Pennsylvania Reserve Corps

Virtue ~ Liberty ~ Independence

Reserve Corps

Introductory Note

PRBEVIOUS to the breaking out of the rebellion the prediction was made that if secession resulted in hostilities the conflict would be on northern soil.1 The possibility of this event was contemplated by the national authorities, and when a rebellious army began to assemble in northern Virginia, a camp was established at Chambersburg and an army of observation, under General Patterson, was organized to prevent the egress of hostile forces from the seceded territory.

On the 16th of April, General Patterson was, by the order of Governor Curtin, placed in command of Pennsylvania troops, and soon after, by the order of Lieutenant General Scott, was assigned to the command of the Department of Washington, embracing the States of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Convinced that the contest upon which the nation was about to enter would be much longer than was generally anticipated, and that the services of the three months' troops should not be the sole depefence, he believed that advantage should be taken of the time to prepare for the future, lest at some critical moment it should be left without an army.

By the action of the hostile element in Maryland on the 19th of April, all communication from Philadelphia, the headquarters of General Patterson, with Washington, was cut off. In the, absence of orders, he was left to rely wholly on his own judgment as commander of the Department, and, accordingly, made a requisition on Governor Curtin for twenty-five additional regiments of infantry, and one regiment of cavalry, to be mustered into the service of the United States. In compliance with this call the Governor commenced recruiting the required force, which was vigorously prosecuted in every part of the Commonwealth. In the meantime, the severed communication with Washington was restored, and the national authorities not being prepared for the acceptance of more forces, ordered the call of General Patterson for the additional force to be countermanded. Recruiting was accordingly suspended, but many of the companies thus called together did not abandon their organizations.

Recognizing the danger to which Pennsylvania, by its long line of border on States seriously disaffected was exposed, and finding that adequate provisions did not exist by law to make the military power of the State available for its protection, Governor Curtin issued his proclamation on the 20th day of April, 1861, calling the Legislature to convene in extra session on the 30th instant. In his message, which was delivered at the opening of the session, the Governor said:

" The time is past for temporizing or forbearing with this rebellion, the most causeless in history. The North has not invaded, nor has she sought to invade a single guaranteed right of the South. On the contrary, all political parties, and all administrations, have fully recognized the binding force of every provision of the great compact between the States, and regardless of our views of State policy, our peoplehave respected them. * * * The insurrection must now be met by force of arms; and to re-establish the Government upon an enduring basis, by asserting its entire supremacy, to re-possess the forts and other Government property so unlawfully seized and held, to ensure personal freedom and safety to the people and commerce of the Union, in every sece tion, the people of the loyal States demand, as with one voice, and will contend for, as with one heart, and a quarter of a million of Pennsylvania's sons will answer the call to arms, if need be, to wrest us from a reign of anarchy and plunder, and secure for themselves and their children, for ages to come, the perpetuity of this government and its beneficent institutions. * * It is impossible to predict the lengths to which the madness that rules the hour in the rebellious States shall lead us, or when the calamities which threaten our hitherto happy country shall terminate. * * * To furnish ready support to those who have gone out, and to protect our borders, we should have a well regulated military force. I, therefore, recommend the immediate organization, disciplining and arming of at least fifteen regiments of cavalry and infantry, exclusive of those called into the service of the United States. As we have already ample warning of the necessity of being prepared for any sudden exigency that may arise, I cannot too much impress this upon you."
This message was immediately referred to a select committee of the House, consisting of seven members, Messrs. Ball, Sheppard, Williams, Hill, Smith, of Berks, Lawrence and Leisenring. In compliance with the recommendations of the Governor a bill was reported on the second of May, to create a loan and to provide for arming the State, which, in the usual course of legislation, became a law on the 15th. Among other provisions the act authorized and required the Commander-in-Chief to organize a military corps, to be called the "Reserve Volunteer Corps of the Commonwealth " to be composed of thirteen regiments of infantry, one regiment of cavalry and one regiment of light artillery; to be armed and equipped, clothed, disciplined, governed and officered, as similar troops in the service of the United States; to be enlisted in the service of the State for a period of three years or for the war, unless sooner discharged, and to be liable to be called into the service of the State at such times as the Commander-in-Chief should deem their services necessary for the purpose of suppressing insurrections or to repel invasions, and further, to be liable to be mustered into the service of the United States, at such times as requisitions should be made bythe President of the United States.

The Commander-inChief was also authorized to establish camps of instruction, and the troops, when not under instruction, nor in the service of the United States, were required to hold themselves in readiness to be called into the service of the State, or upon requisition of the President, into the service of the United States; and they were required to provide and keep in repair suitable armories for the safe keeping and preservation of their arms and accoutrements. The several companies and regiments composing the corps were entitled to elect, and the Governor was directed to commission officers, similar in number and rank to those allowed like troops in the army of the United States. The Commander-in-Chief was authorized to appoint one Major General to have command of all the military forces of Pennsylvania, and two Brigadier Generals, with the proper compliment of staff officers.

In compliance with the provisions of this act, Governor Curtin issued his call for men to compose the corps, and apportioned the number that would be received from each county, according to its population, in order that every section of the State and every class of its people should be duly represented in it. Great enthusiasm was everywhere manifested to enlist, and a strong desire was felt to be admitted to its ranks.

Four camps of instruction were established:

  • one at Easton, under command of Colonel William B. Mann
  • one at West Chester, under Captain Henry M. M'Intire
  • one at Pittsburg, under Colonel John W. M'Lean, and
  • one at Harrisburg, under Colonel G. A. C. Seiler.
George A. M'Call, a graduate of the West Point Military Academy, of the class of 1822, subsequently an officer in the Regular Army, and a distinguished soldier in the war with Mexico, was appointed a Major General to command the corps. General M'Call immediately organized his staff by appointing Henry J. Biddle, Assistant Adjutant General, and Henry Sheets and Eldridge M'Conkey, Aids-de-Camp. Subsequently, Professor Henry Coppee was attached to the staff as Inspector General.

An accomplished soldier, General M'Call entered with great zeal upon the duty of organizing the corps and preparing it for duty in the field.

On the 22d of June, two regiments, the Fifth, under Colonel Simmons, and the Kane Rifles, Thirteenth of the corps, commanded by Colonel Biddle, were ordered to a point on the State line, opposite Cumberland, Maryland, for the protection of the border, now threatened by an organized force of rebels. Subsequently these regiments moved through Cumberland into West Virginia to the support of General Lewis Wallace.

On the 18th of July, orders were received from the Secretary of War directing four regiments to be sent to Hagerstown, Maryland, and the remaining regiments of the corps, not including those in West Virginia, to be moved to Baltimore. On the following day an order was received from' the War Office directing all the regiments of the Reserve Corps, except the two in West Virginia, to be assembled at Harrisburg, where they would be mustered into the service of the United States. Measures were promptly taken by Governor Curtin to put these orders in immediate execution.

On the 21st of July was fought the battle of Bull Run, which resulted disastrously to our arms, and spread terror and alarm throughout the North. The national authorities found themselves with a defeated army, with the term of service of a large proportion of its troops rapidly expiring. They immediately issued urgent calls upon all the States for men. Pennsylvania was ready with an organized and disciplined force, enlisted for the long term, to march to their relief. Moving rapidly to the points designated by the commander of the national army, the several regiments remained on duty until all danger from a sudden incursion of the rebel army was passed, when the corps was assembled in camp at Tennallytown, Maryland, where it was organized in three brigades and thoroughly drilled and disciplined.

The Society of Cincinnati of Pennsylvania having presented to the Executive of the State five hundred dollars, to be used towards arming and equipping the volunteers of Pennsylvania, the Legislature, by joint resolution of 16th of May, 1861, ordered that this money be expended in the purchase of regimental flags, having the coat of arms of the State and number of regiment inscribed. On the 10th of September, the flags prepared for the regiments of the Reserve Corps were presented with appropriate ceremonies. Mr. Sypher, in his History of this Corps, thus describes the scene:

"The color companies were formed in line in front, with the Colonel of each regiment at the head of the company. The parade ground was surrounded by a line of guards to exclude the vast multitude of soldiers and civilians that had collected to witness the presentation. At eleven o'clock, President Lincoln, accompanied by Honorable Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, drove into the enclosure; a few minutes later, General MiClellan arrived, escorted by the M'Clellan Rifle Guards of Chicago, and accompanied by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, General Butler and General Mansfield. Half an hour later, the sound of artillery, firing the appropriate salute, announced the arrival of His Excellency, the Governor of Pennsylvania. Governor Curtin, accompanied by the members of his staff, Surgeon General Henry H. Smith, Judge Maxwell, Paymaster General, and many distinguished citizens, soon appeared on the parade ground. Colonel Simmons, Fifth regiment, which had marched to Washington to escort the Governor to Tennallytown, moved into position at the right of the line, and General M'Call reported his command in readiness to receive the colors. After receiving most cordial greetings from the President, the Secretary of War, the General-in-Chief, and the General commanding, His Excellency,the Governor, proceeded to formally present the colors to the Colonels of the several regiments, at the head of their color companies.

" Attended by his staff and General M'Call, he commenced at the right of the line and placed in the hands of each Colonel, the beautiful flag provided by the State of Pennsylvania, saying at the same time, that he was authorized to do so by a recent act of the Legislature. After having received the colors, the companies wheeled by platoons and marched around the right and left of the line to the rear, and took their places in the line with their new colors unfurled to the breeze. * * * Having passed along the entire line and delivered the badges of honor to the regiments, Governor Curtin returned to his carriage, and, standing upon the seat, thus addressed the soldiers:


Were it not for the surroundings, one might be struck by the novelty of this scene. Large assemblages of the people of Pennsylvania, on any occasion which calls them together for deliberation on subjects touching the general welfare and the public good, are always attended with a charm that fascinates. But when I look over the thousands of Pennsylvanians away from the soil of their State, in arms, there is inspiration in the occasion. sylvanians will rejoice over your success, and on your return, you will be hailed as heroes who have gone forth to battle for the right.

" They follow you with their prayers. They look to you to vindicate a great Government, to sustain legitimate power, and to crush out rebellion. Thousands of your friends in Pennsylvania know of the presentation of these flags to-day; and I am sure, that I am authorized to saythat their blessing is upon you. May the God of Battles, in His wisdom, protect your lives, and may Right, Truth and Justice prevail."

"General M'Call responded:

GOVERNOR CURTIN:-Permit me, in the name of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, to return, through your Excellency, to the State of our birth, the thanks with which we receive the splendid banners that, in accordance with an act of the State Legislature, you have this day presented.

" The bestowal of these noble banners devolves upon the regiments of this division, a responsibility they cheerfully accept; and they trust, with the aid of the God of Battles, to bear these stars and stripes proudly in the conflict, and to place the banner of our State amongst the foremost in the cause of the Constitution and the Union of our common country."

By the terms of the act authorizing the organization of the Reserves, the Governor was authorized to commission such officers as the several companies and regiments should elect. In this manner the original officers were selected. As vacancies occurred, from time to time, after the corps took the field, elections were held and the commissions issued as at first.

This course was pursued until sometime in July, 1862, when an order was issued through the division headquarters directing that thereafter elections should not be held, the evils of this system being looked upon as greater than the system of promotion and appointments without election, practiced in other volunteer regiments of the army. But the act of Congress under which the volunteer forces were received into the United States service, provided that vacancies should be filled by the Governors of the respective States in the same manner as the original appoint ments were made. Hence the Governor was prevented, by the positive provisions of the State Statute, from commissioning any officers of the corps so long as the order forbidding elections was in force. For nearly a year this impediment remained, all efforts to remove it proving fruitless. From this cause the efficiency of the corps was greatly crippled, many vacancies occurring which remained unfilled, and meritorious officers being debarred those promotions which their heroic conduct on many a hard fought field had fairly won. Subsequently, through the recommendation of Governor Curtin, the provisions of the State Statute, providing for elections, was repealed, and promotions and appointments were thereafter regularly made.

The ordinary means for recruiting regiments in the field having languished, on the 30th of September, 1862, Governor Curtin addressed a communication to the President of the United States, proposing to receive ten skeleton regiments at a time from the front, and to recruit them in a body to the maximum standard. Inasmuch as the Reserve Corps was among the first of Pennsylvania troops to enter the service, he requested that it should be first returned for this purpose. This application, though repeatedly renewed and warmly seconded by the commanders of the corps, Generals Meade and Sickel, was not received with favor, and was never accorded; though the measure, had it been adopted, would doubtless have restored the corps to its pristine strength and power.


Without discussing the question of right, of abstract power to secede, I have never believed that actual disruption of the Union can occur without blood; and if, through the madness of northern abolitionism, that dire calamity must come, the fighting will not be along Mason's and Dixon's line merely. It will be within our own borders, in our own streets. óM. Pierson's History of the Rebellion, page 391.


We have nothing to apprehend from blockade, but if they attempt invasion by land we must take tihe waw out of our territory. If war must come, it must be upon Northern and not upon Southern soil.

Your border States will gladly come into the Southern Confederacy within sixty days, as we will be their only friends. England will recognize us and a glorious future is before us. The grass will grow in the northern cities, where the pavements have been worn off by the tread of commerce. We will carry war where it is easy to advance-where food for the sword.and torch await our armies in the densely populated cities; and though they may come and spoil our crops, we can raise them as before; while they cannot rear the cities which took years of industry and millions of money to build. -The American Conftict, Greeley, Vol. 1, page 415.

Source:  Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65 , Harrisburg, 1868-1871.






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