Bucktail Monument at Gettysburg (Photo by Sue Mraz)
Bucktails- Skirmishers of the Civil War
According to many chroniclers of the "Bucktails," their distinct advantage was
that they were a rifle company. Their skill as marksmen gave them an advantage
on the battlefield. Their frontier background enabled them to be effective soldiers in the
Army of the Potomac. The method of fighting developed by Thomas Kane enabled the
men to utilize the skills gained from hunting game in the Pennsylvania wilderness.
The regimentís official designation was the Forty-second Regiment, Thirteenth
Reserves, the First Rifles of the Pennsylvania Reserves. They were better known as the
"Bucktails" or the "Bucktailed Wildcats."
The "Bucktailed Wildcats" were a Civil War regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers from the "Wildcat District" of Pennsylvania. This area had no specific boundaries but was generally thought as the region that is now Northwestern Pennsylvania. The area got its name from a State Senator Payne who said: " I represent more trees and wildcats then anyone in this room!" Ever since that day people referred to the area as the "Wildcat District."
On April 12, 1861, Thomas L. Kane asked permission of Governor Andrew Curtin to form a regiment from the inhabitants of the "Wildcat District." Permission was granted on April 14 of that year and Kane began to recruit in McKean (Company I), Elk (Company G) and Cameron (Company C) Counties of Pennsylvania.
Recruiting posters went up and headquarters were established in the three counties. Thomas Kane set up headquarters at the Bennett House in Smethport, Pennsylvania. John A. Eldred recruited men in Emporium, Cameron County at a hotel. While Thomas Winslow recruited men in a tavern in Benzette, Elk County.
Kane recruited hardy lumbermen and framers of the district. These men were an adventuresome lot who craved the romantic excitement of battle. Kane believed these men would make an excellent rifle company. The recruits would be expert marksmen and no man would be allowed to join who could not prove his skills with a rifle.
At first, the recruits had to shoot target, but this became too laborious. Therefore,
no man would be mustered into the unit unless he could show a bucktail (the white tail of a deer) as proof of his shooting skills. Thus, the regiment received the nickname, "Bucktails."
During Thomas Kaneís stay at Bennett House, he noticed James Landegan wearing a bucktail in his hat. Kane believed that the bucktail served two purposes. One, it could be used as proof that the man could shoot a deer. Two, it could be a symbol for the regiment. The bucktail was worn as a Roman general would wear an ostrich feather. The symbol became a badge of pride and distinction for the men. It separated them from other outfits and made them special.
The average foot soldier in the Civil War made $16.00 a month. The typical lumbermen made $48.00 a month. It indeed must have been the romanticism of the 19th Century which led these men to go to war. Why else would they take such a drop in pay?
Bucktail Monument, Driftwood, Pa.(photo by Sue Mraz)
On April 27, 1861, three hundred men under the leadership of Thomas Kane met at Driftwood, Pennsylvania on the Sinnemahoning River. There it was decided to build rafts and float down river to Lock Haven. Once in Lock Haven they would take a train to Camp Curtin near Harrisburg.
The men had to chip in money to buy the wood for the rafts from Sackettís Saw Mill. The vessels were sixty-five feet by sixteen feet. On the flagship was placed Kaneís horse "Old Gencoe" and a pole which flew the American flag and a bucktail.
When the Bucktails reached Lock Haven they found that Governor Curtin would not pay their passage on the Sunbury and Erie Railroads. The Governor believed he had enough volunteers and this tactic of no transportation would cause the Bucktails to disband and go home. Fortunately, a Mr. Mackey paid the $480.00 ticket for the unitís trip to camp near the state capital.
Camp Curtin was an active but disorganized place. Training was left mainly to the elected officers of each regiment. Kane developed a technique of fighting which the unit employed know as skirmishing.
Skirmishing consisted of taking advantage of terrain to stock the enemy just as the men would a buck or some other game. The men already had skills in this area so it was second nature to them. The men would go ahead of the regular troops and form lines under cover. Half the men would be about 20 yards ahead of the other half. That way they could advance or retreat while the second group covered (see figure 1).
Whenever the Bucktails were exposed to fire they would scatter and make use of cover that was available. The part of the line that was protected would engage the enemy until they were exposed while having masking fire from those in the line less protected. The men in the front would protect the men in the back and vice versa. Great responsibility fell on the individual soldier. They were taught to take advantage of every point in the line to attack and advance.
These tactics proved successful. At Lincolnís request the regiment was given breach-loading Sharps and Spencers repeating rifles which enabled them to be even more deadly accurate. The unit had breach-loading weapons which enabled them to load while staying hidden by the terrain. Their rebel foes had muzzle loaders and it is impossible to reload without exposing oneself to enemy fire. Later, the strategy of the Bucktails proved highly effective in such important engagements as Gettysburg.
Devilís Den, Gettysburg (Photo by Mark Mraz)
The "Bucktails" arrived at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 and were placed in the line between Devilís Den and the Wheatfield-Peach orchard. With their modern weapons the men were able to pick off many confederates in this area. The skirmishing tactics worked well in the terrain and gave them the advantage. During the fighting two of the regiments commanders were killed. But the Bucktailsí fought on and on until the battle was over.
An unknown member of the regiment reported the fighting as follows:
At Gettysburg, I observed a barricade of rock and a puff of smoke
issuing from it: I carefully took aim for the aperture from which the
smoke came and as the smoke still puffed, shot again and again. After
I fired six shoots, the smoke ceased. After the battle, I walked to the
place and was shocked to see five dead men. As one had fallen
another took his place... (Elk Horn, page 3)
Some of the men close enough to Devilís Den fired into it to see if they could get a rebel. Three or four Johnny Rebels came out and surrendered in the process. One unknown Bucktail stated:
During the war near Devilís Den, I had a spare shot in my gun and I just
thought I would fire into the den to see if I could bring out a rebel. I
meant this in fun , not thinking there would have been anyone in there.
All of a sudden after firing. I heard someone yell: "Donít shoot, Iíll come
out." Out stalked a big lanky southerner with a nice bag of hot corn bread.
I took some of the corn bread and then gave the rest back to my prisoner
to show him I was not going to harm him. (Elk Horn, p.3)
On the third day of the Battle, July 3, 1863 , the regiment overtook the 15th Georgia Infantry . Sergeant John B. Thompson, Company G (The Elk Rifles) captured the Battle Flag of the 15th Georgia. Thompson was given the Metal of Honor for his brave deed.
Some confusion exists about the Bucktails because later units took the name. However, the original or old Bucktails were the backwoodsmen from Northwestern Pennsylvania-The Wildcat District. Their life in the backwoods of Pennsylvania made them ideal sharpshooters for Abraham Lincolnís Army.
Roadside Marker at the point where the Bucktails left for Camp Curtin (Photo by Mark Mraz)
Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Harrisburg:
Pennsylvania State Printer, 1869) multi-volume.
_______. Martial Deeds of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Th. Davis and Company, 1876).
Bucktails (Internet) www.homestead.com/bucktail/index.html
Daily Press. (November 28, 1961).
Elk Horn. Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer 1982).
Glover, Edwin A. Bucktail Wildcats: A Regiment of Civil War Volunteers (New York:
A.S. Barnes and Company, 1960).
History of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter Counties. (Chicago: J. H. Beers and Company, 1890)
Minnigh, H. N. History of Company K. 1st Infantry Pennsylvania Reserves (Duncansville: Home Print Publisher, 1891).
Pennsylvania Archives. Fourth Series, Vol 8 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Printer, 1902).
Pennsylvania at Gettysburg (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Printer, 1904) two-volumes.
Riesman, Joseph. History of Northwestern Pennsylvania (New York: Lewis Historical Company, 1942).
Thompson, O.R. Howard, and William H. Rouch. History of the Bucktails
(Philadelphia: Electric Printing Company, 1906).
Wessman, Alice K. A History of Elk County, Pa. (Ridgway: Nupp Printing, 1981)