“Now the capital was ringed by rebellion.”
- Margaret Leech, “Reveille in Washington 1860-1865”
By 1911 the Civil War had been over for a long time, almost 50 years in fact. But one issue still understandably rankled in the eyes of many local people. Everyone in the Lehigh Valley knew that it was militia units from eastern Pennsylvania, among them the Allen Infantry commanded by Allentown’s Major Thomas Yeager, that were the first to answer Lincoln’s call for troops to defend the capital in 1861. Those units had gone through a hellish mob of secession supporters in Baltimore and been housed in the unfinished Capitol building on their arrival. So, it rankled Yeager’s family members that year when it was being questioned by a New England regiment’s veteran in a newspaper that they were the first to reach Washington. Taking up his pen, Yeager’s nephew, Thomas P. Yeager, a retired U.S. army military man, was moved to note the facts:
“An anonymous writer to the New York Sun, who signs himself “Company K 6th Massachusetts Volunteers” is mistaken in his assertion when he says he saw the Pennsylvania First Defenders held up in Baltimore as Boston troops were fighting their way through the mob there, April 19, 1861. On that day the Pennsylvania First Defenders were already in Washington, having arrived the night before. What the Boston man saw was Colonel Small’s Philadelphia Regiment, which unfortunately did not get through the mob that day. To a Pennsylvanian, furthermore, the Boston soldier is laughably mixed up in his geography. He says the Pennsylvanian First Defenders he saw in Baltimore, 19 April 1861, were en route from “Philadelphia to Washington” whereas the truth of history is that the First Defenders went direct from Harrisburg to Baltimore and thence to Washington, on April 18, 1861, after having been sworn in at Camp Curtin.”
The letter writer went on to note that a letter that Major Yeager had written in 1861 showed the truth. But chances are good that if the anonymous man from Boston saw the reply to his letter in the Sun he wrote it off as just one of long series of skirmishes between the New England Yankees and those they regarded as the “dumb Dutch.” Even today it is possible to find historians of that war who confidently give pride of first place to the men from Boston.
Everyone in 1861 sort of knew it would come to this. If Abraham Lincoln was elected, the South would leave the Union. But like many people across the country, those in the Lehigh Valley had their own concerns. For local farmers spring meant the fields had to be plowed. Iron makers were looking for a good year of recovery as the effects of the Panic of 1857 had begun to fade. Investors in local real estate were pleased with the growth in downtown Allentown, especially around 7th and Hamilton Street. Among them was Thomas Yeager, a young merchant with impressive sideburns whose major project in the 1850s had been a row of handsome brick dwellings in the 500 block of Walnut Street known after him as Yeager’s Row. Brick homes were something relatively new for Allentown.
But the background noise from the rest of the country came into Allentown with the click of the telegraph key. And try as they might, no one could ignore it. In 1859, the year of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Yeager formed a militia unit, the Allen Infantry. Most were Allentown citizens and Yeager had trained and drilled them to the best of his ability. But one of the men later admitted that they had little if any idea of what war meant. He noted most thought of it as some sort of excursion. One by one as southern states left the Union, Yeager knew war was on the horizon. He had already informed Governor Andrew Curtin that his men were ready if the President called for troops. On, April 12th 1861 rebel guns opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The Civil War that had been brewing for so long had begun.
On April 15th Lincoln called for 75,000 troops for three months of service to come and defend the capital against this treasonous rebellion. From southern governors and legislatures, he met nothing but defiance and promises to join with their fellow states to preserve their “liberties.” According to Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, in a speech given on March 21st 1861, those “liberties” of the new Confederate government rested on the “cornerstone…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”
But in truth in 1861 there was still limited outrage among most in the North over slavery. Breaking up the Union, destroying the legacy of Washington and the other founding fathers was in the minds of many sedition and treason. If states could simply leave the Union for whatever reasons, then soon there would be no United States of America, the flag simply a piece of cloth on a pole, the Constitution fading, meaningless words on aging parchment. Before they would let that happen, they would march to defend it. And Washington D.C., the capital of that nation, surrounded by the largely southern supporting slave state of Maryland, and across the river from the slave state of Virginia, was indeed in peril.
That April Yeager began to drill the Allen Infantry for a rescue mission to Washington. They would be joined by Ringgold Light Infantry of Reading, the Logan Guards of Lewistown and the Washington Artillerists and National Light Infantry of Pottsville, known collectively as the First Defenders. Allentown gave the Allen Infantry a rousing sendoff with a parade and a local bank giving each member a $5 bill. Alas, as the men later discovered, since they were issued by an Allentown bank they were regarded as worthless outside of Allentown.
Arriving by train in Harrisburg, Yeager and the others expected to be given weapons from the state’s adjutant general. In a letter shortly after the event he described what happened next:
“The belief in Harrisburg when we left there on Thursday morning, of all (Governor) Curtin’s administration and (Adjutant General) Keim was we would be massacred in Baltimore, as we were the first Northern troops to cross Mason and Dixon’s line, but they did not let us know it. I took the hint, but kept it from my men, as we were only a few hours from Harrisburg. General Keim at 1 o’clock in the morning called at my door saying, ‘Captain Yeager, immediately to Washington. Load your guns.’ Says I--- ‘They are not in a condition; no locks, no flints.’ He remarked--- “They are good for clubs.’”
The real problem of course would come in the three miles of marching through the streets of Baltimore where they had to transfer to the train station for Washington, D.C. A tough port city, Baltimore was well-known for rioting going back at least to the War of 1812. Anti-Catholic and anti-Irish Know-Nothing mobs had marred the city in the 1840s and 50s. Every municipal election seemed to bring on a brawl. Baltimore’s reputation had even crossed the Atlantic. In his From the Earth to the Moon (published in September 1865), French science fiction writer Jules Verne depicts a riot taking place in Baltimore over his imaginary space flight.
As if to live up to that reputation, a healthy-sized mob greeted the Pennsylvanians as they got off the train. Fortunately, they were greeted by a group of regular U.S. soldiers led by Maj. John C. Pemberton, then in command of a regiment en route to nearby Fort McHenry. Pemberton, from a prominent Philadelphia family, would later join the Confederate army, be given command of Vicksburg, Mississippi and then surrender it to Grant after a prolonged siege in 1863. Ironically at the war’s end Pemberton ended up living in Allentown as a clerk for a local iron furnace. He and his family belonged to Grace Episcopal Church and Union veterans enjoyed kidding him good-naturedly about his fate.
Once the regulars departed for Fort McHenry, the First Defenders, virtually unarmed, were stoned and, according to Yeager, beaten with clubs as they tried to march. A Black man, Nicholas Biddle, an orderly for an officer of the Pottsville militia, was seen in uniform by the mob and stoned with bricks and wounded. Some historians believe his was the first blood shed in the Civil War. Shouts of “Abe Lincoln’s Militia,” “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” and “Nig-er Lovers” flew through the air, along with stones, bricks and bottles. Yeager had told the men to stick by him and not reply, which they all did. Yeager when one rioter asked where he was going said, “For my country!” Among those hurt was Ignatz Gresser, an Allentown man who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his service at Antietam.
Finally arriving in Washington, the men were sent to the unfinished Capitol building. On seeing them, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay called them “unlicked, unarmed patriotism out of Pennsylvania.” The Massachusetts men arrived the next day. They were armed and fired at the Baltimore rioters, killing several. In his letter Yeager had nothing but praise for the New Englanders. “Good for Massachusetts!” he wrote of their action. The First Defenders were visited by Lincoln, who asked a doctor to look at Gresser’s limping leg.
The ornate Capitol building’s House and Senate chambers were not exactly set up for living quarters. ”Despite the anxiety for the arrival of volunteers, no preparations had been made for their reception,” writes Leech. “The two companies installed in the luxurious committee rooms of the north wing would willingly have exchanged Brussels carpets and marble washstands for a heartier meal than the sides of bacon which were presently served out in the basement. The chandeliers and furnace were hastily lighted in the unoccupied south wing and the smell of broiling and frying meat was wafted through the House of Representatives.”
The Pennsylvanians were sent to a Major McDowell (later a General and the luckless Union commander at Bull Run) where they were reviewed on the steps of the Capitol. McDowell’s overall superior, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott (nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers,” perhaps from the elaborate panache he wore on his hat and his insistence on proper military etiquette), was the senior commander of U.S. military forces. Though a Virginian, he had promised to “blow to hell” any force that tried to prevent Lincoln’s inauguration. None did. A gifted soldier and tactician since the War of 1812, Scott had grown gray in service of his country. Now in his 70s and still a forceful figure but addicted to the pleasures of the table, he resigned in November.
At the same time the city was emptying out. First women and children and then men. Many of the clerks headed south, so many in fact that the government was no longer staffed as it had been. Businesses closed and shops were deserted. Rebel campfires were said to be seen along the Potomac and spies were assumed to be everywhere in this essentially southern city. Everyone it seems was convinced the rebels would make their move on the Capitol. On April 24th Lincoln, talking to some of the 6th Massachusetts’s wounded, was heard to say, “I don’t believe there is any North…You are the only Northern realties.” The 7th New York arrived the next day to wild cheers and others rapidly followed. The immediate threat was over.
Historians argue two things might have been what stopped them. Rumors circulated that 10,000 troops from the North were headed to Washington. The Confederates had seen after Baltimore that the North did have troops that would fire back. If they had to take on the North perhaps it was better to have an army and not just an armed mob to do so. Also, governments are not created overnight. So perhaps they decided to hold off until things were better planned.
Whatever the reason there was no attack on Washington just yet. Bull Run would take place in July when it was proven how vulnerable the North could be. By then the three months enlistment of many of the First Defenders would be up. Most would re-enlist in other units. Yeager joined the Pottstown based 53rd Pennsylvania Regiment. He was with the Army of the Potomac as it moved up the Peninsula between the York and James River. Here at the battle of Seven Pines on June 1st 1862 he was killed in action, either leading a charge or seeking out the enemy in dense woods. Yeager apparently never saw the promotion to brigadier general he was given the day before his death.
Yeager was deeply mourned at a large funeral and buried at what is now Union West End Cemetery, perhaps the first Allentown man in the Civil War to die for his country.