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John F. Hartranft: Pennsylvania General and Governor, By Dr. Lawrence E. Keener-Farley

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 4

The little known Pennsylvania Union Civil War General John Frederick Hartranft was born in 1830. After graduating college with a degree in Civil Engineering, he married Sallie Sebring in 1854. Hartranft began studying law and was admitted to the bar. He was also active in the local militia, fire company, and Masons. As the Civil War approached, Hartranft was one of those up-and-coming young men who would soon be leading their neighbors into battle.

Within four days of offering his services to Governor Andrew Curtin, Colonel Hartranft reported to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg with a regiment of men from Montgomery County, making up the 4th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The regiment was to serve for 90 days, not because it was thought the war would be short but because that was the maximum time period the President could federalize state militias. (Congress was not in session during the spring of 1861 and a law allowing three-year enlistments would not be passed until later in the summer).

The 4th Pennsylvania joined General Irvin McDowell's army that marched out to meet the Confederates in the nearby Virginia countryside. On the eve of the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run), the Regiment's ninety day enlistment was about to expire. Despite Hartranft's pleas, the entire regiment walked off the battlefield as the first shots were being fired. Hartranft was devastated and embarrassed. Rather than leave the fight, he volunteered his services to General William Franklin. Hartranft always considered the actions of his men to be a stain on his honor, erased in 1886 when he received the Medal of Honor for his own heroic actions at Bull Run.

Afterwards, Hartranft returned to Pennsylvania and raised the 51st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a three-year regiment. The new unit initially was assigned to Burnside's operations along the North Carolina coast in the spring of 1862. The 51st Pennsylvania was sent to Virginia in the summer to join Pope's army and fought at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. The next year, Colonel Hartranft led the 51st Pennsylvania in a gallant charge across “Burnside's Bridge” at the Battle of Antietam.

The 51st also fought at Vicksburg, Mississippi; Knoxville, Tennessee (one of the few regiments to serve in both the east and the west); and, Spotsylvania, Virginia. He was promoted to Brigadier General for his outstanding service. At Petersburg, Hartranft foiled Lee's attack on Fort Stedman, the last major Confederate offensive of the war. Lee's failure led to the evacuation of the Petersburg defenses and the ultimate fall of Richmond. For this action, Hartranft was promoted to major general.

At the end of the war, Hartranft was appointed special provost marshal for the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, where he was responsible for the custody of the prisoners and the execution of four of those convicted. Hartranft was especially noted for his kind treatment toward Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the federal government. After the war, Hartranft returned to his hometown and entered Republican politics. He served as Auditor General from 1867 to 1873 and governor of Pennsylvania from 1873 to 1879. As governor, he supported suffrage for African Americans, fought the corrupt Simon Cameron political machine, and championed the rights of the workingman.

This latter inclination caused him problems not only with business owners but also with part of the growing labor movement. Depending upon one's personal views, the Molly Maguires were either a band of lawless hoodlums or a group of legitimate defenders of Irish workers. When violence in the coalfields of northeast Pennsylvania led to several deaths, Hartranft was caught in the middle. Eventually 20 members of the “Mollies” were hanged, despite pleas to Hartranft for pardons.

During the summer of 1877, the nation and the Commonwealth were faced with a series of railroad strikes that often turned into riots. Hartranft sympathized with the plight of the workers, but he would not allow mob rule to challenge the rule of law and used the state militia to restore order. One result of this action was the recognition that the militia system was terribly disorganized. As an “old soldier,” Hartranft saw the need for a modernized body of troops, which led to the formation of today's Pennsylvania National Guard.

After serving two terms as governor, Hartranft was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia and later Collector for the Port of Philadelphia. He also served as commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard and was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization.

Hartranft died in Norristown, Pennsylvania on October 17, 1889, and is buried in the local cemetery. The Pennsylvania National Guard provided an obelisk for his grave, monuments at Petersburg and Vicksburg honor his battlefield exploits, an equestrian statue stands next to the Pennsylvania Capitol Building, and Camp No. 15 of the Sons of Union Veterans is named in his honor.

Our thanks to Lawrence Keener-Farley for this article. Dr. Keener-Farley is president of the Camp Curtin Historical Society and is the Senior Vice Commander of the Maj. Gen. John F. Hartranft Camp No. 15 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He also is Dance Master of the Victorian Dance Ensemble. Last April, this group demonstrated Civil War dancing at the historic Landon House for participants in the Smithsonian Resident Associates Seminar, Second Manassas to Antietam, led by Will Greene and Ed Bearss. Dr. Keener-Farley is a long-term Smithsonian Resident Associate and a Contributing Member of the Smithsonian Institution.

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