Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Pennsylvania Reserves in Northern Virginia 1863, Part I: What to Do with a "Decimated" Division?

This blog has frequently featured stories on the Pennsylvania Reserves.  The division, also known as the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, was encamped around Langley, Virginia during the first winter of the war.  In spring 1862 the Reserves relocated to Alexandria before marching south to Falmouth.  They eventually joined the Army of the Potomac just in time for the Seven Days Battles on the Peninsula.  The Reserves also saw intense combat at Second Manassas, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.  As the bloody second year of the war drew to a close, the Union Army's high command debated the future of the battered division and finally decided to move the Reserves back to the Washington area.  In the next few posts, I will take a look at the return of the storied Pennsylvania Reserves to Northern Virginia. 

Even before the costly engagements at Antietam and Fredericksburg, brigade commander George G. Meade had begun to worry about the state of the Reserves.  The general wrote to his wife on September 4, 1862 that "[o]ur division, the Reserves, is pretty well used up, and ought, strictly speaking, to be withdrawn, reorganized, filled up with recruits, and put in efficient condition."   (Meade 308.)   Meade led the Reserves through the carnage at Antietam, where the division suffered causalities of around 20 percent. (OR, 1:19:1, 270-71.)  After the battle, Meade discussed the "decimated condition" of the division with George B. McClellan, head of the Army of the Potomac.  As he wrote to his wife:
I. . . told [McClellan] that I had no idea they would ever be filled up by recruiting officers, and the only course I saw to adopt was to send them in a body back to Pennsylvania, and ask the Governor and State to fill them up within a specified time; but if it could not be done, they were to be mustered out of service.  (Meade 315.)
Around the same time, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin attempted to enlist political support for the reorganization of the Reserves.  In a September 30 letter to President Abraham Lincoln, Curtin suggested that the heavily depleted division be returned temporarily to the Keystone State.  The governor explained to the President:
The brilliant history of the Reserve Corps in the war, and the State pride which has followed them since they entered the service, together with the circumstances surrounding their organization, would, I have no doubt, prove such incentives to enlistment that the Corps could be filled to the maximum in a short space of time. (in Sypher 398.) 
Lincoln forwarded Curtin's letter to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for consideration.  The General-in-Chief "entirely disapprov[ed] of withdrawing regiments in the field" for purposes of filling the ranks with new recruits.  (OR, 3:2, 625.)  Curtin also wrote to McClellan, who "thought favorably of the plan, but having immediate use for the troops, was unwilling to retire them at that time."  (Sypher 398; OR, 1:21, 878.)   The division would stay at the front for now.

Gen. George G. Meade (courtesy of Civil War Wiki.Net)
After the fight at Fredericksburg in December, Meade tried once again to deal with the poor condition of the Pennsylvania Reserves.  On December 23, he sent a report on the state of the unit to Gen. William B. Franklin, commander of the Left Grand Division.  As Meade told Franklin, only 195 officers and 4,249 enlisted men were present for duty.  Another 159 officers and 3,740 men were absent with permission.  Meade noted that "to fill these regiments to the maximum authorized, will require 153 officers and 4,864 men."  (OR, 1:21, 877-78.)   However, he cautioned that "of the number reported as absent, a very large proportion are the wounded, most of whom are so maimed and disabled that no expectation need be formed of their returning to active duty."  (OR, 1:21, 878.)  Meade felt that in reality a reorganization of the Pennsylvania Reserves "required the appointment of over 200 officers and the enlistment of over 7,000 men."  (OR, 1:21, 878.)

The general proposed a course of action to revitalize the Reserves.  Recruiters had gone to Pennsylvania three different times to fill the ranks, but their efforts had met little success.  Meade recognized that the Army could "consolidate the existing force into a number of regiments equal to the officers and men for duty."  He disliked this plan, since it would "destroy[] the organization, and the prestige which the good conduct of the corps has acquired for it."  (OR, 1:21, 878.)  Instead, Meade recommended that the Reserves be withdrawn temporarily from the field and sent to Pennsylvania for two or three months, "where, it is believed, from the great reputation the corps has acquired, the pride the State takes in it, and the enthusiasm its return would create, that in a short time its ranks would be filled, after pruning them of all useless members."  (OR, 1:21, 878.)

Gen. John F. Reynolds, head of the First Corps and a former commander of the Reserves, forwarded Meade's proposal to Franklin on January 10, 1863.  Reynolds "concur[red] most heartily" in Meade's recommendation to send the division back home to recover and recruit.  (OR, 1:21, 878.)  The next day, Franklin sent Meade's plan to Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Complimenting the Reserves on their "excellent service," Franklin endorsed Meade's proposal.  (OR, 1:21, 878-79.)

Col. Horatio G. Sickel, who assumed command of the Pennsylvania Reserves upon Meade's promotion at the end of 1862, soon weighed in on the future of the division.  The colonel hoped to enlist Governor Curtin's support in reorganizing the Pennsylvania Reserves.  Sickel sent a copy of Meade's report to Curtin and got the desired response.  The governor readily took up his old cause and forwarded Sickel's correspondence to the War Department.  Secretary of War Stanton, however, had no appetite for Meade's proposal.  According to a history of the Reserves, the Secretary informed Curtin "that numerous similar applications were on file from other States, that all could not be granted without greatly reducing the strength of the army, and that therefore all must be refused."  (Sypher 436.)

The Pennsylvania Reserves had the misfortune of remaining at the front long enough to take part in Burnside's disastrous "Mud March."  But change was in the air by the end of January.  Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac and worked with General-in-Chief Halleck to effect a transfer of the Pennsylvania Reserves. The division, however, was far from homeward bound.

Up Next: The Pennsylvania Reserves bid farewell to Hooker's army and board transports for Alexandria.


Aside from the Official Records, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

John H. Eicher & David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (2001); Joseph Gibbs, Three Years in the Bloody Eleventh: The Campaigns of a Pennsylvania Reserves Regiment (2002); George G. Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 1 (1913); J.R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (1865).


Anonymous said...

I've been greatly enjoying your series on the PRVC.
Will Hickox

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for reading. I certainly enjoy writing about the Pa. Reserves--must be the Pittsburgh boy in me!