The following article is adapted from a speech given as part of the commemoration of the role of the Union Fire Company of Carlisle, Pennsylvania in the American Civil War, read before the Union Fire Company on April 21, 2011. Much of the material is derived from research for an upcoming book, "The Union Legacy," that will be published for the 225th anniversary of the company.
As America commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War there is a renewed interest in the history of the conflict, its battles and its impacts. This paper looks at what came to be referred to as the "Battle of Papertown," an incident that resulted in the death of a young Carlisle man. The account is of interest not so much for the battle itself, as there was none, but rather for the insight it offers into the emotional mood of the country at the start of the war. It is also an interesting look at how the events relating to the battle entered the memory of the town and how it was documented over the next century. (Papertown is now Mount Holly Springs, PA)
The events in Carlisle and Papertown took place on April 23, 1861, just over one week after the fall of Fort Sumter to rebel forces and the start of what would become the American Civil War. President Lincoln issued a call for troops on April 17th and by the 21st the first men to enlist had left Carlisle. For a time when the only media were the telegraph and newspaper, rumors and fear flashed across the country almost as rapidly as news does today.
On April 20th Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin issued a proclamation calling the Legislature into session with a preamble that reflected the sentiment of the day:
WHEREAS, An armed rebellion exists in a portion of the States of this Union, threatening the destruction of the National Government, periling the public and private property, endangering the peace and security of this Commonwealth, and inciting a systematic piracy upon our commerce; and
WHEREAS, Adequate provision does not exist by law to enable the Executive to make the military power of the State as available and efficient as it should be for the common defense of the State and General Government; and
WHEREAS, An occasion so extraordinary requires prompt legislative power-Therefore, I, by virtue of the power vested in me, do hereby convene the General Assembly of this Commonwealth, and require the members to meet at their respective Houses at Harrisburg, on Tuesday, April 30th, at noon, there to take into consideration and adopt such measures in the premises as the present exigencies may demand.
Andrew C. Curtin
Two days after Curtin’s proclamation, members of the Union Fire Company met in their hall at 34 West Louther Street to form a home guard militia company they called the "Union Guard". The minutes of that group explained their purpose:
WHEREAS a prompt response to the call of the Executive by our patriotic volunteers will render our town defenseless, and our homes in danger, also believing that the position of our borough is dangerously near the traitorous states, we deem it necessary to form an organization for the purpose of more efficiently repelling any foe, therefore it is resolved that we unite ourselves under the tide "Union Guard", having for our object the protection of our town and country.
Members of the Good Will Fire Company took similar action about the same time. The fire companies at that time filled a prominent role in the community and many of their members were involved in the several militia companies active before the war. The leaders of the companies that were recruited in Carlisle in the early part of the war would also come from the fire companies including Robert Henderson and Lemuel Todd from the Union, David Porter from the Empire Fire Company and Robert McCartney from the Cumberland Fire Company.
The important points to note are the comments "the position of our borough is dangerously close to the traitorous states" and "for the purpose ... of repelling any foe." In the days after the fall of Ft. Sumter, the local newspapers reported many alarming accounts of imminent rebel attacks and small partisan raids that fueled the public imagination and put people on edge. On April 19th Confederate sympathizers attacked Union troops moving through Baltimore toward Washington and four soldiers and twelve civilians were killed in the riot that followed. This left many people thinking the rebel army was as close as Baltimore and created additional fear in an already alarmed populous.