Saturday, June 22, 2013

Guarding Trains No More

More on the 138th Pennsylvania

From the start of their service in September of 1862, the men of the 138th Pennsylvania saw little action. After organizing at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, the regiment moved down to Relay House, a junction on the B&O Railroad outside of Baltimore. For the next ten months, the regiment performed the vital if unglamorous duty of guarding the railroad from guerrillas and rebel incursions. For some of the men in the Adam's County companies - B&G - this duty became tiresome. In January of 1863, one soldier - identified as Typo - wrote to Gettysburg's Star and Banner newspaper, and complained that the men longed to see action. "They are anxious to be led forward," he wrote, "where they cannot only win laurels for themselves but help their brethren in arms to put a speedy end to this most wicked rebellion." The Gettysburg Campaign would provide the necessary shakeup to make Typo's wish come true.

In the dead of night on June 13th, the soldiers of the 138th awoke to the sounds of the long roll, and they were ordered to throw out a picket line to receive an expected cavalry raid. No enemy appeared, but on the succeeding two nights the regiment received orders to keep a close watch again. Milroy's command had gone to pieces at Winchester, and wild rumors came down the valley, and spread into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The rebel army was on the march.

On June 16th, the regiment received orders to move out. At about ten in the evening, the men boarded railroad cars. "We were left under the impression that we were only going on a scout," Typo reported. He soon found otherwise. The train arrived at Sandy Hook, Maryland. From here the regiment marched to Harper's Ferry. It was a short march, but it was fatiguing for the "Sunday Soldiers," who had seen only guard duty.

By this time Union authorities were aware of the approach of Lee's army, and despaired of holding Harper's Ferry. The 138th, and the rest of the garrison were positioned on Maryland Heights, a mountain rising on the Maryland shore opposite Harper's Ferry, and federal forces began to evacuate supplies and equipment from the south side of the Potomac. Over the next several days the men of the 138th remained constantly on picket on the heights, expecting a fight at any moment. At night rebel campfires could be spied through telescopes. Each day the troops fell in under arms by 3:00 a.m. The soldiers felt as if they had been instantly transformed from dull garrison troops into hardy campaigners. "We were playing soldier for 10 long months," Typo recorded, "and now we are experiencing reality."

The Confederate army was close, but Robert E. Lee had bagged a federal garrison at Harper's Ferry before, and it nearly cost him dearly. This time, he would bypass these troops and head straight for Pennsylvania. The 138th would need to wait a bit longer to truly experience reality. But for the families of those soldiers serving in Company B, reality was swiftly heading toward their front doorsteps.

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