138th Pennsylvania at Relay

Quite a few units rotated through duty at Baltimore – and specifically at Relay – during the war. The one that I want to focus on today is the 138th PA, which took up the post on August 30, 1862 and remained until June 16, 1863.

I mentioned before that Peter Thorn – the caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg – left his family in August of 1862 to join the army. The unit that he joined went to Harrisburg and became Co. B of the 138th PA. Peter was selected to be a Corporal in the company. Another group of men formed in Adams County became Co. G in the 138th PA. After just a few days in Pennsylvania’s capital, the regiment shipped out to become part of the defenses of Baltimore, and was immediately assigned to duty at Relay House.

Col. Charles Sumwalt, commanding the 138th PA, initially deployed his men as follows (Adams County units bolded):

  • Co. A – Jessop’s Cut
  • Co. B – Ellicott’s Mills
  • Co. C – Dorsey’s Switch
  • Co. D – Elk Ridge Landing
  • Co. E – Hanover Switch
  • Co. F – Relay House
  • Co. G – Fort Dix
  • Co. H – Relay House
  • Co. I – Relay House (with a detachment at Elysville)
  • Co. K – Relay House

Some of these place names may seem a little off to locals. The spelling of “Jessop”, or the separation of “Elk Ridge” as two words, for example. “Ellicott’s Mills” is now known as Ellicott City. These things have evolved over time. “Elysville” is a place that no longer exists. It was a small mill town along the Patapsco river most recently called Daniels, but it was wiped-out in the flooding brought by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. As I explained in the previous post, Fort Dix was the temporary fortification constructed on the hill just above, and to the north of the Thomas Viaduct. It’s a little easier to understand if we put all these locations on a map:

Deployment of the 138th PA. Base map from OpenStreetMap. Annotations by Pete Skillman.

Deployment of the 138th PA. Base map from OpenStreetMap. Annotations by the author.

You can see that the emphasis was on defending the Washington Branch – that’s where most of the troops were deployed.

Now, this isn’t to say that these assignments held through their entire duty in the area. Guard duty like this was a dreary task, and the units were routinely rotated back to the regiment’s headquarters at Relay House where there was a larger encampment that gave the men a chance to drill and practice their military skills. Relay House was also centrally-located in case reinforcements needed to be shifted along the railroad in a crisis. As I alluded-to before though, not much happened along this section of the B&O after May of 1861.

So what were these men spending their time doing? According to the orders of another unit that served at Relay, the 60th NY, the men were supposed to watch all the bridges, culverts, and switches along their sector. They were supposed to periodically patrol the track, looking for sections that had been removed or otherwise damaged, and for obstructions (natural or otherwise) that needed to be cleared. These tasks became even more important at night, when the cover of darkness meant that mischief was easier to pull off. This was not exactly a glamorous posting.

In fact, the task was so boring that Col. Sumwalt himself fell into a less-than-honorable lifestyle and was kicked out of the army for “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” during the unit’s time at Relay.

At least for a little while though, Peter Thorn and the other men from Gettysburg were stationed practically right outside my front door, protecting the railroad that ran past Ellicott’s Mills. I spend so much time studying Gettysburg, and taking trips up there, that it’s funny to think that men from that little anonymous town spent more than 9 months of their Civil War service within a few miles of my house.

You never know what history might be lurking in your own front yard until you go looking for it.

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