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When their nation called, these men were the first to respond. . .

Following the capitulation of Fort Sumter and in response to President Lincoln’s first call to arms in April, 1861, the men of the Ringgold Light Artillery, National Light Infantry, Washington Artillery, Logan Guards, and Allen Infantry, departed their Pennsylvania homes and families and marched into history as the First Defenders, for they were the first volunteer troops to reach Washington after the start of America’s Civil War.  Despite this distinguished achievement and regardless of their place in American history, little is known and much less has been written about these men and the companies they comprised.  With First in Defense of the Union, Civil War historian John David Hoptak fills this void in historiography and brings the story of the First Defenders vividly to life by relying heavily upon the soldiers’ letters and diaries to tell of their enlistment into service, their harrowing march through Baltimore, their arrival in the nation’s capital, and their three month term of service with the Federal forces.     

The only interruption in the days’ anxiety and labor came early in the morning when President Abraham Lincoln, along with Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Simon Cameron, arrived at the Capitol to welcome the Pennsylvania troops and thank them for their service and prompt response to the call-to-arms.  If quartering in the nation’s Capitol was not overwhelming enough for the Pennsylvania troops, meeting and being greeted by the nation’s head executive and Commander-in-Chief must have been simply incomprehensible.  Lincoln and his two Cabinet Secretaries met first with the Ringgold Light Artillery, and then made their way to the other four companies, personally greeting and shaking the hands of every single member.  During the course of his visit, Lincoln learned of the injuries sustained by Nick Biddle and by the soldiers in the Allen Infantry and urged them to immediately seek medical attention, but all refused, preferring instead to remain with their companies.  When Lincoln reached the Washington Artillery of Pottsville, the company formed rank and listened as the Commander-in-Chief declared the intention of his visit: “Officers and soldiers of the Washington Artillery, I did not come here to make a speech; the time for speechmaking has gone by, the time for action is at hand.  I came here to give you a warm welcome to the city of Washington, and to shake hands with every officer and soldier in your company providing you grant me that privilege.”  No one assembled denied Lincoln the privilege.  

After the gratifying visit by Lincoln, Seward, and Cameron, the Pennsylvania troops resumed their activities barricading the Capitol, but none would ever forget meeting and shaking hands with the president.  Private Heber Thompson of the Washington Artillery put the president’s visit in context and boasted a bit when he wrote that “[t]his visit of President Lincoln and his Secretaries. . .most forcibly expressed the relief which the presence of the First Defenders afforded as well as the generous purpose of Mr. Lincoln and his Cabinet to honor those who first responded to their call for volunteers.”  Curtis Pollock of the same company remembered the president much more simply when he wrote that Lincoln was “very tall but not at all bad looking.” 

Shaking hands with Abraham Lincoln along with the other First Defenders that morning was Private John C. Weaver of the Washington Artillery.  While the experience was unforgettable to all those present, most never saw the president again.  John Weaver did, but under much more tragic circumstances.  In one of the many ironies that defined the American Civil War, Weaver was in uniform not far from Lincoln’s presidential box in Ford’s Theater almost four years to the day after shaking the president’s hand in April 1861.  When John Wilkes Booth’s infamous shot rang out, Weaver was quick to rush to the president’s aid, and, with five other soldiers, helped carry Lincoln’s body out of the theater and across Tenth Street to the Peterson House, laying him on the bed where on the following morning his life expired.  With that, Weaver thus became the first and last volunteer for Lincoln.

John David Hoptak, pictured here with fiancée Laura Wiltraut, was born on September 14, 1978 in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. A lifelong student of American history in general and of the Civil War in particular, John received a bachelor’s degree in history from Kutztown University, and a master’s degree in history from Lehigh University.  John has authored several newspaper articles and has had others accepted for magazine publication.  This is the first of what he hopes to be many books. John currently resides in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and is employed as an instructor of history and geography at Lehigh Carbon Community College.  He also serves part-time as a curatorial assistant with the Lehigh County Historical Society. 


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