The war had turned.
Following a disastrous series of campaigns, the United States Army found itself pressed into the defenses of its own capital at Washington. And now, news arrived that the illustrious Army of Northern Virginia had turned north, crossed the Potomac River, and entered Union-occupied Maryland. It was September 1862.
In the industrial county seat of Schuylkill County, news from the South raised alarms like none before in the city’s history. Word of the Confederate invasion arrived in Pottsville, Pennsylvania on Sunday, September 7, 1862. The city of nearly 10,000 residents immediately began fits of panicked patriotism. Residents, mostly, put away bitter partisan disputes between pro-war Republicans and anti-war Democrats in an effort to save the Keystone State.
In the days that followed the announcement that a Confederate invasion of the North was under way, business leaders in the capital of the Coal Region jumped into action.
“The merchants of this Borough held a meeting at which it was resolved that the stores I the Borough should be closed on the afternoons of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of each week, from 3 to 6 o’clock for the purposes of drilling,” reported the town’s Republican organ, the Miners’ Journal. “This has been observed during the week, a company of merchants has been organized and has been drilling.”
Benjamin Bannan, editor at the Miners’ Journal, urged those reading his columns to “Enlist – that is the very best thing you can do, either for yourself or your country.” A meeting at the Schuylkill County Court House on September 9 for the purposes of enlisting more able-bodied men elicited great support, described as “large and enthusiastic.”
Republican politician and Pottsville attorney Lin Bartholomew highlighted the danger of the invasion and the group’s purpose:
While dark clouds were hovering over the country, we should reason together like men and American citizens. We scarcely realize the danger that is upon us. An armed enemy is upon our soil. We must be in earnest before treason can be crushed. We have work before us. Our state may be devastated like Virginia. Even now our State Capital is threatened.
We must be true to the reputation that this State has acquired in this war. Our soldiers have been felt by the enemy on every field, and we must emulate their glorious example. We must fight bloody battles to save the country. Lives must be sacrificed that our institutions may be preserved.
With the Army of Northern Virginia in Frederick, Maryland, the threat to Central Pennsylvania and to the neighboring Coal Region and its vital war industries appeared to be great. But that wasn’t the only fear exhibited by the natives of Schuylkill County, for every week they were reading newspapers detailing the casualty lists from the horrific fight at Second Bull Run, in which two local regiments were cut to pieces. News from the front brought news of family members mangled or slain. Residents in Pottsville must have found it difficult to heed Bannan’s advice in his September 13 edition: “Keep cool.”
As the merchants and citizens of Schuylkill County’s seat drilled and steeled themselves for a Confederate invasion of the Keystone State, events in Maryland spiraled out of control. General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland was thwarted by the pursuit of the Army of the Potomac. At South Mountain on Sunday, September 14, General George McClellan’s blue-clad troops decisively defeated a small section of the Confederate Army. Three days later, the full weight of the two armies clashed along the banks of Antietam Creek. It was a bloodbath and remains the bloodiest day in American history.
With combat raging in Maryland, Schuylkill County raised emergency companies which rapidly moved south and were deployed along Pennsylvania’s border with Maryland. “Such an instantaneous uprising of the people was never witnessed in our community before,” wrote Bannan’s Journal. According to the newspaper’s count, 12 companies, more than 1,300 men, had departed Schuylkill County for the seat of war by September 17.
On that day, while the guns pounded at Antietam, mourning began in earnest in Pottsville. “The bitter fruits of this unholy rebellion was brought forcibly home to our very hearthstones on Wednesday last,” lamented the Miners’ Journal. “The noon train from Philadelphia brought the dead bodies of Major Lewis J. Martin and Lieut. John Dougherty.” These two officers of the 96th Pennsylvania were killed at Crampton’s Gap in Maryland on September 14.
Descriptions of “universal gloom” in the city accompanied obituaries for the two men, well-respected men of Schuylkill County. Funerals for the two officers occurred in the days following their arrival in the city. Businesses closed, black crepe spread across the city, and citizens lowered the Stars and Stripes to half-staff in honor of their fallen countrymen.
The unexpected arrival of these bodies in Pottsville marked a turn in the city’s mood. The panicked patriotism turned to pride as news filtered in that the Army of the Potomac stood toe-to-toe with the Confederate Army and forced it back into Virginia after the Battle of Antietam. The heavy cost, however, was felt throughout the Coal Region.
In response to news of horrendous casualties on the battlefields of Maryland, Schuylkill County’s women jumped into action. The Ladies’ Aid Society of Pottsville sent off three boxes filled with clothing, bandages, food, alcohol, and other necessities on September 18. These were accompanied by crates from the ladies’ aid associations of St. Clair and Tamaqua as well.
By early October, the Miners’ Journal began to publish reports of the two major engagements in Maryland at South Mountain and Antietam and the lists of casualties from local regiments. Between the local 48th, 50th, and 96th regiments, the list of those killed reached into the dozens. Hundreds more were wounded.
Yet, with the Rebels back in Virginia, life in the Coal Region soon returned to the pre-invasion status quo. An impending election quickly grabbed the headlines and editors utilized the Confederate invasion and subsequent battles as to fuel overheated political rhetoric.
“Men of Pennsylvania,” wrote Ben Bannan on September 27, “you who have friends either in the camp, in the hospital, wounded or sick, or alas! cold in death, think of the responsibilities of the hour.” He breathlessly called to the men of Schuylkill to vote Republican:
Think, we conjure you, of the great need at this time, of not only supporting the Government, but of encouraging your friends, those brave soldiers now in the field. How is it to be done? This way.
Reflect that the Government is engaged in subduing the most wicked and causeless Rebellion known to man. Remember this is no party war, for if we lose our country, what are parties? Resolve if you are a patriot and love your country, to throw aside your partisan predilections, and to vote at the coming election so that the Government and the soldiers shall be encouraged and sustained. It were better, far better, not to vote at all, than to cast a ballot on motives no higher than those of the partisan.
As the weather cooled and autumn broke over Pottsville, the threat from Confederate armies retreated, to be dealt with again in the summer of 1863. But residents realized that another threat had developed right in their own backyard in Schuylkill County. And in October 1862, the dissatisfied Irish men and women of neighboring patch towns went began utilizing violence to voice their displeasure at the war and the politics of Schuylkill County. The growing ethnic conflict in the southern Coal Region would metastasize and wreak havoc long into the future.
Featured Image: Pottsville, Pennsylvania in the 1860s, courtesy of the New York Public Library.