The Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading
By NICHOLAS D. FOGNANO, JR.
Throughout the Reading-Berks County area the name of the Ringgold Light Artillery is mostly associated with the title, “First Defenders,” the military unit who first answered President Lincoln’s call to defend our nation’s capital. However, what many fail to recognize is the fact that the Ringgold Artillery was a more versatile force in the part it played during the Civil War era and that even after its disbandment a number of the unit’s members distinguished themselves through certain regiments of the U.S. army in many crucial battles of the Civil War.
By tracing the history of this well-known unit it will become evident that the Ringgold Artillery did not gain its fame and reputation solely by their duty in Washington. Long before this incident, the Ringgold unit had built up its reputation as a capable and distinguished military unit. Bred from the Reading area artillery units of the Mexican War, the Ringgold Artillery rose to become by the eve of the Civil War, one of the many state militias which were to become the backbone of the Union military forces assigned to protect the capital and other strategic northern points from Confederate attack until the government could draft men into the U.S. army for military duty. Thus by interpreting the actions of the Ringgold Artillery, it can be proven that indeed, this volunteer unit did play a most important and versatile part in the most critical of times in our nation’s history.
The Ringgold Light Artillery was formed unofficially in November of 1849 by the Company A volunteers, a group of veterans of the Mexican War, and called themselves, “The Ringgold Flying Artillery,” named for Major Samuel Ringgold who commanded a battery of the Third Artillery and was mortally wounded on May 8, 1846 at the Battle of Paolo Alto, the first U.S. soldier to be killed in the Mexican War.
Major Ringgold was the first proponent of the “flying artillery,” a tactical concept which utilized the cannon in battle by having them accompany the infantry as it moved forward in battle instead of having the cannon remain behind to fire over the heads of the advancing infantry. On May 21, 1850, the unit named for Ringgold was officially formed and later changed its name, dropping the term “flying,” and renamed simply, the Ringgold Light Artillery.
The Ringgold Light Artillery was a volunteer company armed with four, six-pounder brass field pieces and caissons, with the full equipment of artillerists, which included sabres, to which over 200 men were trained to utilize. The men were well drilled and soldiers of high character in the peak of physical condition. The Ringgolds took part in a number of volunteer encampments, one of which was at Easton, Pa., extending for a week’s time and they were entertained by ex-Governor Reeder and other leading citizens of the area.
It was customary at the time for the men of a unit to elect their own commanding officer, and in the first balloting for officer in 1850, the members of the unit elected Captain James McKnight as their first commander. McKnight would head the unit for more than eleven years, stepping down finally in 1861 to fulfill his long desire to become a professional soldier. On June 14, 1861, he would accept a commission in the Regular Army and be assigned as a battery commander of the 5th U.S. Artillery Regiment.
Early in the 1800’s there was a growing unrest developing between the Northern and Southern United States. The Southern states, outraged later by the election of a Republican president in 1860, saw the Northern Republican administration as a threat to Southern civilization and the slave-based agricultural system. The seeds of secession had been sown and war was inevitable.
It was rumored that February 22, 1861, would be the date of a Southern attack on Washington, D.C. During the months of February and March, a Peace Conference was held near the capital, at which time Congress tried to make a last ditch attempt to preserve the Union by submitting an amendment to the Constitution which would allow slavery to function where it already was being instituted. The move was one to try and force a compromise with the South, but unfortunately the amendment was never ratified. On March 17th, the seven southern states which had seceded from the Union ratified the Constitution of the Confederacy. On April 12th, Fort Sumpter was attacked and the Civil War began.
One man who was viewing the oncoming events with fear and predicted the rise of an impending crises was the Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, the commander of the 5th Division of the Pennsylvania Militia, General William H. Keim. On Jnuary 1, 1861, Keim had ordered Captain McKnight to prepare his men for war service. McKnight immediately armed and equipped his unit with the aid of the citizens of Reading and Berks County, and the Ringgold Artillery held drills and military exercises from February to April of 1861 to prepare themselves for duty when called.
The question may be asked, why the Ringgold Light Artillery would be chosen to be the first, or one of the first units called to duty and why Keim approached McKnight. This can be resolved by observing a statement from Captain McKnight made after the war in which he states the motivating factors behind Keim’s objectives. McKnight states that,
The General (Keim) proceeded to state that the Government was in possession of facts tending to develop an intention on the part of the rebels to seize Washington on the 22nd of February, and not as was first supposed, upon March 4, 1861 (the date of Lincoln’s inauguration). He came to me by direction and under the orders of Governor Andrew G. Curtin, Commander-in-Chief of the Pennsylvania Militia, who had commissioned him to select from the best volunteer organizations of the state, such companies as could be relied upon, if the emergency should arise, and who would be ready to move upon twenty-four hours notice.
Evidently, General Keim must have had a high opinion of the Ringgold Light Artillery in that it was this company that he first contacted in the name of McKnight, and thus chose this unit to be the one which should be ready to move out and defend the capital. It would seem that it is an honor in itself to be viewed by Keim as the “finest volunteer organization in the state,” and that he accorded them the opportunity to defend the nation’s capital.
On April 15, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call to arms, ordering out the militia of a number of states which amounted to 75,000 men. The state of Pennsylvania was requested to send sixteen regiments, two of which would be required for duty within three days. This call for arms was due to the threat of an immediate attack on Washington, as the capital was entirely unprotected and open to attack.
Among the first units to respond to the President’s call for arms to defend the capital were the Ringgold Light Artillery, the Logan Guards, the Washington Artillery, the National Light Infantry and the Allen Rifles. All of these units had been forewarned of the impending crises and were prepared. The Ringgold Light Artillery is credited with being the first unit to respond to the call for defense. It should be noted at this point that it was these volunteer state militias whom Lincoln called on at the beginning of the war to defend the country until a draft could be enacted to raise a war time army.
On the 15th day of April, the Ringgold Artillerists were drilling when the news came of Lincoln’s proclamation. The unit, numbering ninety men were marched to the center of Penn Square in Reading and there staged an exhibition drill, and from there moved to the Armory on 8th and Penn streets to await further orders.
On that same day, orders were sent by Secretary of the Commonwealth, Eli Slifer, ordering McKnight, “Bring your command to Harrisburg by first train. If any men need equipment they will be provided here by the General Government. Lose no time.” Since the orders did not reach McKnight till the following morning, the Ringgolds, it can be seen, were drilling and preparing themselves on the day the orders were sent. Captain McKnight relates the events leading up to the Ringgold’s arrival in Washington and gives an account of how the men prepared themselves beforehand.
The same day upon which my orders were received, the Company was divided into squads, for the purpose of more efficient and effective drilling, which was continued uninterruptedly up to the day before we left for Harrisburg April 16th, 1861. The drills were not confined to the service of the gun, and the duties incident to drivers and the care of horses; the men were also well instructed in the use of the sabre — the only legitimate arm of defense of an artilleryman when dismounted and away from his guns.
It is at this point that the famous controversy develops in regarding which was the first unit to respond to the call to defense and did physically arrive en masse in Harrisburg, ready for duty and ready to be equipped and sent to Washington. This subject has been studied and written on extensively, probably too extensively. By reviewing the events which took place and by studying certain-written accounts, it can be proven without a doubt that the Ringgold Light Artillery were the “First Defenders” of our nation’s capital and the first to respond to President Lincoln’s call to arms. The title given the unit, and the whole controversy can be taken for what it is worth as the subject will be questioned and challenged later in this paper.
A statement from G. A. Nicolls, then Superintendent of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, in a notice in the Philadelphia Press, July 6, 1866, that on the morning of April 16th, 1861, Captain McKnight asked for transportation for the Ringgold Artillery. The troops boarded the train at the 7th and Chestnut Station, and prepared to embark as soon as possible in accordance with their orders. They arrived according to Nicolls, at Harrisburg, between 8:00 and 8:30 P.M. on the 16th.
Further proof is provided by a number of sources. Captain McKnight related, “I left Reading with my command, numbering 101 men, fully armed and equipped, on the evening of April 16, 1861, at six o’clock, reaching Harrisburg at eight o’clock. Also, the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, Harrisburg of April 17th reported that, “Last night about eight o’clock the Ringgold Artillery, Captain James McKnight, numbering 100 men arrived. They took up quarters at Herr’s Hotel . . . Our citizens welcome them with cheers.” Actually 101 men embarked from the Reading Station, and later four others joined the main body at the station in Sinking Spring and Lebanon, making a total of 105 persons in the Ringgold Artillery that went to Harrisburg. It should be noted that the four other volunteer units did not arrive in Harrisburg until various times on the 17th of April, thus making the Ringgolds the first unit to report for duty.
On the same day the Ringgolds arrived, the Secretary of Pennsylvania informed the Secretary of War that the Ringgold Artillery had reported. Secretary of War Cameron wired back, “Push forward the company by the first train.” This order was later countermanded on the same day and the unit was held up in Harrisburg until the 18th, but, “it is absolute proof that the Reading Company was the first to receive direct orders from the War Department. It should be noted that had these orders not been countermanded, the Ringgold unit would have arrived in the capital one full day ahead of the other companies, which would also have been a day before the secession of Virginia which came about on the 17th.
On April 18, 1861, a unit of regulars of the Company H, 4th Artillery, numbering forty to fifty under Lieutenant John C. Pemberton, arrived in Harrisburg. The five volunteer companies were mustered into service by Captain Seneca G. Simmons of the 7th Infantry, and were prepared to depart with the regulars by train for Baltimore. The train moved out at 9 A.M. of the 18th, the regulars destined for Fort McHenry
and the volunteers, of course, headed for Washington. The train pulled in Baltimore at 1 P.M. of the same day, and the volunteers were required to march two miles through the city from the Bolton to the Camden train stations.’
At the station Pemberton formed a battalion with his regulars on the right, the Logan Guards behind, followed by the Washington Artillery, the Allen Rifles and the National Light Infantry with the Ringgold Light Artillery bringing up the rear. While forming at the Bolton Station, a force of Baltimore city police appeared followed by an angry mob of Southern sympathizers, who tried to attack the battalion but the police held the mob off, giving the units an escort through the city, as it should be noted that except for a very few officers and privates, the great majority of the men of the battalion carried unloaded weapons, although the mob did not know it. Orders were given to the volunteers to hold their tempers and keep calm but as they marched, the mob jeered and threatened them.
It should be noted at this time that this incident was in itself very peculiar and should be questioned. Why did the U.S. government allow the volunteers to go through a hostile city such as Baltimore unarmed and open to attack? Why was Secretary of War Cameron’s order to move out to Washington later countermanded? There is proof that had this order not been countermanded, there probably would not have been an incident as the volunteers would have passed through Baltimore before the secession of Virginia and at that time sentiments would not have been so hostile.
One reason probably, that the original order to move out was countermanded was that had the Ringgolds moved out on the 16th of April as was originally ordered, they would have marched through Baltimore, without the other volunteer regiments, without the regulars, and at the mercy of the people of Baltimore, though it is hard to say what their feelings would have been on the 16th, but one small unit is certainly more vulnerable to attack than five units plus a company of regulars. Another answer to these problems may be provided by a letter written by Edmund L. Smith, a private in the Ringgold Light Artillery who participated in the march through Baltimore. As Smith relates:
The administration both at Harrisburg and Washington had been informed that an attempt to pass troops through Baltimore would result in a probable collision. They purposely left us in the dark about it, purposely refused us arms and purposely led us to hope there would be no danger by representing that troops had already passed through unmolested, which they knew to be false. We were the first troops that went through and were intended as a feeler of the public’s sentiment of the city. They would have sacrificed us if necessary upon the altar of public policy, which is perhaps all very good, except to the victims . . . I would rather fight twenty pitched battles — rather lead the most desperate forlorn hope than undergo another such a trial.
Thus, it is very well possible the government did as Smith stated, use the volunteer companies to test the public sentiment of the city of Baltimore, a move quite foolish and dangerous when involving the lives of men who are needed to defend the capital. It forces the question of how urgently were these forces needed if Washington was willing to chance passing them through a possibly hostile city, unarmed? It would seem that the government would be paying an expensive price in men and would chance losing the units sent to defend the capital, all for the sake of testing public opinion of a city.
The battalion eventually arrived at the center of the city. At this point Pemberton and his regulars broke off toward Fort McHenry and left the volunteers to make it on their own to Camden Station. At this time, the mob broke through the police and attempted to break the column. Eventually, but with great difficulty, the troops made their way to the train and attempted to board it. At this point the mob attacked, hurling bricks and other projectiles at the troops inflicting slight injuries. A further attempt was made by the mob to detach the engine from the train and run it off but the courageous stand taken by the engineer and his crew by threatening to shoot any who dared to make the attempt discouraged the mob. The train eventually moved out carrying the volunteers safely to Washington.
It should well be noted that on the following day, April 19th, several companies of the 6th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry restaged the march through Baltimore and this time met with actual warfare as the mob of rebel sympathizers attacked these troops with guns. Three men of the regiment were killed and thirty four were injured. This was the last of the Northern troops to pass through Baltimore as afterward, all bridges between Baltimore and the North were ordered burned. It seems the government had learned a costly lesson in public sentiment.
At this time it should be noted that Washington was in a state of panic as rumors spread quickly about possible invasions. It must be understood that at this time, Washington was located in a very vulnerable position right near the boundary of Confederate territory and surrounded by Southern sympathizers. The April 18th issue of the “Pennsylvania Telegraph” reported: “Washington at this time presents a decidedly military appearance.” Many new recruits were quickly enrolling and were still without uniforms and equipment. The city was plagued with rumors that the Confederate troops, who were drilling across the Potomac, would be sent across to capture Washington after having gained control of the Arsenal and Navy Yard. This attempt would utilize the supporters in Baltimore who, rumor had it, had been strengthened by troops from the South since the rebels were expected to attack the capital at any time, and in response, plans were quickly made to have the Capitol barricaded and orders were issued to deploy a large military force around Washington.
Evidently, the five volunteer companies must have been well received in the capital as their train moved in at 7 P.M. of the 18th. The volunteers were immediately placed under the command of Major Irwin McDowell and ordered to quarters in the Capitol. The units were provided with arms, ammunition and equipment and work was immediately commenced to barricade the Capitol building, fronting the Potomac with barrels of cement and large sheets of boiler iron. While the Ringgolds worked they were very much in the dark about what to expect regarding enemy activity. As Edmund L. Smith relates:
We are kept in the same state of doubt to which I referred in my yesterday’s letter. The rebels are said to be at Alexandria (Virginia) and their arrival is always expected. The Capitol has been barricaded and now contains nearly a thousand volunteers. We are constantly at guard at some point or another.
It should be noted that by May 24th, Federal troops occupied Alexandria, forcing the rebels to retreat toward Manassas Junction setting the stage for the first Battle of Bull Run. The threats of Confederate invasion of Washington were for the most part exaggerated. It is true that Confederate forces were drilling across the Potomac in full view of the capital. On the 23rd of May, a rumor started up again, this time it was thought that an attempt would be made to capture Washington by way of the Arsenal and Naval Yard as mentioned earlier.
In response to the rumor, the Ringgold Light Artillery was ordered to report to Captain (later Admiral) Dahlgren at the Navy Yard. Here, three, twelve-pound howitzers were assigned to the company for the purpose of defending the area. The entire unit was needed to man these guns except for twelve men who were detached to guard the Short Bridge which was vital to the defense of Washington.
On April 25th, a Sergeant and six men of the Ringgold were assigned to serve as a guard on the steamer “Powhatan,” and dispatched to make a reconnaissance down the Potomac searching out “obstructions,” and to discover whether forts were being erected along the river. On the 26th, the company was ordered by Major McDowell to duty at the Capitol and were to remain there until May 15th upon which they were assigned for duty at the Washington Arsenal under Major Ramsey.
It is interesting to note at this time the feelings of the men of the Ringgold who were sent to Washington with the anticipation of defending it from an oncoming rebel invasion. It seems that with the rumors of rebel attacks disproved, and now the volunteers being used to guard the city, it would appear that the Ringgold Artillerists may have at this time, wanted a little more action than they were getting. This theory is expounded by Edmund L. Smith as he states:
Notwithstanding all we have borne and are bearing and will have to bear, I do not believe there is one dissatisfied man among us. They know they are expected to fight and some I think would be disappointed to go home without one battle. If I may judge from the opinion of some of them well qualified to give an opinion, I have no doubt we will have hot work to do before we get back to our homes— if we ever see them more.
The men of the Ringgold it seems, were becoming impatient, not really war crazy but they would have been disappointed as Smith predicts, had they not been involved in some action for there was much pride within the unit and less a chance to satisfy this pride by guarding the capital. The real way to gain glory was in the battlefield, but the Ringgold Artillery had to do its part by accomplishing a task which had to be done, and they did so, quite honorably. It should be realized though the psychological aspect of the Ringgolds desire for some action to bolster their ego and confidence.
The battle was never to come. The condition of Washington had been improved within a month. There were 15,000 troops stationed around the Capitol building, and on May 13th, General Butler occupied Baltimore with 1,000 men and reestablished communications between Washington and the North. Butler’s unit greatly relieved the pressure which had been exerted on the troops occupying Washington. On May 16th, the Ringgold Artillerists were overjoyed to receive their own field pieces, the ones which they had previously been forced to leave behind at Harrisburg. They were ordered to discontinue all other duty and place the guns and caissons in proper condition and to begin gun and sabre drill. On the 18th, the unit was inspected by Secretary of War, Cameron. The rest of the Ringgold’s term of service was utilized in guarding the Arsenal, except for a short period of time when the unit was assigned to mount guns in the forts about Washington. The Ringgolds period of duty ended surprisingly “never having performed duty with the regiments to which it was nominally attached.”
It should be noted that the Ringgold Light Artillery had been classified as Company A of the 25th Regiment, and according to Heber Thompson in his book, The First Defenders, stated that, “because they had men in excess of army regulations, they were reorganized into seven companies with three more companies added from Harrisburg, Doylestown, and Carbondale. The 25th Regiment never saw united service, but continued on detached duty in Washington.” On July 18, 1861, the Ringgold’s three month term of service ended and by July 20, 1861, the men were officially mustered-out, though most of the men re-enlisted and remained in service in other regiments of the Union army, distinguishing themselves throughout the war.
Having discussed the period of time the Ringgolds spent in Washington, what their duties were and the conditions at the time, it is now important to investigate the problem of the importance of the Ringgolds in defending Washington and to separate the facts from the rumors. Many papers concerning the Ringgold Light Artillery have stressed the importance of the unit’s being addressed as the “First Defenders,” which is what they are, but the question arises on the subject; that of what dangers were they defending Washington from? What is really being questioned is how imminent the Confederate attack on Washington was during the time the Ringgold Artillery was stationed in Washington or for that matter how imminent an attack on the capital was during the entire war. Thus far, in the events discussed, a number of times there is reference made to rumors of a Confederate attack, but in all cases, the rumors proved to be without truth.
An investigation into the history of the Civil War will show a number of occasions when there was a threat of a rebel invasion or there was an actual opportunity when the Confederate army could have attacked the capital. On July 21, 1861, the Union army of General McDowell, advanced on Manassas, Virginia, and battled the Confederates under General Beauregard in the First Battle of Bull Run or the Battle of Manassas Junction. The Northern army made several assaults on the rebels, but reinforcements by General Joseph E. Johnston coming from the Shenandoah Valley and another force led by General Edmund Kirby-Smith joined Beauregard to halt the Northern attack and counterattacked forcing McDowell’s troops back in what began as an orderly retreat turning into a panic stricken rout as the Union forces broke and fled back toward Washington with high loss of lives and equipment. The fact at hand is that this is probably the most opportune time during the war for the Confederate army to move on and take Washington, D.C., as the Northern army in the area had been routed and was disorganized, thus there should be little stopping Beauregard and Johnston from driving up into Washington and capturing the Northern capital. By answering this question, it could determine just how vulnerable Washington was during the war and before, and thus, show how vital the Ringgold Light Artillery was in guarding the capital. One of the leading authorities on Civil War history, Bruce Catton, provides some information in answering this question.
Washington was not actually open to a sudden easy capture by any force that could have been brought against it on July 22 or July 23. Most of McDowell’s army was blown apart but even on the night of the disastrous defeat he still had close to 10,000 men who had fought little or not at all who were disciplined and had not panicked. The Potomac (river) at Washington is wide and deep, and if Johnston’s army was to enter the capital, it would have to use the bridges. Enough troops were on hand to hold these bridges until reinforcements could come down from the North. The notion that the Confederate army could have walked into Washington within twenty-four hours will hardly bear analysis.
Thus the physical barrier of the Potomac River is a defense in itself for guarding the capital, plus a number of units of regulars were stationed near enough to Washington to discourage any attack. Of course, the Southern historians disagree on this point, believing that Washington was Johnston’s for the taking. E. A. Pollard, editor of the Richmond ‘‘Examiner’’ during the Civil War, had a different opinion from that of Catton. He states, … the Confederates showed no capacity to understand the extent of their fortunes (victory at Bull Run), or to use the unparalleled opportunities they had so bravely won. At any time within two weeks after the battle, Washington might have fallen into their hands and been taken almost as an unresisting prey. . . On the Maryland side, Washington was then very inadequately defended by fortifications. The Potomac was fordable above Washington, and a way open to Georgetown heights along which an army might have advanced without a prospect of successful resistance. It needed but a march of little more than twenty miles to crown the victory of Manassas with the glorious prize of the enemy’s capital.
This opinion of Pollard’s was a popular one of many and this influenced the amount of troops that were utilized to protect the capital, but Pollard’s opinion was entirely wrong as shall be proven later. Although the Ringgold Artillery was leaving Washington the same time the threat occurred, it could be assumed that the regular army was now taking on the task of guarding the capital. It seems the Ringgold Artillery was not that crucial to the defense of Washington at this time, not because their term of service was up and they left, but that as Catton explained earlier, Washington was quite difficult in of itself to invade. The Ringgolds did though protect the capital when no regular troops existed before the war. The Ringgolds and the other defenders might have deterred a rebel attack but the Potomac River theory seems to be more supported.
After the Ringgolds left and the regulars took over, it became even more difficult. Proof of the difficulty of attacking Washington backing up Catton’s statements, is supplied by the commanding generals of the Confederate army who were considering invading Washington. The commander of the forces in the best position to attempt the invasion, was General Johnston. In the autumn of 1861, in a letter to President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States, he explained the reasons why his army failed to attempt a march on Washington. According to Johnston:
The apparent firmness of the U.S. troops at Centreville, which checked our pursuit — The strong forces occupying the works near Georgetown, Arlington and Alexandria — The certainty, too, that General Patterson (Union troop commander), if needed, would reach Washington with his army of more than 30,000 sooner than we could — and the condition and inadequate means of the army in ammunition, provisions and transportation, prevented any serious thoughts of advancing against the capital.
This statement is backed by fellow officer, General Jubal A. Early, who also took part in the planning for the invasion of Washington. In his opinion, “….. it was utterly impossible for any army to have captured Washington by immediate pursuit.” Early pointed out that even if a pursuit had been made, “it would have been very difficult to cross the Potomac at all.”
Thus we see that it would have been virtually impossible for the Confederate army to have captured Washington, and even if for some stroke of good fortune they had, it is doubtful they would have been able to hold it very long. Regular troops of the Northern army, it can be seen, would have been accessible to Washington, immediately.
Throughout the war there were periodical rumors of threats of a rebel invasion of Washington. One period was in 1863, as the Confederate forces had defeated the North at the battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862, and at Chancellorsville in May of 1863; and the Confederate generals planned to invade the north. On June 15, 1863, President Lincoln, in response to the impending threat, called for 100,000 men from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia to protect the north from invasion, and due to this rapid mobilization and the later defeat of the South under Lee at Gettysburg, the rebel army was unable to carry out the invasion and slipped back into the South on July 14th.
A final example is cited by the “Berks and Schuylkill Journal” of July 9, 1864, when it reported that there was an alarm in Reading, in July of 1864, when the Confederate forces once again planned to invade the north, so it was rumored. The invasion turned out to be a feinted attack by Lee on Washington in order to revolve the pressure Sherman’s Union forces were putting on the Confederate army of General Johnston.
The fact which I am trying to bring out is that the threat to Washington was not that grave before or during the war that the Ringgold Artillery was greatly needed to guard the capital. Washington was in fact, never beseiged before or during the Civil War and it is questionable if the Confederate forces ever were strong enough to even attempt to take the city. Although it is an honor and privilege for the Ringgold Light Artillery to be given the title of the “First Defenders,” too much has been written on the subject of why and how they were the first to answer President Lincoln’s call, the hours difference in time of arrival etc. The subject has been explained in this paper to give the facts and to support the evidence that the Ringgold Artillery was the first, but I would more importantly stress the fact that the men of this unit are to be honored not as much for their defense of Washington, but more so when the regiment disbanded, for it is at this time that the men enlisted into the regular army, and it is within these outfits, descended from the original Ringgold battalion or outfits containing a large number of Ringgolds, that the real heroics of this group of men are accomplished.
Sergeant George W. Durell of the Ringgold Light Artillery commanded the unit for the final of its service succeeding Captain McKnight. When the term of service expired; Durell recruited men for “Battery D,” Independent Pennsylvania Artillery, made up largely of veterans of the Ringgold Artillery plus new recruits from Berks and Bucks Counties. The unit originated at Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on September 24, 1861, and was known as “Durell’s Battery,” with Durell as captain and George W. Silvis, also a former Ringgold Artillerist, as a Second Lieutenant, later becoming himself, captain.
This unit was assigned to McDowell’s division and fought in battles from 1861 to 1865, serving with distinction throughout the entire war. Durell’s Battery saw action in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, the Second Battle of Bull Run, at Chantilly, and were successful in the Maryland Campaign of 1861. The unit also saw action at Antietam and Fredericksburg. In early 1863, the unit was ordered to Vicksburg to support Grant’s forces. In 1864, the unit participated in the spring operation in the Wilderness Campaign, at the seige of Petersburg. The Durell Battery was present at Appomattox for the final surrender of the Confederate forces, and was mustered out of service on June 13, 1865.
Another regiment which counted a number of Ringgold Artillerists, was the 88th Regiment of Pennsylvania. Companies A, B, and H were recruited in Berks County on August 9, 1861. On May 8, 1864, the 88th routed the rebel forces at Spottsylvania Court House and also saw action in the later months of the war at Cold Harbor, White Oak Swamp and Petersburg. On June 30, 1865, the 88th was mustered out of service.
One final regiment which incorporated a number of Ringgold Artillerists into its unit was the 128th Pennsylvania Regiment. This regiment was recruited on July 21, 1862, with Companies A, B, E, H, I and K, recruited in Berks County. In September of 1862, the unit supported General Hooker at the Battle of Antietam. The 128th was led by Major Joel B. Wanner, who later resigned to become mayor of Reading. In May of 1863, the unit reached Chancellorsville and engaged he Confederate forces of General Lee, suffering serious losses with part of the regiment being captured and marched to Richmond. On May 3, 1863, the 128th was returned to battle, and on May 12th of that year, was mustered out as the term of service expired.
The Ringgold Light Artillery must be remembered for more than her “First Defender” title as protector of our nation’s capital. It has been shown that this unit had a proud beginning, having been organized by veteran artillerists of the Mexican War; this should be remembered. The Ringgold Artillery was one of the volunteer state militias which came to the aid of the country at a crucial time when war was brewing and our nation had not yet drafted a war-time army into existence; this also should be remembered of the Ringgold Light Artillery. The Ringgolds after their term of enlistment was up, continued to distinguish themselves through a number of regiments of the army in the bloodiest and most decisive battles of the Civil War, three of those regiments having been sighted in this paper; this too should be remembered of the Ringgold Light Artillery.
This was a unit bred with a certain brand of tenacious love for its country and were the heir to a traditional undying pride of the people of their area (Berks County), to be the first to come to their country’s aid when it called. It is for the many reasons stated in this paper that we remember the men of the Ringgold Light Artillery and honor them for their contribution to the defense of our nation.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 1977 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.