “Springs.” That is, we are said to have them, but I have searched long, diligently and patiently, and have found no vestiges to indicate that a spring had ever existed in this locality…”
After some discussion of the command structure of the 1st Pennsylvania, the unknown soldier correspondent continued his brief description of Camp Scott:
“Our quarters are cattle-sheds and temporary structures hastily thrown together for the purpose. We lie down at night upon nice clean straw, draw our blanket over us, hob-nob the stars a few minutes, and ere we know it, are locked in the arms of Morpheus. After drilling all day I could sleep soundly on an oak board. At home it is my habit to toss an hour or two before I subside into the night’s slumber; but I know no such dalliance with the treacherous sleep god here. I just tumble over in the straw and into the deadness of dreamless sleep.
As far as our uniforms are concerned, distance is still allowed to lend considerable enchantment to the view. Our men are not supplied with blankets properly, one blanket being divided between two of them.”
The writer then added, with a trace of bitter frustration at the quartermaster department, “This sort of economy won’t answer, you know, indeed it won’t.”
Some things never change—problems with military logistics occurred in 1861 just as they still do on occasion in today’s army and National Guard.