"The Boys All Seem to Like Camp Life So Far" – Company G Joins the 96th Pennsylvania

When newly minted Corporal Henry Keiser awoke on the morning of September 26, 1861, he immediately became aware he had a problem. As he rolled out of his newly placed tent high atop Pottsville’s Lawton Hill,  he attempted to stand, but couldn’t. His misadventures had caught up with him; it wouldn’t be the last time this would happen to our 21-year-old corporal.
Another Schuylkill County unit, the 50th Pennsylvania, on the parade ground. (LOC)

“Arose at six this morning well refreshed, but my ankle so sore I can barely walk,” Keiser noted in his diary entry for that day. Quite the inauspicious way for Keiser to begin his military career with the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry. He had severely sprained that ankle during a drunken jaunt through Williams Valley on the Company’s trip east from Wiconisco Township to the Schuylkill County seat the day before.

Yet, despite his hangover, Keiser noted that, “the boys all seem to like camp life so far.”  Their view of soldiering undoubtedly changed within their first few days of assembling at the newly christened “Camp Schuylkill.” Within a few days, Keiser’s ankle had healed and he was on the drilling ground with his bunk-mates.

The men of Company G gathered daily for their first immersion into the world of 19th Century military discipline. The encampments of the American Civil War, as these men were about to discover, were also the training ground for the citizen soldier.  As a junior officer noted of the regiment in a recollection years later:

The great majority of the men and some of the officers were entirely ignorant of even the rudiments of a soldier’s education, and many and     laughable were the mistakes made and blunders committed, as, under the orders of some finished veteran of the three months service, they essayed to attain the correct position of a soldier, to educate their eyes to cast themselves to the right or left at will, to master the mysteries of the facings, the puzzlings of hayfoot, strawfoot, or to unravel the labyrynthian [sic] intricacies of the march.

Company G spent many of its first days  in the 96th endlessly mastering company drill on the muddy slopes of Lawton’s Hill. They were being forced to do so without their captain. The company commander, James Douden was away from the company on sick leave with relatives in Minersville. He was likely suffering from the rheumatism that ended his military career in early 1862.

As the company began its first week of training without its superior officer, significant issues began to arise. On September 30, the company was officially mustered into Federal service, but an argument apparently erupted over who would command the company.  Since Captain Douden was away from camp in Minersville, confusion reigned over who would officially lead the company.

Colonel Henry Lutz Cake, 96th PA (LOC)

Keiser noted that “the officers had some difficulty as the boys did not wish to be sworn in until they were sure that Douden was to be our captain.” But after regimental commander Colonel Henry L. Cake convinced them that would have no other company commander, “we were mustered for three years or [duration of] the war.” In late October, an additional squad was added to the unit when a squad of men from Berks County, arrived under the command  of First Lieutenant Arthur Fesig. The unit was then complete in regards to recruitment.

That would not be the end of the hiccups in Company G. On October 5, Keiser recorded an altercation between himself and a member of Company E that landed Keiser in the guard house briefly before the situation calmed down.

Apparently showing a rebellious streak, several members of the Company spent Friday night, October 11, sneaking past the regimental guard and heading into Pottsville’s saloons.

“We got ‘slightly tight” and had to run the guards again to get back in camp,” Keiser recorded.

For the most part, Company G settled into a relative groove during its various drills.

Thursday, October 3, 1861: Had spread drill this forenoon.  The boys are pretty well used to camp life by this time. 

Friday, October 4, 1861.  We drill regularly now, spread drill one house, before breakfast. Company drill at two p.m. and again at 4 p.m.  

Monday, October 7, 1861.  We had squad drill this a.m. and company drill this afternoon.  

Tuesday, October 8, 1861.  Had drill as usual…  

Saturday, October 12, 1861.  Had squad and company drill as usual but nothing else transpired worth mentioning.

For a few members of Company G, the growing monotony of camp life was broken up by a brief respite to their homes in Wiconisco Township. The trio of Sergeant James M. Ferree, Corporal Henry Keiser, and Private Henry Romberger, (one you will become quite familiar with in the Civil War travels of Company G), headed home for three days leave in mid-October. The visits to their families would be the last these men would have for two years.

By the time Company G prepared to leave Schuylkill County on November 8, 1861, they had undergone roughly 40 days of military training. As unit historian John T. Boyle wrote of these formative moments, Camp Schuylkill began to prepare these men to become integral to the Union’s military machinery.

“The officers and men brimful of patriotism and determination soon posted them-selves in the routine of camp life and perfected themselves so far as practicable in the rudiments of drill,” he wrote.

The boys of Wiconisco Township had survived their first few weeks in the service of the regiment, but their journey still had only just begun.

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