81st Regiment

Pennsylvania Volunteers

The Eighty-first Regiment was recruited under the direction of James Miller, a soldier of the Mexican War, in obedience to an order of the War Department. Six companies were from the city of Philadelphia, and four from the counties of Carbon and Luzerne. Recruiting commenced early in August, and the men reported by squads and companies at the general camp of rendezvous near Easton. Here the regiment was organized by the choice of the following field officers:
  • James Miller, Colonel
  • Charles F. Johnson, Lieutenant Colonel
  • Eli T. Conner, Major
Many of both officers and men had been connected with militia organizations, and had been in the three months' service.

On the 10th of October the regiment proceeded to Washington, and went into camp at Kendall Green. Two weeks later it moved to a camp overlooking the East Branch of the Potomac and the Navy Yard. It was here assigned to a brigade commanded by General Casey, subsequently by General Howard, and known as the First Brigade, First Division, of the Second Corps.1 With the exception of an expedition to Marlborough, Maryland, as a police force for the preservation of order at the general elections, where the peace was threatened, it was engaged in no active duty until the beginning of December.

During the winter, details from the regiment were frequently sent out, under Captain Thomas C. Harkness, on scout duty, and much valuable information was obtained. On the 1st of March, the regiment commenced active operations, and the enemy was driven from Burk's to Sangster's Station, but it was soon re-called, and on the 10th joined in the general forward movement, which was cut short at Manassas by the disappearance of the enemy. It then returned to Centreville. Shortly afterward, Sumner's Division was again ordered forward, driving the enemy to Warrenton Junction, and thence across the Rappahannock. He burned the bridge as he retreated and shelled the Union column from the opposite shore.

The division retired to Alexandria, and thence proceeded to the Peninsula. Beyond the building of corduroy roads, and fatigue duty, in the operations of the siege of Yorktown, and the subsequent march upon Williamsburg, little of note occurred until it arrived upon the Chickahominy. Here it was employed in building the famous Sumner Bridge. When completed, the regiment crossed, with the brigade, and proceeded to Golden's Farm, where it was engaged in a severe skirmish, driving back the enemy for the engineers to locate their works; but abandoned the position during the night, and returned to the north side of the river.

Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines)

On the 30th of May, the enemy attacked the Union forces near Fair Oaks. In the afternoon, Sumner received orders to move with his corps to their relef. As the brigade advanced the enemy in its front fell back to the Nine Mile Road. On the following morning, the battle was renewed. The Eighty-first occupied the left of the brigade, with its left flank exposed. A regiment of the enemy approached close upon the front, and Colonel Miller, supposing it to be a Union force, called out to it, when a volley was delivered from which he fell, shot through the heart. There was little artillery firing until the battle was over. The right wing of the Eighty-first was carried back with the regiments on its right, but the left held its position, and continued the fight until it was suddenly attacked from the rear. Finding that the right of the line had disappeared, Captain Harkness assumed command, and led the battalion, on a by-road, to the right, where it was met by Lieutenant Miles, of General Howard's staff, and ordered to retire to the railroad.

Files from company H were detailed to take the body of Colonel Miller to the rear. Near the spot where the Colonel was killed, General Howard lost his arm. Lieutenant Horace M. Lee was mortally wounded.

General Caldwell now succeeded to the command of the brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Johnson was promoted to Colonel, Major Conner to Lieutenant Colonel, and Adjutant H. B. M'Keen to Major.

The lines were advanced beyond Fair Oaks and fortified. On the 15th of June, while three companies of the Eighty-first, D, H, and K, were on picket, the enemy attacked and drove back the guard on the left, but failed to move these companies. In this encounter Captain Samuel Sherlock was killed. The line of the brigade crossed the railroad, and the Nine Mile Road, and was much exposed. The duty in the trenches and upon the skirmish line was very severe.

On the 29th, Sumner's Corps withdrew from the breast-works, and moved as rear guard of the army on the retreat to the James River. At day break the regiment reached the Peach Orchard, and at eight o'clock became engaged. It was posted in support of artillery, and remained in position until past noon, when, the enemy having moved upon the right flank, it fell back to Savage Station, and was drawn up on the hill near Savage's House. After nightfall, it moved on past White Oak Swamp, and took position to dispute the passage of the creek.

On the following morning, the enemy opened from the opposite side of the stream with his artillery, which elicited a prompt reply. The Eighty-first remained in support of the guns until four o'clock in the afternoon, suffering considerdable loss, when it was hastily marched to the battle ground at Charles City Cross Roads. At six it went into position, and until ten the battle raged with unabated fury. The night was very dark, and the men were only guided in their aim by the flash of the enemy's guns. The regiment sustained severe loss. Colonel Johnson, and Captains William J. Conner and Thomas C. Harkness were among the wounded, the latter receiving four wounds. Lieutenant Colonel Conner acted with great gallantry and courage throughout the engagement.

During the night the army retired to Malvern Hill. Porter was posted on the extreme left, with the commands of Couch, Kearny, Hooker, Sedgwick, Richardson, Smith, and Slocum respectively, on his right. Couch was first attacked, and as the attacks upon him were repeated, fresh troops were sent to his aid, among others, the brigade of Caldwell. Here, while leading on his men, with great coolness and bravery, Lieutenant Colonel Conner was killed. Every fresh assault of the enemy was bloodily repulsed; but the action was maintained until after dark, when the fire gradually died out, and he retired from the contest. On the following day the army withdrew to Harrison's Landing.

South Mountain and Antietam

From the Peninsula the regiment returned, by transports, to Acquia Creek, and thence marched in the direction of Falmouth, as far as Brook's Station. It was here halted and counter-marched to Acquia, whence it again proceeded, by transport, to Alexandria, and marched out to the old camp which it had vacated on the 10th of March previous. After resting two days, it proproceeded to Arlington Heights, arriving at two o'clock on the morning of the 29th of August. At eleven it was ordered forward to the Second Bull Run ground, but arrived only in time to witness the retreat from that ill-starred field.

At South Mountain, on the 14th of September, Richardson's Division was in reserve, but on the following day, took the advance, and moving through the pass, the Eighty-first supporting the Eighth Illinois Cavalry, drove the enemy, through Boonsboro and Keedysville, to Antietam Creek.

On the morning of the 17th, Sumner's Corps crossed the stream, and moved up to the support of Hooker, who had been sharply engaged since early dawn. By ten o'clock, Richardson's Division, composed of the brigades of Meagher, Caldwell and Brooke, had reached the front, and was deployed on the extreme left of Sumner's line. Meagher first attacked, and after a severe engagement, at close quarters, he was relieved by Caldwell, supported by Brooke. At this juncture, the enemy was reinforced and the contest became determined. To seize the high ground to the Union left, and thus turn that flank, the enemy made a strong effort, but in this was defeated by Colonel Cross, of the Fifth New Hampshire. Richardson now ordered a direct attack, and drove the enemy back, gaining a strong position about Piper's House, and along a sunken road, extending across to the Hagerstown Pike, which he held. The loss of the Eighty-first in this advance was very heavy. Captain Philip R. Schuyler and Lieutenant William H. Vandyke were among the killed.

From Antietam, the regiment proceeded to Harper's Ferry, whence it was sent on a reconnoissance to Charlestown, but returned without meeting the enemy. Shortly afterwards, the division crossed the Shenandoah River, and moved through Rectortown and Salem, to Warrenton. After Burnside took command of the army, the division made a rapid march to Falmouth. Here the brigade was ordered to the support of Petit's Battery, engaged with the enemy across the river, whose guns were speedily silenced.

In November, Colonel Johnson resigned on account of wounds received at Charles City Cross Roads, and Major M'Keen was promoted to Colonel, and Captain Robert M. Lee, Jr., to Lieutenant Colonel. Subsequently, upon the resignation of Colonel Lee, on account of wounds received at Fair Oaks, Captain Amos Stroh was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain Thomas C. Harkness to Major.


The regiment went into winter quarters, and remained until the 11th of December, when it moved out to engage in the battle of Fredericksburg. It was held in support of artillery, until the morning of the 12th, when it crossed the river and was posted along the wharf, where it remained twenty-four hours. While here, thirty boxes of tobacco, which the enemy had sought to destroy by throwing them into the stream, were rescued.

On the morning of the 13th, it moved up Front street to the railroad bridge, the right resting near the grist mill. At ten o'clock it went into action. Moving down Sophia Street, under a heavy artillery fire directed upon its flank, it gained the position, close up to the enemy's rifle-pits, which has been appropriately termed the slaughter pen, but from which it was quickly forced back to the line, which it held, under a terrific artillery fire, until ordered from the field.

Of the five thousand men comprised in the division, two thousand fell in the charge. In the Eighty-first, Lieutenant Clinton Swain was among the killed, and Lieutenant Zadoc Aydelott mortally wounded. Colonel M'Keen, and Captains Conner, Mercer, Munyan, Harkness, and Wilson were also wounded.

The regiment returned to its quarters, and remained until the 26th of April, when the brigade moved from camp towards United States Ford. Four miles out, the Eighty-first Pennsylvania and the Fifth New Hampshire were detached, and ordered to move in advance, as guard to the column. At each house on the way, for half a mile on either side, guards were posted, who allowed no persons to leave until the column was across the river.


On the 1st of May, the brigade marched, at double quick, from United States Ford to Chancellorsville, and out upon the Fredericksburg Road, to a position occupied by a portion of the Fifth Corps, which it relieved. A part of the brigade, under Colonel Miles, of the Sixty-first New York, was thrown out upon the skirmish line, which was gallantly defended when attacked by Lee in his cooperative movement in favor of Jackson. The Eighty-first was engaged throughout the remainder of the battle, and suffered considerable loss. Colonel M'Keen and Major Harkness were severely wounded.

With the army it returned again to its camp near Falmouth. Remaining here until near the close of May it broke up winter quarters and moved to Stoneman's Switch, near Potomac Creek. On the 6th of June, a detachment, under command of Colonel M'Keen, was sent out, in light marching order, to the support of the cavalry, across the Rappahannock.

Gettysburg Campaign

At sundown of the 18th, the regiment broke camp and moved to Stafford Court House, where there was considerable skirmishing. Proceeding through Dumfries to Sangster's Station, it was re-joined by the detachment, and thence moved to Thoroughfare Gap. Here it remained four days, engaged in picket duty in the mountains above the gap. At Haymarket, four miles from the gap, the enemy attacked the corps train, throwing his shells in rapid rounds.

On the 28th, the regiment reached a point on the Monocacy Creek, Maryland, where it is crossed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At eight o'clock in the evening, it was sent, with a section of artillery, to guard the bridge on the pike, and was on duty all night after a fatiguing day's march. On the following day it marched to Uniontown, a distance of thirty-eight miles, some of the men barefooted and suffering severely, as they moved rapidly on over the sharp macadamized way.

On the 1st of July, the command was ordered to move to Gettysburg. At Taneytown, an escort of cavalry was met, bearing the body of General Reynolds, who had fallen that morning. At evening the regiment arrived upon the field with the corps, and was posted two miles in the rear of the town, to cover the communications, where, during the night, it was engaged in throwing up breast-works.

On the morning of the 2d, the corps moved up and took position in line of battle, with its right resting on the Cemetery, and its left connecting with the Third Corps. At eleven in the morning the brigade was ordered forward towards the brick kiln, near the Emmettsburg Road, but soon returned and had barely time to take a cup of coffee, when the battle having opened on the left where Sickles stood, Caldwell was hurried away with his division to his support. The brigade was commanded by Colonel Cross. Caldwell led his men past the foot of Round Top, across the road leading to the Peach Orchard, and on to the Wheat Field, where the brigades of Tilton and Sweitzer had gone before, to the support of the hard pressed troops of Birney.

In this wheat field, and in the rocky and wooded eminence beyond, the fighting was terrible. The ground was disputed on either side with a stubbornness rarely equalled. At nine P. M., after the loss of nearly one-half of its effective strength, the brigade returned to its former position in the line, where it remained until the close of the battle.

On the morning of the 4th, the regiment was ordered to advance and attack the enemy's picket line, which easily yielded, his forces being nearly all gone, and that afternoon started towards the Potomac.

In the campaign which followed in the Valley of Virginia, the Eighty-first shared the fortunes of the Second Corps. In the operations at Mine Run, the 29th of November, Captain David J. Phillips was killed. Upon the return of the army, after the abandonment of offensive operations, it went into winter quarters between Brandy Station and Stevensburg. Early in January, a sufficient number re-enlisted to entitle it to a continuance of its organization, and were given a veteran furlough.

Upon the opening of the spring campaign of 1864, the Eighty-first stood ready with recruited ranks to take the field. Colonel M'Keen was assigned to the command of the brigade, and Major William Wilson, who, upon the resignation of Lieutenant Colonel Harkness, by reason of disability, had been promoted to succeed him, was in command of the regiment.

1984 Overland Campaign

After crossing the Rapidan, the Second Corps commenced the march towards Spottsylvania; but the head of the column had proceeded but a few miles before it was re-called, the enemy having made his appearance, and attacked at the Wilderness. For three days the battle was maintained, the Eighty-first suffering considerable loss, when the enemy abandoned the offensive, and held himself in his intrenched position.

The march of the Union Army was then resumed towards Spottsylvania; but upon its arrival at the Po River, it was found that the rebels had reached it in advance, and was already in a strong position. On the morning of the 12th of May, the Second Corps assaulted the enemy's works, and carried two lines, capturing a large number of prisoners, guns, and small arms. The fighting was at close quarters and very desperate. In this assault Lieutenant Sidney N. Hawk was among the killed, and Lieutenant Colonel Wilson among the severely wounded.

With less success were the assaults of the Second Corps on the enemy's intrenched works at Cold Harbor, on the 3d of June. This was near the old battle ground of Gaines' Mill, in the Seven Days' Battles of M'Clellan; but the positions of the contending forces were reversed. Colonel M'Keen led the brigade in the desperate attempt to carry the enemy's works, and was killed while gallantly directing the contest.

In the operations of the Second Corps before Petersburg, the Eighty-first participated, and in the contest of the 17th of June, Captain David H. Ginder was killed. At Strawberry Plains, Ream's Station, and Deep Bottom, in each of which the corps was engaged with varying success, the regiment maintained its character for courage and daring.

Appomattox Campaign

The winter was spent in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and when towards the close of March, 1865, active operations opened, the regiment moved with the corps on its final campaign. It did not suffer serious loss, though frequently engaged, and worn down with constant and rapid marching, until it reached Farmville, on the 7th of April, where the main body of Lee's army was drawn up in a strong position, prepared to offer obstinate resistance.
"Humphrey found," says Swinton, "the main body of Lee's army intrenched in a strong position, four or five miles north of Farmville, covering the stage and plank roads leading to Lynchburg. It proved to be too formidable for a front attack, the ground being open and sloping up gradually to a crest about a thousand yards distant, which was covered with intrenchments and batteries. An attempt was then made to take it in flank, but the Confederate flanks were found to extend on both flanks, on the right and left, beyond the line of Humphrey's divisions, and it became manifest that all that remained of the Army of Northern Virginia was present. Barlow's Division was then ordered up.

"Meanwhile Humphrey, having extended his right the length of one division, ordered Miles to make an attack with three regiments; but these met a complete repulse, suffering the loss of above six hundred in killed and wounded. It was too late to renew the operations when Barlow arrived, and, during the night, Lee again retreated."

On the 9th Lee surrendered. In this last desperate but unfortunate assault, the Eighty-first lost heavily, Captains Charles Wilson and John Bond being among the killed. Its fighting was now over, and returning with the army to the neighborhood of Washington, it was, on the 29th of June, mustered out of service.

During the four years in which it followed the fortunes of the Army of the Potomac, sharing its perils and its glory, scarcely missing a battle, it lost, of the field and staff; four killed, five wounded, one prisoner, and two who died of disease; of the line, fourteen officers killed, forty wounded, and two taken prisoners; and of enlisted men, two hundred and one killed, five hundred and sixteen wounded, one hundred and fifty-two taken prisoners, and seventy-nine who died of disease.

1Organization of the First Brigade, General O. O. Howard, First Division, General Richardson, Second Corps, General Sumner; Eighty-first Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Colonel James Miller; Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, Colonel Edward E. Cross; Fourth Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers, Colonel Isaac P. Rodman; Sixty-first Regiment New York Volunteers, Colonel Francis C. Barlow.
Upon the departure of the Burnside expedition to North Carolina, the Fourth Rhode Island was transferred to that command, and the Sixty-fourth New York, Colonel ihomas J. Parker, was assigned to the brigade. On the 6th of June, 1862, the Sixty-fourth was transferred to another command, and the Seventh New York was added. In the fall of 1862, the One Hundred and Fortieth and One Hundred and Forty-eighth Pennsylvania was added, and in November 1863, the One Hundred and Eighty-third Pennsylvania.


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


Organized at Philadelphia October, 1861.
At Easton, Pa., till October 10.
Moved to Washington, D.C., October 10.
Attached to Howard's Brigade, Richardson's Division, Army Potomac, to March, 1862.
1st Brigade. 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps, Army Potomac, to June, 1865.


Duty in the Defences of Washington, D.C., till March, 1862.
Advance on Manassas, Va., March 10-15.
Reconnoissance to Gainesville March 20.
Operations on Orange & Alexandria Railroad March 28-31.
Ordered to the Virginia Peninsula.
Siege of Yorktown April 5-May 4.
Construction of Grape Vine Bridge on Chickahominy May 28-30.
Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) May 31-June 1.
Fair Oaks June 18.
Fair Oaks Station June 21.
Seven days before Richmond June 25-July 1
Orchard Station June 28.
Peach Orchard, Allen's Farm, June 29.
Savage Station June 29.
White Oak Swamp Bridge and Glendale June 30.
Malvern Hill July 1.
At Harrison's Landing till August 16.
Movement to Fortress Monroe, thence to Alexandria and Centreville August 16-30.
Centreville September 1.
Maryland Campaign September 6-24.
Battle of Antietam, Md., September 16-17.
Moved to Harper's Ferry, W. Va., and duty there till October 29.
Reconnoissance to Charlestown October 16-17.
Advance up Loudoun Valley and movement to Falmouth, Va., October 29-November 17.
Snicker's Gap November 2.
Manassas Gap November 5-6.
Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., December 12-15.
At Falmouth till April, 1863.
Chancellorsville Campaign April 27-May 6.
Battle of Chancellorsville May 1-5.
Reconnoissance to the Rappahannock June 9.
Kelly's Ford June 10.
Gettysburg (Pa.) Campaign June 13-July 24.
Battle of Gettysburg July 1-3.
Pursuit of Lee July 5-24.
Duty on line of the Rappahannock till September.
Advance from the Rappahannock to the Rapidan September 13-17.
Bristoe Campaign October 9-22.
Auburn and Bristoe October 14.
Advance to line of the Rappahannock November 7-8.
Mine Run Campaign November 26-December 2.
Mine Run November 28-30.
At Stevensburg till May, 1864.
Demonstration on the Rapidan February 6-7.
Rapidan Campaign May 4-June 12.
Battles of the Wilderness May 5-7; Corbin's Bridge May 8; Spottsylvania May 8-12;
Po River May 10; Spottsylvania C. H. May 12-21.
Assault on the Salient May 12.
Landten House May 18.
North Anna River May 23-26.
Line of the Pamunkey May 26-28.
Totopotomoy May 28-31.
Cold Harbor June 12.
Before Petersburg June 16-18.
Siege of Petersburg June 16, 1864, to April 2, 1865.
Jerusalem Plank Road June 22-23, 1864.
Demonstration north of the James at Deep Bottom July 27-29.
Deep Bottom July 27-28.
Mine Explosion, Petersburg, July 30 (Reserve).
Demonstration north of the James at Deep Bottom August 13-20.
Strawberry Plains, Deep Bottom, August 14-18.
Ream's Station August 25.
Reconnoissance to Hatcher's Run December 7-10.
Hatcher's Run December 8.
Dabney's, Mills, Hatcher's Run, February 5-7, 1865.
Watkins' House, Petersburg, March 25.
Appomattox Campaign March 28-April 9.
On line of Hatcher's and Gravelly Runs March 29-30.
Hatcher's Run or Boydton Road March 31.
White Oak Road March 31.
Sutherland Station April 2.
Sailor's Creek April 6.
High Bridge, Farmville, April 7.
Appomattox C. H. April 9.
Surrender of Lee and his army.
March to Washington, D.C., May 2-12.
Grand Review May 23.
Mustered out June 29, 1865.


Regiment lost during service:

18 Officers and 190 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and
2 Officers and 96 Enlisted men by disease.

Total 306.

Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion Compiled and Arranged from Official Records of the Federal and Confederate Armies, Reports of he Adjutant Generals of the Several States, the Army Registers, and Other Reliable Documents and Sources.Des Moines, Iowa: The Dyer Publishing Company, 1908






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