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A call to arms 150 years ago

  • SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS  Two Jim Thorpe men, Ralph Clay and Zach Miller, are seen in this photo taken in North Carolina at the 145th Anniversary Battle Reenactment of Bentonville. From left: Scott Kuchta, unit president and captain, shown wearing…
    SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Two Jim Thorpe men, Ralph Clay and Zach Miller, are seen in this photo taken in North Carolina at the 145th Anniversary Battle Reenactment of Bentonville. From left: Scott Kuchta, unit president and captain, shown wearing the uniform of a private; Bill Polachek, Clay wearing corporal stripes; Chris Henn and Miller.
Published February 25. 2011 05:00PM

Exactly 150 years ago, big things were about to happen in Carbon County. Something similar was happening in Schuylkill County, too, and at other locations.

It was a call to arms; a fever that would redefine the country.

"It was August, 1861, when they started recruiting in Carbon County," says Ted Dombroski, West Hazleton.

Dombroski, 54, is 2nd lieutenant and unit historian of today's 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company K. The group honors the original infantry, created after the call for three-year regiments by President Abraham Lincoln. James Miller, a veteran of the Mexican War, was in charge of recruiting for the 81st PVI.

The original Company K was comprised of men from lower Luzerne County and was based in Eckley.

But there also were three companies from Carbon County; Company G, Mauch Chunk; Company H, Summit Hill; and Company I, Lehighton. Six other companies came from Philadelphia. Ten companies formed a regiment.

Tamaqua was a hotbed of recruitment, too. Tamaqua supplied three units: the Jackson Guard, the German Light Infantrymen, and the Scott Rifles of Tamaqua - each with 75 men.

Tamaqua also was home to Company A of the 48th Pennsylvania Regiment under Captain James Rhen.

The average age was 19, according to Dr. David Valuska, a Kutztown University professor and historian who spoke on the topic at the Tamaqua Public Library several years ago.

The 81st Pa. participated in all but the first few battles in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.

On the 10th of October, the 81st PVI Regiment proceeded to Washington and went into camp at Kendall Green. There, the regiment was placed into the first Brigade, First Division, of the Second Army Corps, where it would remain for the rest of the war. The Second Corps, in turn, belonged to the legendary Army of the Potomac that took on and defeated Robert E. Lee in the Eastern Theater.

The 81st has the distinction of producing a Medal of Honor recipient - Tom Robinson of Tamaqua.

"He was an Irish immigrant and was in his early 30s when he enlisted," says Dombroski, a re-enactor for the past 16 years. "He was a coal miner and went to enlist in Summit Hill. That was the enlistment point for Company H."

Dombroski says Robinson was an imposing figure, standing six-feet-three inches. He captured a Confederate flag in hand-to-hand combat. That act of bravery on the Spotsylvania battlefield resulted in his receipt of the Congressional Medal on May 12, 1864.

Robinson went on to live in Brooklyn, NY, but little is known about him after the move. Researchers have been unable to find out when he died or where he's buried.

"The last mention of him is in pension records of about 1868 to 1870," says Dombroski.

Performing such research is another hallmark of today's 81st.

Today's 81st is an educational nonprofit with a mission "to bring the Civil War accurately to life in order to generate interest in our rich national and local history and to preserve and honor the memories of the men who gave all to fight for an undivided Union."

The unit is comprised of about 40, with two members from Jim Thorpe - Ralph Clay and Zach Miller. The two men happen to be cousins. Clay is currently serving in Afghanistan, but told the TIMES NEWS via email that he developed an interest in the Civil War at a young age.

"I've been with the 81st for about 8 years now," says Clay. "I was interested in the Civil War since I was a little boy. My great-great-great grandfather, Herman Reihman, fought in the Civil War and I want to honor his memory and what he did. He fought with the 129th Pa. Vol. Infantry, 34th Pa Militia, and 3rd NJ Cavalry."

Today's 81st emphasizes authenticity.

The unit includes a vivandiere, a woman who wore the uniform of her unit, though usually with a Zouave jacket and a skirt over her pants. She tended to the needs of the troops in such areas as laundry and selling them liquor, food and supplies.

The membership breaks down to approximately 75 percent military and 25 percent civilian.

The men wear authentically reproduced uniforms and carry authentic or exacting reproductions of weapons, accoutrements, and equipment.

There is a command structure in place with an officer and non-commissioned officers and the group practices 1860s military etiquette and discipline in the field. Military members are drilled in period weapons handling and tactics.

Due to the use of real weapons that fire black powder, safety is paramount. One must be 16 years old to handle a weapon.

"And one must be at least 12 to be a musician and go out onto the field, such as a drummer or fife player," says Dombroski. "But civilian-wise, there is no age limit."

All members purchase and maintain their own uniforms, clothing, equipment, and supplies. The group meets regularly in Mountaintop, Fairview Township. Members come from all points in northeastern Pennsylvania and even as far north as Ithaca, NY.

One member, Brian Dunnigan, has been a re-enactor for over 20 years and is a member of the United States Sharpshooters. The Sharpshooters' members pay homage to an 1860s group raised in response to a proposal by Hiram Berdan, a noted inventor and first class target shooter. Dunnigan, who lives in Eckley, can trace his family lineage to a direct connection with the PVI, as his great-great uncle was a member of the 81st.

Captain Scott Kuchta, of Huntington Mills, says 38 of the original 100 men of Company K were from Eckley, with the remainder from Summit Hill, Mauch Chunk, Hazleton, Weatherly and other towns.

Members take pride in their role of recreating Company K with devotion. Many research the individual lives and stories of the original infantry. At Eckley, Company K volunteers have cleaned the cemetery and performed other chores.

As for the hobby, it can be expensive. One wool outfit and accessories can cost $2,500. But, as Dombroski points out, such expense can be associated with virtually any hobby.

"You can spend thousands on golf, hunting or fishing, too."

The group is expecting a busy year as the country enters the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Members will take part in battle re-enactments, parades and social gatherings. The group is particularly familiar to residents of Carbon and Schuylkill counties. Each year they participate in the Jim Thorpe St. Patrick's Day Parade and will once again be there this year.

In 2010, the group held its annual dinner at the 1874 Tamaqua train station, and may return there again this year after receiving a warm welcome in the Schuylkill County community.

According to historical accounts, the regiment was superbly drilled during its first months as part of the Army of the Potomac, battling Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, until Lee's surrender in 1865.

Dombroski and other PVI members believe that kind of legacy is too important to be forgotten.

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