A remembrance of a boyhood in Schuylkill County during the Civil War

Recent research into the Coal Region’s Civil War history pointed me in the direction of a fascinating autobiography by a long-time coal miner from the patch towns of Schuylkill County.

Seventy Years in the Coal Mines was written by Philip Francis in the 1930s. His great-grandson, Paul Bailey Francis, Jr., annotated the autobiography and published it online for the first time.

In the memoir, Philip Francis describes his early life in the mining villages east of Pottsville during the Civil War era. Born in 1853 in Danville to Welsh immigrant parents, Francis lost his father when he was but two months old. His mother moved to Schuylkill County and that’s where young Philip Francis grew up wild and out-of-control.

What I found stunning about the memoir is the descriptions of everyday life in the patch towns in these early days, and the difficulties faced by the miners and their families. These hardships provide a backdrop for Philip’s story about life during the Civil War.

These are relevant passages about that momentous time in America seen through the eyes of a child growing up in the hardscrabble coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania. From the mid-1850s until 1862, Philips lived in “East Delaware,” now East Norwegian Township in the rural outskirts of St. Clair and Port Carbon.

The years 1857-58 were desperate in the coal fields. Just on the verge of civil war between the North and South.

During these years my mind was just beginning to realize the many things that were going on about me. When I would hear some one speak of the colored man, or slave, it was difficult for me to understand. There were no colored people in that part of Pennsylvania near my old home.

There was a small hill called Peacock Hill in East Delaware. Men and women would gather there and listen to some man, who was a good reader, read from a newspaper at the evening hour, the latest news from Washington. I can remember that many of them would become greatly excited when the reader would emphasize certain passages. This reading continued when the war was going on. At that time newspapers were scarce.

At this point, Philip turns to discussing the events in 1862 and 1863, as Federal soldiers began an occupation of Schuylkill County. This occupation began after an October 1862 uprising in Schuylkill County, and continued as military and political authorities in the region sought to enroll men in the US Army through a controversial and unpopular draft.

I can vividly remember when the Government called for men to join the Union Army. Some men would hide from the Government officers, sent to bring them. I have seen them run through fields and woods with officers after them. There was no let up until they were caught; then they must go to the front or else find a substitute to take their place…

Then, Philip describes what it was like to begin working as a breaker boy in a small Schuylkill County colliery at the age of 8.

I am writing about scenes that happened at East Norwegian. My age when I first went to work, was about 8 years. In the year 1861, I picked slate a few months in Breaker; then underground as a fan boy; then I helped my step-father to mine coal. This mine was driven down on Slope Way; very gasious; no open lights allowed; lights used were Old Davy safety lamps.

One Sunday evening I stood about 200 feet from the mouth of the Slope. Suddenly I heard a heavy rumbling and the ground shook under my feet. I looked toward the mine and saw heavy timbers being hurled into the air from the entrance of the mine. It being Sunday there was no one in the mine. The mine was wrecked inside. No one could give any explanation as to what caused the explosion. The name of the mine was Old Boreas Slope.

Breaker Boys Shenandoah
Breaker boys at work in Schuylkill County in the late 19th century.

Philip’s mother died sometime between 1860 and 1862, and his stepfather remarried and moved the family to a patch town in New Castle Township called Wadesville. He notes a decided change in his life with this move away from East Delaware.

In the year 1862, a change took place in my life. We moved from East Delaware, sometimes called Norwegian. One day my step-father said to me to get ready and go with him and my half-brother Tom who was about five years old, to Pottsville, a distance less than two miles away. After arriving there we met Mrs. GRIFFITHS, a widow. She had three sons with her. Their names were Griff, Edward, and Joseph GRIFFITHS, all under ten years of age. Mrs. GRIFFITHS and my step-father talked in Welsh language. I understood that I was going to a new home and also that I now had a step-mother.

We all left Pottsville and walked up another valley, less than two miles from Pottsville. We stopped at a small house alongside of the road. It was a story and a half high, had three rooms, a frame building. This, I understood was to be my new home…

In Philip’s final mention of the Civil War in his memoir, he describes his feelings when he learned that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated and killed in April 1865. 

In the year of 1865, in Wadesville, the time when Abraham LINCOLN was assassinated, I was in Sunday School when the word came and when the news was read. Many sobbed and tears flowed. They could not continue the services. We all walked to our homes with sad faces. This continued for several days in our young minds; not knowing what would happen next.

These are just some snippets of a very long and fascinating autobiography.

I highly recommend giving it a read if you are interested in the history of the Coal Region!

Read the autobiography here!

Featured Image: A breaker boy in the Coal Region in the 19th century, (Library of Congress)


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