“BUCKTAILS FORWARD”

 

A Short History of Pennsylvania’s Intrepid Rifle Regiments

 

By

Lawrence Bixley

 

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Library of Congress photo

 Lt. Col. Kane recruited the first Bucktails.  He later rose to command a brigade in the XII Corps at Gettysburg. Wounds forced him to retire in 1863

 

  

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Mr. Bixley is something of a Renaissance man. He took an undergraduate degree in American History/Literature with a minor in Russian language. He dropped out of law school after one summer's internship in a law office and currently is working on an M.B.A. His hobbies include skiing. gardening, and beekeeping. Like the rest of our staff, he donates his spare time, such as it is, to MI as our Business & Advertising manager.

 

 

0n 30 April 1861, Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania called for a body of troops to be recruited for the defense of the state, exclusive of those to be raised for national service. Titled "The Reserve Volunteer Corps of the Commonwealth," it would consist of 18 regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, and one of light artillery. The men were to be enlisted for three years, trained, and kept in readiness for emergencies. and were liable for Federal service if so called upon. Formed into a division of three brigades, the Pennsylvania Reserves initially were commanded by Maj.Gen. George A. McCall. His brigade commanders were George G. Meade, John F. Reynolds, and Truman Seymour.

After the fiasco at Bull Run in July, according to the Pennsylvania historian Samuel Bates. "...the national authorities found themselves with a defeated army, with the term of service of a large proportion of the troops [three month enlistees] rapidly expiring. They immediately issued urgent calls upon all the States for men. Pennsylvania was ready with an organized and disciplined force, enlisted for the long term ...." Thus the Pennsylvania Reserves were mustered into Federal service and marched off to war.

One of the units that formed the 13th Reserve Infantry back in April was a battalion of "...hardy yeomanry of the counties of Forest, Elk, and McKean, for the most part lumbermen. clad in red flannel shirts and wearing each in his

hat a bucktail. No one was accepted who did not prove himself a skilled marksman ...." The Bucktails, as they came to be called, had been recruited by Thomas L. Kane of Philadelphia, an attorney, abolitionist. and world traveler of wide repute. They began their journey to war on 24 April, when Kane had them construct four huge rafts near the junction of Sinnemahoning Creek and the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. "Two days later," continues Bates chronicle, "the entire force, 315 strong, embarked upon the rafts, and with the Stars and Stripes flying from a green hickory pole surmounted by a bucktail. and the martial strains of fifes and drums echoing through the forests. they commenced the movement to the general camp of rendezvous at the capital...they were borne onward by the current of the broad bosom of the Susquehanna, and upon their arrival at Harrisburg they saluted the city with a volley from their rifles." So began a crusade from which few would return.

Placed together with seven other companies of recruits, including one under Roy Stone composed of similar lumber. men from Warren County, the unit was mustered into the Pennsylvania Reserves as its 13th Regiment. In the State's peculiar numbering system, the 13th was also the 42d Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line. The unit was also called the 1st Rifle Regiment or the Kane Rifles, but it was popularly known simply as The Bucktails, and soon became the most famous of the Reserve regiments.

In early 1862, following a skirmish at Dranesville in which Kane was wounded, the Bucktails were split into two battalions. Six companies under Major Roy Stone accompanied the other Reserve regiments on McClellan's peninsular campaign against Richmond. The remaining four companies under Kane were assigned to Fremont's army in the Shenandoah Valley, where they were employed as scouts and skirmishers.

 

 

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In an action near Harrisonburg on 7 June 1862, Kane's battalion of 105 men slugged it out with two Confederate regiments ...the 1st Maryland and the 58th Virginia---led by the famed Turner Ashby. After an hour of close in-fighting, Ashby lay dead, Kane was wounded twice and taken prisoner, and the Bucktails retired from the field minus half their number. Kane was exchanged later and, after 2d Bull Run. was promoted to Brigadier and thus passed out of the Bucktail organization. He commanded a brigade of the XII Corps at Gettysburg, and retired because of his wounds in the latter part of 1863.

Meanwhile, down on the Peninsula, Stone's battalion also was seeing heavy action because of their reputation as marksmen. Combined with two companies of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters. the unit was used extensively for skirmish and patrol duties. They were commended for a rear-guard action that delayed the Confederate advance for two crucial hours during the Federal retreat from Mechanicsville to Gaines Mill on 27 June. Losses were commensurately heavy, however: the regimental flag was buried in a Chickahominy swamp to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy, and two-thirds of the command were killed, wounded, or captured in the campaign.

At this juncture, Roy Stone was promoted to colonel, detached from the Bucktails, and ordered to Pennsylvania, there to raise four now regiments of backwoodsmen, the whole to be known as the Bucktail Brigade. During the late summer of 1862. twenty companies were recruited and organized as the 149th and 150th regiments of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Additional companies were being raised, but Lee's September invasion of Maryland halted formation of a complete brigade. The 149th and 160th were immediately ordered to the defenses of Washington, where they were brigaded with the non-Bucktail 143d P.V. Nonetheless, the unit was known thenceforth as Stone's Bucktail Brigade, at least to most observers. To members of the 13th Reserves.

however, the newcomers were the Bogus Bucktalls, and the rancor between the regiments lasted into the next century. In 1906, the historian of the original unit wrote that it was "...a dispute that at one stage became exceedingly bitter. Fortunately the feeling engendered is dying out."--no doubt because the original Bucktails also were dying out at that late date.

The new Bucktails missed the carnage at South Mountain and Antietam in September, but their progenitors did not. The two battalions of the 13th Reserves were reunited under Col. Hugh McNeil and, now armed with Sharps repeating rifles, were again at the forefront of the action in their assigned role as skirmishers and snipers. Sent to clear Confederate pickets from the East Wood on the evening prior to the main engagement at Antietam. the 13th did so with alacrity and. again, heavy casualties. Col. McNeil, shouting "Forward, Bucktails forward," fell at the head of the assault. Total losses in the campaign were over a hundred.

After the battle of Fredericksburg in December, in which the 13th occupied the extreme left of the Union line, the entire Pennsylvania Reserve Division was pulled out of the Army of the Potomac and sent to the rear for rest and refitting. They certainly needed it, having lost over 6000 men from the Seven Days through Fredericksburg.

During this period, forty of the Bucktails were recruited for An attempt to capture the Confederate guerilla band led by Col. John S. Mosby. The sharpshooters were concealed within four covered wagons and sent out as bait, escorted by a small squad of the fat Rhode Island Cavalry. Their encounter with the rebels on the second day out from camp is best told in the words of the 18th's historian:

 

 

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"The cavalry in the advance ran into some of  Mosby's men and immediately retreated upon the wagons. The Bucktails heard the cavalry come racing back, and naturally inferred that the guerillas were In full pursuit. Leaping to their feet, they threw back the curtains of the wagons and blazed away. The Confederates, not being too near, wheeled and made their escape. Though the men were deprived of the company of Mosby, they were accompanied back to camp by numerous chickens. ducks, and various other delicacies."

Apart from this escapade, life in camp at this time was the usual round of monotonous fatigues: digging entrenchments, cutting firewood, drawing rations, and burying dead horses. Target shooting was conducted for a prize of 60 cents, offered by the new commander, Col. Charles F. Taylor. On 15 May 1863, the 149th presented the 18th with "a magnificent flag to replace the one lost in the Chickahominy swamp," but the gesture did little to ameliorate relations between the old and new Bucktails.

With the return of absent. sick, and mended veterans, the 13th Reserves could boast of being at half strength--600 men-when the Gettysburg campaign opened. The Army of the Potomac had been restructured in May following the discharge of 68 two-year regiments, and the Pennsylvania Reserves now constituted the 3d Division of George Sykes' V Corps. Their brethren in Stone's Bucktail Brigade were in the 8d Division of John Reynold's I Corps. As chance would have it, the latter unit was put into action a day ahead of the original Bucktails.

For Stone's men, Gettysburg was their first exposure to combat. and they received It in full measure. They occupied a salient in the center of the I Corps line on McPherson's Ridge. their left. resting on the Iron Brigade in McPherson's Wood, their right on the Chambersburg Pike. The brigade was formed in an inverted L-shape, with the 150th in the McPherson barnyard facing west. the 149th and 143th aligned on the Pike facing north. They were shelled here for two hours, followed by successive attacks from the Confederate brigades of Brockenbrough. Davis, and Daniel.

All these assaults were beaten back with heavy casualties---casualties that indirectly aided the repulse of Pickett's Charge two days later. Brockenbrough's brigade in particular was so badly shaken by its losses on the first day that it was the first to break during the third day's assault. The sight of Virginia flags streaming to the rear for the first time in the war no doubt sapped some of the momentum from Lee's last effort at Gettysburg.

But on the first day on McPherson's Ridge, the I Corps line was eventually outflanked at both ends by the larger Confederate forces. As each brigade was flanked, it fell back by stages to Seminary Ridge. through Gettysburg, to Cemetery Hill. The Bucktail Brigade, being in the center of the line, was one of the last to go, ",..standing in the face of greatly superior numbers until it was ascertained that Meredith's Iron Brigade, upon the left, had retired, and it was in danger of being surrounded." The brigade took 1250 men into the battle and lost 850. Every field officer but one, and most of the company officers, were killed or wounded. The flags of the 143d and 149th were captured in the seesaw fighting on the ridge, but both were recaptured. That of the 150th was lost on the retreat through town. The banner later was presented to Jefferson Davis. and was found in his baggage when he was captured in Georgia in 1866.

 

 

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The scene now shifts to late in the afternoon of the second day, with James Longstreet's Confederate I Corps smashing into the Union left flank in the vicinity of Devils Den and the Peach Orchard. The attack was not as well coordinatod as it might have been, due to the rough nature of the ground and the early loss of Longstreet's right flank division commander. John Bell Hood. The Union III Corps was wrecked, but as the scattered Confederate brigades attempted to capitalize on the situation. they were met by various Union reinforcements fed into the battle piecemeal as they arrived on the scene. The Rose Farm wheatfield became a bloody battleground as the two sides surged back and forth. Barnes' division of the Union V Corps went in first, followed in quick succession by Caldwell's division of the II Corps and Romeyn B. Ayres' two brigades of U.S. regulars. The latter met momentary success, then were completely flanked, lost fifty percent, and fought their way back. The victorious Southern infantry crossed the Wheatfield, surged across Plum Run, and began climbing the northwestern face of Little Round Top.

The only infantry close enough to counter the assault was the 1st brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, who went in with a rush. the 13th Reserves on the left. True to form for Bucktail commanders, Col. Taylor was in the forefront and died there. The lieutenant-colonel, Alanson Niles. also went down. The attack carried the Reserves to the stone wall on the eastern edge of the Wheatfield, a position they held. The Bucktails, on the left of this line, were engaged in constant skirmishing with men of Robertson's Texas brigade in Devils Den, but major actions were ended by nightfall and the complete fatigue that beset both sides.

On the following day, 3 July, the final action of the great battle was fought by the 1st Reserve Brigade beginning at 6 p.m., after Pickett's Charge and after Elon Farnsworth's ill-fated cavalry attack on the Confederate right. The Reserves charged across the Wheatfield and into the woods beyond. capturing one cannon and 200 men of the 15th Georgia. Sgt. James Thompson of the Bucktails' Company G captured the Georgians' flag, an act for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

So ended the battle of Gettysburg, a momentous clash in which all three Bucktail regiments played an important role. All three went on to take heavy casualties in Grant's grim war of attrition the following year, but Gettysburg remained as a shining moment. a clear cut victory won in part by the riflemen from Pennsylvania.

 

Postscript

 

The Pennsylvania Reserves were mustered out at the end of their term of service in June 1864. The veterans who chose to reenlist were formed into two new regiments, the 190th and 191st P.V., and served to the end of the war. The Bucktails of the 149th and 150th remained in the Army of the Potomac until February 1865. Then, much reduced in numbers, they were detached and finished out the war guarding prisoners at Elmira, New York.

 

Bibliography

 

Samuel Bates History of Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Thomas Chamberlin, History of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

O.R.H. Thompson and W.H. Rauch History of the Bucktails, the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves.

George R. Stewart. Pickett's Charqe.