July 4, 1901 was an Independence Day in Berks County, different from most others. At promptly 10:00AM a celebratory parade moved from 24th and Penn Streets to City Park for the dedication of a newly placed monument that honored the Ringgold Light Artillery of the Union’s First Defenders. The title “First Defenders” was awarded to the five volunteer groups of Pennsylvania soldiers who were first to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for militia to protect our nation’s capital from Confederate forces at the earliest stages of the Civil War.
It was April 12, 1861 when the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, officially beginning the war between the North and South. Washington D.C. was quickly understood to be a vulnerable and defenseless location for the Union, and action needed to be taken to protect the capital. On April 15, 1861, the President of the United States issued a proclamation calling out the militia of several states:
“Now therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power vested by the Constitution and laws, have thought fit to call forth and hereby do call forth the militia of the several states of the Union to the aggregate number of 75 thousand, in order to suppress the said combination and to cause the laws to be duly executed.”
The general atmosphere among Berks County at this time was strong for maintaining the Union and upholding the Constitution. The Ringgold Light Artillery, under the direction of Captain James McKnight, had been actively preparing for this type of national emergency since January. Immediately after receiving Lincoln’s cry for support, a telegram was returned stating that the Ringgold Light Artillery “have ninety men, every one of them expecting to be ordered on duty for the U.S. Service before they leave their guns.” The following day, Captain McKnight received orders to get to Harrisburg by train as soon as possible. He left Reading with 101 of his men at 6 o’clock in the evening and arrived in Harrisburg by 8 o’clock, making the Ringgold Light Artillery the first to leave home and arrive for duty.
On April 18, 1861, fully uniformed and equipped, the Ringgold Light Artillery and four other companies left Harrisburg for Baltimore. As the First Defenders approached the center of the city to board the special train to Washington, they were met with a shower of stones, bricks, and clubs of an angry mob; fortunately, no one was seriously injured and they were able to reach the Capitol by 6 o’clock that evening. The members of the five companies were taken to the capital and were supplied with new arms. President Lincoln even greeted each and every one of the soldiers with a handshake, thanking them for their rapid efforts to protect Washington.
On April 23, 1861, Captain McKnight and the rest of the Ringgold Light Artillery were ordered to report to aid Captain Dahlgren at the Washington Navy Yard for the protection of the arsenal. It was ascertained that a rebel attempt would be made to capture the capital via said arsenal. The Reading troops remained in this position for several months before returning home. Many of them went on to see many major conflicts in the war, but regardless of other honors and credits, the survivors of these first five companies were ever proudest of the fact that they were “The First Defenders.”
The Memorial to the First Defenders, 1901
As noted earlier, on July 4, 1901, the City of Reading dedicated a monument in City Park to memorialize the men of the Ringgold Light Artillery. An article written in the Reading Eagle on that particular day mentions that designs had been submitted by Bureau Brothers of Philadelphia (at a cost of $1,320) and P. F. Eisenbrown’s Sons of Reading (at a cost of $1,350). The committee favored to award the home contractors with the job of crafting and erecting the monument in City Park. July 4th was the chosen day of dedication “in the hopes that Mt. Penn would be set ablaze with redfire.” Adorning the front of the monument, a plaque was fastened that reads:
To commemorate the patriotism and promptitude of the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, Pennsylvania, which reported for duty at Harrisburg, April 16, 1861, arriving there first of the Pennsylvania companies; and with the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Washington Artillerists of Pottsville, National Light Infantry of Pottsville, and Allen Infantry of Allentown, entered the city of Washington April 18, 1861, The First Defenders of the Capital.
The monument still stands today, nearly 120 years after its dedication, reminding us of the sacrifices of those brave men—and so many others before and since—whose service to our country is the reason we are able to freely celebrate today.
Written by BHC Curator, Amber Vroman