The last Tuesday in April presented me with a conflict. The good news was that our Book Club, which has been meeting remotely for over a year was going to convene at Norm Cohen’s home, in person. The bad news was that the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was holding a program meeting that I wanted to attend, at the same time. Fortunately more good news showed up when Tim McNellie filmed the presentation and posted it on here Bridgeville.org.
I knew I would be interested in the presentation as soon as I saw its title, “Day-by-day with the 123rd Pennsylvania Volunteers: A Nine-month Civil War Regiment from Allegheny County”.
The presenter was Christopher George, a resident of South Fayette and a teacher in the Upper St. Clair School District. He is an avid genealogist who became interested in the 123rd Regiment when he learned that his great-great-grandfather, John Armstrong George, had served in Company E of that unit.
His research into the 123rd became much more interesting when he learned of its connection with Allegheny City, where he had lived in the Second Ward (now Pittsburgh’s North Side). Although he has no artifacts from his ancestor, he was able to find journals from five members of the regiment. He also found valuable information on local newspaper archives and on the Internet.
The product of his research was an excellent book, published in 2016, whose title was borrowed for the title of this presentation. Based on my brief perusal of the book and my careful watching of McNellie’s film, it is obvious that he has done a fine job of gathering information and presenting it in a fashion that is easy for the reader/viewer to absorb. I am not sure what subject he teaches, but if it is history, his students are very fortunate.
On July 1, 1862, President Lincoln, well aware of the severity of the war, put out a call for the recruitment of 300,000 soldiers. Pennsylvania’s quota was 21,000 – Governor Curtin expected 1,500 of them to come from Allegheny County. Somehow he was able to secure permission for their tour of duty to be limited to nine months (in contrast with the three year commitment normally required).
“Mass meetings” were held throughout the county to show support for the war effort. One of them, held on July 25, 1862 in Allegheny City attracted fifteen thousand patriots. Included in the audience was Reverend John Barr Clark, pastor of the 2nd United Presbyterian Church in Allegheny City. In response to the call, he held a meeting in the basement of his church on August 5, 1862, to announce that he was enlisting as Captain of “a company of Presbyterians”.
By August 9, 1862, over one thousand recruits had formed a new regiment, the 123rd Pennsylvania. Nine hundred of them were from Allegheny County; five hundred from Allegheny City. The charismatic Reverend Clark was elected colonel. The chaplain was a Methodist, Reverend Henry Lucius Chapman. The speaker had access to journals or letters from both of them, as well as from three privates – Matthew Henry Borland, Alexander W. Altsman, and James Bryson Ross.
On August 23, 1862, the regiment left Pittsburgh and travelled by train to Camp Chase, near Alexandria, Virginia, where they were assigned to the Second Brigade, Third Division, Fifth Corps. They were close enough to the Second Battle of Bull Run to experience the chaos of the Union retreat following it.
In September they were part of the Maryland Campaign which culminated in the Battle of Antietam on September 17. They initially were held in reserve, reaching the battlefield after the enemy had retreated.
The Army of the Potomac then moved south to Warrenton, Virginia, where General McLellan was relieved by General Burnside. Their next camp was at Potomac Creek, four miles from Fredericksburg. On December 13, 1862, the regiment found itself in the midst of a hopeless battle against an enemy in a highly defensible position. Their losses were significant; twenty-one killed and one hundred and thirty-one wounded. One officer, Lieutenant James Coulter, was killed and two others, Captain Daniel Boisol and Lieutenant George Dilworth, died of wounds received at Fredericksburg.
The regiment then moved into its winter camp, near Falmouth, Virginia, grateful for a respite. By the time the Spring Campaign began, Hooker had replaced Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac. On April 28, 1862, the Army was on the move, to Chancellorsville.
The regiment came under attack on May 1, 1862, at the Chancellor House and immediately dug fortifications protecting the left flank of the Fifth Corps. Their heaviest fighting occurred on May 3,1862, at United States Ford where they supported artillery batteries for the duration of the battle, suffering heavy casualties. A major task for them during the retreat on May 6, 1862, was moving the artillery across a flooded river and then covering their movement to safety.
It was with great relief the regiment learned that their nine months commitment had been honored. They returned to Harrisburg on May 13, 1862, and were mustered out. The welcome home celebration in Pittsburgh was a memorable occasion. During their tour of duty the regiment lost three officers and twenty seven enlisted men in battle, plus one officer and forty one enlisted men from disease.
A question was asked from the audience, “What motivated these young men to volunteer?” The speaker’s response “To defend the Union” reinforced my opinion that, although the root cause of the rebellion was slavery, most of the rank-and-file soldiers had a different motivation. The newspaper clippings describing the mass meetings that led to the organization of the 123rd made no mention of slavery.
We are grateful to Mr. George for his research and the contribution his book and presentations have made to our understanding of the Civil War.