A Central Pennsylvania Newspaper Marches to War in 1861

Four young men in the office of the Farmer’s and Miners’ Journal were kept busy in the chaotic spring of 1861. In the printing establishment on Main Street in Lykenstown, Pennsylvania, they were responsible for publishing not only the newspaper, but publications for the town’s chief employers: the Lykens Valley and Short Mountain coal companies.

The four men — Henry Keiser, John C. Gratz, Christopher Hynicka, and John E. Roberts — were training under the printing office’s owner Samuel B. Coles.

While the country faced a crisis in early April, with armed rebels besieging Federal garrisons in South Carolina and Florida, the printer and his apprentices prepared the latest addition of the Journal. While no issues of the paper’s 1861 editions are known to survive, we have an idea of what the office published the week that Fort Sumter came under fire by Confederate forces near Charleston, South Carolina.

April 12, 1861
Harrisburg Patriot & Union, April 12, 1861

Upper End Items. – We clip the following items from the Lykens Journal, published in the upper end of this county: 

“Mr. Thos. Harper has been appointed post master at Wiconisco. The office had, for many years, been kept by Henry Shaefer’s family. 

The coal business here is becoming much more brisk. Mr. Thomas has been busily putting the Lykens Valley mines into first-rate condition, and is now, or will be soon, prepared to produce a largely increased amount of coal from them. He expects, we understand, to produce not less than 200,000 tons from the collieries this season…

In the coal mines of Wiconisco Township, just north of Lykenstown, business boomed. The metallic clanging of machinery and hiss of steam whistles marked the sign of business “becoming much more brisk.” Long trains filled with Lykens Valley anthracite raced down the line to Millersburg, on the Susquehanna River, and from there on to markets in Delaware and Baltimore. In the first half of April, the mines shipped more than 5,000 tons of coal to market.

Patriotic fervor spread over the rural countryside following the capture of Fort Sumter by Confederate forces on April 13, 1861. In Lykenstown, mining engineer Edward Savage organized the town’s militia company and prepared it for service in the United States Army. On April 24, the company of 80 men embarked down the Lykens Valley Railroad and headed for Camp Curtin in Harrisburg. Among the men were printing apprentices Henry Keiser and John C. Gratz.

Seat of War
A headline from the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, April 13, 1861. (Pennsylvania State University)

On an “exceedingly fine and agreeable” Friday afternoon, April 26, the Washington Rifle Company was mustered into Union service as Company F, 10th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Over the subsequent three months, the Keiser, Gratz, and the rest of Company F marched through southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and into western Virginia in pursuit of Confederates. They never found them.

Back in Lykens, Christian Hynicka and John E. Roberts continued working with Samuel Coles and published news from Dauphin County’s mining district. In early June, they reported that “patriotic” women in Lykenstown were making clothing for their boys in the 10th Pennsylvania.

Patriotism still bubbled up in the remaining young men of Wiconsico Township, including those within the office of the Lykens Journal. On June 8, the Pennsylvania Telegraph published an article stating that another company was forming in Lykenstown. It was during these weeks that John E. Roberts left the Journal and headed to Union County to join Company D, 5th Pennsylvania Reserves on June 21, 1861.

Only Christopher Hynicka remained in the office of the Journal when the boys of the Washington Rifle Company prepared to return home after service in the South in late July. Hynicka and Coles reported in a July issue that “the people of Lykenstown have made arrangements to honor the members of this company with a public reception on their return home.”

Samuel B. Coles
Samuel B. Coles, proprietor of the Lykens Journal (Archive.org)

Henry Keiser and John C. Gratz returned to Lykenstown with their company in early August and received the thanks of their fellow citizens. The Journal reported the following:

[T]he whole town participated in the demonstration, and all the houses were gaily decorated with wreaths and banners. Fun and frolic were the order of the day, and several dances were improvised and kept up until a late hour. Quite a number of the “boys” intend to re-enlist for the war after a short rest. “Bully for the boys.” 

Keiser and Gratz were reunited with Christopher Hynicka on their return in August, but were among the boys who prepared to re-enlist. They did so on September 24, 1861, joining the 96th Pennsylvania. Hynicka followed their lead, and left the printing office in October to join the 76th Pennsylvania.

Left without young apprentices to keep his operations going, Coles shut the doors to the Farmer’s and Miners’ Journal, and began a small advertising and printing business from his office on Main Street in Lykens.

As for his former protégés, 3 of the 4 who worked in the office of the Journal in 1861 met sad fates during the America’s bloodiest conflict.

John C. Gratz died from typhoid fever in the camp of the 96th Pennsylvania in Northern Virginia on January 26, 1862. His former colleague Henry Keiser reported in his diary, simply: “Corp. John Gratz died at twenty minutes of two this morning.  Wrote a letter to S. B. Coles telling him of John’s death.” Gratz was 18-years-old. His body was likely embalmed, before being shipped home to his family in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Landscape
The 96th Pennsylvania’s “Camp Northumberland,” February 1862. (National Archives)

Keiser had a brief reunion of sorts with John E. Roberts while their regiments were awaiting deployment to the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862. While stationed near Alexandria, Virginia, Roberts and Keiser went out for a night on the town, accompanied by another soldier. Keiser mentioned the evening out with his old friend on March 18:

Went to Alexandria on a pass today. John Roberts and Michael O’Leary of the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves accompanied me. Had a “squabble” with some New York soldiers and came out first best. Became slightly inebriated before I got back to camp. It rained the greatest part of the day.

This would be their last night out together. During heavy fighting on June 30, 1862 at the Battle of Glendale, Private John E. Roberts was shot and killed. His body was never recovered. While Union Army records state that Roberts was 17 when he enlisted, civilian records and later histories recorded that Roberts lied about his age. He may have been as young as 16 when he was killed in battle.

PA Reserves
The flag of the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves. (PA Capitol Preservation Committee)

Christopher Hynicka’s sad fate would take quite a bit longer to develop than Gratz or Roberts. His service with the 76th Pennsylvania took him to the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. During the assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, Hynicka was captured by Confederate forces. He eventually made his way to a prison camp in Richmond, Virginia. He became extremely sick while interned and died of disease on March 22, 1864 at age 21 while still in captivity.

Battle of Fort Wagner
The Battle of Fort Wagner as illustrated in Harper’s Weekly, August 8, 1863. (Son of the South)

Of the four young men working in the office of the Farmer’s and Miners’ Journal, only Henry Keiser returned to Lykenstown. He survived numerous battles, bouts with serious illness, and one severe wound received at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. He came back to Lykens in July 1865 and briefly worked under his former employer, Samuel B. Coles in the office of a new local newspaper, the Upper Dauphin (later Lykens) Register. 

henry-keiser1
Henry Keiser in 1864. (Gratz Civil War)

While relatively little is known about their time together in the offices of the Journal, their experiences during the spring and summer of 1861 united them in devotion to their country. These four young printers-turned-soldiers fought for their home state with honor and devotion and three paid the ultimate price to protect the Union.

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