OLLI Column | Centre County goes to war

December 22, 2013 

Centre County’s population was 27,000 in 1860. In the elections that fall, more than 7,000 adult white males cast ballots, giving a majority in the county for Abraham Lincoln as president and Andrew Gregg Curtin as governor. Lincoln’s election resulted in the secession of seven Southern states and the portent of civil war.

The firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 caused a rush to arms in the North and the South. Lincoln requested 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion, and four more Southern states joined the Confederacy. Curtin offered the federal government 100,000 men. In Centre County, the Bellefonte Fencibles, Cameron Infantry and Eagle Guards, militia units, enrolled for the three-months’ service and left for Harrisburg.

In the weeks and months that followed, roughly 1,500 Centre County men volunteered for three years, forming 100-man companies. Sent to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, they were assigned to the 45th, 49th and 51st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and 1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. In Centre County, meanwhile, folks pledged thousands of dollars to aid soldiers’ families.

Enlistments slowed during the winter and spring of 1862. In Washington, D.C., the War Department closed recruiting stations as Federal armies won a succession of victories. During the last week of June, however, the Confederates defeated the Union Army of the Potomac outside of Richmond, Va., in the Seven Days campaign. The Lincoln administration reacted by asking for 300,000 more men.

Centre Countians responded to the president’s call for volunteers by raising seven companies. “War meetings” occurred throughout the county, during which men listened to patriotic speeches and signed enlistment papers. Wealthy business and professional leaders raised money to pay each volunteer a bonus of $25.

The seven companies and three more — mainly from Jefferson, Indiana and Clarion counties — formed the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which became known as “The Centre County Regiment.” Gov. Curtin appointed James A. Beaver as colonel of the 148th Pennsylvania. In time, the regiment was assigned to the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac.

The 148th Pennsylvania fought in the battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. At Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, the regiment lost 137 killed, wounded and missing in the fighting in the Wheatfield. The survivors in the 148th Pennsylvania were mustered out of the army in June 1865. Among the 25 Union regiments that suffered the greatest percentage of members killed in combat, the 148th Pennsylvania ranked 14th.

By the war’s end, Centre Countians had served in 47 different units of infantry, artillery and cavalry. Several African-Americans had fought with the 6th United States Colored Troops. In the years after the war, many of the veterans joined local posts of the Grand Army of the Republic. The Union veterans’ organization became a powerful political voting bloc and secured pensions for themselves and their widows. The federal government paid Civil War pensions well into the 20th century.

Jeffry Wert is a retired Penns Valley Area High School teacher and author of nine books on the Civil War.

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