During the "Sparks in the Park" event this weekend, one of the activities to enjoy is the "fictitious" raid of Freedom Forge by Confederate soldiers. This should prove to be a great show, but you may not realize that it is not as fictitious as it might seem.
Looking back today, its seems that our little corner of Pennsylvania was safe from the Confederates during the Civil War. Indeed, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee only invaded the north twice, first in Maryland in 1862, and southern Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Conversely, the Union forces were deep in the south throughout much of the war.
Lee's 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania is rather well known, occurring mostly in the south-central portion of the state, in the area of Carlisle, Chambersburg and Wrightsville, where the Confederates were threatening Harrisburg. But his larger plans of taking Harrisburg and Philadelphia were thwarted, culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
Reenactor Janie Shaffer, right, shows eighth graders from Mifflin County Junior High School how letters were written in the 1860s during their field trip to the ‘Sparks in the Park’ Civil War Reenactment Friday at Derry Township Community Park. See more photos at cu.lewistownsentinel.com.
However, there is a lesser known part of that invasion, Lee's destruction of the ironworks of the Bedford and Cove Valleys, the rail center of Altoona and the line of the Pennsylvania Railroad back to Harrisburg. By extension, ironworks along the railroad line would also be vulnerable.
While in Maryland, Lee had taken a soft approach, limiting destruction to entice sympathizers to his side. But Pennsylvania had very few sympathizers, so Lee had no hesitation of taking what he wanted and destroying anything that could help his enemy.
But how did the Union forces know of Lee's Juniata Valley aspirations? On June 9, Federal Cavalry Maj. Gen. Pleasanton surprised J. E. B. Stuart's forces at Brandy Station, resulting in the capture of Stuart's orders on the planned invasion. The alarm was raised further when the Union army was defeated at Winchester, Va., with Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy retreating to Altoona through Morrison's Cove. The Confederates would certainly be following.
On June 13, Col. John A. Wright, aide-de-camp to Gov. Andrew G. Curtin, sent word to Col. R. A. McMurtrie in Hollidaysburg:
To Col. R. A. McMurtrie
Go to work at once and raise companies for the volunteer service. The chances are very great that a strong detachment of the enemy will try to destroy the iron furnaces in your county, railway and other improvements.
Let us hear from you.
(Signed) John A. Wright
Gov. Curtin, Wright and McMurtrie were justifiably concerned for the iron industry and railroads of the Juniata Valley. They were vital to the northern war effort, and the valley was still a leading center of iron production. But could they raise defenses in time?
Up to that time, central Pennsylvania was totally undefended, with no local troops. That meant having to raise militia in a matter of days. To that end, McMurtrie sent for Col. Jacob Higgins to raise militias and construct defenses in the mountain gaps near Morrison's Cove. A couple other units were moved in to defend the railroad. The latter encountered a few advanced confederate pickets near Mount Union. This led to the speculation that a detachment had its sights on destroying the rail line and bridges in Jack's Narrows at Mount Union and further east in the Lewistown Narrows. Fortifications were built near Mount Union at New Grenada to thwart this.
While Wright had McMurtrie focus on the area south of and in the vicinity of Altoona, certainly the Freedom Iron Works near Lewistown were in his mind. For you see, they were owned by Wright, and would have been a tempting target.
The Freedom Works were among the largest in the state, and they made products for the railroads. Disrupting the railroad and ironworks would have greatly hindered transportation of troops and supplies, especially in defense of the invasion.
Throughout June, there was a heightened sense of alarm among the populace, and rumors of rebels in the valley were rampant. For instance, a story remembered at Greenwood Furnace tells of a charcoal pit exploding near the furnace, causing the workers to panic, thinking it was Confederate cannon fire.
By June 21, southern Pennsylvania was swarming with local militias, and several fortifications were completed. The Confederates came into the area of McConnellsburg and Fort Littleton, and there were skirmishes. But instead of heading north, they turned toward Harrisburg.
By June 26, the emergency was over, and within a few days, the two great armies would descend on the sleepy little town of Gettysburg. Following Lee's defeat, he would never again penetrate into Pennsylvania. The iron industries of the Juniata Valley and the Pennsylvania Railroad had been spared, and the raw recruits in the local militias limited the incursion of the well-organized rebels, ultimately saving the capital of Harrisburg.
But in an ironic twist, Lee may have ultimately entered the valley of the Juniata. For in 1865, Wright hired Richard Henry Lee III to be the plant manager of Freedom Iron Works and Greenwood Furnace. He was a first cousin of Robert E. Lee and the great-grandson of the famous R. H. Lee, who signed the Declaration of Independence.
While it is yet to be confirmed, there is a story of Robert E. Lee visiting Warm Springs in Huntingdon after the war. The story tells of Lee coming to Greenwood Furnace to visit his cousin, sleeping in the mansion and worshiping in the stone church. As Richard Henry Lee lived in the mansion in Burnham (now a funeral home), Greenwood Furnace would have been a natural halfway point.
This story would have to date between 1867, when the church was completed, and 1870, when he died. Richard Henry Lee would spend the rest of his life in Burnham, and died tragically in December of 1891, when he fell into Kish Creek and drowned. He is buried in St. Mark's Cemetery in Lewistown, along with several of his family.
So, while enjoying the Confederate Raid in the park, remember that it might not be as far-fetched as you may think!