JOHNSTOWN — Part I of a four-part series printing Sundays in June.
William Ferguson Leslie was born and raised in the Ligonier Valley, Westmoreland County, and answered President Lincoln’s appeal for three-year volunteer soldiers to confront the Confederate rebellion.
He was recruited and fought alongside those he knew. And like so many other young men, patriotism, the opportunity to be part of history and the promise of a great adventure summoned Leslie.
The recruits eagerly left their farms, schools and occupations in and around Ligonier, responding to the call of native son Richard Coulter and became proud soldiers of the 11th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. And also like so many others, they would re-enlist to see the war to its conclusion.
Wounded at the battle of Antietam and recuperating at a Washington hospital, Pvt. Leslie missed the battle of Fredericksburg. But aside from that, he was in the midst of many major battles and campaigns of the Army of Virginia then the Army of the Potomac in the Eastern Theater.
Mustered out of service in 1866, he married a girl from a neighboring farm. They moved to Derry, purchased a home and began a family that eventually numbered 10 children. Working for the railroad, he followed opportunity to Johnstown where in 1889, Leslie was a survivor of that city’s great flood. He buried his mother, his wife and four of the children before his own death at age 77.
‘Fighting Dick Coulter’
Born Oct. 26, 1843 to Annie Leslie, William was the only child of a single mother. The small family lived in a rented house located several hundred yards south of the Ligonier-Cook Township line near the tiny village of Pleasant Grove.
Later they moved to nearby Mechanicsburg, known today as Rector, to reside at the head of a small valley along present Jacob Miller Road. It was there, at the age of 17 while he was working as a laborer, that the Civil War would find Leslie.
Recruited at Latrobe, he joined with close friends, neighbors and acquaintances in the summer of 1861. The boys rendezvoused at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg and were included into the reorganizing 11th Regiment PVI. Originally assembled in April 1861 and commanded by Col. Phaon Jarrett, theis regiment included soldiers who were eager to re-enlist - having shouldered the distinction of giving in battle Pennsylvania’s first blood and treasure for the Union.
They were proud of their service and accomplishments, earning commendations for conduct and discipline and wanted to keep their number designation and unity.
The new three-year 11th Regiment would become known as the “Old Eleventh.”
Greensburg native Lt. Col. Richard Coulter was recommended by Jarrett and commissioned a colonel. A prominent lawyer and businessman, Coulter was an experienced war fighter dating back to the Mexican War. Three horses were shot out from under him and he would be wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania. His tenacity and courage earned him the nickname “Fighting Dick Coulter.”
Nine companies began reorganization at Camp Curtain in late summer. Five were from Westmoreland County - C and E were recruited at Ligonier and Latrobe.
William Leslie enrolled for Civil War service on Aug. 27, 1861 at Latrobe. His mustered-in date at Harrisburg was Sept. 9, and he was assigned to Company C. Jacob Bierer, a carpenter from Latrobe, was commissioned as captain, and his brother Samuel as first sergeant.
Pittsburgh-area resident William Henry Locke was the regimental chaplain, and kept a daily diary and later wrote a book documenting the regiment’s war history. He stated in 1868 that it was the fortune of the Eleventh Regiment to be connected with most of the principal operations of the army to which it belonged.
The training at camp that autumn and for all Union troops was taken very seriously in view of the army’s defeat at First Bull Run. The men were vigorously engaged in preparation, drill and otherwise acclimating to army life.
Pvt. Leslie celebrated his 18th birthday. He was in great health and stood five-feet, 11 3/4 inches in height, three inches taller than the average soldier of his day. He had a fair complexion, brown hair and gray eyes.
Training complete and readied for service, the 11th soldiers received their colors on Nov. 20, 1861 from Gov. Andrew Curtain as a gift from the Commonwealth. On Nov. 27, Coulter was ordered to move his regiment to Baltimore and a day later to Annapolis, where 813 officers and enlisted men began their service.
Along with the boys came an unusual four-legged soldier but dedicated and disciplined just the same. She was the regimental mascot offered to the three-month service while training at Camp Wayne near West Chester. Snug in a basket, a four-week old brindle bull terrier was presented to a soldier in appreciation by a neighboring citizen. Named in honorable combination of the regiment’s colonel and an admired local beauty, “Sallie Ann Jarrett” never knew anything other than the hardships and deprivations of army life.
The war would force the boys and the pup to grow up fast and they became inseparable. She slept in her soldiers’ tents, ate their chow and traveled to Greensburg on furlough. Sallie recognized the regimental flag and followed it devotedly. While on the march, she was always proudly at the head of the regiment. Traveling from Harrisburg to Baltimore down the Northern Central railroad she was now about nine months old.
They were assigned to the Middle Department and detailed for duty at Annapolis until early April protecting the branch railroad, providing provost guard and keeping the secessionists in check.
Sallie got her first exposure to the enemy as Confederate prisoners were handled in and around their camp. Her distinct canine awareness quickly taught her the difference between friend and foe.
They arrived in Washington on April 10, and there they received new uniforms. Then upon a special invitation on the 15th, they were marched up to the executive mansion to be reviewed.
The face of Lincoln
While the president stood on the steps of the White House bowing with a kindly smile, Pvt. Leslie had his first opportunity to look upon the face of Abraham Lincoln.
Two days later, they moved by boat to Alexandria then by rail to Manassas Junction with orders to guard vital roads, lines of communication and the Manassas Gap railroad from guerrilla attacks. Now in hostile Virginia, the mission became much more serious than in Maryland. The initial Confederate military threat came from Gen. Turner Ashby’s cavalry as well as armed civilian horsemen who were known to murder Union soldiers.
May found the regiment assigned to the Third Brigade of Ord’s Division and moved to Catlett’s Station then Falmouth. Reports state that President Lincoln visited Fredericksburg on May 23, and reviewed the Division.
That summer they criss-crossed the rebel state. Now on foot and conditioned for marching, they easily covered 20 to 30 miles per day as part of the campaign in Northern Virginia. Through Aquia Creek, Front Royal, Gainesville and Culpeper - challenging Confederate commanders Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet.
Like all common foot soldiers, Pvt. Leslie had no idea where he was going from day to day. In the Second Division, Third Corps, on Aug. 9, Leslie and his mates fought at the Battle of Cedar Mountain.
Earlier that summer, Sallie was always sent to the rear in battle. But by now she was a full-grown and spirited adult bull terrier and could not be held back. A true soldier, she naturally wanted to be out front, taking the fight to the enemy and would be found at the dangerous position of the colors, racing around barking ferociously at those butternut colored combatants.
Next, they saw action along the Rappahannock River at Rappahannock Station, Kelly’s Ford, Beverly Ford, Cunningham’s Ford and Freeman’s Ford. The regiment saw action at Warrenton then fought at the Battle of Thoroughfare Gap. They had by now gained not only a good dose of respect for the enemy but also a full-fledged fear of them. For the first time in their young lives they had to face the grim reality of their own mortality.
That became more apparent at Second Bull Run where they were severely engaged on Bald Hill, sustaining 194 casualties. Included among the wounded were both Bierer brothers.
Two days later, they saw action on Ox Hill at Chantilly. But by the first week of September, Gen. John Pope’s Virginia campaign had concluded in failure. The Army of Virginia sat in repose and the 11th lay at Hall’s Hill.
Even though the men were praised, they thought very differently about the command. From the soldier’s point of view, they were not beaten on the battlefield - rather, the problem was incompetent leadership. Though cynical of the top generals and a loathing of their approach, the common soldier not only endured but continued on with optimism.
As for the 11th, the next four nights of rest was greatly needed. Their Cook Strauthers keep the boys well fed with a fully stocked mess chest, but they sadly missed the growing toll of comrades killed and wounded.
Here soldier tents were bivouacked in neat rows of military precision. And each illuminated with the nightly allowance of two inches of candle, these young men had time to gather their thoughts and write home of their experiences.