“Drums rolled without sticks, while camp-kettles and all the other tin… of the mess and cuesine [sic] clattered in tin-tin abulatory [sic] chorus as they rattled over the stony ground. Trees creaked and groaned as their branches were violently wrenched from their swaying trunks, while birds, startled from their nests but the sudden uproar, with drooping wings and melancholy cries fluttered around in evident distress.”
Between September 23 and September 25, 1861, the 10 companies that would eventually make up the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry began to assemble atop Lawton’s Hill in the northeastern corner of Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
As the regiment assembled in its encampment, nicknamed Camp Schuylkill, a storm raged up the Eastern Seaboard with winds recorded along the North Carolina coast at more than 80 miles per hour. The hurricane’s track shadowed the coastline and sent gusts of wind and heavy downpours onshore, even miles inland. The storm made it into many a diary and letter home, as it meant pure misery for the soldiers and sailors engaged in the American Civil War.
For the men gathered at Pottsville, their was very little inkling of the drama that was about to rip apart their new home.
It rained all morning on September 27, ensuring that the men of the unit could not yet begin drilling on the encampment’s parade ground. But things turned interesting in the afternoon.
The Pottsville Miner’s Journal reported “a storm of wind from the southeast, of almost unprecedented violence, swept over this Borough, continuing for about two hours.” The storm violently uprooted trees, unroofed houses, and generally caused chaos throughout the Schuylkill County seat.
“Where on Earth the sky-light of the Junior’s residence is at this time, he cannot say with any degree of certainty,” the Journal amusingly noted, “but if picked up anywhere between here and Lake Erie, he would be obliged to the finder” to bring it to the Journal’s office. People were said to be running furiously through streets seeking shelter, as anything not nailed down (and some items that were) flew through the narrow alleys and streets of the town.
|The track of the storm, September 1861 (WikiProject Tropical cyclones/Tracks)|
For the soldiers on top of Lawton’s Hill in Camp Schuylkill, the storm’s arrival quickly exposed their lack of suitable shelter. Captain John T. Boyle of Company D remembered the evening well:
The men in their tents engaged in various occupations, or amusing themselves as soldiers generally do, like sleeping sentinels, were ill prepared to meet the sudden emergency and went the spirit of the storm garbled in robes of darkness drew near in his cloudy chariot, drawn by his lighting-winged steeds they immediately succumbed to his resistless fury.
Suddenly, tents were flying in every direction. Men emerged from them with shocked expressions, letting loose torrents of expletives to match the pouring rain and flashes of lightning. “The sights revealed by the lightnings to the eyes of the writer, though infinitely sublime above, were extremely ludicrous,” Boyle wrote. “Bewildered by the din and almost stifled by the deluge of water, the men sought safety in ignominious flight, and soon the camp was entirely deserted for the town.”
|Pottsville, Pennsylvania in 1863. Lawton’s Hill can be found as the open space in the upper-right corner, shaded in green. (Library of Congress)|
Private Edward Pugh of Company G led a number of his tent-mates down from Lawton’s Hill to the home of his sister where they spent the night resting sound in a comfortable bed. “Slept in a good bed last night and I feel much refreshed,” one of them remarked the next day.
The recently amassed encampment lay empty that night as a flood of rain and slashing winds ripped the hill-top.
Boyle noted that by dawn the next morning, “bummers and pilferers from the town [had] scoured the camp and adjacent ground, and possessed themselves of much private and public property.”
When Pugh and his bunk-mates returned to their lodgings above Pottsville, they were astonished to find that their tent stood strong during the tempest. “So we got boards and straw and fixed up a nice bunk to sleep on,” wrote Corporal Henry Keiser. Within hours, all had returned to normal.
Yet, the hurricane of late September 1861 would be remembered by the men of the regiment long after the regiment left Pottsville later in the year.