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.

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 in 1862.

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.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.

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.

Part 2.

“Parade.- The Washington Rifle Company, under command of Capt. J.N. Douden, will parade in full dress on Saturday next at 1 o’clock, p.m. The company intends visiting Harrisburg on the occasion of the inauguration of Gov. Curtin. They are admirably drilled and will do themselves justice.” 

Harrisburg Patriot & Union, December 1, 1860 

With 1861 poised to bring terrible changes to the American political landscape, Adjutant General Edwin C. Wilson sat at his desk to compile his report on the preparedness of his command. “The whole number of organized volunteer companies in the State is 476,” Wilson wrote on New Year’s Eve, 1860. In total, he estimated that about 19,000 men in the service of Pennsylvania’s militia, with the belief that the state possessed the population to furnish 355,000 men in case of military emergency.

Among those 476 volunteer units was the flourishing Washington Rifle Company of northern Dauphin County. As 1860 ended, the unit concentrated on drill and parade routine with the intention of participating in the inaugural procession for Pennsylvania’s governor-elect, Andrew Gregg Curtin.

Sweeping into power with 53 percent of the vote, Curtin, a lawyer from Centre County, was slated to become the state’s first Republican governor. Party proponents immediately made plans for an elaborate inauguration scheduled for January 15, 1861. Militia companies from across the state were sought for the inaugural event. Representing Dauphin County’s prosperous mining district, the Washington Rifles were selected for participation in the festivities.

By late December, the company’s preparations took shape with weekly parades through Lykens and Wiconisco, with their biggest scheduled for New Year’s Day, 1861.

“The weather has been delightful, more like April than January,” wrote the Daily Telegraph in Harrisburg of that fine New Year’s Day. With a bright blue sky overhead, 24 year-old Captain James Douden wheeled his infantry company through its drill as the town looked on. Excitement in the community grew at the prospect of this local unit heading to Harrisburg to represent their county on as large a stage as the governor’s inauguration.

January 15, Inauguration Day, dawned dreary and gray, with a heavy sky hanging over the city of Harrisburg. The foreboding weather did not seem to dampen the mood of the crowd.” As early as 8 o’ clock, Market Street assumed a busy and animated appearance,” reported the Telegraph.

At 8:30, a wild fervor went through the crowd as a company of horsemen, the Gratztown Cavalry, marched down Market Street, led by a “fine brass band.” An hour later, the festivities began with a large military parade through downtown Harrisburg to the steps of the state capitol.

Harrisburg in 1855.
Governor Curtin in Pottsville - The 96th PA Receives Its Colors
Governor Andrew G. Curtin

Alexander K. McClure, a U.S. Representative and friend of Governor Curtin, wrote years later that Curtin came to Harrisburg “profoundly impressed with the common peril to his State and country, and gave his efforts solely to wield power of his great State for the preservation of peace… and to prepare for war if rebellion would accept no other arbitrament.” Many citizens considered the  day to be an imposing illustration of the region’s military preparedness for war, should the situation at the South require it.

Lost amid the tumult and excitement of inauguration day, those present noted a significant absence among the military companies present. The Washington Rifle Company of Lykens, the company so touted for its numbers and skill, never appeared in Harrisburg.

Repercussions from this setback were felt almost immediately. Third Brigade Inspector Jonas Laudenslauger received the resignation of Captain Douden within days of the company’s embarrassing absence from Curtin’s inauguration. Laudenslauger, a native of Gratz and captain of the Gratztown Cavalry, accepted the resignation.

The scandal escalated with a full inventory of events published in the Harrisburg Patriot & Union on January 18:

. . .Instead of presenting a creditable appearance on parade at the Governor’s Inauguration on Tuesday, as we hoped it would, the company has informally disbanded itself. The reasons for this action certainly present our citizen soldier in an unenviable light, and the epithet “fair weather soldiers” has been, if the reasons assigned are correct, fairly and dishonorably earned.

It appears… that several weeks since, Captain Douden received orders to have his company ready for service at any time their services might be required. These orders were read to the company, when much excitement arose and several expressed a desire to resign. Subsequently, an impression became general that the real object of attending the Inauguration of Gov. Curtin was to go from Harrisburg into service against the secessionists at the South. This created a panic, and the privates, with three or four honorable exceptions, withdrew from the company.

As by the Militia law, a heavy fine is placed upon a Captain for failing to report his company in obedience to orders, Captain Douden found himself in an uncomfortable position, and rather than suffer for the fault others, he and the other commissioned officers sent in their resignations…

Responding to the situation, the Lykens Journal sought to clear Captain Douden of responsibility for the actions of his soldiers. “We do not see how, in the circumstances in which he was placed, he could have acted otherwise.”

Douden’s supporters could not appease those who saw him as the culprit for the sudden dissolution of the company. In a letter to the editor of the Lykens Journal, Harrisburg resident James R. Folwer lashed out at the young British-born commander. “I advise the company not Elect another captain as James N. Douden, Who is afraid to stand by the starse and stripes witch is now risen Every day in our glorious union,” he warned. Finishing with a scathing rebuke of Douden, the elderly Fowler declared that “My candid opinion is that captain Douden is not fit to Command a company formed of school Boys with soldiers hats made of paper and corn stock Rifles.”*

The company’s disintegration must have been short-lived. Fowler’s letter, dated January 24, noted that the writer “learn[ed] that the washington Rifle company has not disbanded itself.” This points to the unit’s reorganization following Douden’s withdrawal sometime during mid-January. Wiconisco Township faced a unique military dilemma during the early months of 1861.

With spring coming, the crisis facing the Union deepened as a number of forts in southern territory were blockaded by secessionists. The most vulnerable of these outposts, Fort Sumter, lay in a precarious position near the radically secessionist city of Charleston, South Carolina. On April 12, a heavy bombardment opened on the fort, forcing its surrender after more than 30 hours of continuous shelling.

Captain E.G. Savage

They arrived at Camp Curtin, on the outskirts of Harrisburg on the afternoon of April 24. Newspapers briefly noted their arrival: “The ‘Upper End in Motion. — A fine looking military company from Lykenstown, numbering about 80 men, under the command of Capt. Savage, arrived in the city about 2 o’clock this afternoon.”Pennsylvania prepared for war. As Lincoln made his call for 75,000 recruits to fight the rebellion, the men of Wiconisco Township rapidly mobilized. The company assembled on their parade ground near the Lykens Valley Railroad tracks two weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter. The former “Sunday soldiers” gathered under the command of their new captain, Edward G. Savage, a prominent mining engineer from Lykens and embarked for war.

On April 26, the Washington Rifle Company of Lykens mustered into state service as Company F, 10th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Soon, they would be off for southern Pennsylvania preparing to enter Virginia. In the six months between the company’s emergence during the election cycle of 1860 and the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the unit faced numerous challenges and a well-publicized scandal. But with Pennsylvania and the Union on the march to war, many challenges and triumphs lay ahead for the military men of Wiconisco Township.

Featured Image: Militia companies training at Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, PA in 1861 (Harper’s Weekly)

View the full roster of the Washington Rifle Company in April 1861

*Spelling is as published in the Patriot & Union

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