54th Pennsylvania Volunteers
Patriotism is a strain that runs deep among those of Western Pennsylvania stock. To walk through a cemetery in one of our small towns is to walk through an encapsulation of the ideals of duty, honor and country. Our Nation's trials are chronicled in places like Berlin and Myersdale; told with small bronze markers and flags atop the graves of fallen heroes. They serve as reminders that from the frozen muddy fields of Valley Forge to the decks of the U.S.S. EISENHOWER , Western Pennsylvania has been standing vigilant in defense of our country for over Two Hundred and Twenty Years.
There was a time when the very essence of our national identity was called into question. At stake was the great National Experiment- the ideas of a republic, of freedom, of nationhood. Questions that had been debated for decades in places ranging from the Halls of Congress to the Hite House Tavern in Stoyestown soon boiled over into the spilling of blood.
Sentimentality for an allegedly more simple way of life has obscured one of the basic truths of the Civil War in some people's minds. All romantic inclinations on our parts aside, the blunt reality is that one hundred and thirty five years ago, young men were asked to lay down their lives to determine how future generations, we, might live.
In April, 1861 news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina energized the divided nation. In Cambria and Somerset Counties, Church bells rang and meetings were held to send the Sons of the Alleghenies off to war. In the innocence and exuberance of the early days of the war, volunteers were called up for a period of only ninety days. It was believed, among those in the north, that the war would end with one battle in which the national forces would of course triumph.Those in the south were equally as sure of the triumph of thier own men.
The Battle of Bull Run erased any such illusions. In the wake of the rebel victory there President Lincoln issued a call for volunteers willing to serve for a period of three years. Late summer and fall of 1861 again saw the men of Somerset and Cambria answering the need of their country. They ceased to be farmers, millers, clerks and tavern keepers and became citizen soldiers. Enlisting with their family members, friends and neighbors, the men of Somerset and cambria marched out to face an uncertain future.
The immediate destination for the most new soldiers from Somerset County was the train station at Johnstown. Many companies rode in wagons to the edge of town, from where they paraded to the Pennsylvania Railroad, cheered by crowds watching their departure. The trains were bound for Harrisburg and Camp Curtin, the training camp for Pennsylvania troops.
At Camp Curtin, the companies that had been recruited under the authority of Colonel Jacob Campbell rendezvoused. Campbell was a forty year old native of Somerset who had led a varied, adventurous life. His occupations ranged from Steamboat captain to gold prospector in California. Like many other ambitious Keystone Staters of the time period, he was attracted eventually to the iron industry. In 1853 he assisted with the construction of the enormous iron works at Johnstown and would remain there until the call for troops in 1861 when he joined the ninety day volunteers.
After the Battle of Bull Run, Campbell had been granted the authority to raise a regiment by the Governor of Pennsylvania. His full efforts were put into recruiting the unit. When completed, the regiment would include four companies raised in Cambria County and three raised completely in Somerset with Cambria and Somerset men making up elements of other companies. Some troops from Lehigh, Dauphin, Northhampton and Indiana counties also joined the regiment.
The Fifty Fourth Pennsylvania, as the regiment was eventually designated, was at Camp Curtin for about six months. This was an extremely long time period for a unit to remain there. Recruiting was a long, slow process for the unit for a variety of reasons. Other factors adversely affected the unit as well. Disease took a harsh toll on the regiment, especially on the men from Somerset County. Boys from isolated farms suddenly found themselves awash in a sea of humanity and exposed to epidemics for the first time. Some would perish as a results of diseases caught at Camp Curtin never having faced the human enemy. On February 27, 1862, the unit was finally ordered to Washington D.C. In Washington, the regiment joined the armies massed around the capitol. As at Camp Curtin, drill took up the majority of the days of the men of the Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania Regiment. Rumors flew throughout the ranks as to where this training would be used. Some said they would face the enemy in North Carolina while others were certain that the regiment would be part of the grand thrust led by General McClellean himself against the Confederate Capitol at Richmond.
In the end, none of this speculation was correct. After a month, the 54th was again on the move. Rather then heading south with the majority of the other troops gathered around the capitol, the regiment was sent west about a hundred miles to guard the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
The Baltimore and Ohio was a vital link to Washington D.C. It was a direct route for tons of supplies and thousands of men arriving from Ohio and points west. Its telegraph lines provided communication links between theaters of the war. To protect the line was to protect as well the back door to Washington and provided a supply base for thrusts up (actually south) into the Confederate Shenandoah Valley.
Much of the road ran through the border counties of Virginia, now West Virginia. It was under constant attack and threat of occupation from Confederate Cavalry, guerrillas and been occupied by Stonewall Jackson for many months before he abandoned the line. The Union army quickly moved to take control and rebuilt it.
In that part of Virginia, it was truly a war of neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. From the rugged hills and mountains, armed groups of men would emerge from hidden paths and destroy the vital railroad as well as the property of neighbors with Union sympathies. Retaliation back and forth was swift and burned out farmsteads marred the landscape. It was an area where it was difficult at times to tell friend from foe.
The Fifty-fourth was assigned to guard the road from west of Martinsburg to near Cumberland; a distance of almost sixty miles. The unit served not only to protect the road, but also as a police force trying to bring law to the area. The individual companies(about a hundred men) were scattered at strategic places along the line, such as bridges and trestles, to protect the line against marauding groups of Confederates.
It was tedious and at times hazardous duty. For the most part, the enemy was rarely seen. The men were shot at from behind trees and rocks by shadowy figures that would disappear back into the woods. Patrols were sent out and hundreds of prisoners were captured as well as horses and thousands of weapons. Letters back to Cambria and Somerset County reflected the frustration of this type of war, with most of the men wishing they could face the enemy in a stand up fight.
Other enemies faced by the Fifty-fourth did not wear gray. During the regiment's time on the road, ice storms and floods also endangered the railroad and the lives of the men. Disease too remained a constant threat. Illness and accidents sent many men back to Western Pennsylvania; both dead and shattered shell of their former selves.
Threats came too from the war at large. In May of 1862 the regiment quickly consolidated from its many isolated posts as Stonewall Jackson's Valley Army, against which the unit was helpless, entered the area. The threat passed in early June, but by September, the 54th again faced a much larger force under Jackson. As part of the Maryland Campaign, the famous Rebel General was moving on Harpers Ferry.
The commander of the forces at Harpers Ferry and along the railroad advised, but did not order, Colonel Campbell to evacuate the rail line and seek shelter in Harpers Ferry. Luckily for the men of the Fifty-fourth, Campbell refused. Harpers Ferry was soon invested and the garrison forced to surrender.
The Fifty-fourth was the only Union force remaining south of the Potomac River. Without artillery or cavalry, the unit was once again again consolidated in one place. Campbell used select men of the regiment to attack a portion of Jackson's force at Hedgesville and capture a caisson and several stands of arms, killing two Confederates and capturing nineteen. Many would later credit the actions of the fity-fourth with preventing further destrction along the part of the B&O the unit was assgned to protect.
Upon trying to establish contact with the Union army that had turned back the Confederate Invasion across the river in Maryland at the Battle of Antietam ; the Fifty-fourth was greeted with disbelief. Many of those on the northern side of the river believed them to be Confederates in Union Uniforms at first. It seemed impossible that such a small group of men could have survived against the Rebel Hordes. Once the truth was realized; fame of the exploits of the Fifty-fourth spread and were reported in detail by newspapers in both New York and Baltimore.
The Fifty-fourth soon returned to isolated posts guarding the line. On October 4, 1862, Companies B and K were attacked by a large force of Confederate Cavalry under the command of General Imboden. The rebels quickly overwhelmed Company K at Little Cacapon in a dawn attack. Soon afterwards, Company B, from Stoyestown, Buckstown and Hooversville was captured at Paw Paw.
The men of these two companies found themselves on their way to Libby Prison and pawns in a game beyond their control. The Confederate Government threatened to execute the captured companies in retaliation for the execution of captured guerillas in Missouri. Only the intercession of Judge Jeremiah Black of Somerset saved the men. After three months in Libby, the two companies were exchanged and returned to duty with the rest of the regiment.
They returned to find that the regiment had been consolidated at North Mountain, near Hedgesville. The days of guarding the isolated points along the road were over. Other duties awaited.
In January, 1863 the regiment was sent on a fruitless pursuit of a rebel column in sub-freezing weather and repeatedly crossed the South Branch of the Potomac in water that was often times up to their necks. Many men fell ill from this expedition. Some men feeling themselves to be more sensible then others, decided by their own leave that the short trip across the Potomac and to Somerset County made much sense. Most of these men returned with better health and weather to face not so severe punishment. It is interesting to note that many family bibles record births in the families of these veterans approximately nine months after these sojourns home.
1863 saw continued duty near Romney; in what was to become in June the new state of West Virginia. the Fifty-fourth continued to scout the countryside and capture prisoners. On the sixth of July, the unit, along with others under the command of General Kelly marched into Maryland in pursuit of the Robert E. Lee's forces retreating from Gettysburg. The unit saw only a few shells thrown its way before returning to duty in West Virginia.
In the early part of 1864 the regiment was stationed at Cumberland, Maryland with rotating companies stationed at an outpost in nearby Pattersons Creek, West Virginia. Company F was captured there in February. This time there was no exchange of prisoners. The company was sent to the infamous Anendersonville Prison Camp where many of their number are buried today.
During the winter of 1864, many of the Fifty- Fourth's men reenlisted for the duration and were rewarded with a pass home. For many of the men returning to Somerset and Cambria Counties, it would be the last time they would see friends and loved ones. the Campaigns that were soon to follow would be hard on the Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania.
Written by Jeff Evans (email@example.com) for use on this website.
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Last Revised: December 7, 2006