Friday, December 21, 2012

Meeting the men of Company B, 138th Pennsylvania

Company B, 138th Pennsylvania arrived at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg on August 13th, 1862. A soldier writing to Gettysburg's Star and Banner under the pen name of "Star" stated that the dust in the camp was about four inches deep, while the 138th's regimental historian later recalled that the camp was "dusty, filthy, and very loathsome." Despite these descriptions, "Star" did report that the camp had a good supply of water through wells, hydrants and a canal. By August 26th, the organization of the new regiment was complete and it mustered into United States service under Colonel Charles L.K. Sumwalt.

Initially, Sumwalt had a great deal of support from the regiment's Adams County companies. He lived in the area and was well known as a man of high religious character. The Gettysburg Compiler received news of his appointment by noting that "he possesses capital qualifications, and the boys...may congratulate themselves on having so gallant a leader." These positive impressions of the new commander would not last.

Many of Adams County's best and brightest found themselves at Camp Curtin that August. Company B had several past and future Pennsylvania College graduates - including George W. Hemminger, Lewis W. Detrich, and Henry Grossman. One student soldier, Harvey W. McKnight, would later serve as the college's president. Corporal Peter Thorn had left his post as gatekeeper of Gettysburg's Evergreen Cemetery to join the regiment, leaving behind his wife Elizabeth to manage the grounds. Nicolas G. Wilson - a member of the Bendersville and Heidlersburg Company (G), would later oversee construction of many of the earliest battlefield avenues in Gettysburg.

A stereo card from the Library of Congress entitled: "Intrenchment at (?) Relay House, B&O R.R., Mass. Regiment (?)" Note the Thomas Viaduct in the background
The regiment did not stay long at Camp Curtin. On August 30th, the men received arms, equipment, and clothing, and moved out for the front. Though they expected to go to Washington D.C., the 138th instead road the cars to Relay House, a junction situated about nine miles outside of Baltimore. Their first task as soldiers would be the defense of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, protecting it from Confederate guerillas, raiders, and sympathizers.

Stereograph from the Library of Congress entitled "The famous relay house on the B.O.R.R." The soldiers are unidentified.
Though they did not realize it immediately, the men of the 138th were in for a long stay defending the B&O at Relay House. The regiment remained here from September of 1862 to June of 1863. Though an inglorious task, the defense of the railroad at this location was vital. At Relay House, the Thomas Viaduct carried the B&O over the Patapsco River between Relay and Elkridge, Maryland. Any trains headed towards Washington, Harper's Ferry, or the Army of the Potomac front had to first pass through Relay House, and as such the federal army devoted significant resources to defend it from the very beginning of the war.

Here at Relay House, the men of Company B would spend nine months on guard duty. But they would also drill, learn discipline, and become familiar with battlefield tactics and maneuvers that they would need later in the war.

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