In the summer of 1863, tensions were running high in Schuylkill County. With the Federal government drafting men into the US Army and an armed military occupation taking place in the Coal Region, the situation was perilous. And amid this dangerous moment, someone attempted to assassinate the US Army officer in command at Pottsville.
The Federal government had begun drafting men into the service of the US Army in July 1863 and stoked tremendous controversy in that act. A major outbreak of violence in response to the draft had taken place in New York City in mid-July, leaving more than 100 people dead and parts of that city in rubble. Other than New York City, the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania continued to present the staunchest opposition to the government’s war effort.
This initially came in the form of strikes among mine workers seeking higher wages commensurate with the high rates being paid for anthracite coal. But as the war escalated and Republican party leadership in Schuylkill County sought to use the tools given to them by the Lincoln administration to exact revenge on political opponents in the region, residents in the rural patch towns surrounding Pottsville rose up in opposition.
The first of these major uprisings took place in October 1862. It was quelled through a combination of military force and with the assistance of Catholic clergy encouraging mostly Irish Catholic mine workers to put down their arms. A military occupation remained in the Coal Region as a vestige of this armed uprising, however, and became a major source of contention in Schuylkill County.
In response to the riots in New York, the military occupation took on new importance to local political leaders seeking to quell revolts and to the Lincoln administration who didn’t desire to see another mass uprising like that witnessed in America’s largest city.
The US Army forces in Pottsville in the summer of 1863 consisted of 1,000 soldiers and 4 pieces of artillery. Many of these men were soldiers who had been disabled by wounds or disease and who were unable to return to their units organized into what were known as the Veteran Reserves Corps. The US Army formed these units for garrison duty on the Northern home front and these men rotated through Pottsville to assist local leaders in conducting the draft and maintaining order.
This occupation ruffled feathers throughout the Coal Region. A newspaper in Luzerne County, an area that also experienced military occupation at this time, snidely remarked that “a stranger would suppose… that we were actually in rebellion against the United States; for, in whichever way he may turn, he sees companies, regiments, brigades, and divisions of armed soldiery passing to and fro through our midst.”
In late July, the US Army sent a new commander to take over the military district in Schuylkill County. Brigadier General William Dennison Whipple had recently been appointed to that rank when he arrived in Pottsville at the end of the month. Whipple had experience in the fortifications around Washington and participated in preparing defenses in Philadelphia during the Gettysburg Campaign.
Whipple arrived and was making himself familiar with the area when he and his small staff made a visit to Yorkville, a neighborhood of Pottsville just west of downtown, on Saturday August 8. . The small group was on horseback and traveling on the York Farm tract, just north of Yorkville when a gunshot rang out. The bullet passed close by General Whipple’s head. The group, believing someone to have been target shooting and mistakenly fired in the vicinity, paid little heed and continued on. But another shot rang out, narrowly missing Whipple yet again. At this stage, the group realized they were being targeted by someone and made a hasty retreat toward Pottsville. A third shot winged in, but missed.
Newspapers across Pennsylvania reported on this assassination attempt of a high-ranking Army officer in the heart of the Coal Region. According to the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville, Whipple remarked that he had never made a narrower escape in his military service.
The would-be assassin remains unknown. The attempt did not break Whipple’s resolve and he consolidated occupation forces at Pottsville and brought in four additional pieces of artillery. Further violence in the county precipitated more soldiers being brought into Schuylkill County in the autumn of 1863.
This unsuccessful assassination attempt reveals the remarkable situation in Schuylkill County during the Civil War. In a region vital to the government’s war effort – anthracite coal fueled Northern industry and the US Navy – there existed a constant tension and threat of violence. There were many residents who were displeased with the war effort to save the Union and to draft men into the US Army to sustain that war effort. But many mine workers also lamented the use of military force against them in their efforts to secure better pay and working conditions in the dangerous coal mines of Schuylkill County.
The attempted assassination of Brigadier General William D. Whipple demonstrated how contentious the Civil War had become on the home front in the Coal Region.
Featured Image: Brigadier General William Dennison Whipple in 1865 (Library of Congress)