Service and Scandal: A Militia Company on the Eve of Civil War

 “Every fresh arrival of militia brought with it its own brass band or drum corps, which struck up a lively strain the moment it entered the village, and only ceased after breath became an object of extreme solicitude…”

Dr. Charles H. Miller, writing in 1876, about his boyhood experiences in Lykens, Pennsylvania.

As the last warmth of summer disappeared into the short, chilly days of October, something strange stirred the souls of the hearty citizens of Upper Dauphin County. The country around heaved as political campaigning reached fever pitch before the great presidential election of November 6, 1860. Momentous events seemed just beyond the horizon, which brought both intrigue and anxiety.

lykens-mine
Workings of the Lykens Valley Coal Company, ca. 1860s.
Yet, life still seemed relatively unchanged on the southern edge of Pennsylvania’s valuable anthracite coal fields. While the mountains around Lykens and Wiconisco turned from bright greens to oranges and reds, the mines at Short Mountain shifted from production to cleanup. The profitable summer months when long daylight hours allowed “breaker boys” to sift, sort, and prepare coal for market had dissipated as the temperature dropped. Deep underground, in the tunnels and slopes of the Lykens Valley colliery, engineers analyzed and prepared for the next season’s work while miners and laborers made repairs to ceiling supports and steam-powered pumps.

 

Outside the mines, the expanding communities of Lykens and Wiconisco lay nestled near the opening of the narrow and largely uninhabited Williams Valley. The census for 1860 listed 2,522 people in this region; a population made up of people from mostly German, English, and Welsh heritage, although a diverse minority of Polish, Slovak, and Irish were also present. The anthracite mines here supported most of Wiconisco Township’s population, providing employment for nearly two-thirds of the area’s citizens and making it the third largest community in Dauphin County.

Lykens, 1862.

With autumn repair work underway the men and boys who typically toiled long hours and weekends at the mines found free time for leisure. The township’s numerous hotels provided alcohol to the older workers with time to kill and company credit to spend. Ball games took root among the younger boys on numerous vacant lots. Their cheers and hollering could be heard echoing on days when the mines stood silent.

For others, the attraction of the local militia company proved more enticing. The uniform, the military discipline, and a sense of duty brought the citizens of Lykens and Wiconisco together to makeup the Washington Rifle Company.

Major General William H. Keim,
5th Division, Pennsylvania Militia

Created during the 1840s as the mining industry in the region started a population boom, the Washington Rifles maintained themselves as an infantry company. The American militia system, dating back to the Revolutionary army of the 1770s and 1780s, placed the onus of military firepower not on the federal government, but on state militias constructed of local companies much like the Washington Rifles. In 1860 the company was attached to the 3rd Brigade, 5th Division within the Pennsylvania militia system, a unit made up of five companies hailing from Dauphin County.

As Abraham Lincoln’s election came and went in early November, the state of political affairs began to break down precipitously. Southern states began to seriously weigh the advantages in absolving their inclusion within the United States under the Constitution. South Carolina, ever the provocateur, began preparing the necessary measures to formally secede from the Union shortly after the election, significantly increasing fears of a coming sectional conflict.

With the threat of secession growing as the month of November continued, the militarization of populations in both North and South increased. In Lykens, the Sunday soldiers of the Washington Rifle Company took up heavy drilling under a new company commander. James Douden, a plasterer and recent English immigrant, began leading the company through Zouave drill made famous by Elmer Ellsworth and his traveling drill team. The nuanced moves and soldierly beauty of the Zouaves captivated audiences across the North and so the martial spirit grew tremendously as the local unit trained. Newspapers in the state capital at Harrisburg noted the company’s rapid development.

“The accessions to the rolls of the [Washington Rifle Company] still slowly continue so that in time it will compare favorably in point of numbers with any in the State.” – Harrisburg Patriot & Union, October 27, 1860

Sunday afternoons in the fall of 1860 became a key time period for training the company. From their newly constructed parade grounds east of the Lykens Valley Railroad tracks near the Wiconisco Creek, the Washington Rifles practiced, drilled, and occasionally paraded through the streets. Young boys like the inquisitive nine-year old Charles H. Miller watched wide-eyed from the railroad embankment as Captain Douden put the company through their paces. Miller remembered those moments years later:

The war horse danced and pranced before admiring multitudes in the street, snuffing danger afar off. From his glossy sides, like a thing that had grown from him, towered the brave commander, stiff with silent grandeur. How our heart went up and our breath came fast and thick at the sight. . . If we could have exchanged our lot with anyone in the wide, wide world at that moment, it would have been with that…”

 

With Douden in the lead, the unit grew both in numbers and confidence. The individual soldiers in the company came from nearly every walk of life Lykens and Wiconisco could offer. In age, they ranged from 42-years old to as young as 18. Many worked in the mines, but others labored in the Eagle Iron Works, worked as clerks, and apprenticed in print shops. They were immigrants from northeastern England, south Wales, and northern Germany. Others were born and raised in Wiconisco Township, rarely venturing outside the coal-rich valley. For all of them, this region was home.

The work was tough, but many felt a connection to this place and wages were often superior to those found in neighboring Schuylkill County. Adventure and patriotism attracted these men and boys to the Washington Rifles, and the pervasive feeling that they may be needed in the months ahead surely bolstered the company’s numbers in late 1860.

The challenges ahead of them in 1861 would be as surprising as they were dangerous while the political crisis in the country deepened.

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