Erie, Pennsylvania, situated in the northwest corner of the state astride Lake Erie, has a strong Civil War history. Several hard fighting regiments, including the 83rd (known as the Erie Regiment), 111th and 145th Pennsylvania, were raised in Erie. Strong Vincent of Little Round Top fame hailed from the Erie area. Following the war, Erie was home to the Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home. Yet the Civil War also visited Erie for several days in November 1863 when the city of some 9,000 residents was occupied by hundreds of Federal troops in response to a supposed Confederate invasion from Canada.
While today a Confederate invasion from Canada sounds far-fetched, we approach our study of the Civil War already knowing the outcome. Those who were living at the time of the Civil War could only work with the information they had at hand. And so it was on November 11, 1863, when Lord Richard Lyons, British ambassador to the United States, notified the Federal government of developments north of the border. Based on Lyons’ intelligence, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would alert the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan that “a plot is on foot by persons hostile to the United States, who had found asylum in Canada, to invade the United States and destroy the city of Buffalo; that they propose to take possession of some of the steamboats on Lake Erie, to surprise Johnson’s Island, and set free the prisoners of war confined there, and to proceed with them to attack Buffalo.”[I]
Stanton would likewise alert the mayors of other possible targets along Lake Erie, including Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Ogdensburg, Oswego, Lewiston, Rochester, and Erie. Now, Stanton needed to find troops to throw at this imminent threat “on the northern frontier…by rebels and their aiders and abettors from Canada.”[II] Troops under arms in these districts were few and far between, so Stanton authorized calling up citizen volunteers to be armed by the military departments. Major General John A. Dix of the Department of the East was dispatched to organize the defense of Buffalo; Major General Jacob Cox of the District of Ohio would be dispatched to Johnson’s Island; and General William T. H. Brooks of the Department of the Monongahela was dispatched to Erie, only 90 miles southwest of Buffalo and 130 miles north of his headquarters at Pittsburgh. While each city saw some military activity during this period, for the purposes of this study we’ll look at the events that transpired in Erie, PA.
The Department of the Monongahela had been created only four months earlier ahead of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, the department included areas west of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, as well as the three northernmost counties of the new state of West Virginia (Hancock, Brooke, and Ohio) and three counties in eastern Ohio astride the Ohio River (Columbiana, Jefferson, and Belmont). General William T.H. Brooks, a combat veteran officer of the Army of the Potomac, was selected to head the department. Brooks was also given authorization to recruit a body of troops for service within the department, known as the Departmental Corps.
Troops of the Departmental Corps were uniformed and equipped by the Federal government but operated more akin to militia or national guard. The men were to be called out “only on occasions of threatened danger, or periodically for inspection and instruction,” not more often than one day every three weeks.[III] The men of the Departmental Corps would also remain subject to the draft. The corps would ultimately include two infantry companies raised in Pennsylvania and four infantry companies in Ohio. Other troops serving in the Department of the Monongahela would at various times include several companies of infantry, cavalry, and light artillery. Brooks effectively leveraged several of these companies, as well as three regiments of Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, when John Hunt Morgan entered the Department of the Monongahela during the final days of his Ohio Raid in July 1863. While these troops, under arms for mere days before the raid, would have been fodder for Morgan’s veteran troopers, Brooks instead strategically placed his command to seal off potential avenues of escape along the Ohio River in Belmont and Jefferson counties, allowing more seasoned troops to chase Morgan to surrender. Though the men had escaped combat during the raid, perhaps the threatened invasion from Canada would bring the Departmental Corps into the war.
After receiving Stanton’s orders, General Brooks arrived in Erie by 9PM on November 12 and began to make preparations for defense. Brooks correctly surmised that Erie was the only port on Lake Erie in Pennsylvania that could accommodate deep draft boats. If any substantial Confederate landing were attempted within his department, it would happen there. Plans were laid out for defenses of the harbor as Brooks awaited the arrival of his troops.
The first of Brooks’ troops – a provost guard company from Pittsburgh– arrived at Erie by midnight on November 13, followed by a company of men from Camp Copeland near Pittsburgh; two companies from Lawrence County, Pennsylvania; four companies from Belmont County, Ohio; and Knap’s Battery of four Napoleons from Pittsburgh. Officially designated the First Battalion 100 Days Artillery, the battery had been organized in May 1863 by Major Joseph Knap, of the more well-known Knap’s Independent Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery. Knap had left Battery E in May 1863 to assume command at the Allegheny Arsenal and instead found himself in command of the militia battery. While this battery had been mustered out in August 1863, Brooks called on their patriotism to return to their guns for the Erie expedition.
A member of one of the Ohio Companies (Deens’ Company, Barnesville), recalled their November 12 transportation to Erie as “stock cars – rough, filthy stock cars – roughly seated with hard plank over a downy bed of manure…beautifully scented,” for the first four hours of the trip, before switching to “good first and second-class passenger cars” to Cleveland. There the men again switched cars and entered Erie at “right shoulder shift” within 24 hours of leaving home.[IV]
By November 15 the force at Erie numbered some 500 men. The men were stationed around the city and assisted local civilians in erecting a “small field work” engineered by Colonel Henry S. Burton, a staff officer serving the department under General Brooks. The work was manned by Knap’s Battery and commanded the entrance to Erie Harbor. Brooks praised the “commendable zeal” of the civilians during its construction.[V] Believing he now had sufficient force to contest any attempted landing, Brooks detached one company of men to Buffalo, then guarded only by “twenty-five men of the Invalid Corps with forty cartridges.”[VI]
In Erie the men found “excellent quarters…plenty of good rations, overcoats, and blankets,” though apparently some local citizens accused some of the soldiers of stealing.[VII] Their stay in Erie was short, however. When no Confederate threat appeared, Stanton gave Brooks authorization to begin sending men home as soon as he saw fit. The first troops began departing Erie on the morning of November 17, the remaining companies having staggered departures over the next two days.
Brooks praised his troops in his report to Stanton. “I am induced to make this report more to show the success of the Departmental Corps, though few in number, as a means of defense than anything else.”[VIII] One Ohio soldier facetiously referred to the Erie expedition as “one of the most bloodless campaigns of the war.”[IX]
Following the crisis, Brigadier General John G. Barnard, engineer of the defenses of Washington and Pittsburgh, was detailed to “make an examination of the shore of Lake Erie , and designate at what points defensive works can be advantageously erected to guard the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio against hostile raids from Canada.”[X] Barnard’s investigation determined that rather than constructing defensive works, home guard companies of light artillery could be more advantageously deployed, moving from point to point wherever a landing may be attempted. Two forts were later constructed and additional regiments were sent to Johnson’s Island Prison Camp near Sandusky, but the area otherwise did not see a substantial increase in troops or earthworks.
The Departmental Corps and Department of the Monongahela would not last long past the Erie expedition. The West Virginia counties had already been transferred to the Department of West Virginia by the time of the expedition, while in January 1864 the Ohio counties would be transferred to the Northern Department. By April 1864 the Department of the Monongahela, now shrunk to only Western Pennsylvania, was folded into the Department of the Susquehanna. Brooks would return to division command with the Army of the Potomac for several months before poor health caused his resignation.
The Confederate threat from Canada continued throughout the remainder of the war. In October 1864 a small squad of Confederate agents raided St. Albans, Vermont. Only a month earlier John Yates Beall and a squad of Confederates had captured two steamers on Lake Erie with further unrealized plans to capture the USS Michigan. John Wilkes Booth’s ties to Confederate agents in Canada would later be scrutinized.
Erie would escape the war without further alarm and recall the days of November 1863 when the war came to their corner of Pennsylvania.
The author would like to thank Thomas Buckley for sharing his unpublished research on the Ohio companies of the Departmental Corps and inspiring this post!
[I] Official Records, Series III, Vol. III, Part 1013
[II] ibid, 1015
[III] OR, Series I, Vol. XXVII, P. III, P. 44-45
[IV] “The Departmental Corps” Belmont Chronicle. November 26, 1863.
[V] OR, Series III, Vol. III, P. 1103
[VII] Belmont Chronicle
[VIII] OR, Series III, Vol. III, P. 1103
[IX] Belmont Chronicle
[X] OR, Series I, Vol. XXIX, Part 2, P. 457