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Civil War 150th Anniversary

May 1, 2011

Local siblings received mercy

Execution averted during Civil War

— Soldiers from Somerset County came within a whisper of being executed after being captured and imprisoned during the Civil War. They were saved through the efforts of Somerset County Judge Jeremiah S. Black and the mercy of President Abraham Lincoln.

Among them were two brothers from the Hooversville region of Shade Township, John and Samuel Hamer. The brothers were privates in Company B, 54th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which was recruited in Somerset.

The regiment was commanded by Col. Jacob M. Campbell of Johnstown.

The 54th PVI was sent to Harpers Ferry, Va., (now West Virginia) on March 29, 1862, and spread out along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to guard it from Confederate raiders and southern sympathizers who sought to destroy the railroad, an important supply line for Union troops.

Life was far from dull as they had to fight off both rebel troops and guerrilas.

On Oct. 4, 1862, Confederate Gen. John D. Imboden led a sizable force against the scattered companies of the 54th PVI along the B&O Railroad, capturing Company K at Little Cacapon and moving on to Paw Paw Station, both in what is now West Virginia, where Company B was holding the line.

He split his force and hit the Somerset countians from the front and rear at the same time, and moved up artillery pieces to force them to surrender.

Officers and men from both companies were taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., and noticed that they were being treated differently than other prisoners, kept in closer confinement. They did not learn immediately that they were scheduled to be shot or hanged as hostages.

What started it was that the federals had taken the position that the guerrilas and irregulars that were captured raiding the railroad, many by the 54th PVI, were not considered prisoners of war, but common criminals.

Some were to be executed.

Judge Black hurried to Washington to plead with Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to save the lives of the condemned men at Libby. Stanton was inclined to allow matters to take their own course because the Union held more prisoners than the Confederates did, and could match reprisal for reprisal.

A more sympathetic Lincoln did not want to interfere with Stanton, but told Black to tell Stanton that the president favored helping the men of Companies B and K. Stanton reconsidered and authorized Black to meet with Confederate authorities. Black met with Judge Robert Ould, Confederate commissioner of exchange.

After some reluctance, Ould agreed to a prisoner exchange, and on Dec. 1, 1862, Companies B and K rejoined the 54th Regiment.

It was said at the time that the men were to have been executed on the very day they were exchanged.

The 54th PVI fought many battles, large and small, including a campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. On one occasion, Campbell may have saved a portion of his command from annihilation by working a clever deception.

During the Antietam campaign in September 1862, Campbell bluffed a large Confederate force by marching his troops up one side of a hill, in sight of the enemy, then down the back side, around and up again, time after time, causing the enemy to believe he had a large force.

On at least two occasions, the 54th PVI were the only Union troops in Virginia after all others had retreated to Maryland.

Samuel Hamer died of typhoid Jan. 1, 1863, at North Mountain. John fought on until Sept. 16, 1864.

Leading by example

Col. Robert P. Cummins of Somerset led his troops from the front, rather than directing them from the safety of the rear.

His men loved it, but the practice proved fatal to three horses and the colonel himself.

Cummins was the elected sheriff of Somerset County when the Civil War broke out in early 1861, and he served as captain of Company A, 10th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He became disgusted with the inaction of the Union Army of the Potomac and resigned his commission to return home, but not for too long.

He helped organize the 142nd PVI in August 1862, and was commissioned as its colonel.

Companies C, D and F were from Somerset County and Company E from Westmoreland. Cummins was very sick in Washington when his division moved into position at Fredericksburg, Va., that December, but he got out of bed, donned his full uniform and rushed to the scene to lead his men in battle.

The 142nd PVI was in the thick of the fighting at Fredericksburg. On the left of the Union line, it was exposed to heavy artillery fire, but it charged the enemy. It ran into withering cannon and rifle fire, held its position for a time, very gallantly, until ordered to withdraw.

The regiment went into battle that morning with 550 men. An hour later, it had lost 250 to death or injury. Cummins had a horse shot out from under him.

Maj. John Bradley of Luzerne County was terribly mangled and died shortly thereafter.

Near Chancellorsville, Va., on May 2, 1863, the regiment drew heavy Confederate fire when it was being repositioned, and Cummins had a second horse shot from under him. The 142nd PVI marched all day, and the foot-weary troops were thrown into the right of the Union battle line, but avoided heavy action.

Then came the march to Gettysburg. The 142nd PVI was part of a force under command of Gen. John Reynolds of Lancaster County, who was mortally wounded, possibly by a Confederate sharpshooter, shortly after reaching the Gettysburg area on July 1, 1863 – the first morning of the battle.

The 142nd was thrown into a gap in the line when superior numbers of the enemy charged, and was forced to withdraw under heavy fire. Cummins lost his third horse, and a few minutes later he lost his life. During the three days of fighting at Gettysburg, the regiment had 225 men killed, wounded or missing.

Many of those lost were from the Somerset County area.

After the decisive battle at Gettysburg, both armies moved south. The 142nd was in no major battles until it became part of the Wilderness Campaign on May 4, 1864, near Fredericksburg. On the following day it moved into an ambush set by the Confederates and fought at close quarters with heavy losses by both sides.

The regiment fought its way forward to Cold Harbor, near Richmond, where it arrived June 6. It went on to the siege of Petersburg and participated in the raids on the Weldon Railroad.

Lacking arms

In days of old when knights were bold, soldiers had to face the enemy with cold steel in their hands, but they weren’t doing it against an enemy armed with guns.

Such was not the case of the 163rd Pennsylvania Volunteers, better known as the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

They had horses, but at times when fighting they had no weapons except for some old sabers.

Company K of the 18th Cav was recruited in Somerset and Cambria counties near the end of 1862. The soldiers’ earliest experiences under fire were against Col. John S. Mosby’s mounted Confederate raiders, who were more guerilla scavengers than regular troops.

In many cases, Mosby’s men were troopers by night but ordinary citizens by day, a forerunner of what U.S. troops would encounter with the Viet Cong more than a century later.

On one occasion, Mosby captured a squad from the 18th Pennsylvania, but when he found they were armed only with the useless old sabers, he paroled them and sent a note to their commander requesting that his Union men be armed better, because with sabers only they weren’t worth capturing.

Later the 18th Cav was issued carbines, but again found they were inadequately armed when they fought hand-to-hand in the streets of Hagerstown, Md. At close quarters, the carbines were awkward, and the Pennsylvanians found themselves again fighting with sabers against enemy cavalry armed with pistols. The results were not pretty.

The 18th Pennsylvania had better luck when it met Jeb Stuart’s rebel cavalry in the streets of Hanover, east of Gettysburg, on June 30, 1863.

Stuart was forced to withdraw from his encounter with an array of Union cavalry and artillery units.

At Gettysburg, the 18th was on the left of the Union line, near Big Round Top. It took part in one charge, but was unable to drive Confederates from entrenched positions.

Following Gettysburg, and armed with Spencer repeating carbines, the 18th Pennsylvania distinguished itself in numerous battles including Wilderness and Winchester, Va.

40th PVI in action

Enemy fire was so intense at the Battle of Fredericksburg in the Civil War that the 40th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment’s flag had 19 holes shot through it. The flag staff was shot completely off and the regimental colors plunged to the ground time after time, only to be snatched up again by a nearby soldier.

One platoon of the 40th PVI went into the fray with 31 men.

Only one came out safely.

Seven were killed, 22 wounded and one captured. The whole regiment went into the battle with 394 men and had 112 killed, wounded or missing.

The 40th PVI contained a lot of area men and older boys.

Company A was recruited in Cambria County, Companies B, E and I in Indiana County and Companies H and K in Westmoreland. The regiment also was known as the 11th Pennsylvania Reserve.

On July 2, 1863, the 40th PVI marched onto the field at Gettysburg, on the left of the Union line near Little Round Top and soon found itself under fire.

Within range of the enemy’s muskets, it held its position without returning the rebels’ fire because their smooth-bore muskets would not be effective. The men added some buckshot to the solid projectiles in their guns, and when the advancing enemy got within range, the order to fire was given. It was a slaughter.

The 40th, along with other elements of the First Brigade, let out a yell and charged the Confederates, driving to a stone wall.

After taking some prisoners, they were ordered to fall back because they had insufficient numbers to hold the position.

Gallantry of the 56th

The 56th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry lost its regimental colors at the second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) but went on to distinguish itself in battle after battle.

The regiment had been formed in the fall of 1861 with Company B recruited in Indiana County and including some Cambria County volunteers.

The regiment was on the right of the Union line at Second Manassas, fought in northern Virginia, not far from Washington. Its first mission was to hold the Confederates in check until other Union forces could move into position.

Despite a heavy attack, the 56th held its position until ordered to withdraw, but as it passed through a thick woods it became confused and during close fighting the flag-bearer was captured.

Later, the regiment was part of a brigade commanded by Gen. Abner Doubleday, which was sent to dislodge Confederates who occupied South Mountain, Md. It succeeded but its losses were heavy.

The 56th PVI was part of the forces at Antietam, but escaped some of the heaviest fighting. At Fredericksburg, the 56th was among the Union forces that came under heavy artillery fire.

Not a single man in the 56th was killed or wounded, although regiments to the front, rear and both flanks suffered losses.

By the time the regiment got to Chancellorsville in late April 1863, it was down to 21 officers and 289 enlisted men. It began its march toward Gettysburg, which it reached on the morning of July 1, 1863. It was the first Union regiment to get into position against the advancing Confederates and was ordered to open fire. These were the first shots fired in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg.

Late starters

Recruited late in the Civil War, the 204th Pennsylvania Volunteers, also known as the Fifth Pennsylvania Artillery, wasn’t formed until September 1864, but it was in time to get into some battles. The unit included Cambria County men and some from Westmoreland.

Among its first assignments was the protection of construction trains engaged in repairing and reopening the Manassas Gap Railroad, but Confederate forces didn’t want the transportation line reopened. Mosby and his irregular cavalry sought to halt work and do more damage, because the railroad was to be a main line of supply for Gen. Philip Sheridan’s forces in the Shenandoah Valley.

Mosby took position on a hill near Rectortown, Va., and opened fire with his artillery, hoping to prepare the way for a successful cavalry charge, as well as to inflict more damage on the railroad and repair trains. A detachment of sharpshooters was sent by indirect route to pick off Mosby’s gunners. The rebel leader got wise and withdrew, but he only went three miles.

Protecting work on the railroad became a full-time job, as Mosby’s raiders kept ripping up sections of track and harassing troops defending it.

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