Historical Legacies: the Civil War in Northeastern Pennsylvania

Good morning everyone, today’s blog post is brought to you by Comm Camp Director E.J. Murphy. It highlights the history of the Civil War in the United States, and how our region, and its residents contributed to both the war and Underground Railroad Movement. Enjoy!

On Monday, July 10, 2017, a Confederate battle flag was hoisted outside of the South Carolina statehouse. When asked to explain the motivation behind the unofficial flag raising, South Carolina Secessionist Party President James Bessenger deferred to a vague self-defense, and in turn, self-preservation. “They are trying to demonize and vilify our ancestors,” he claimed, “150 years after their deaths.” It is Bessenger’s opinion that the removal of the Confederate monuments and flags adorning state government buildings amounted to the erasure of a critical component of Southern history, heritage, and pride. The protest, being held in conjunction with the second anniversary of South Carolina’s decisionĀ  to remove Confederate banners from state government buildings, was met with equally strong sentiment dissenting from the SCSP perspective. “Go home, you’re not welcome here. You lost then and you’ll lose again,” shouted a loudspeaker-wielding counter-protestor as the “Stars and Bars” ascended over the crowd. “Go home Confederates!”

BattleOfCorinthThe confrontation between the two-dozen or so Confederate supporters and the much larger assembly of counter-protesters was a microcosm of the ideological divide that this country has struggled with since the end of the Civil War in 1865. Geography will naturally play a large part in formation of opinion and remembrance regarding the war. South Carolina was the cradle of secession. On December 20, 1860, following the election of the nation’s first Republican president, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. On April 12, 1861 at 4:30 a.m. the Civil War began in the Palmetto State with the bombardment of Union-controlled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor by Confederate batteries.

The legacy of the Civil War is one of dissension–of values, of identity, and even of history. As James Baldwin once wrote, “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. ” So how do we, as citizens of northeastern Pennsylvania, reflect on and relate to a historical phenomenon that began over 155 years ago? As historian David McCollough reminded us in Ken Burns’ highly acclaimed 1990 documentary miniseries on the Civil War, the war was fought in 10,000 places: the bucolic fields of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania where the men of the Union Army of the Potomac pitted themselves against Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia; the swamps of the Mississippi Valley where Ulysses S. Grant fought tirelessly to dislodge the Army of Mississippi from its “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” at Vicksburg; the far-removed New Mexico territory where the “Gettysburg of the West” raged at Glorieta Pass. Northeastern Pennsylvania was one of the few regions of the country not to be ravaged by combat in the Civil War.

Although detached from the exploding artillery and relentless musket fire, it does not take a concerted effort to see the impact that the war had on our little corner of the Keystone State. Take a stroll through the Willow Grove Cemetery right here in Waverly (along with countless others in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties) and you will see gravestones decorated with Grand Army of the Republic insignia. At Courthouse Square in downtown Scranton stands the most imposing memorial to the war in the city, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which pays homage to the men who went off to fight in places with unfamiliar names. A quick walk around the block to the corner of Adams Avenue and Spruce Street will introduce you to General Philip H. Sheridan, preserved in concrete and bronze to commemorate his successful campaigns during some of the final engagements of the war in the Shenandoah Valley and at Appomattox Court House. If you are fortunate enough to have some free time on the third Saturday of every month, you can visit the impressive Civil War museum that is tucked away in the basement of Scranton City Hall.

While Scranton and the surrounding communities, with their rich history in the coal, iron, and railroad industries, were major suppliers of raw material for the Union, it is important to understand that real men left their families, careers, and lives on the line to join a fight that was waged for reasons numerous. Like most of the states committed to the Union, the citizens of the area showed support for the government, but Scranton was not without its Confederate sympathizers and anti-war opinion. A draft office in Archbald was attacked, as was a common scene throughout the country. These frustrations regarding the war are reflected in the voting numbers of the presidential election of 1864 during which Abraham Lincoln became the first president in history to seek re-election in the midst of civil war against his former commanding general, George B. McClellan. McClellan, a Democrat disgraced by Lincoln after being removed from command of the Army of the Potomac for his inability to crush Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia during Lee’s failed Maryland Campaign of 1862, received 9,541 votes to Lincoln’s 6,646. Had McClellan won the election nationwide it is likely that he would have sought a negotiated truce with the states in rebellion, ended the war sooner, and put a large question mark on the future of slavery in North America.

The 1860 Census identified Luzerne County (Lackawanna County had not yet been formed) as having a population of 90,390. The county had furnished 5,500 troops including approximately 2,000 from Scranton and the neighboring region. Over 100 commissioned officers came from the area now comprising Lackawanna County, including Colonel Richard A. Oakford. As commander of the 132nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Oakford was killed at the Battle of Antietam while attacking the Bloody Lane, a battle which thwarted Lee’s first invasion of Union territory and lead Lincoln to issue his now famous but contemporarily unpopular Emancipation Proclamation. Prior to the battle, Oakford found himself without a horse. In a letter to Joseph H. Scranton, an early investor in the iron and coal industries in the city that bears his family’s name and later the executive head of the Lackawanna Iron & Coal Company (now site of Scranton’s Historic Iron Furnaces on Cedar Avenue), Oakford pleaded his case, begging Scranton for a proper fighting horse. “It is an old adage that there is no use in having friends unless you can use them. Now I think this saying is true & take the liberty of calling on you for a little help just now,” he began. The Union government was not helping Oakford’s cause. “The Army having lost very heavily in horses as well as men has sent all the spare horse forward to the front & it is utterly impossible for us to get horses from the Government.” His desperation comes to surface later in the letter. “If you will help me out of the dilemma in which I find myself, I will promise as the Irishman in his prayer did. I am nothing like the other blaggards asking favors of you every day but Good Lord only just be after helping me this time & it will be a long time before I be troubling you with any prayers of mine.” This was an ominous foretelling, as Oakford would be dead only two weeks later.

Captains Patrick De Lacy of Carbondale and John C. Delaney of Dunmore were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their participation and bravery during the Battles of the Wilderness and Hatcher’s Run, respectively. De Lacy performed particularly heroic during a battle that some historians consider the worst, if not the biggest, battle of the war. “On the 6th day of May in the Wilderness I captured a rebel battle-flag on the breast-works and led the charge that re-captured the line of works from Longstreet’s corps, which they had just previously taken from Hancock’s men, and for which Congress presented me with a Medal of Honor,” De Lacy recalled in his memoirs. He would have to wait over three decades after the cessation of hostilities to receive this honor. This was not De Lacy’s only heroic endeavor during the battle. While the men still fighting at the Wilderness took to each other with rifle and bayonet, the wounded were in perilous danger. The Wilderness was a heavily wooded area and the leaves from the previous year, due in part to burning lint and linen from rifle and musket cartridges as well as cannon fire, started to burn. As their brothers in arms listened in horror to the screams of the men unable to escape the flames, De Lacy took action. “The situation was alarming; I suggested to the commanding officer, Col. Charles M. Conyngham, that we fight fire with fire, as I had seen done when a boy on the farm. It was a hazardous undertaking, because it was directly between the two armies, and in line with the fire of the enemy. The Colonel hesitated to give permission, thinking we would not live to accomplish it; he said we would never come back alive, but gave permission.” De Lacy, along with a few volunteers, approached the edge of the fire and when they arrived “the enemy could not help but see us, but we kept right on scraping up the dry leaves and brush, catching up burning brands and back-firing. We succeeded in preventing the fire from extending any nearer our wounded, who were being carried back while we were fighting the fire. We all three believed the enemy spared us, knowing we were engaged in such a humane undertaking.”

So where does Waverly fit into this narrative? While many residents of Waverly ventured to areas that would become this country’s most hallowed ground, a recent book by journalist Jim Remsen, “Embattled Freedom”, highlights Waverly’s fascinating history of abolition, African-American settlement, and participation in the Underground Railroad. Remsen shares the stories of prominent citizens of Waverly and their impact on the racial and cultural makeup of the town and surrounding areas (you can grab a copy of the “Self-Guided Walking Tour of Waverly” pamphlet at the Waverly Community House and experience for yourself the living history of the town). Many escaped slaves and freeborn men and women came to call Waverly home, settling in what became the largest African-American community for miles. Residents of this community, which existed along what is now Carbondale Road, also gave what may have not been their last but was certainly a full measure of devotion on the battlefield. The final chapter of Remsen’s book offers short profiles of some of the men who so consecrated the battlefield and helped change the hearts and minds of some of their white comrades in regard to the capacity of African-Americans in fighting and in citizenship. Francis Asbury Johnson (freeborn son of a slave), George Keys Sr., John Mason, William Bradley (all three born into slavery in Maryland), and John W. Washington (born into slavery in Virginia) all enlisted in the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops regiment and were engaged in the Siege of Petersburg. The Petersburg operations, just like those at the Wilderness and Hatcher’s Run, came toward the end of the war and served as General Grant’s final push toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Samuel Thomas escaped slavery in Virginia and became a cook in the immortal 54th Massachusetts regiment whose actions are portrayed in the 1989 film Glory starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick as Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts. As to what motivated these men to fight for a country that largely did not see them as equals before God and the law, that is a discussion for another occasion.

During a time when news headlines seem to be constantly shedding light on the ongoing debate over the war and the preservation of its memory and legacy, this history is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss as irrelevant or unimportant. The causes of the war and the impact of its consequences reverberate throughout the nation today. On July 8, a Loyal White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan protest consisting of about 50 members of the North Carolina-based group and its supporters, objecting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, was met by hundreds of counter protesters. Police lines were drawn, taunts were thrown back and forth, and eventually police had to intervene with tear gas and arrested 22 people. Virginia, one of the oldest and most prominent states in our history, sat at the heart of the physical and ideological conflict of the 1850’s and 60’s and that conflict still rips at the social fabric of today. Historians have more recently focused a large effort on the concentration of social history and how it plays out in modern society. “Historians have been using evidence about class, race, ethnicity, and gender to gain insight into Americans’ everyday lives–their work and leisure, their culture and ideology, their relations with one another and with the political and economic systems under which they have lived,” explained eminent Civil War historian James McPherson. This evidence has been collected and written about by the likes of McPherson, Eric Foner, Drew Gilpin Faust, and David W. Blight, but the understanding of that evidence seems to still bemuse the public at large. Clearly the debate is not over and the question now remains; where do we go from here?

3 thoughts on “Historical Legacies: the Civil War in Northeastern Pennsylvania

  1. Good stuff, E.J. Thanks for the mention of my book. Its Civil War chapters mention the area’s white recruits as well as the black ones. The story of poor George Fell and his father’s trip to the battlefield is especially sad.

    Like

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