When Schuylkill County soldiers raced to defend the Capitol in April 1861… and unfortunate modern parallels

On the afternoon of January 6, 2021, I was sitting on the southern edge of Columbia Heights in Washington, DC looking out over the city. Watching my Twitter feed, I could see the events occurring beneath the Capitol rotunda, that I could see on the city skyline.

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My photograph from Columbia Heights – taken on January 6 at 1:33 PM.

For the first time since 1814, the home of the United States Congress was overrun and invaded.* I was struck by the silence on this hilltop in the city just five miles from the Capitol building as the events took place. Sirens soon pierced the silence, racing toward the scene of an insurrection marked by shame, violence, death, and the failed attempt to capture and execute members of Congress. I was utterly disgusted to see members of an angry mob proudly waving a confederate battle flag through the sacred halls of the United States Capitol.

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In the aftermath of the January 6 attack, we’ve watched National Guard troops pour into the nation’s capital. Among them have been a sizable group from the Pennsylvania National Guard. As photographs emerged of National Guard soldiers sleeping inside the United States Capitol itself, I was hit by the striking connection these events had to the events of April 1861. In those dangerous days, citizen-soldiers from Pennsylvania’s Coal Region raced to protect the US Capitol from a secessionist attack following the attack on Fort Sumter and the initiation of the Civil War.

Soldiers capitol Larger

I pointed out these connections on the Wynning History Facebook page:

Wynning History Capitol 1

These soldiers themselves left behind a record of their efforts to defend the Capitol as the Civil War began.

A letter published in the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville from one of these soldiers documented the role of Schuylkill County residents in a crucial moment in American history.

Washington City, April 30 [1861]

Dear Journal –

Mail communication has been so interrupted that it has been difficult to get letters through. As regularity, in a sort of way, is established, I write you.

The Pennsylvania troops numbering some 500 – among which were the Washington Artillerists and National Light Infantry – which were the first to reach here, were and still are quartered in the Capitol building.

They are not equipped yet, and have only the musket and side arms, furnished by the United States Government. The uniforms are daily expected, and are needed I assure you. Tomorrow we expect by dividing some of the companies now too full, and by adding two or three single companies yet expected, to organize a regiment by an election for field officers. The following will possibly be selected: Colonel H.L. Cake; Lieut. Col. James Wren; Major Jas. H. Campbell – who the Adjutant will be I cannot say positively. The organization will afford satisfaction to all the men.

The health of the men has been good since their arrival here. Their quarters being [rooms in the Capitol]; but they drill in the open air, and have free access at all hours to the spacious grounds surrounding the Capitol.

The men asleep in their blankets on the floors, which are as soft as the conglomerate of our County. One night, when the Capitol [guard] was more than usually sensitive, they slept each man on his musket, and ready for the command to arms.

Since then however, we have no alarms, troops by thousands have come in via Annapolis from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania, until at this time, there I assume, including the District Volunteers, fifteen thousand troops concentrated here… It is imperatively necessary that the Government should relinquish exertion to secure this, the heart of the nation from capture.

Pennsylvania should see to [ensure] her troops are well-equipped, armed and organized. It is a duty she owes to her gallant children. Candor compels me to say that her troops, so far, have been the worst equipped and accoutred who have entered the Federal Capital; and yet they are as fine a body of men as any here. This is wrong, and I hope the State will help to remedy the mistake. Our Pottsville companies received their muskets from the Government. They can’t soldier through without anything.

Everything is in bloom here, and nature looks as lovely, now at the end of April, as she does with you near July.

Our boys have had their hair clipped short… and are prepared for close quarters where fingers not bullets, are the principle instruments, offensive and defensive. Some of them are hardly recognizable, but I think it improves their appearances, besides adding to their personal comfort in this climate.

Our representative, Hon. Jas. H. Campbell, is here among the men, continually, and feels the warmest interest in the welfare of the Schuylkill County Volunteers. He does all that he can for them. He is a noble man; and we hope to have him through this campaign, in our Regiment, as Major. Schuylkill should be proud of James H. Campbell, for he is as true to her, from each one of her children, down to her smallest material interest, as the needle to the pole. A glorious man. Everybody here admires him for his courage, and constancy. Night after night, for weeks past, he has assisted in Lane’s gallant corps, to guard this city, with eye watchful, and hand ready for any duty. All honor to him.

The Seventh Regiment will go into camp on Georgetown Heights tomorrow. It is a beautiful spot overlooking the Potomac.

Many rumors are afloat daily here, in reference to the movements of the secession forces, but none that are of a reliable character. That they are concentrating troops in Richmond, and along the principle avenues leading towards this City, is unquestionably true, but as we are cut off South, of course, we must depend for information on verbal statements. The last we have is that Gen. Beauregard is in Richmond with 10,000 troops, and that secession forces are lying between him and this City. If so, it looks as if they intended to threaten the Capital, but how soon it is impossible to say. They may await the action of Maryland, to march through her territory, on the descent.

Dear Journal, trust to the mails, and put my name on your list. Direct the paper to me at the “Capitol Building, North Wing.”

Yours,

F.B.W.   

 Another newspaper story, this one from the Evening Star of Washington highlighted the experiences and deprivations experienced by the Pennsylvanians who first arrived to defend the unfinished Capitol.

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From the Evening Star, Washington, DC – April 19, 1861

The First Arrival of Troops

There was quite a gathering of people at the railroad station last evening in expectation of Northern military companies. The regular train failed to bring any, but an extra train reached here about 7 o’clock, brining the following companies from middle Pennsylvania.

The Ringold Flying Artillery, of Reading, PA, 120 men;

The Logan Guards, of Lewistown, Pa, 96 men;

The National Light Infantry, of Pottsville, 108 men;

Washington Light Artillery (will act as infantry) Pottsville, 122 men;

The same train also brought Company F, Fourth Artillery, U.S.A., Major Pemberton, and 60 men, from Fort Ridgely, Minnesota. This company were marched to the E Street quarters.

The Pennsylvania companies were taken to the Capitol building for quarters.

Camp Life at the Capitol Building

Last night we paid a visit to the Capitol, which has been converted into temporary barracks for the Pennsylvania militia. We found company E, (of this city,), National Guard, the spirited volunteer company recently formed, on guard at the north wing. They were drilling and we could but notice the number of stalwart, soldierly looking men in their ranks. They are quartered in the handsome room on Revolutionary claims. Our first business was to find whereabouts in the huge pile constituting the Capitol building the Pennsylvania companies were quartered, a job of some difficulty, but pioneered by Lieut. Hitchcock, for whose courtesy we are under obligations, the thing was done.

Two of the Pennsylvania companies we found quartered in the luxurious committee rooms of the north wing. The newly arrived soldiers had here Brussels carpets, marble washstands, and all that sort of thing, but seemed to think they should prefer to all this to have a bite of something to eat, as they had tasted nothing since a hasty early breakfast at Harrisburg.

They had suffered, too, miserably from thirst on the way, and at one station where they stopped were glad to quench their thirst at a pool of muddy water standing in a field. This, with the hostile reception received at Baltimore, gave them a pretty rude taste of soldiers’ life. They took all in good spirits except the failure in the commissariat department at their quarters.

Some bacon sides had been served out in the basement, (Senate kitchen refectory,) where a fire had been started, and some of the soldiers were struggling with a dull knife to chip off a rasher, but nothing seemed to be in readiness fore the hungry men. Col. Tait, and other officers of our local military, on hearing the state of things, exerted themselves effectually to hurry up the cakes for the starved Pennsylvanians.

The three Pennsylvania companies stationed in the south wing of the Capitol were faring better, we found, as some of the Capitol employees had been laboring to get things in readiness. In the House refectories, we found the work of broiling and frying fresh and salt meat going on briskly, while numerous hogsheads and boxes containing other edibles were being depleted of their contents.

Ascending to the Representatives Hall, we found nearly every seat and all the sofas of that big room occupied with soldiers. In the center of the room the Ringold Artillery was located, and the wings were occupied by two other Pennsylvania companies. The lucky occupants of the sofas were taking a comfortable snooze, and those in the chairs were almost to a man engaged in writing. We dare say that not less than five hundred letters were penned last night from the Capitol building to the wives and sweethearts the soldiers “left behind them” in Pennsylvania.

The Ringold Artillery is a thoroughly drilled, handsome company. It has four 12 pounders, which follow them by the cars. The other companies are mostly unarmed, being hasty levies of volunteers just arrived at Harrisburg and awakened at midnight of night before last, by order of Gov. Curtin, and dispatched here by the 8 o’clock train that left Harrisburg yesterday morning.

Many of these volunteers are quite youthful in appearance, but they look to a man as if there was “fight in them.” The spirit which animates them is shown by the fact that some of the companies had, at the time of their arrival here, not got six hours sleep since the time they volunteered on Monday, hastened to Harrisburg, and on their arrival there, almost immediately aroused to start for this point.

Their orders were in passing through Baltimore yesterday to pay no attention to the taunts and provocations heaped upon them by secession rowdies, and to avoid a collision in every possible way. Some of the Pennsylvania recruits, however, who had brought along with them a few flint-lock muskets, could not resist the impulse to club their guns in rather a demonstrative manner when the assaults “came a leetle too thick,” and this had the effect to keep their assailants back. One of the Pennsylvanians had a couple of his teeth loosened by a blow from a stone thrown at him, and another received a compliment of the same nature upon the bridge of his nose.

They seemed to think the same treatment by the Baltimoreans to the “Minersville boys,” who will come through armed with rifles, will result in a row, as said boys are not particularly sweet-tempered when “sassed…”

Capitol Plaque
Plaque inside the Capitol honoring the “First Defenders,” including two units from Schuylkill County. National Guard members were photographed sleeping beneath this plaque

 As I write this (Sunday morning, January 17, 2021), soldiers of the Pennsylvania National Guard are stationed one block south of my apartment. Just as their predecessors did in April 1861, these Pennsylvanians are tasked with defending the nation’s capital from domestic foes who seek to tear up the Constitution and sink the nation into violent despotism. And as the events inside the United States Capitol on January 6th demonstrated… the insurrectionists were waving the same flag that secessionists and confederate soldiers used in their failed rebellion in the 1860s.

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Featured Image: US Army volunteers at the US Capitol in May 1861 (Library of Congress)

Read more of our coverage of the Civil War

*A sarcastic commenter noted that this line was wrong. It is not. The January 6, 2021 was the first time since 1814 that the Federal government lost control of the United States Capitol since 1814. Other attacks on the Capitol have taken place, but none had successfully wrested control of the building from authorities as did the attackers on January 6. The commenter helpfully included this link, which proves the point: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/history-violent-attacks-capitol-180976704/

12 thoughts on “When Schuylkill County soldiers raced to defend the Capitol in April 1861… and unfortunate modern parallels

    1. Wait did you actually read the article you linked to? The attacks in the 1950s-1980s took place inside the Capitol, but they either were quickly squelched or were bombs left in the building. They did not successfully overrun the place and gain control of the structure. The line in my post is accurate, proved more so by the link you just shared.

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  1. Reading this I can see where your biases lie. I will be unsubscribing to this newsletter.
    Had you not interjected your opinion (” insurrection marked by shame, violence, death, and the failed attempt to capture and execute members of Congress. I was utterly disgusted to see members of an angry mob proudly waving a confederate battle flag through the sacred halls of the United States Capitol.”) I would have thought more of this article as a history lesson, rather than your ill informed point of view.

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    1. Please, tell me more about how my point of view is ill-informed. Where do my “biases lie.” The fact that a confederate battle flag was paraded through the halls during the attack is indeed shameful. 300,000 US soldiers died to prevent such a thing from happening in the 1860s. A police officer was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. Law enforcement and prosecutors are building cases against those who carried out the attack and there were many called for executing members of Congress. There are multiple videos of the mob chanting “Hang Pence,” calling the head of the Vice President of the United States who was inside the building.

      History is not simply a collection of facts and anecdotes. You can absolutely feel free to unsubscribe. If you can’t also agree that the events of January 6 were shameful and disgusting, then we have very little we are going to agree on.

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    2. Nothing Jake said in your quoted excerpt is inaccurate. Not a single word. But if you fear the analysis of historical parallels, you should definitely unsubscribe.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jake, I enjoy all your posts but this is a real good one, both the docs (fascinating detail) AND your comments. I was wondering if you would get blowback. God bless ya.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “failed attempt to capture and execute members of Congress”. Please tell me that you have valid fact-based empirical evidence to support this statement. I would be interested to see it if you don’t mind…Thanks

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    1. There was an original statement by a Federal judge that was walked back a few days back. Today, however, more documents used by the FBI and Federal prosecutors in charging several “militia” members involved on January 6 point toward this conclusion. There will be more on this, no doubt: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/conspiracy-oath-keeper-arrest-capitol-riot/2021/01/19/fb84877a-5a4f-11eb-8bcf-3877871c819d_story.html

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      1. Thank you Jake….I am one who is hesitant to believe everything that I read so I usually wait until some type of evidence is presented to support a position. But even then I will question the source if it seems suspicious. There are just too many people basing claims and making decisions based on emotion rather than actual facts. I appreciate your sharing the information that you gathered. While I wait to see how all of this plays out, it is good to see some people using a rational thought process. Thanks again….

        Liked by 1 person

      2. A very, very smart strategy for wading through this time period. Thanks for questioning and weighing. We will see what new elements we learn about the events of January 6 as more of the investigation becomes known. – Jake

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  4. I am glad for one thing about the treasonous actions of the insurrectionists on Jan 6th, who ignorantly chanted “U.S.A.” when all of their actions, beliefs and flags affirmed their real loyalty was to the defeated Confederate States of America. It led me to discover your blog. That day with its obvious correlation to the Civil War caused me to want to research my ancestor Corp. Daniel Rumbel of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry from Schuylkill County. While searching for Civil War history of Schuylkill county, I came across your blog. I appreciate the history and your analysis. If you have lost subscriptions from those who refuse to learn from history, then you will gain the respect from those who do believe our history can teach us to learn from the mistakes of our past and make better choices for our country now. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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