Edward Baker's California Regiment
(71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry)
Tattered State Colors of the California
Regiment which were returned to the State of Pennsylvania
In the middle of May 1861, twenty-two-year-old George Washington Beidelman, a native of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, now living in Philadelphia, was "in a fighting mood" to risk it all for "the best Constitution and government the world has ever produced." Within a few days, George, like many other young men in these heady days of the first spring of civil war, had enlisted in Mr. Lincoln’s burgeoning army. He and well over one thousand other fellows, most hailing from Philadelphia and New York City, but also from Washington, D.C., New England and the West, as well as a goodly number from Ireland, Scotland, England and even Jamaica, found themselves training along the crowded streets of New York City. These boys were members of the California Regiment, a unit with no more than a tenuous link to the state for which it was named, that had been organized in the first weeks following the surrender of Fort Sumter by Senator Edward Dickinson Baker of Oregon, close friend and strong political ally of Abraham Lincoln. Baker’s men, among the troubled nation’s first three-year’s troops, were in all respects average soldiers. They had quit their jobs as iron workers, butchers, railroad men, common laborers, sailors, policemen and teamsters to do their part in putting down the rebellion that threatened the cherished legacy of their forebears. Initially, the regiment was recognized by neither New York or Pennsylvania, but rather the Federal government. Indeed, its rolls were to be applied to the number of men to be called from the State of California. But in November 1861, after part of the regiment had been badly handled in the debacle at Ball’s Bluff and Edward Baker had been killed, the Keystone State adopted the California Regiment which was redesignated the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Still, most of the men continued to refer to the regiment by its original name rather than its numerical appellation.
The Californians went on from Ball’s Bluff to see heavy duty on the Virginia peninsula, and at Antietam, the regiment would suffer its greatest loss of the war in the West Woods. The men marched from Sharpsburg to Fredericksburg where, on December 13, elements of the regiment participated in a senseless attack of Rebel infantry deployed at the base of Marye’s Heights. Then two days later, the entire regiment was engaged in a little described fierce action at a brick tannery on the Orange Plank Road. After Chancellorsville, the Californians tramped north to their home state where, on the afternoon of July 3rd, they found themselves at the vortex Robert Lee’s attempt to storm the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge. The Californians saw action in all of the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac until they mustered out in July 1864.
The full story of the California Regiment had remained hidden by more than 130 years of history. Indeed, since its organization, numerous misunderstandings have swirled about the regiment. For example, in July and August 1861, rumor had it that the poorly trained unit was about to be disbanded. Understandably, some of the Californians were sensitive to what was said of them back home and reacted with measured anger to the slanderous scuttlebutt. More recently, though, George Stewart, in his superb Pickett’s Charge, A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, described what he believed to be the state of the California Regiment early on the third day of July: "about them, on this morning, one senses some faint suggestion as of inward rotteness." Although Stewart went on to add that "there was no where any official indication" that the regiment was "not of first quality," one cannot help but wonder what impelled Stewart to hold such reservations about the California Regiment.
What was it about the Californians that compelled historian Stewart to describe the essence of the regiment in such negative terms? As it turns out, there is little to support such a view. Indeed, the tale of the California Regiment is that of an average fighting unit in the Army of the Potomac. It comprised brave and not so brave men; men who worried about how they would react when the fighting started; men who believed that they were playing an important role in liberating an oppressed group of people while others of their numbers who railed at the Lincoln administration over the Emancipation Proclamation; at times, some of the Californians doubted that the war could ever be won. The marches and bivouacs of these troops are chronicled here in their own words to the extent that it is possible. The long, tedious periods of camp life as well as the short bursts of searing excitement of battle come across in the diaries, letters and reminiscences of the Californians. Truly, these were average men but after all was said and done, the war was won by millions of common soldiers like the Californians. This history, then, is a tribute to men such as Albert Schurtz, William Burns, Frank Donaldson, Alban Paist, Alfred Hills, Robert Lesher, George Kenney, Isaac Wistar, John Markoe, George Beidelman, Joseph Elliot, Benjamin Franklin Hibbs, Richard Penn Smith and their comrades in the Edward Baker’s California Regiment.
Materials here provided courtesy of Gary Lash