“Advancing Cautiously Towards Secesh” – A Civil War Regiment Rides the Rails to War

“Passing through the villages and past the farmhouses we were universally greeted with cheers, waving of handkerchiefs and Union flags. Before one palatial residences, the ladies of the house were assembled on the green, surrounded by ‘contrabands’ all waving American flags, which scene drew from our men three rousing cheers.” 

This letter to the editor of the Miners’ Journal in Pottsville, Pennsylvania comes from the November 16, 1861 edition of that publication.

The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry departed Pottsville for Washington, DC on November 8. Writing from their provisional encampment in the nation’s capital, the writer of this letter chose the pen name “Ninety-Sixth” but was likely the young Captain John T. Boyle of Company D.

Below you will find his letter to the folks back home, detailing their fascinating journey from Schuylkill County, down the Susquehanna River, and into a war zone.

Camp Wilder, November 11th, 1861

MESSRS. EDITORS: – As chronicler of the 96th Regiment, Penna. Vols. I venture a letter, hoping that it may meet your approbation, and that of your many readers. Concerning our departure from your midst I say nothing, supposing that all persons interested are familiar with it. From West Woods, 16 passenger, freight, and truck cars drawn by one and pushed by two locomotives, conveyed us to the top of the Planes.

Each town, village, and hamlet as we passed turned out its population to greet us, and many were the endearing expressions of regret which the winds wafted to our ears. Not caring to risk the descent, the regiment left the cars at the top of the mountain; and, on foot, gained Gordon.

The Gordon Plane carried railroad cars over Broad Mountain (NYPL)

Forming in line, we marched through the main street, halting near the depot, at the foot of the Planes. Here we met the train, which had preceded us, together with seventeen other cars, making in all thirty three cars, in which, after parting with friends who had accompanied us this far, we entered.

The cars were divided into two trains, in the first of which were companies A, F, D, C, and the Battery with their Gun. In the second were companies E, H, G, K, B, and Q, as our worthy Chaplain facetiously denominated those of our citizen friends who accompanied us. Along the way several workmen, miners, inspired with patriotism, left their work and joined us.

Passing through Locust Gap, we had hearty salute from your fellow townsman, the Messrs. Parvin and a “gracious adieu” from Dr. Koehler, who, here left us. At the Shamokin junction, Mr. Wilder, General Superintendent of the Mine Hill Road, and his gentlemanly assistant William H. [illegible], who together with others had thus far preceded us in the [illegible] took their leave of us and steamed away in their beautiful mechanism towards home.

Shamokin turned out a crowd to meet us, and many were the favors received by our men at the hands of the citizens. Steaming onward, we reached Sunbury about 5 o’clock in the evening, but too late for a lunch, which rumor says, had been prepared for us in the Market House, anticipating our arrival in the early part of the day. Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, we were attended by crowds of people who expressed their Union feelings by doing all in their power to make our short stay as agreeable as possible. To Mr. William [illegible], formerly resident of Pottsville, many of the officers are much indebted for a lunch, which reached them through the hands of the Chaplain.

Shamokin, PA as it appeared in the 1850s (Library of Congress)

During our stay, the soldiers were surrounded by the children of the town, who full of enthusiasm, discoursed the ‘Star Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia” and other patriotic songs in fine style. Several of our men, leaving their companies as laggards will do on the march, were here left behind; but I am happy to say, have since found their way into camp.

Owing to the lateness of the hour, the splendid scenery on the Susquehanna was lost, and we plunged through the darkness of the night, oblivious to the beautiful surroundings. Major Bland, Joel McCammant, Esq., and others of your borough, left us at Bridgeport opposite Harrisburg, on their return home. Night hid Little York and the intervening village from our view; and morning, dim, misty, and wet, presented the varied scenery of Maryland to our anxious visions. Advancing cautiously towards Secesh – on account of the vast influx of trade surpassing the carrying powers of the road, thereby gorging the sidelings – we of the rear car, which by the by, was filled with officers and members of Company Q passed the time in listening to the eloquent witticisms of Martz of the Exchange, the poignant allusions of Boyer of Company D, the eccentricities of Haas of Company G, and the promiscuous small talk of others of the party.

Our frequent peals of laughter awakened the shades; drowned the rattle of the cars, and cheered the loneliness – the Adjutant leading off. The Chaplain’s hamper, filled as it was with substantial and dainties, afforded ample provisions for hungry stomachs, dispensed as it was with a liberal hand to all around. Stationed along the Railway were squads of men guarding the numerous bridges; and we saw many indications, in the way of charred timbers, etc., of the late destructions along the line.

The Northern Central Railroad carried the 96th Pennsylvania’s train south into Maryland and on to Baltimore (LOC)

Passing through the villages and past the farmhouses we were universally greeted with cheers, waving of handkerchiefs and Union flags. Before one palatial residences, the ladies of the house were assembled on the green, surrounded by “contrabands” all waving American flags, which scene drew from our men three rousing cheers, and “tiger” heard high above the puff of the iron horse and the rattle of the crazy cars. As a slight indication of Secession, I noticed one middle-aged woman – ugly, of course –  who, as the cars came opposite her house, rushed through the open door, and with violent gestures, slammed it to with great violence.

After several lengthy delays, we reached the Baltimore depot, before dinner, where, owing to some misunderstanding we were compelled to remain for some time. Toward the close of the afternoon, we were marched through Eutaw Street to the Baltimore and Ohio depot, preceded by our excellent Band, which notwithstanding the drenching rain which had been falling all the day, discoursed some of their choicest music. Nothing of note occurred during our transit, save languid handkerchief, and flag wavings from the ladies along the way, who, from front doors and second story windows shot arrowy glances at us from bright eyes, and dispensed smiles with lavish exuberance – I thought that they were equivocal. The few men we met seemed taciturn, and one little chap with a “long nine” inserted between his lips, ejaculated within his hearing “there goes some more of the damned Yankees” – straws show which way the wind blows.

At the depot, we were supplied with coffee and sandwiches by the members of the Relief Committee. Half past eleven saw us seated in cars which presented a striking contrast to the desirable ones which conveyed us over the Mine Hill Railroad; and ere long were on our way to Washington, which city we reached without accident of any sort at half past two in the morning. Vacating the cars, we formed into line, and through several hundred yards of unyielding mud, reached the barracks – a long depot like building, built expressly by Government for the accommodation of freshly arrived troops. Here we were quartered for the night, the accommodations being a soft plank, cold air and water for washing.

Sunday morning, bright and early, we were drawn up in line and by companies marched into an adjoining building called the “Soldiers Retreat” capable of seating at table 350 men, where a substantial breakfast of coffee, bread, and hot beef was served out to the men. After breakfast, having received no orders for marching, officers and men dispersed themselves over the Capitol grounds whilst the Staff officers “danced attendance” at the several military departments.

The Soldier’s Rest in Washington, DC (LOC)

During the afternoon luggage wagons conveyed our baggage and camp equipage from the cars and after the men had their canteens filled with coffee and their haversacks with a day’s rations, at the “Soldiers Retreat,” we started under command of Lieut. Col. Frick, for the quarters which had been assigned us on the Bladensburg Turnpike, near the first toll gate, a distance of about one and quarter miles from the Capitol.

We reached the ground without any circumstance worth noting, and, in the dim twilight, our many companies had selected and pitched our tents. How long we will remain here is uncertain. Tomorrow we march to the Arsenal to receive our arms. The name of the Camp is Wilder, after R.A. Wilder, the superintendent of the Mine Hill Railroad. The Brigade at present consists of two Regiments our own, and the New York 52nd [illegible], Col. Kogley’s. I am happy to state that our Colonel has been appointed first commander  of the provisional brigade, an honor which he very richly deserves.

Yesterday the sound of practicing cannon reverberated continually on our ears, and last evening we were all looking at the signal lights displayed on the Virginia hills, and the signal rockets, whose reverberated glow illuminated the skies beyond the Chain Bridge and Arlington Heights…

Sketch at Top: Washington, DC from Georgetown Heights (NYPL)

At last I encroach upon your space, and tire your readers patience, I refrain,


Photograph at top: Detail of the Soldier’s Rest at Washington, DC (LOC)

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