“The Coal-heavers” – Reading David Ward’s “96th Pennsylvania Volunteers”

Few stories from the Civil War have fascinated me quite as much as the saga of the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a three year regiment that assembled in Pottsville, Pennsylvania in September 1861. This regiment from Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields experienced the full range of the conflict’s glories and horrors. It left its members behind on battlefields that have become synonymous with death and carnage: Gaines’ Mill, South Mountain, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

They gained a reputation as a fighting regiment, leading one battlefield commander to exclaim to Colonel Henry L. Cake: “Colonel, your coal-heavers did well!” Despite this battlefield success, the veterans of the 96th Pennsylvania left behind no single volume of their unit’s action in the Civil War. A few penned their experiences in the years after the war, but no full volume ever appeared in print.

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Colonel Henry L. Cake, 96th Pennsylvania (Library of Congress)

Author David Ward’s book, The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War, has seized the opportunity to tell the story of this famed regiment. Using a vast array of primary sources from museum collections, libraries, archives, and private collections, Ward has done a remarkable job of bringing the unit to life.

He takes us beyond the horrors of the battlefield to see the 96th Pennsylvania at rest, at play, and at war with itself. Officers battled with each other for supremacy within the regiment, fighting to control a small patronage system and benefit their political futures. We see the Civil War from the perspective of a single unit, made up initially of just over 1,000 men from the Coal Region: their motivations, their hopes, and their suffering.

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Ward bases his study of the 96th Pennsylvania around a core group of questions:

Why did these men from the anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania respond quickly and patriotically to Lincoln’s call for volunteers? Did they mirror the political and social norms of their region, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania? What motivated them to sustain their commitment to the Union victory during their three-year period of service? How did they cope with health problems, the long separation from their families, inclement weather, the boredom of camp life and the harsh living conditions they encountered during active operations? Finally, how would the fury, trauma and destruction of a Civil War battle affect the citizens-turned-soldiers of the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers?

He uses the questions as the basis to follow the 96th Pennsylvania through their service in the Civil War. From Pottsville’s Lawton Hill to the Virginia Peninsula, from the slopes of South Mountain to the fury of Gettysburg, from the Muleshoe Salient at Spotsylvania to their final campaign in Shenandoah Valley, Ward follows the young men of Schuylkill County to war and back.

 

And now you can follow them, too.


Featured Image: The cover of Ward’s book and the 96th Pennsylvania in Camp Northumberland in 1862. 

Interested in purchasing the book? It is available in both paperback and on Kindle 

The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War was published by McFarland and Company in May 2018.

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