The 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia came into existence during the opening stages of the Gettysburg Campaign. As Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army moved north, the War Department created two new military departments to deal with the Confederate offensive. The Department of the Monongahela, based out of Pittsburgh, and under the command of Maj. Gen. William T. H. “Bully” Brooks*, formerly of the 6th Corps. The second department created was the Department of the Susquehanna, based out of Harrisburg, and under the command of Maj. Gen. Darius Couch. Like Brooks, Couch had recently vacated his position with Army of Potomac. Couch served as both the head of 2nd Corps and as Joseph Hooker’s second-in-command at Chancellorsville.
The 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia (not to be confused with the 26th Pennsylvania Infantry that served in Joseph Carr’s brigade of 3rd Corps), was one of eight infantry militia units that was created by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to serve for “…six months, or ‘for the emergency.’” On June 18, 1863 the unit mustered into service 743 officers and men, under Colonel William W. Jennings. Like Brooks and Couch, Jennings had recently served with the Army of the Potomac. Jennings was the colonel of the 127th Pennsylvania Infantry-a nine month regiment, which fought at the battles of First and Second Fredericksburg.
Jennings took his green soldiers to Gettysburg, where, he was reinforced by 45 men of Bell’s Adams County Cavalry Company, a makeshift cavalry commanded by 23 year old Adams County native Robert Bell.
By mid-June Wild rumors spread like wildfire across the state of vast hordes of Confederates moving across the Alleghenies to Pittsburgh, other reports had Lee on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The reality of the situation was that Jennings and Bell were about to run into the lead elements of Richard Ewell’s Confederate corps.
On June 26th Jennings makeshift command was ordered on a fool’s errand by Maj. Granville Haller. Haller had been assigned the defense of the Gettysburg.
The mixed command setup an encampment on the eastern bank of Marsh Creek, with forty of Jennings best men deployed as pickets on the west side of the creek. By midafternoon Jubal Early’s Confederate division approached the picket post. In the vanguard of the advance was Lt. Col. Elijah V. White’s 35th Virginia Battalion of cavalry, followed by John Gordon’s all Georgia brigade. Jennings spotted the Confederate column moving in from the west. Knowing that his untested soldiers stood little chance against Lee’s veterans, the 24 year old colonel ordered his picket line to hold as long as possible, while the rest of his command beat feet to the rear.
The Virginia cavalry were on the pickets like fleas on a dog, easily scattering the militia men. Jennings led the bulk of his command to the northeast across wet and muddy fields. He hoped to get back to Harrisburg, and by heading northwest, he would be able to utilize the rail line that ran east from the town. This was easier said than done. The 17th Virginia Cavalry tracked down Jennings men and engaged them north of the town at the Witmer Farm. A short-lived battle ensued, with Jennings again, yielding the field. What was left of his unit arrived in Harrisburg two days later.
Captain Bell and the bulk of his horsemen rode along the Chambersburg Pike back into Gettysburg, White’s cavalryman hot on their heels.
The short lived shooting and running match on June 26th garnered two monuments for the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. The first of the two is easy to find. While driving west along Route 30 out of Gettysburg you will come across a monument of a soldier striding west, mounted atop a large boulder at the intersection of the Chambersburg Pike and Spring Street. This monument, dedicated September 1, 1892, is passed by thousands of tourists each year that travel Route 30 to and from the battlefield.
The second monument to the regiment lies along Route 30, 3.6 miles from the town square. Traveling west from Gettysburg the small monument is on the right hand side of the road. Dedicated in 1912, this monument is difficult to find because it sits in front of a salvage yard today, with no parking, not to mention rolling by at 50-60 MPH makes it hard to pick out the monument. (Please keep in mind this monument is on private property.)
* “Bully” Brooks was promoted to major general in June of 1863. The promotion to major general was only temporary, as it was later rejected. The man made many enemies while with the Army of the Potomac. Some blame his demotion on the fact that he was one of the ring leaders that helped to oust Ambrose Burnside from army command. Others blame it on his failure to dislodge the Confederate forces during the battle of Salem Church on May 3, 1863. During the battle Brooks was quoted as saying, “Twenty Five years in the army Mr. Wheeler, and ruined at last.”