In the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, far from the great battlefields of Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia, are the rugged Allegheny Mountains. This remote part of Somerset County has the highest ridges in the state, with an unlikely Civil War connection. Mount Davis, at 3,213 feet, is the highest point in the state. Mount Davis is named for Civil War veteran and local resident John Nelson Davis.
Davis enlisted in Company K of the 171st Pennsylvania, eventually achieving the rank of Sergeant. The 171st was recruited from across the state, including the counties of Snyder, Northumberland, Clearfield, Elk, McKean, Union, Montour, and Butler County. The bulk of its men were from Somerset County, in the southwest part of the state.
It was a nine month regiment, one of many formed in the wake of the Confederate invasion of September, 1862. Hastily recruited, they arrived too late to stem the Confederate advance, which ended at Antietam, but provided much needed manpower when the Union needed it. Most of these units served in garrison duty and saw little combat, but they assisted in the overall Union war effort at a critical time.
The regiment was organized at Camp Curtin at Harrisburg in October and November, 1862. They did not fight in any major battles but moved around more than most units in the Army of the Potomac. They travelled to the Washington defenses at the end of November, and onto Suffolk, VA as part of the Seventh Corps. The town in southeastern Virginia was occupied by Union forces and was an isolated outpost.
In December, 1862 the 171st Pennsylvania was transferred to the 18th Corps in the Department of North Carolina. In January, 1863, Davis was promoted to Sergeant. Stationed at New Bern until April, 1863, they participated in small raids and skirmishes at Trenton, Pollocksville, Young’s Cross Roads, Swansborough , Blount’s Creek, and Swift Creek Village in coastal North Carolina. Hardly household names, but just as deadly.
They were recalled with the second Confederate invasion of the north that summer. July found them back with the Seventh Corps at Fort Monroe in Virginia. From here they advanced on Richmond as part of General Dix’s diversion towards the Confederate capital. This advance stopped at the Chickahominy River, not far from the site of the Seven Days’ Battles. Then they moved to Harper’s Ferry, part of the reinforcements rushing to the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg.
Marching through Crampton’s Gap to Boonsboro on July 11, they joined the Army of the Potomac as it faced off with Lee’s forces near Williamsport, MD. Following this the regiment moved to the state capital of Harrisburg and was mustered out on August 8, 1863.
Before the war Davis was a surveyor, school teacher, minister, woodworker, and farmer. He also served as Superintendent of Schools for Elk Lick Township, south of Meyersdale on the Pennsylvania side of the Mason Dixon Line. Davis was a well-known community leader, and the last surviving Civil War veteran of the area.
He loved natural history, and had a lifelong fascination with the high mountains around his home. Davis died at age 77 in 1913 and is buried in Upper Springs Cemetery, just south of the mountain bearing his name. His wife, Dinah Schrock Davis, lived a bit longer, passing away in 1928. They are buried together in the cemetery, as are their two children, William and Peter.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased the land with the high point in 1929, and added more to it in the 1970s, creating the Mount Davis Natural Area, named in honor of the local Civil War veteran. Today it is part of Forbes State Forest, named in honor of the General whose troops marched nearby during the French and Indian War.
It is the highest point in Pennsylvania, but it is not steep with a vast overlook like some high points in other states. The high point is on a rocky, relatively flat area. In the 1830s tar kilns extracted that resource from pine trees, and the area was logged in the 1880s. Mining and other industry followed in the early twentieth century. The state’s efforts at conservation restored the area’s natural setting and habitat.
Today there is a picnic area, hiking trails, observation tower, and outdoor exhibits about the history and geology of the high point. The view from the tower reveals ridges that undulate away in every direction.
John Davis loved this rugged area, and his story is a good reminder to us who love history but also love to hike, camp, and explore the outdoors. We are not the first to enjoy and appreciate nature, and our efforts can have incredibly positive outcomes.
To learn more about Mount Davis and information on visiting, check this website: