Friday, August 2, 2013

The Harrisonburg Guards Part 1

Picture of the Harrisonburg Guards between 1886 and 1900 from collection of Massanutten Regional Library.

The Harrisonburg Guards

The following article focuses on the Harrisonburg Guards but also presents a picture of the region transitioning from the destruction of the Civil War and the confinements of Reconstruction to the creation of a new social order.  The portrait of Harrisonburg in 1877 shows a relatively prosperous, tolerant, and forward-looking segment of the South.  The Guards Unit may seem to be a relic of the past, yet the formation of the unit reveals an engagement in the new South and the re-formed Union.

Formation of the Harrisonburg Guards

            After the contentious 1876 Tilden-Hayes election, the Democrats acquiesced  to a Hayes presidency when  the contender promised to end all Federal intervention in Southern politics.  During the Reconstruction Era, one regulation forbade the former states of the Confederacy to organize militias.  On March  4, 1877 Hayes was inaugurated.  Five days later on March  9 a “new infantry military company” organized in Harrisonburg.  Those with some knowledge of local history will know the organizers - John Grattan, J.M Warren, P.G. Bowman, George Basford, William Billhimer, and others - were mostly from prominent families.  According to the 1880 Census data, the participants were mostly in their late teens and early twenties.   The fifty-nine “enterprising and spirited” company members elected O.B. Roller their captain. Initially the cmpany adopted the name Rockingham Rifles after the Civil War Company B of the 10th Voluntary Infantry captained by James Kenney.[i]   Four days after formation the guard unit changed its name to the Harrisonburg Guards.


            The Guards, in need of uniforms and equipment, turned to fundraising.  On April 26, 1877, friends of the Guards held a benefit performance at the Masonic Hall of “Ireland As It Is,” described as a “very interesting drama.” [ii]   Through the efforts of  Senator S. H. Moffett, the Guards received breech-loading muskets in early May.[iii]  The Company appeared serious and diligent in its practice of military skills during the three months following formation.  In early June, the Virginia Governor appointed Maj. James Kenney to inspect and muster the Guards into the service of the State.[iv]

The first public outing of the Guards in uniform occurred on Memorial Day at ceremonies in the Woodbine Cemetery around the monument to and the graves of the soldiers.[v]  A few days later the Guards and the Harrisonburg Band traveled by train to Staunton to participate in memorial services there.  The Guards marched in the Harrisonburg Fourth of July parade.  The newspaper called the celebration “a lively affair” that brought about 3,000 people from Winchester to Staunton to the town and the Court square.[vi] 

The mood of the local citizenry on that July 4, 1877 can be sensed in the day’s oratory. Captain John Paul read the Declaration of Independence.  The audience “loudly” called for a speech by the negro clergyman, Rev. J.W. Dungee, who discussed “the situation of the colored race and their relation to society and government.” [vii]

Of course, the Guard unit not only drilled to march in patriotic celebrations, it also prepared for its constitutional role in executing the “Laws of the Union.”  Twenty years after its formation , the Harrisonburg Guards were called up in  May 1898 for duty in Cuba but did not see action.  Most of the time was spent in camp in Jacksonville Florida.  The Guards, feeling chagrined at not being called to the front, returned to Harrisonburg in late September of 1898. 

The role of the militia in the southern states and elsewhere after the Civil War and Reconstruction was not clearly defined.  The lack of clarity of purpose probably contributed to guard units having the reputation of being men’s clubs and of being susceptible to group-think for good or bad ends.  To establish professionalism, control, and purpose, the Congress passed the Militia Act of 1903 and the National Guards Defense Act of 1916 that established the National Guards and guaranteed the State’s militia status as the Army’s primary reserve force.    (to be continued)


[i] Rockingham Register.  March 15, 1877.
[ii] RR April 24, 1877.
[iii] RR May 5, 1877.
[iv] RR June 14, 1877.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] RR. July 5, 1877.
[vii] Ibid.

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