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PA Civil War > Regiments > 81st > History

PA Civil War Volunteer Soldiers

Eighty-First Regiment Regimental History

Recruited in Philadelphia and Carbon County, Pennsylvania

Mustered in April 22, 1861
81st PA Regiment History

The Eighty-first Regiment was recruited under the direction of James Miller, a soldier of the Mexican War in obedience to an order of the War Department. Six companies were from the City of Philadelphia, and four from the counties of Carbon and Luzerne. Recruiting commenced early in August, and the men reported by squads and companies at the general camp of rendezvous near Easton. Here the regiment was organized by the choice of the following field officers: James Miller, Colonel; Charles F. Johnson, Lieutenant Colonel; Eli T. Conner, Major. Many of both officers and men had been connected with militia organizations, and had been in the three months' service.

On the 10th of October the regiment proceeded to Washington, and went into camp at Kendall Green. Two weeks later it moved to a camp overlooking the East Branch of the Potomac and the Navy Yard. It was here assigned to a brigade commanded by General Casey, subsequently by General Howard, and known as the First Brigade, First Division, of the Second Corps. With the exception of an expedition to Marlborough, Maryland, as a police force for the preservation of order at the general elections, where the peace was threatened, it was engaged in no active duty until the beginning of December. During the winter, details from the regiment were frequently sent out, under Captain Thomas C. Harkness, on scout duty, and much valuable information was obtained.

On the lst of March, the regiment commenced active operations, and the enemy was driven from Burk's to Sangster's Station, but it was soon re-called, and on the 10th joined in the general forward movement, which was out short at Manassas by the disappearance of the enemy. It then returned to Centreville. Shortly afterward Sumner's Division was again ordered forward, driving the enemy to Warrenton Junction, and thence across the Rappahannock. He burned the bridge as he retreated and shelled the Union column from the opposite shore. The division retired to Alexandria, and thence proceeded to the Peninsula. Beyond the building of corduroy roads, and fatigue duty, in the operations of siege of Yorktown, and the subsequent march upon Williamsburg, little of note occurred until it arrived upon the Chickahominy. after it was employed in building the famous Sumner Bridge. When completed, the regiment crossed, with the brigade, and proceeded to Golden's Farm, where it was engaged in a severe skirmish, driving back the enemy for the engineers to locate their works; but abandoned the position during the night, and returned to the north side of the river.

On the 30th of May, the enemy attacked the Union forces near Fair Oaks. In the afternoon, Sumner received orders to move with his corps to their relief. As the brigade advanced the enemy in its front fell back to the Nine Mile Road. On the following morning, the battle was renewed. The Eighty-first occupied the left of the brigade, with its left flank exposed. A regiment of the enemy approached close upon the front, and Colonel Miller, supposing it to be a Union force., called out to it, when a volley was delivered from which he fell, shot through the heart. There was little artillery firing until the battle was over. The right wing of the Eighty-first was carried back with the regiments on its right, but the left held its position, and continued the fight until it was suddenly attacked from the rear. Finding that the right of the line had disappeared, Captain Harkness assumed command, and led the battalion, on a by-road, to the right, where it was met by Lieutenant Miles, of General Howard's staff, and ordered to retire to the railroad. Files from company H were detailed to take the body of Colonel Miller to the rear. Near the spot where the Colonel was killed, General Howard lost his arm. Lieutenant Horace M. Lee was mortally wounded. General Caldwell now succeeded to the command of the brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Johnson was promoted to Colonel, Major Conner to Lieutenant Colonel, and Adjutant H. B. McKeen to Major. The lines were advanced beyond Fair Oaks and fortified.

On the 15th of June, while three companies of the Eighty-first, D, R, and X, were on picket, the enemy attacked and drove back the guard on the left, but failed to move these companies. In this encounter Captain Samuel Sherlock was killed. The line of the brigade crossed the railroad, and the Nine Mile Road, and was much exposed. The duty in the trenches and upon the skirmish line was very severe. On the 29th, Sumner's Corps withdrew from the breast-works, and moved as rear guard of the army on the retreat to the James River. At day break the regiment reached the Peach Orchard, and at eight o'clock became engaged. It was posted in. support of artillery, and remained in position until past noon, when, the enemy having moved upon the right flank, it fell back to Savage Station, and was drawn up on the hill near Savage's House. After nightfall. it moved on past White Oak Swamp, and took position to dispute the passage of the creek. On the following morning, the enemy opened from the opposite side of the stream with his artillery, which elicited a prompt reply. remained in support of the guns until four o'clock in the afternoon, suffering considerable loss, when it was hastily marched to the battle ground at Charles City Cross Roads. At six it went into position, and until ten the battle raged with unabated fury. The night was very dark, and the men were only guided in their aim by the flash of the enemy's gang. The regiment sustained severe loss. Colonel Johnson, and Captains William J. Conner and Thomas C. Harkness were among the wounded, the latter receiving four wounds. Lieutenant Colonel Conner acted with great gallantry and courage throughout the engagement..

During the night the Army retired to Malvern hill Porter was posted on the extreme left, with the commands of Couch, Kearny, Hooker. Sedgwick, Richardson, Smith, and Slocum respectively, on his right. Conch' was first attacked, and as the attacks upon him were repeated, fresh troops were sent to his aid, among others, the brigade of Caldwell. Here, while leading on his men, with great coolness and bravery, Lieutenant Colonel Conner was killed. Every fresh assault of the enemy was bloodily repulsed; but the action was maintained until after dark, when the fire gradually died out, and he retired from the contest. On the following day the army withdrew to Harrison's Landing From the Peninsula the regiment returned, by transports, to Acquia Creek, and thence marched in the direction of Falmouth, as far as Brook's Station. It was here halted and counter-marched to Acquia, whence it again proceeded, by transport, to Alexandria, and marched out to the old camp which it bad vacated on the 10th of March previous. After resting two days, it proceeded to Arlington Heights, arriving at two o'clock on the morning of the 29th of August. At eleven it was ordered forward to the Second Bull Run ground, but arrived only in time to witness the retreat from that ill-starred field.

At South Mountain, on the 14th of September, Richardson's Division was in reserve, but on the following day, took the advance, and moving through the pass, the Eighty-first supporting the Eighth Illinois Cavalry, drove the enemy, through Boonsboro and Keedysville, to Antietam Creek. On the morning of the 17th, Sumner's Corps crossed the stream, and moved up to the support of Hooker, who bad been sharply engaged since early dawn. By ten o'clock, Richardson's Division, composed of the brigades of Meagher, Caldwell and Brooke, had reached the front, and was deployed on the extreme left of Sumner's line. Meagher :first attacked, and after a severe engagement, at close quarters, he was relieved by Caldwell, supported by Brooke. At this juncture, the enemy was reinforced and the contest became determined. To seize the high ground to the Union left, and thus turn that flank, the enemy made a strong effort, but in this was defeated by Colonel Cross, of the Fifth New Hampshire. Richardson now ordered a direct attack, and drove the enemy back, gaining a strong position about Piper's House, and along a sunken road, extending across to the Hagerstown Pike, which he held. The loss of .the Eighty-first in this advance was very heavy. Captain Philip R. Schuyler and Lieutenant, William H. Vandyke were among the killed.

From Antietam, the regiment proceeded to Harper's Ferry, whence it was sent on a reconnaissance to Charlestown, but returned without meeting the enemy. Shortly afterwards, the division crossed the Shenandoah River, and moved through Rectortown and Salem, to Warrenton. After Burnside took command of the army, the division made a rapid march to Falmonth. Here the brigade was ordered to the support of Petit's Battery, engaged with the enemy across the river, whose guns were speedily silenced.

In November, Colonel Johnson resigned on account of wounds received at Charles City Cross Roads, and Major McKeen was promoted to Colonel, and Captain Robert M. Lee, Jr., to Lieutenant Colonel. Subsequently, upon the resignation of Colonel Lee, on account of wounds received at Fair Oaks, Captain Amos Stroh was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain Thomas C. Harkness to Major. The regiment went into winter quarters, and remained until the Ilth of December, when it moved out to engage in the battle of Fredericksburg. It was held in support of artillery, until the morning of the 12th, when it crossed the river and was posted along the wharf, where it remained twenty-four hours. While here, thirty boxes of tobacco, which the enemy bad sought to destroy by throwing them into the stream, were rescued. On the morning of the 13th, it moved up Front street to the railroad bridge, the right resting near the grist mill. At ten o'clock it went into action. Moving down Street, under a heavy artillery fire directed upon its flank, it gained the position, close up to the enemy, rifle-pits, which has been appropriately termed the slaughter pen, but from which it was quickly forced back to the line, which it held, under a terrific artillery fire, until ordered from the field. Of the five thousand men comprised in the division, two thousand fell in the charge. In the Eighty-first, Lieutenant Clinton Swain was among the killed, and Lieutenant Zhdoc Aydelott mortally wounded. Colonel McKeen, and Captains Conner, Mercer, Munyan, Harkness and Wilson were also wounded. The regiment returned to its quarters, and remained until the 26th of April, when the brigade moved from can)p towards United States Ford. Four miles out, the Eighty-first Pennsylvania and the Fifth New Hampshire were detached, and ordered to move in advance, as guard to the column. At each house on the way, for half a mile on either side, guards were posted, who allowed no persons to leave until the column was across the river.

On the lst of May, the brigade marched, at double quick, from United States Ford to Chancellorsville, and out upon the Fredericksburg Road, to a position occupied by a portion of the Fifth Corps, which it relieved. A part of the brigade under Colonel Miles, of the Sixty-first New York, was thrown out upon the skirmish line, which was gallantly defended when attacked by Lee in his cooperative movement in favor of Jackson. The Eighty-first was engaged throughout the remainder of the battle, and suffered considerable loss. Colonel McKeen and Major Harkness were severely wounded. With the army it returned again to its camp near Falmouth. Remaining here until near the close of May it broke up winter quarters and moved to Stoneman's Switch, near Potomac Creek.

On the 6th of June, a detachment, under command of Colonel McKeen, was sent out, in light marching order, to the support of the cavalry, across the Rappahannock. At sundown of the 18th, the regiment broke camp and moved to Stafford Court House where there was considerable skirmishing. Proceeding through Dumfries to Sangster's Station, it was re-joined by the detachment, and thence moved to Thoroughfare Gap. Here it remained four days, engaged in picket duty in the mountains above the gap. At Haymarket, four miles from the gap, the enemy attacked the corps train, throwing his shells in rapid rounds. On the 28th, the regiment reached a point on the Monocacy Creek, Maryland, where it is crossed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At eight o'clock in the evening, it was sent, with a section of artillery, to guard the bridge on the pike and was on duty all night after a fatiguing day's march. On the day it marched to Uniontown, a distance of thirty-eight miles, some of the men barefooted and suffering severely, as they moved rapidly on over sharp macadamized way.

On the lst of July, the command was ordered to move to gettysburg. At Taneytown, an escort of cavalry was met, bearing the body of General Reynolds, who had fallen that morning. At evening the regiment arrived upon the field with the corps, and was posted two miles the rear of the town, to cover the communications, where, during the night, it was engaged in throwing up breast-works. On the morning of the 2nd, the corps moved up and took position in line of battle, with its right resting on the Cemetery, and its left connecting with the Third Corporal At eleven in the morning, the brigade was ordered forward towards the brick kiln, near the Emmettsburg Road, but soon returned and had barely time to take a cup of coffee, when the battle having opened on the left where Sickles stood, Caldwell was hurried away with his division to his support. The brigade was commanded by Colonel Cross. Caldwell led his men past the foot of Round Top, across the road leading to the Peach Orchard, and on to the Wheat Field, where the brigades of Tilton and Sweitzer had gone before, to the support of the hard pressed troops of Birney. In this wheat field, and in the rocky and wooded eminence beyond, the fighting was terrible. The ground was disputed on either side with a stubbornness rarely equaled. At nine P. M., after the loss of nearly one-half of its effective strength, the brigade returned to its former position in the line, where it remained until the close of the battle. On the morning of the 4th, the regiment was ordered to advance and attack the enemy's picket line, which easily yielded, his forces being nearly all gone, and that afternoon Started towards the Potomac. In the campaign which followed in the Valley of Virginia, the Eighty-first shared the fortunes of the Second Corps. In the operations at Mine Run, of the 29th of November, Captain David J. Phillips was killed. Upon the return of the army, after the abandonment of offensive operations, it went into winter quarters between Brandy Station and Stevensburg. Early in January, a sufficient number re-enlisted to entitle it to a continuance of its organization, and were given a veteran furlough.

Upon the opening of the spring campaign of 1864, the Eighty-first stood ready with recruited ranks to take the field. Colonel McKeen was assigned to the command of the brigade, and Major William Wilson, who, upon the resignation of Lieutenant Colonel Harkness, by reason of disability, had been promoted to succeed him, was in command of the regiment. After crossing the Rapidan, the Second Corps commenced the march toward Spottsylvania; but the head of the column had proceeded but a few miles before it was re-called, the enemy having made his appearance, and attacked at the Wilderness. For three days the battle was maintained, the Eighty-first suffering considerable loss, when the enemy abandoned the offensive, and held himself in his position. The March of the Union Army was then resumed towards Spottsylvania; but upon its arrival at the Po River, it was found that the rebels had reached it in advance, and was already in a strong position. On the morning of the 12th of May, the Second Corps assaulted the enemy's works, and carried two lines, capturing a large number of prisoners, guns, and small arms. The fighting was at close quarters and very desperate. In this assault Lieutenant Sidney N. Hawk was among the killed, and Lieutenant Colonel Wilson among the severely wounded.

With less success were the assaults of the Second Corps on the enemy's entrenched works at Cold Harbor, on the 3d Of June. This was near the old battle ground of Gaines' Mill, in the Seven Days' Battles of McClellan; but the positions of the contending forces were reversed. Colonel McKeen led the brigade in the desperate attempt to carry the enemy's works, and was killed while gallantly directing the contest. In the operations of the Second Corps before Petersburg, the Eighty-first Participated, and in the contest of the 17th of June, Captain H. Ginder was killed. At Strawberry Plains, Peam's Station, and Deep Bottom, in each of which the corps was engaged with varying success, the regiment maintained its character for courage and daring. The winter was spent in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and when towards the close of March, 1865, active operations opened, the regiment moved with the corps on its final campaign. It did not suffer serious loss, though frequently engaged, and worn down with constant and rapid marching, until it reached Farmville, on the 7th of April, where the main body of Lee's army was drawn up in a strong position, prepared to offer obstinate resistance. Humphrey found," says Swinton, "the main body of Lee's army entrenched in a strong position, four or five miles north of Farmville, covering the stage and plank roads leading to Lynchburg. It proved to be too formidable for a front attack, the ground being open and sloping up gradually to a crest about a thousand yards distant, which was covered with entrenchments and batteries. An attempt was then made to take it in flank, but the Confederate flanks were found to extend on both Flanks, on the right and left, beyond the line of Humphrey's divisions, and it became manifest that all that remained of the Army of Northern Virginia was present. Barlow's Division was then ordered up. Meanwhile Humphrey, having extended his right the length of one division, ordered Miles to make an attack with three regiments; but these met a complete repulse, suffering the loss of above a hundred killed and wounded. It was too late to renew the operations when Barlow arrived, and, during the night, Lee again retreated." On the 9th Lee surrendered. In this last desperate but unfortunate assault, the Eighty-first lost heavily, Captains Charles Wilson and John Bond being among the killed. Its fighting was now over, and returning with the army to the neighborhood of Washington, it was, on the 29th of June, mustered out of service. During the four years in which it. followed the fortunes of the Army of the Potomac, sharing its perils and its glory, scarcely missing a battle, it lost, of the field and staff, four killed, five wounded, one prisoner, and two who died of disease; of the line, fourteen officers killed, forty wounded, and two taken prisoners; and of enlisted men, two hundred and one killed, five hundred and sixteen wounded, one hundred and fifty-two taken prisoners, and seventy-nine who died of disease.

Source: Bates, Samuel P. (Samuel Penniman), 1827-1902.: History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5; prepared in compliance with acts of the legislature, by Samuel P. Bates.

Battles Fought
Battle at Bristoe Station, Virginia
Battle at Harrison's Landing, Virginia
Battle at Petersburg, Virginia
Battle at Springfield Station, Virginia
Battle at White Oak Swamp, Virginia
Battle at Fair Oaks, Virginia on 31 May 1862
Battle at Fair Oaks, Virginia on 01 June 1862
Battle at Fair Oaks, Virginia on 15 June 1862
Battle at Charles City Cross Roads, Virginia on 30 June 1862
Battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia on 01 July 1862
Battle at Malvern Hill, Virginia on 01 July 1862
Battle at Antietam, Maryland on 17 September 1862
Battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia on 13 December 1862
Battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia on 03 May 1863
Battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on 02 July 1863
Battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on 03 July 1863
Battle on 14 October 1863
Battle on 15 October 1863
Battle at Mine Run, Virginia on 29 November 1863
Battle at Franklin, Tennessee on 07 April 1864
Battle at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia on 08 May 1864
Battle at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia on 10 May 1864
Battle at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia on 12 May 1864
Battle at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia on 15 May 1864
Battle at Spotsylvania, Virginia on 15 May 1864
Battle at Cold Harbor, Virginia on 01 June 1864
Battle at Cold Harbor, Virginia on 03 June 1864
Battle on 12 June 1864
Battle at Petersburg, Virginia on 15 June 1864
Battle at Petersburg, Virginia on 16 June 1864
Battle at Petersburg, Virginia on 17 June 1864
Battle on 22 June 1864
Battle on 23 June 1864
Battle on 15 July 1864
Battle at Deep Bottom Run, Virginia on 16 August 1864
Battle at Reams' Station, Virginia on 25 August 1864
Battle on 27 October 1864
Battle on 08 December 1864
Battle on 15 December 1864
Battle at Petersburg, Virginia on 25 March 1865
Battle on 31 March 1865
Battle on 06 April 1865
Battle at Farmville, Virginia on 07 April 1865

Killed, or died from wounds officers, 18; men, 190  
Died from disease, etc. officers 2; men 89  
Wounded, not mortally officers 44; men 518  
Captured or missing officers 3; men 190 Civil War Databases

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