June 27, 2012

The Week the War Changed for Lancaster

Location: Mechanicsville, VA, USA
Gaines' Mill Battlefield (vws)
Before June 26, 1862, the Lancaster community's exposure to combat casualties had been limited.  Only a few of the twenty or so companies recruited in Lancaster County had seen large-scale battles, and as far as I can tell none of the soldiers in those companies had been killed in action.  That changed dramatically in one week when the Pennsylvania Reserves bore the brunt of a Confederate offensive out of Richmond known as the Seven Days Campaign.  Three battles in particular over the span of five days produced casualties that shocked Lancaster County, and inaugurated a six-month seemingly nonstop sequence of battles whose mass casualties would transform how people in Lancaster thought about the war.      

The Pennsylvania Reserves was a division of thirteen infantry regiments organized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania shortly after the war's outbreak.  Four of the companies were from Lancaster County:
  • Company B, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited in Lancaster City
  • Company D, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited in Safe Harbor
  • Company E, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited in Lancaster City
  • Company K, 5th Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited in Columbia
  • [Joining in July 1862:] Co. G, 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves, recruited in Landisville
Co. B, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, in 1863 (Mathew Brady)
The Pennsylvania Reserves had just joined the Army of the Potomac on its northern flank as it approached Richmond in June 1862.  Gen. Robert E. Lee, the new commander of the Confederate army, saw taking the offensive as his only opportunity to save Richmond, and focused on the Union right--including the Pennsylvania Reserves--as particularly vulnerable since the army straddled the rain-swollen Chickahominy River.  Over 60,000 Rebels concentrated on about 30,000 federals and intended to destroy them.

The Pennsylvania Reserves' task, then, was to stop the Confederate momentum and buy time for the Union army to retreat and reform a strong defensive line.  They fought in three battles, Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, Gaines' Mill on June 27, and Glendale on June 30.  Casualties were severe with the four Lancaster companies accumulating 13 killed, 81 wounded, and 15 missing, based on initial reports.

Daily Evening Express Front Page
July 12, 1862
National accounts first allowed readers in Lancaster to infer by July 1 that the Pennsylvania Reserves had been in battle.  On July 2, names of a couple of the wounded had reached Lancaster through private correspondence.  Increasingly worse rumors continued over the next few days, with the Daily Evening Express printing on July 5 that two officers (Capt. Barton and Lieut. O'Rourke) had been killed and that Co. B, 1st Penna. Reserves, "had but eight men left."  Thanks to a wagon master serving with the Army of the Potomac, a full list of casualties was furnished and published on July 12. 

The Lancaster community was shocked.  The Patriot Daughters of Lancaster received a surge of donations of hospital stores, and a commission of three men left Lancaster on July 2 to personally deliver the first shipment.  Fathers of wounded soldiers set out for Virginia to try to find their sons, including the County Register G. C. Hawthorne whose son Aldus was wounded.  A group of Lancaster's prominent citizens petitioned to have military hospital established at the summer resort Wabank (where Rt. 741 crosses the Conestoga), although apparently York was chosen over Lancaster.  The editors of the Daily Evening Express even suggested that a monument be built on Centre Square, a proposal that came to fruition twelve years later.

The string of battles and  casualties continued through the rest of the year without respite.  Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Perryville, Fredericksburg, and Stones River badly cut up the companies that left Lancaster in 1861.  As I think through what I've read about the second half of 1862, the whirlwind of campaigns and casualties transformed popular sentiments about the war, increasing determination, decreasing tolerance for anti-war (even anti-Lincoln) protesters, and making emancipation palatable.  The 79th Pennsylvania, the Battle of Perryville, and the Lancaster community certainly offers a fascinating case study for this transformation, and I look forward to exploring it here later this year.

For further reading, see:
  • Battlefield and Prison Pen, a memoir by John W. Urban of Co. D, 1st Penna Reserves.  (Start on page 101 for his experiences in the Seven Days Campaign; much of the memoir is his less remarkable grand history of the war.)
  • Browse the Lancaster Examiner and Herald for news reports and soldiers' letters in July 1862
  • Browse the Columbia Spy for reaction in Columbia and soldiers' letters in July 1862
  • Letter from George McElroy, an artilleryman from Lancaster in Capt. Easton's Battery

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