The Old Bucktails
From the time of Cain and Abel, warfare was essentially a man-against-man endeavor. Artillery and cannon changed that only a little. During the Revolutionary War, we Americans beat the British because our riflemen were actually taking aim and choosing targets. And so it continued until the bombing of civilians in World War II. The Germans started blitzkrieg bombing of London as the Japanese were bombing Chinese civilian population centers. The British and American air power followed suit. Those acts turned the conflict into a war of wills. But, in trenches and foxholes, it was still a one-on-one competition more often than not. Korea and Viet Nam returned military campaigns back to a “who’s the best shot” kind of war—mostly. In every military encounter, experienced hunters excelled.
Why the short history lesson? Well, if I were going into a battle where good shooting would determine the outcome, I’d recruit good shots to come with me. I’d want guys who hunted to put food on the table. Deer hunters would become sharpshooters just as they did in the Civil War. Grouse and pheasant hunters would become aerial gunners just as they did in World War II. And that’s exactly what Uncle Sam did.
The Civil War became the most devastating conflict in the annals of American history. It was a war where 618,000 men and boys died. The crack shots, the sharpshooters and snipers, were from northern Pennsylvania. They all hunted to put food on the table.
After Confederate General Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for volunteer troops to rise to the defense of the Union. Thomas Kane, an influential abolitionist who had been jailed for contempt of court—by his father, no less—began recruiting young men from the northern tier counties of Pennsylvania. Kane and his officers were able to recruit enough men to fill seven companies. (That’s about 700 men.) These men were professional hunters; farmers who supplemented the family larder by killing game; they were woods-wise lumberjacks and raftsmen. These men were accustomed to living in the rugged mountainous areas of what had become known as the “Wildcat District.” The area included Tioga, Potter, Elk, McKean, Clearfield, and Cameron counties. Two companies mustered on The Green across from the courthouse in Wellsboro and legend has it that they had to prove their prowess with a rifle to be accepted into the companies. The citizenry of Tioga County gathered at The Green daily to witness the shooting exhibitions.
Prior to leaving for Harrisburg, the men adopted the tail of a whitetail deer as their regimental emblem. Deer tails were placed on each recruit’s kepi cap. The regiment formed from these men became known as the Pennsylvania Bucktails. The men from Tioga and Potter Counties marched to Troy to await a rail ride to Harrisburg. Along the way, they picked up a company that had formed in Mansfield and a company formed in Lawrenceville, which included good shots from New York State. The men in the more western counties marched to Driftwood, Pennsylvania, and built log rafts to float down to Lock Haven on the Susquehanna. En route, a buck tail festooned the top of the mast on the lead log raft. At Lock Haven they picked up the railroad.
All Pennsylvania volunteers encamped at Camp Curtin, named for the Keystone State’s governor. Once at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, another company from Northern Pennsylvania, a company from Chester County and a company from Perry County (then still a vast wilderness) joined Kane’s group to complete the required ten-company regiment, and became the 13th regiment—the Rifle Regiment—of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. Activated as part of the federal army, they became the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, known to all as the Bucktail Regiment.
For the most part, these wild country men and boys had never been to “the big city.” They quickly became noted for their shameless carousing and constant fighting. They earned their unofficial nickname, “The Wildcats” from Wildcat Country. Their behavior was so dreadful, the mayor of Harrisburg banned the 42nd Regiment from entering the city—the only time in history that an entire regiment was prohibited entrance to a U.S. city.
The regiment trained at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg until June 1861. All of the men had marched to war with their personal deer rifles resting on their shoulders. Nearly all of the soldiers of the 42nd contingent were able to “drive a tack” at fifty paces—with their own hunting rifles. Nonetheless, these crack shots with their own weapons were forced by Army officials to ship home their trusted tack driver weapons. When they finally got the shabbily manufactured army-issue rifles, they raised a big stink. The guns were grossly inaccurate smoothbore weapons. They were, after all a rifle regiment. They even threatened to strike. The officers relented. Some men were allowed to get their personal rifles sent back. The few personal arms arrived in shipments that included spare buck tails. Finally deployed and facing action, the 42nd was detached, along with the 5th regiment, to assist General Lew Wallace in the Cumberland, Maryland area. By then, they had been issued the latest in technical weaponry, extremely accurate, superfast Sharps Rifles. Upon their return from Maryland, they joined the balance of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps which had been mustered into service by the federal government and was now attached to the Army of the Potomac in and near Washington D.C.
The Bucktails served with distinction in most of the major engagements of the Army of the Potomac. Often, these expert shots were assigned sniper duty with their Sharps. So accurate were the Bucktails that the term “Sharpshooter” was invented to describe the hunters from up north.
In May 1862, four companies of the Bucktails were detached from the regiment and sent to participate in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign against the legendary Stonewall Jackson. This detachment was engaged in the battles of Harrisonburg, Cross Keys, Catlett’s Station, 2nd Bull Run, and Chantilly. At Harrisonburg, a nail-driving Bucktail sniper-Sharpshooter was credited with killing Confederate General Turner Ashby.
The Bucktails fought at Dranesville; the Seven Days Battles of Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, New Market Crossroads, and Malvern Hill; Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and finally, Bethesda Church. The unit completed its service on May 31, 1864. Those who did not reenlist in the 190th Pennsylvania were mustered out of service.
Reading the muster is like perusing a Who’s Who of the northern tier of the Keystone State. Familiar names flow like the waters in a favorite trout stream: Cole, Colegrove, Cady, Clark, Cleveland, Davis, Edgerton, Evans, Gee, Heyler, Hill, Huck, and Ives down to Walker and Webster. There were names of men that I’ve fished with or hunted with like Mike Smith, Fred Heyler Wally Moore, George Cook, Jim Patterson, and Tom Smith. No doubt some of these outdoor friends of mine—my fellow hunters, trappers, and fishermen—were great-grandsons of the like-named Bucktails. And there were guys I would have like to have fished with like George Derby, a fellow north woods hunter who became a major league baseball star after the Civil War. But most of all, I wish I could go fishing just one time with Sgt. George W. Sears. Most of you know him as Nessmuk, the most renowned outdoor writer in America from the end of the Civil War until the 1890s. Yep. I would have loved fishing, camping at the mouth of a brookie stream, paddling a lightweight canoe with The Old Woodsman. But then, I would have loved meeting any one of those wildcat Bucktails, the original Sharpshooters.