The Home Front During the Civil War

The Home Front During the Civil War


There was great excitement in Reading when, on April 16, 1861, Fort Sumter was attacked. All week long men signed up for the army. The honor of sending the first troops in response to Lincoln’s call went to Reading. The Ringgold Light Artillery was the first troop unit in the field. Major General William H. Keim, son of Mayor Benneville Keim, had held these troops on a standby basis since January 21, 1861. Thus when the call was issued by Lincoln on April 16, the fully equipped outfit went to Harrisburg and from there arrived in Washington, April 18. When their initial three-months enlistment was up, Captain James McKnight and the entire body signed up for three years, thus being one of the first military organizations ever to transfer bodily to the regular army up to that time. The Ringgold Light Artillery became known as Co. A, of the 25th Regiment, and later distinguished itself in the campaign of 1864.

An interesting story is told concerning the bravery of these “Pennsylvania Dutchmen” as they were called by the other troops. The story was told regarding the Cedar Creek engagement of 1864. “After the battle, General Horatio Wright complimented Captain McKnight on the behavior of his battery in the presence of the few men that remained; Said he, ‘Your Pennsylvania Dutchmen don’t seem to know when they’re whipped.’ To which the Captain replied, “Don’t know when they’re whipped? By God, General, most of them don’t know when they are killed”.

The next regiment to leave Reading was Co. G of the famed Reading Artillerists. The Artillerists had made a name for themselves during the Mexican War. A cheering crowd turned out to see Captain Alexander’s company leave for Harrisburg. Other troops among the first to leave were Co. A “Union Guards”, Co. H “Union light Infantry”, Co. C Washington Artillery”, Co. G “Reading Rifles”, and Co. E “Keystone Infantry.” These were the earliest outfits in the field and all were enlisted for three-month hitches.3 During the course of the war a grand total of eighty-seven companies of men left from Reading for service in the Civil War All told, almost 10,000 men were mustered into service from our county.

As for the home front, the outbreak of hostilities saw the stars and stripes gaily floating from a thousand points in Reading town. Public buildings, hotels, newspaper buildings, stores and private homes hoisted the colors throughout Reading and Berks. Above the roof of Reading’s court house “Old Glory” was run up amid the noise of cannon. The Berks and Schuylkill Journal was filled with tense orders calling for Berks troop units to report for induction. The martial spirit had gripped Reading and the county as never before. But all this was just a beginning. The city and county were to see much more excitement and of a slightly different color. For the two forthcoming Confederate invasions were to strain the nerves of the most conservative Berks Countians. Meanwhile, Reading braced herself, and the City Council passed an ordinance appropriating $5,000 as aid to the families of the volunteers who had rushed to the colors.

The Berks and Schuylkill Journal perhaps best summed up the feelings of Reading’s citizens by calling for Democrats and Republicans to unite in upholding the nation’s honor. As for the Confederates the Journal delivered a smashing verbal assault; “There cannot be a rational doubt that every man who aided or abetted the attack on Fort Sumter, is involved in the guilt of treason . . . which is death but how much do those come short of it who still persist in pettifogging the cause of the traitors! Let them beware!’

But once the preliminary excitement was over the Readingites of ’61’ settled down to the serious life of a community in wartime. Several home-guard units were organized and were composed mainly of old members of the Reading troop divisions, or those unable to leave at the war’s outbreak. As time went on the ranks of these units expanded to admit teenage boys, and older men up to sixty-five years of age. The Ringgold Home Guard, influenced by the then current national unification taking place in Italy, adopted “red Garibaldi” shirts as part of their otherwise blue and black uniform. Captain David Mc-Knight’s West End Home Guards paraded publicly from time to time. McKnight’s “boys” were mostly men over forty-five who drilled in civilian clothes. That they were good shots was evinced when they thrilled the populace with their riddling of targets at Laurer’s Park. Other city home guard units included the Union Light Guard and the Ancona Light Guard. Berks County units formed were the Douglassville Home Guard, the Lenhartsville Home Guard and the Leesport Reserve Guard. From time to time other reserve units were installed and drilling became something of a city and county pastime. However, the increased drain of manpower for service in battle called many of these units to active duty. In fact even the oldsters and teen-agers were to have a whiff of powder smoke during the emergencies of ’62 and ’63.

The feminine element in Berks County found ways of making their influence felt. Besides being charged with household responsibilities when husbands and fathers marched off, they formed sewing societies. The earliest textile products to be finished by their nimble fingers were “Havelocks.” These were the cloth coverings for the blue caps, designed to protect the neck from the sun. The reader may gather from pictures of the French Foreign Legion what our boys looked like in such attire. In one week various city and county companies in the field received over 800 of these hand-made “Havelocks.”

Shortly after this the ladies organized the Ladies’ Aid Society, “to supply soldiers with clothing and materials whilst in military service away from home.” This was the first society of its type in the county according to historian Morton L. Montgomery. During the war the society actively forwarded tons of supplies to the troops. A depot was established at a small frame building on North Fifth Street. The officers of the Aid Society were Mrs. Rosa C. Nicolls, president; Mrs. Catherine House, vice-president; Mrs. Annie H. Muhlenberg, treasurer; and Mrs. Maria W. Brooks, secretary.

Another such organization was the Ladies Volunteer Society which was later commended for its work in supplying every troop company that left town with flannel shirts and “articles of comfort.” These ladies’ organizations supplied shirts, drawers, hospital shirts, socks, shoes, bandages and foods for soldiers in camp, field and hospital. however, as the war dragged on the Berks and Schuylkill Journal found it necessary to sound a call for more aid, especially strong woolen socks for the winter of ’61:

Come, girls, get ont your knitting needles and make knitting stockings your employment when you attend tea parties, make evening visits, etc., instead of working upon some fancy lace work. Revive the custom of your grandmothers . . . Many a noble Volunteer will bless you during the coming winter.

As time wore on the ladies’ societies published mitten-making instructions and continued their work. When the U. S. Sanitary Commission called for dried apples for hospitals, Reading’s women responded. The year 1862 found a hospital being established on the site of the Agriculture Fair Ground. Reading women aided by preparing bedding and assisting local physicians in staffing the hospital with nurses and cleaning help. Surgeon-General Smith commended our Readingites for this work.

The Great Sanitary Fair opening in Philadelphia on June 6, 1864, found Reading’s ladies assisting. The Ladies Aid Society called on Reading’s ladies to send food and clothing for this affair which was put on to aid troops “Everything will be accepted from a pair of socks or a bushel of potatoes, to a barrel of Catawba wine, or a piano.” One of the most unique replies to this request came from Frederick Lauer, who contributed ten kegs of his superior-stock ale valued at $10 per keg.

In June, 1866, a general review of the work of the Ladies’ Aid Society was published by treasurer Annie Muhlenberg:

A statement of money and supplies received and forwarded during the war:

Cash received from: Individuals $ 1,541.30
Church Collection $ 1,265.12
Lodges $ 237.00
Soldiers’ Mite Society $ 181.28
State of Pa. for wool socks $ 137.32
Fairs, exhibitions, concerts $ 921.47
Sanitary Fair-Berks County $ 305.95
Sanitary Fair-one day’s income $ 8,407.83
TOTAL $12,897.27
Estimated donation of clothing, provisions, etc., for Sanitary Fair $ 5,000.00
Final Total $ 17,897.27

Cash disposed of as follows:

To Sanitary Fair $ 9,012.00
To Soldiers’ Orphan Aid Soc $ 683.00
To Sanitary Commission $ 200.00
To Christian Commission $ 200.00
To New York Soldiers’ Home $ 72.00
For clothing, provisions, etc., sent to hospitals, etc., whilst armies were in the field $ 2,830.27
TOTAL $ 12,997.27

Reading, July 9,1866 Mrs. Annie H. Muhlenberg, Treas.

Mrs. Muhlenberg’s financial statement shows the quality of work done by Reading’s women on behalf of the war effort.

And what of Reading’s industries which in 1860 were engaged in turning out implements of peace? The war, during its four year rampage, was to give Reading’s industries the impetus they really needed. In fact, industrial growth in 1863 caused a great demand for mechanics and workmen in Reading. This demand caused an influx of people from Berks and other outlying districts to seek the good paying jobs.

First among the iron industries to obtain government contracts was the plant of Messrs. Seyfert, McManus & Co. who made the iron from Berks County ore which went into a 9-inch Dahlgren gun. The gun, cast in a Philadelphia foundry, demonstrated less enlargement in trial than any other gun put to test. Messrs. Seyfert, McManus & Co. secured a government contract for large quantities of this iron.

Elsewhere a large, inactive rolling mill on Canal Street was refitted and placed in running order to supply iron. The Depot Workshop “turned off” (lathed) cannon for the government. This was the start industry needed and by 1864 a new rolling mill was established on the banks of the Schuvlkill near Lutz’s Dam for the purpose of manufacturing Russia Sheet Iron. Also in the same year the Scott works in Reading were turning out large cannon and shipping them to New York.

Another industry which gained impetus during the war was the Reading Fire Brick Works which received an order in 1862 for 250,000 fire brick from the Washington Navy Yard.

Chief among the textile plants was the Wyomissing Woolen Mill which filled large orders for army clothes. The year 1864 saw a strike at this plant. Since females were chiefly employed, some of the sub-contractors forced these women to work at outrageously low prices. The women were getting only fifty cents each for cavalry jackets, thirteen cents each for lined infantry-blue coats, twenty cents for cavalry pants, etc. The result of this strike was the “Sewing Women’s Association,” founded in August of 1864

A most interesting phase of Reading’s homefront history was the draft and recruiting programs. At the outset of the war recruits flocked to the standard. However, early defeats and the realization that it was to be a long war caused this flow to dwindle, especially during the year of 1862. Of course the increased need for men for the large armies larger than any before in the history of our country was a great factor. At any rate in October, 1862, came the first of four drafts. The Reading and Berks quota was set at 2,328, of which volunteers and substitutes accounted for approximately 1,500. The remaining 800 Berks Countians were conscripted into service during the draft of 1862. The second draft came in August of 1863. In July of that year the Journal began preparing the people for the bad news. “This very unpleasant but necessary mode of raising troops for the defense of the country must soon be employed in our county,” wrote the Journal editor. The Berks quota was set at about 1,500, of which 800 were supplied by substitutes, re-enlisted veterans, and volunteers. Of the 700 remaining, most were drafted from the county, Reading having filled her quota rather well. Bounties from the government, and from city and county sources, succeeded in “salving” the feelings of the draftees. On August 29, 1863, the Journal expressed satisfaction in the way the second draft succeeded. However, there were ominous undercurrents of rebellion against this system. In the same issue the Journal denounced a group of citizens from Center Township; “the draft office was hooted by ‘cowards,’ even women who unsexed themselves by joining in the hue and cry.”

The third draft was called between March and July, 1864. The combined quota of men from Reading and Berks numbered nearly 2,300. As early as February of that year the City Council met at the courthouse to agree on bounty proposals so that a draft might not be needed. On March 26, a $300 bounty was decided upon for enlistees. Previous to this agreement, in January of 1864, the recruiting offices persuaded 16-year-old boys to enlist, and before this could be declared illegal, the recruiting officers had shipped the lads out. This caused much complaint against the recruiting system. However, when the draft came about both city and county filled their quotas admirably. The bounty, as expected, lured many veterans and young men. The remainder were mustered in by September. Here again not all Reading and Berks co-operated. On September 24, 1864, the Journal wrote:

We understand that several persons in this district in anticipation of the draft, absconded a week or two since for Canada, or parts unknown. These men, whether drafted or not, will be and deserve to be regarded as deserters – and if drafted will be punished as such if the authorities are able to arrest them.

The final draft was in February of 1865. The combined quota of city and county, which numbered about 1500, was supplied by volunteers. The Journal ran an interesting account of the behavior of one frightened man

On Wed. (last) a terribly frightened drafted man, hailing from the upper end of this county gave a substitute $1,500 cash, a Deed for 15 acres of excellent farm land, and a splendid horse besides pledging himself, in case the substitute was wounded or disabled, to support him for life. The parties were entire strangers, never having met until Wednesday (last). The substitute hails from this city (Reading). He was mustered in for three years. One month later the war ended!

Most of our discussion up to now has been of Reading as a Civil War homefront. However, there were two, possibly three, occasions which caused much alarm in Reading and Berks. In fact during one of these Confederate invasions Harrisburg was threatened and Chambersburg was burned by units of Confederate General “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry. On these two occasions Reading became more than just a homefront, she could almost be called a warfront.

It was in September, 1862, when the first invasion of Pennsylvania began. The Berks and Schuylkill Journal, September 10, 1862, advised the populace in no uncertain terms as to their peril.

Young men of the county, jump on your horses and rouse your neighborhood. Sling your rifles or shotguns on your backs. You will get swords at Harrisburg. Take all the arms you have. Don’t forget powder and ball. Let the rebels find that Pennsylvania is wide awake, and that old Berks will do her duty. if you want horses and guns and have none, borrow them. If any stingy traitor won’t give his horse take him. Call on him by a committee . . . Don’t stop for sneaks and cowards! . . . We have some in Reading and there may be some in the county . . . Arm! Arm! Strike till each armed foe expires Strike for your altars and your fires, Strike for the green graves of your sires God and your Native Land!

According to the Journal, sentiment in Reading was raised to the highest pitch. The men responded nobly. The leading citizens, including Mayor McKnight (successor to Benneville Keim), volunteered and went to Harrisburg as “High Privates.” One such “High Private” was Louis Richards, later to become president of the Historical Society of Berks County. Twenty years later, Richards published his diary of the “Emergency” campaign of 1862. Although Richards and his party never “saw action” they were camped close enough to see the fire at night and to hear the thunder of guns. This battle of Antietam Creek brought the war close to the doors of Berks Counitians and the Union victory came as a great relief.

Less than a year later the second invasion began. By June 15, 1863, Reading had already begun sending troops to Harrisburg. By June 20, the city was roused to a terrific pitch as the rebels neared Chambersburg June 27, 1863, found the situation even more tense as the news arrived that Chambersburg had been entered by the rebel forces. There where reports of a great battle soon to take place as units of the Union army prepared for an engagement.

Louis Richards, a “high private” in the first emergency campaign again served in that capacity in this one. His account of the emergency is an excellent portrayal of the strain on the people’s minds. Some of the people, according to Richards, were terrified. They went so far as to suggest foreign mediation or that Pennsylvania conclude a separate peace. Reading and Berks, in response to Governor Andrew Curtin’s call, summoned every able-bodied citizen between eighteen and sixty years of age. Berks County and Reading furnished four companies which co-operated in defending Baltimore and Washington. A few days before the battle of Gettysburg, on Sunday, June 28, the most exciting day in Reading’s history, according to Richards, dawned. Church services were suspended and at 9:30 A. M. the courthouse bell tolled summoning the men to enlist. Volunteers fell into line, marched through the streets, and stirring speeches were made. The next day, June 29, the mayor closed manufacturing establishments, workshops, and business places so that employees could enlist. For eleven days this recruiting kept up. It stopped only when Lincoln declared the emergency at end on August 3, 1863. Although the Battle of Gettysburg ended with less than half of Reading’s volunteers seeing action, the response did credit to the county’s home-loving citizenry. Also deserving of credit was General Franz Siegel who took command of the military district. His presence inspired both troops and citizens, particularly the German element among whom the name Siegel was somewhat synonomous with Blucher of Waterloo. Siegel stayed in Reading until March of 1864, when he departed for the front. His departure came all too soon for many Readingites who had come to enjoy the popular German. As for his presence in July of 1863, it undoutedly aided our Readingites in keeping cool heads. The end of the crisis at Gettysburg found the Berks and Schuylkill Journal exulting:

All honor to our citizens of town and county, who a week ago, when danger most imminent and deadly stared us in the face, enlisted in defense of the county. All honor to the men who, when cowards skulked and kept out of the way, where willing to leave the ease, the comforts, the endearments of home and the society of their loved ones to meet the privations of the camp and the danger of the battlefield . .

The third emergency invasion scare turned out to be a “fizzle.” There was great excitement in Reading in July, 1864, when the Sonthern army once again turned north. Several companies of one-hundred day volunteers were paid bounties and were marched to Harrisbnrg from Reading and Berks. The “invasion”, as the Journal analyzed it, proved to he a feint by Lee toward Washington, which was designed to remove the pressure exerted by Sherman’s forces from the hard pressed southerners under Joseph F. Johnston. This was the last of the “scares” in Berks County and the townspeople, doubtlessly much relieved, returned to the role of the homefront rather than that of a battlefront. There were other ways in which Reading’s citizenry distinguished themselves and one is of a less spectacular nature. For instance the City Council throughout the war continuously voted aid to soldier’s families. On December 24, 1864, a Berks County committee was set tip to superintend the admission of Soldier’s Orphans into special schools provided for them by the state. And farther along the line of soldier’s welfare came the benevolent activities of the Reading railroad. In addition to subscribing heavily to the National Loan, and contributing $25,000 to the Volunteer’s Bounty Fund, the officials assured their employees who entered the service that their jobs would be waiting when they returned home from the war.

On the other hand there were the “faint hearts” and the “Copperheads”, and for these the Journal showed no mercy. In 1863 the “Knights of the Golden Circle” (another name for the “Copperheads” or peace-at-any-price party) marched on the courthouse in demonstration against the draft. Eflorts on the part of Mayor Huyler and the Loyal Unionists prevented a riot. In October of 1863 the Journal came out with a definition of a “Copperhead”. “A copperhead is a sympathizer with treason and a sympathizer with treason is a traitor, and a traitor is an enemy to his country, and to mankind and to his God (if he has a God). In short all who by act, word or deed oppose the administration in putting down the rebellion are copperheads.” As time went on the Journal referred to all Democrats in the county as Copperheads. This seems quite fallacious since there were many good Democrats marching in the Union Army. However, it is certain that Reading had her share of people who would cry for peace.

There were other subversive elements in Reading. Certain Reading recruits signed up for enlistments, collected part bounty payment and failed to report. There were shysters, too, who were apprehended cheating the people by pretending they could aid them in escaping the draft. However, all such lawbreakers were pressed to the utmost by Berks law enforcement officers such as the famous, “Bully” Lyon.

Perhaps one of the most notorious examples of subversive activity came to light when it was discovered that a number of large cannon had been “spiked” on their way from the Scott Works in Reading to New York. Whether a Berks Countian did it or not is unknown. The question was never really settled although the Journal pinned it on “Copperheads.” But whether it was a Copperhead or a professional saboteur, Reading still had her full share of such undermining elements during the Civil War.

Then there were unfortunate by-products of wartime conditions. The Journal pointed out that the war had seen an increase in juvenile delinquency. Police were called on to watch the conduct of boys in the streets, particularly noticeable was their cursing and swearing. Teachers announced that in public schools less progress was made during the war. Lack of fatherly advice was blamed and mothers and clergymen were urged to help out.

The tension and strain of these exciting times let up in December 1864, and Reading celebrated with a number of balls and parties. They seemed to herald the prospects of peaceful times to come. The Journal rang with tales of victories on all fields. The fall of Richmond in April, 1865, caused great joy in Reading. The First Presbyterian Church bell rang out the news while the Fire Companies joined in. It was “a day to be remembered,” wrote the Journal editor. If that was a day to be remembered, it was soon forgotten in the jubilation of the following week. Lee’s surrender hit Reading like a blessing from heaven. There was a huge triumphant procession which featured discharged Civil War veterans, the old soldiers of ’12 and ’48, and Reading’s firemen. Several gunshot wounds were the result of the celebrations. And many a good man groped his way home where he would recover, after a good slumber, from the effects of the “victory spirits.” There was rejoicing of a different sort in the homes where soldiers’ wives and children quietly prayed for a quick return for their loved one.

And so the Civil War ended and Reading successfully weathered her trial as a Civil War homefront. The little city on the banks of the Schuylkill returned to her daily routines, but the old days of 1860 could no longer be recaptured. The war years had brought many changes and Reading was caught up in the task of rebuilding a nation, a task which was shared by the entire state and nation.