South Carolina (20 December 1860). Mississippi (9 January 1861). Florida (10 January 1861). Alabama (11 January 1861). Georgia (19 January 1861). Louisiana (26 January 1861). Texas (1 February 1861).
Secession of America’s southern states had begun, and the moments of simmering tension between the North and South which darkened the final days in office of President James Buchanan were about to boil over for the new administration of President Abraham Lincoln.
Fort Sumter had been in dire straits since Brigadier-General P. T. G. Beauregard directed his army to hamper operations of the federal government’s last stronghold in Charleston, South Carolina. By the time President Lincoln ordered the fort’s resupply, the U.S. soldiers stationed there were already low on provisions. When the U.S. Army still refused to evacuate, despite Beauregard’s demands, the guns of the Confederacy opened up and battered away from 12 April 1861 until U.S forces surrendered two days later.
The next day – 15 April 1861 – President Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 volunteers “to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.”
On Thursday morning, 18 April 1861, John Peter Shindel Gobin, an attorney from Sunbury, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania traveled to Harrisburg, Dauphin County to personally offer the services of the Sunbury Guards to Andrew Curtin to help the Keystone State fulfill the President’s request at the earliest possible hour. (Curtin, 15th Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, would later create a network of soldiers’ and orphans’ schools to educate and care for the children of Pennsylvania’s volunteer soldiers.)
Established in 1818 as the “Sunbury Guards,” this Northumberland County militia was known as the “Sunbury Greys” under the 1840s command of Captain William Lewis Dewart (1821-1888), and renamed in his honor in 1850 as the “Dewart Guards.” (A lawyer, Dewart was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving one term from 1857-1859.) In 1858, the unit reclaimed its original name – the “Sunbury Guards.”
After Governor Curtin gratefully accepted Gobin’s offer, Gobin returned home to Sunbury finish his recruiting efforts. On Friday evening, 19 April 1861, the Sunbury Guards assembled in the grand jury room at the Sunbury Court House, where they unanimously elected Charles J. Bruner as Captain, J. P. S. Gobin as First Lieutenant and Joseph H. McCarty as Second Lieutenant.
The next morning, Captain Bruner took 40 of his Sunbury Guards to the train depot and on to the state capital, making the Sunbury Guards the first military unit to leave Northumberland County to fight the growing southern rebellion. The town turned out early to give their fathers, brothers and sons a buoyant sendoff.
The next day, led by Sergeant C. Israel Pleasants, the remaining 38 Sunbury Guardsmen worshipped at Sunbury’s Lutheran Church in preparation for their own train trip to Harrisburg on 22 April 1861. Reunited later that day, the 78 men-strong Sunbury Guards mustered in to service at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg on 23 April, and were designated as Company F in the 11th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (although they still employed their hometown Guards’ designation with pride).
Those citizens who did not enroll for military duty were by no means unpatriotic or lazy. Many had packed other Court House rooms on the same night the Guards were electing their officers, and continued to meet afterward in other gathering places, according to Bell’s History of Northumberland County to:
raise means for “providing for the families of the married soldiers, and furnishing clothing for those not provided with the articles necessary for a campaign. One thousand dollars were raised [on Friday evening, 19 April 1861], with a pledge to double it when necessary, and four hundred dollars for the immediate wants of the soldiers.” The manufacture of suitable clothing was at once undertaken by the ladies. In this work Mrs. Charles Pleasants was particularly active; she opened her house, and it became headquarters for the patriotic operations of the ladies. Here the work of cutting and making garments was pursued without cessation, day and night, and Sunday was observed by an increase rather than a diminution in the number of workers. The willingness of the women of the county to contribute their labor to the success of the cause was one of the most practical expressions of patriotism evinced at that period.
Three Months’ Service
Captain Bruner wrote home early on to assure the Guards’ loved ones that all was well. Setting a tone of cautious optimism in his 28 May 1861 letter from Company F’s camp in Cecil County, Maryland, he observed:
It is a small town, situated about two hundred yards from the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. We are, however, quartered at the railroad – the men in a large warehouse, the officers at the depot. The quarters are very comfortable…. We have two sentinels posted about three quarters of a mile below the quarters, and two a couple of hundred yards above, along the railroad, to watch the bridges and culverts. At night we increase the number. We have plenty of ammunition. It is forty-eight miles from here to Philadelphia.
On 2 July 1861, the Sunbury Guards engaged in intense fighting during the Battle of Falling Waters, the first Civil War battle in the Shenandoah Valley. (A second battle with a different military configuration occurred there in 1863.) Also known as the Battle of Hainesville or Hoke’s Run, this first Battle of Falling Waters helped pave the way for the Confederate Army victory at Manassas later that month.
The 11th Pennsylvania also saw action at Martinsburg and Bunker Hill, and were heralded for their valor. Governor Curtin proudly labeled the regiment “the Bloody Eleventh.”
Writing letters home to the Sunbury American, Corporal Henry D. Wharton chronicled the lives of his fellow Guardsmen – from the tedium of daily camp life to the dangers they faced in battle. On 3 July 1861, he wrote of his company’s experience at Falling Waters:
Our boys, Sunbury Guards, were in the hottest of the fight, they being in the centre, and strange to say no one was killed, and but one slightly wounded. The name of the wounded man is Christ Shall, from Cincinnati. I was at the Hospital assisting, when he came in, after the wound was dressed, he turned to me and said, “Harry, where is my gun, I must go help the boys fight it out,” and he went, and after returning helped Bill Christ to kill two…. That is what I call cool and shows considerable bravery.
The 24 August 1861 edition of the Sunbury American recapped the Three Months’ Service duties of the Sunbury Guards as follows:
April 21.- Went from Sunbury to Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, and encamped there.
23.- Were sworn into service.
May 4- Left Camp Curtin for West Chester at 11 o’clock. Arrived in Camp Wayne about 8 o’clock.
27- Left West Chester at 5 o’clock, went through Philadelphia to North East, Md, arrived about 5 o’clock in the evening.
June 9.- Went from North East to Havre de Grace.
12.- Went from Havre de Grace to Chambersburg.
17- Went from Chambersburg to Hagerstown.
18- Went from Hagerstown to Williamsport in the morning, and returned to Hagerstown in the evening.
29.- Went from Hagerstown to Downsville.
July 1- Went from Downsville to Williamsport.
2.- Left Williamsport for Martinsburg – Met the enemy at Hoke’s Run. Had an engagement, in which 1 was killed and 9 wounded in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, 1 killed and 7 wounded in the 1st Wisconsin Regiment, and 1 of McMullin’s Rangers killed and 1 wounded. Encamped about 1 mile from the battlefield.
2.- West to Martinsburg and encamped there.
4.- West to Williamsport. Guarding the baggage wagons.
5.- Returned to camp at Martinsburg, with provisions.
12.- A flag was presented to the 11th Regiment, by the ladies of Martinsburg.
15.- Went from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill.
17.- Went from Bunker Hill to Charleston.
21- Went from Charleston to the heights west of Harper’s Ferry.
24- Went across the river to Sandy Hook.
26- Went from Sandy Hook to Baltimore.
27- Went from Baltimore to Harrisburg.
On 31 July 1861, the Sunbury Guards mustered out from their Three Months’ Service. The rebellion not quelled, many would re-enroll for three-year terms in a few short weeks, this time forming a core group of a new state infantry regiment, Company C of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Still known as the Sunbury Guards, they would be awarded the honor of bearing and protecting the national and regimental colors for the 47th Pennsylvania, and would fight heroically only to have their accomplishments minimized by historians.
But on 3 August 1861, at least, Sunbury’s boys were considered heroes by the Sunbury American:
RECEPTION OF THE VOLUNTEERS.
Saturday last was a great day in Sunbury. The “Sunbury Guards” had been expected on their return home about the middle of the week, and preparations were made to give them a suitable reception. On Friday a dispatch was received that the Company would return in a special train that evening, but it was not until an hour past midnight that the train came in sight, containing six or seven companies of the 11th Regiment, among them the “Sunbury Guards.” The Muncy company also remained over night. The depot platform, notwithstanding the late hour, was crowded and remained until the booming cannon had ceased, and the bonfires had burned out. The boys were all apparently well, except one, David Druckemiller, whose declining health should have prevented his entering into service. His case excited much sympathy as he was carried home in a blanket, but we are pleased to hear that he is improving.
On the following day, Saturday, Market Square was crowded with our citizens and people from the vicinity. A platform had been erected in front of the Court House, and long tables set under the shade of the trees in the Square. The citizens had provided in abundance, and the volunteers, after marching through the streets, preceded by Grant’s Cornet Band, seated themselves at the tables. The ladies were busily engaged as waiters, and never were waiters more faithful and attentive. After dinner a meeting was organized by appointing the following officers:-
President – FRED’K. LAZARUS, Esq.
Vice Presidents – Hon. George Weiser, Jacob Bright, Daniel Beckley, Francis Bucher, D.W. Shindel, Benj. Zetelmoyer, Ira T. Clement, James Covert, James Bright, P.B. Masser, Wm. I. Greenough, Benjamin Hendricks, E.W. Bright, Sr., S.B. Boyer, Simon Snyder, Charles Pleasants, Peter Lazarus, and Samuel Gobin.
Secretaries – H.B. Masser, John Youngman, Geo. Rohrbach, and Henry Donnel.
Hon. Alexander Jordan made the opening speech, which was well delivered and in excellent taste. He referred to the war, and the duty of every patriot in sustaining the Government in its prosecution. He congratulated the “Sunbury Guards” upon their gallant conduct in remaining over their time, and their courage in battle. Lieut. J. P. S. Gobin was then called for. The call was unexpected, but he responded in a neat speech, acknowledging, in behalf of the Company, the high compliment and honors paid to them by their friends, relatives and neighbors. After which the Rev. Mr. Rizer, of this place, Chaplain of Col. Cameron’s Regiment, appeared on the platform, and delivered an eloquent and patriotic speech. During all this time, table after table was filled, so that perhaps no less than four or five hundred men, women and children were entertained during the afternoon, while the provisions and fragments left, would have served to feed several more companies.
After the Civil War
During the late 1870s, the Sunbury Guards were incorporated into the Pennsylvania National Guard, becoming Company E of the 12th Infantry Regiment. Company E was commanded by Sunbury native, Charles M. Clement, who was commissioned as Captain after initially enlisting with the Sunbury Guards/Company E as a Private in 1877.
Promoted to Major of the regiment in 1896, Clement was advanced again in 1898 to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was second in command when the regiment entered the Spanish-American War, and was promoted to the rank of Colonel and regimental Commanding Officer of the 12th Infantry after the war ended.
Renamed as Battery A, 190th Field Artillery Battalion, 28th Infantry Division, U.S. Army during the 20th century, the “Sunbury Guards” continued to protect the nation long after the final echoes of Civil War bugles had faded. Latter day Sunbury Guardsmen were involved in the Battles of the Bulge, Ardennes and Hurtgen Forest, and still respond today when America’s President calls.
Roster – Company F (“Sunbury Guards”), 11th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry
23 April 1861 – 31 July 1861
Captain Charles J. Bruner
1st Lieutenant John Peter Shindel Gobin
2nd Lieutenant Joseph H. McCarty
1st Sergeant John E. McCarty
2nd Sergeant C. Israel Pleasants
3rd Sergeant S. Herman Hepler
4th Sergeant Jacob Rohrbach
1st Corporal Samuel P. Bright
2nd Corporal Charles Doughty Wharton, Jr.
3rd Corporal Daniel Oyster
4th Corporal William Pyers
Musician Henry D. Wharton
Musician Jacob Weiser
Enlisted Men (rank of Private):
Bright, Benjamin F.
Brisbon, William M.
Covert, J. Wilson (appointed as quartermaster)
Geddis, Benjamin W.
Gussler, Peter S.
Haas, William D.
Irwin, Jared C.
Millhouse, William H.
Newbaker, Philip C.
Rodrigue, Aristide (appointed as company clerk)
Rohrbach, Lloyd T. (detailed as clerk, enrolling department)
Seidel, John E.
Stewart, Charles W.
Weitzel, Lot B.
Men of the Sunbury Guards Who Were Not Mustered (due to the 78-man company limit):
Keefer, Jacob R.
Slenker, William H.
* Entered a different company from Pine Grove, Schuylkill County when not mustered in with Company F, 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Sources: Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5; Bell’s History of Northumberland County Pennsylvania; Civil War Veterans’ Card File, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Geographical and Biographical Annals of Northumberland County, J. L. Floyd & Co., Chicago, Illinois; Godcharles’ Freemasonry in Northumberland and Snyder Counties, Pennsylvania; Schmidt’s A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers; Shamokin News Dispatch (“Two Dewarts Interested in Cameron Mine,” 5 October 1936), Shamokin, Pennsylvania; Sunbury American (1840-1922), Sunbury, Pennsylvania; The Daily Item (obituary: Charles T. Ressler, 3 March 2009), Sunbury, Pennsylvania.