Sunday, January 22, 2017

Beyond Gettysburg: The Bedford County Entrenchments

Pennsylvania Historical Marker
Located at the Civil War Entrenchments
Following the winding Route 1005, known as Snake Spring Road and Church View Road, I drove northward towards Loysburg, having left historic Route 30 in my rear view window. Armed with only GPS coordinates, I kept a watchful eye for one of the familiar Pennsylvania State Historical Markers for a piece of Civil War history that I had only recently stumbled upon.

I finally spotted the marker along the winding back road and a parking spot next to a gated camp road. I walked over to the blue historical marker and read the sign that marked the location of some Civil War entrenchments. This piece of Civil War history is one that is unknown to most people; to be honest if it wasn’t for the historical marker I would not have known exactly what I was looking at.

In 1863, the fear of a Confederate invasion was running rampant across the state of Pennsylvania. Although General Lee had attempted an invasion northward once before, nothing was done to protect the state if Lee attempted another invasion. It was not until June 9, 1863, that President Lincoln called for 100,000 volunteers to help repel any invasion of Lee’s forces.

 In an attempt to organize the volunteers, two departments within the Department of War were created: The Department of the Susquehanna and the Department of the Monongahela. These two departments were created to protect the industries within the borders of Pennsylvania, especially the areas of Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

More information about the Department of the Susquehanna and the defense of Harrisburg can be found here: Fort Couch.

One issue that neither of the two departments addressed involved the area between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh was not defended. The area now called the Laurel Highlands was technically under the responsibility of the Department of the Monongahela. The area between the Laurel Highlands eastward was under the supervision of General Couch’s Department of the Susquehanna.

The truth of the matter is that neither of the two departments did much to protect the rural areas. If General Lee had decided to move the army into Central Pennsylvania, there was nothing to stop the invasion.

If the area was to be defended, it was up to locals to defend themselves and prepare for any Confederates that may head their direction.

In early June, 1863, rumors began to circulate that a regiment of Confederate cavalry had been spotted in the Morrison Cove area. On June 14, 1863, the citizens of the region decided to take matters into their own hands.

Colonel Jacob Higgins was selected to command the volunteers. Having heard the rumors that Confederates had been spotted locally, he knew he had to take action. Colonel Higgins was worried about the defense of Altoona which was a hub of railroad activity; all trains moving east and west had to pass through the area and the Pennsylvania Railroad had their shops located there. If the Rebels decided to attack, there was nothing to stop their advance and the possible destruction of the railroad yards.

View of the entrenchments
He immediately began to call for residents to help defend the region. Under his direction, three units were formed from the men of Blair County and another unit came out of neighboring Cambria County.

The group of defenders consisted of men from the region who were too old or too young, had some sort of family responsibilities, or had some sort of physical handicapped that kept them from serving. However the threat of Confederate forces made them cast aside their responsibilities to defend their homes.

Though the group was never mustered into military they were willing to risk their lives to defend the region. While the group did not have an official title, they were referred to as the Pennsylvania Emergency Men and locally known as the Pennsylvania Minute Men.

Due to the fact the men who dug the entrenchments were untrained and poorly equipped they resorted to living off whatever they could find, including stealing food from locals. Locals referred to the group of defenders not as Minute Men, but as “The Chicken Raiders,” because of the number of chickens they stole for food.

The first place that the defenders fortified was McKee’s Gap. The gap was viewed as the most logical way for the invaders to cross into the Altoona region. Once Higgins and his men took control of the gap, they set about defending it. With their own picks and shovels, they built entrenchments and placed obstructions in the roadway. The defenders quickly had the gap defended as they prepared themselves for the Southern invaders..

A note about the entrenchments: According to a handful of sources, there was a cannon or two staged on platforms on top of Dunnings and Short Mountains to guard the road through the gap.  There appears to have been a request for four to six cannons, but they were never delivered. Local histories claim that at least one cannon was present to help defend the gap, but I cannot say for sure that they did or did not exist..

On June 24, one of the detachments was moved to Loy’s Gap to erected defenses. The gap had some entrenchments built within the gap, but they have been destroyed over the years.

A note about Loy’s Gap: For some reason many of the histories of the region state that the defenders moved south from the gap and into Loy’s Gap. Looking at maps of the region, Loy's Gap is slightly to the northeast of McKee’s Gap, not south of it, unless there was another gap to the south that was also called Loy’s Gap, which is a possibility.

The following day, June 25, another of the detachments was ordered to move to St. Clairsville, west of Loysburg. On June 26, yet another detachment, this one led by Colonel Higgins, was ordered to move southward to Bloody Run (present-day Everett).

a view from the entrenchemtns
On July 1, the Pennsylvania Minute Men were asked to be mustered into service for a period of six months. The majority of the men making up this emergency regiment could not agree to the terms, so the group was disbanded and the men returned home.

Local histories report that the Pennsylvania Minute Men did see some action. The detachment that moved to Bloody Run had a shoot-out with a detachment of General Jenkins’ cavalry. After a brief fire fight, both sides retreated.

I returned to my surroundings, standing on top of an embankment. These entrenchments disappeared back into the woods, headed westward. On the east side of the road I could see what appeared to be more entrenchments, but due to the thick undergrowth I was not able to determine how far they went into the woods in that direction.

The walls of the entrenchments were roughly six feet tall and they appeared to go a couple hundred yards into the woods. They are still in excellent condition and as I stood there I could imagine the defenders lying in wait for forces that would never arrive this deep into the heart of Pennsylvania.

If you choose to visit the location, the entrenchments are very close to the top of the mountain pass. There is a blind hill that is near the entrenchments, but parking is available in the same side as the entrenchments, so crossing the road is not an issue. Cars crested the hill faster than anybody should drive on this road, so please be careful when visiting.

Please be respectful of the grounds not only due to the historical importance, but because I am not sure if the entrenchments are on private or public property. I did not venture too far into the woods, because the line of defense can be seen clearly away from the road. Again, please be respectful if you choose to visit.

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