Many histories have chronicled the events of the Civil War, but all too often the individual fighting man has been submerged beneath a deluge of grand strategies, potbellied generals, tactical evolutions, and glorious sacrifices. “Billy Yank” of 1861-1865 counted his Civil War service as the greatest and most memorable event of his life. Among his myriad experiences, the most frightening and influential was the initial exposure to enemy fire. This first blooding hardened the green, romantic recruit into a mature, professional veteran who would carry the war through to its conclusion.
Indiana County provided several companies of men for the Union war effort. Among these was Company B of the Eleventh Regiment of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division. Raised from throughout the County in May 1861, Company B joined the Eleventh Regiment at Camp Wright, near Pittsburgh. Company B shared the same heritage and background of the Eleventh Regiment, which was recruited entirely from that part of Pennsylvania west of the Alleghenies. The one hundred men and four officers of the “Indiana Guards” rapidly settled into the time-honored army routine of drilling and conditioning. Later, at Camps Tenally and Pierpont near Washington, D.C., they spent the winter of 1861 shaking down into fighting order.
The soldiers’ dispatches home displayed the cocky confidence of untried warriors. In August, one wrote, “Let them come, we’ll give them a warm reception.” Lieutenant Hannibal K. Sloan reported in January, “Never been in better health or better condition. Eager to meet enemy on the open ground. All seem to enjoy camp life.”
Their letters were concerned with camp life, rather than the military regimen. Mitch, an anonymous correspondent of the Company whose letters frequently appeared in the home town newspapers, reported on August 27 from Camp Tenally, “The health of the Indiana National Guard is good. Our rations are generally very good. Our rations are generally very good. The Guards have the best cook in the Regiment.” One member, however, found the army fare too coarse for his delicate palate, and complained, “Every day it is the same. Bread, meat, coffee, and bean soup. If you can send us some elderberries, corn, tomatoes, or anything of that sort…a little butter when the weather gets colder, would be very pleasant.”
Toward the end of their stay, Mitch summed up what he called the “Monastery of Camp Life;” “we have had a very pleasant time in Camp Pierpont, having enjoyed ourselves as well as could be expected of men in our condition. Of late we have originated debating clubs, which, by the way, is a variety.”
With warm weather came the opening of a new campaign season, and Union Commander George B. McClellan opened his Peninsula Campaign aimed at Richmond and the vitals of the Confederacy. Company B waited impatiently, fuming at having “To remain behind while other corps are welding their power to the destruction of the rebellion…the men are eager to participate in coming struggle. They are indignant at even a hint of being held in reserve.”
On June 12, the Eleventh Regiment joined the Army of the Potomac at White House, Virginia. Assigned to the Fifth Corps, the reserves proceeded to Beaver’s Dam Creek near Mechanicsville, where they assumed their position on the extreme right of the Union Army. Lt. Col. Samuel Jackson wrote on June 18, “Expect a general engagement this night. Our boys anxious for the fight.” On June 26, the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, initiated a flanking movement designed to crush the Union right. In fighting that lasted until dark, the Confederates repeatedly tried the Federal entrenchments. The Eleventh Reserves guarded the Corp’s left flank. “From our position on picket, firing soon became heavy, and the musket balls, shells, and solid shot, were flying over our heads in greater profusion than was pleasant.” They remained without sleep for two straight nights, and that evening they covered the withdrawal to Gaines Mill. After a seventeen-mile night march, and a brief covering skirmish that cost Company H one man, the Eleventh passed through Union lines for what proved to be a brief respite.
Fighting continued on and off June 27, and by 3:00 p.m. the action became general as Lee again resolved to crush the Federal right. The Eleventh had just been ordered into the fighting when Company B was detached to put handles into five hundred axes urgently needed to build fortifications. Working near a field hospital, they were subjected to the worst possible scenes that war could muster. Sgt. John Sutor wrote, “I will not cause you to shudder by telling you of the many horrible sights we were beheld.” Meanwhile, Lee’s men slammed brutally against the Federal lines. With units beginning to fragment under the incredible onslaught and unable to rejoin their regiment, Company B was formed in an attempt to stem the retreat. Suddenly engaged in “a fight that almost beggars description,” their ranks were raked by shot and shell. With two men killed, Company B joined the Fifth Corp’s frenzied retreat to reunite with McClellan’s Army.
Shaken by these twin defeats, McClellan withdrew to a new supply base on the James River. He did this without the Eleventh Reserves, which had been captured at Gaines Mill. One hundred and six survivors, primarily from Company B, were organized into two companies attached to the Seventh Reserves for the remainder of the Seven Days Campaign.
Lee continued his attempts to roll up the Army of the Potomac. At Glendale, on June 30, the Seventh Reserves, with Indiana’s Company B, were on the right rear of the Reserve’s Division battle line. Lee’s determined men attacked about 4:00 p.m., and the gray regiments tackled the Seventh as the sun was beginning to set, providing eerie illumination for what was one of the few true bayonet fights of the war. The Seventh Regiment began to crumble, and in the confusion and twilight, nobody really determined what happened after that. What is known is that the men from Indiana charged without hesitation into the fray. Cpl. Henderson C. Howard, a six-foot giant of a man, captured a Confederate battle flag. Pvt. James J. Oatman was knocked down by the windage of a shell and taken prisoner. Lt. Hannibal K. Sloan wrote that “this battle, I do not think, can be exceeded for fierceness. The butternuts were piled up in perfect heaps.” The fight ended at nightfall in mutual exhaustion and disorganization.
Of the one hundred six men that Capt. Daniel S. Porter and Lt. Sloan had taken into action that day, nine were dead, fifteen wounded, and ten missing. That night the battered survivors retired to Malvern Hill, where they were placed in reserve. From here, they marched to Harrison’s Landing for a period of needed rest and recuperation.
The much desired and long awaited event had finally come. In the vernacular of the period, they had “seen the elephant.” Pvt. Leo Faller of the companion Seventh Reserves wrote his parents, “If any one tells you that the Rebels will not fight just tell them to come down to this neck of the country and try them on…This is the last of the fighting for that time and I hope the last altogether but if the Rebels are not satisfied I am willing to pitch in again. Tell some of those patriotic young men…that now is the Appointed time and they should come accordingly.”
Lt. Hannibal K. Sloan proudly told Indiana, “Gen. McClellan says we have done as well as men could do, so that he will put us to the rear of his army and let us rest…probably we have seen our last battle. I am in first rate health and spirits at present.” Sgt. John Sutor reported on July 15, “Good deal of sickness among soldiers (but) boys are again beginning to assume their formal jovial dispositions.”
The Indiana Guards faced further struggle at Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, but their first battle, their most arduous test, was behind them. From this experience, they would mature into one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s “most dreaded foes…always in deadly earnest.” On the battlefields of Gaines Mill and Glendale, their sacrifices and experiences first earned this reputation.