Eyewitness 1861: Pittsburgh regiments aim for quality Civil War gear


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Harrisburg's Camp Curtin, set up by and named for Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, did not meet the standards of Col. Samuel Black, commander of the 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, when the regiment shipped out from Pittsburgh in the summer of 1861.

So Black "scoured the country around" the state capital and found "the most beautiful camp ground in the country" for his men, according to a report in the Aug. 14 edition of The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette and Commercial Journal.

The men set up their tents and dug their latrines on farmland just east of Harrisburg belonging to Simon Cameron. Cameron was a Pennsylvania politician recently named secretary of war by Abraham Lincoln, and the soldiers named the site Camp Cameron in his honor.

As was common during the Civil War, the report to the newspaper on the activities of the 62nd was submitted by a soldier in the unit, identified only by his initials: J.T.C

"Our tents are of good material, afford ample protection against rain, and are situated just west of a fine woodland of stately forest trees," he reported. A nearby stream provided water for bathing and washing clothes. The camp was laid out with names familiar to soldiers from Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, now the North Side. They included East and West commons and Federal and Liberty streets.

Their commander, Pittsburgh-born Samuel Black, had fought in the Mexican War and later became territorial governor of Nebraska. He was a no-nonsense officer. "No obscene language or swearing whatever is tolerated," J.T.C. wrote. "Discipline of a very strict character is enforced, and six or seven men are detailed every morning to clear away all rubbish, 'level the ground,' pull up roots &c."

Cameron himself made a brief visit to the camp, "promising to send our uniforms, and equipments, &c, from Washington city directly."

Conditions were much less promising during the early months of the war for another local regiment: the 9th Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. The unit, primarily Allegheny County volunteers, was assigned to Camp Tennally, northwest of Washington, D.C.

The Pennsylvania Legislature had promised the men that they "were to be equipped in a superior manner," a soldier correspondent wrote in the Aug. 17 edition of the Gazette. He identified himself with the single initial "K."

Instead "they were armed with old Harper's Ferry altered muskets, the general appearance of which would indicate that they were manufactured by some backwoods blacksmith and wagon maker," he wrote. "Not one bayonet out of every dozen can be fixed or unfixed in under fifteen minutes," he claimed. He wrote that the musket barrels were so thin that "after firing three or four rounds they become so hot, it is almost impossible to hold them ..."

In an effort to cover up the defects in the outmoded weapons, the muskets had been given a fresh coat of paint.

The inadequacies of their guns placed the men in danger from nearby Confederate forces. "I really wished a few days since, when on picket duty, almost in sight of the enemy, that Curtin himself occupied the position of the men in the ranks," K wrote. The Allegheny County men risked being "picked off at the distance of a thousand feet, when our beautiful, well painted muskets would not reach half that distance.

"K" closed with a challenge to Pennsylvania legislators and the governor. "If Gov. Curtin wishes to redeem his character ... let him at once procure with the millions at his disposal, ten thousand stand of improved arms."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Other Post-Gazette stories dealing with the Civil War can be read at www.post-gazette.com/civilwar/


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