Birth of the “Bucktails” – Thomas L. Kane after the fall of Fort Sumter
“WAR! WAR!! WAR!!!” shouted the opening headline of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Readers in eastern Pennsylvania, across the Commonwealth, and throughout the country awoke that Saturday morning, April 13, 1861, to the stark news from Charleston, South Carolina. “The Rebels Open Fire on Fort Sumter...,” the Inquirer advised, in reference to the events of April 12. “The Firing Ceased for the Night, to Commence in the Morning.”
By 2:30 p.m. on April 13, Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered himself and his 80 American soldiers at the United States Army garrison in Charleston Harbor, which was evacuated the following day. With this act of Southern aggression, and the resulting Federal capitulation, months of Confederate secession had instantly turned to armed rebellion.
“The fight has commenced...,” the Inquirer reported. “The ball has been opened at last, and war is inaugurated.”
Coincidentally, only a few days earlier, on April 9, Pennsylvania’s newly inaugurated Republican governor, Andrew Curtin, notified the state legislature that, “Many of our volunteer companies do not possess the number of men required by our militia law, and steps should be forthwith to supply these deficiencies.” Further, he recommended “that arms be procured and distributed to those of our citizens who may enter into the military service of the State.”
Attorney and social activist Thomas Leiper Kane read his governor’s words with great interest. From “Greenwood, near Philadelphia,” on the afternoon of April 13, the 39-year-old religious philanthropist, abolitionist, and apparent Underground Railroad conductor penned a letter to Curtin in response to the news that combat had broken out at Fort Sumter. Although the battle was 700 miles distant, Kane recognized the immediate possibility of national conflict, and hoped to help defend the Keystone State.
“Taking what I hear in connection with your proclamation—which has my approval—I presume you will soon call out the militia, neither against the South nor against the North, but for Pennsylvania,” Kane wrote. “Should this be your purpose, I will feel personally obliged by your giving me an opportunity to serve.”
Curiously, despite his abolitionism, Kane was a member of the Democratic party (he eventually became “a Stalwart or Grant Republican”), but hoped any personal political discrepancies with Curtin would not hurt his prospects of assisting. “In the present exigency it should be the reverse of a disqualification that my associations and sympathies differ from your own,” Kane opined. “If desired by you I can raise a Company of McKean and Elk Counties—of horse.”
On April 15, President Abraham Lincoln summoned “the militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress” the military actions of the Confederacy. “I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured,” Lincoln proclaimed. “I deem it proper to say that the first service assigned to the forces hereby called forth will probably be to re-possess the forts, places, and property which have been seized from the Union.”
That same Monday morning, Kane addressed Curtin again. “Will you accept a Company of horse to be raised by me in Elk and McKean Counties[?]” Kane inquired, before requesting that two additional dignitaries in the state capital at Harrisburg—J.G. Gordon and S.M. Lawrence—second his offer.
“I can leave to-night and bring down my men in a week,” Kane informed Curtin. “My offer of service is unconditional.” His telegraph was forwarded to the governor, who was now in Washington, D.C., conferring with President Lincoln, Commanding Gen. Winfield Scott, and Pennsylvania State Sen. Alexander McClure. According to McClure, their interview focused on “the attitude Pennsylvania should assume in the civil conflict that had been inaugurated,” since “Pennsylvania was the most exposed of all the border States, and, being the second State of the Union in population, wealth, and military power, it was of the utmost importance that she should lead in defining the attitude of the loyal States.”
On April 15, as well, Sec. of the Commonwealth Eli Slifer, an antislavery advocate in his own right, responded to the likeminded Kane’s appeal. “Your tender of the services of the Elk and McKean County Cavalry is accepted, hold yourself in readiness to march on short notice,” Slifer entreated, adding, “Answer, stating number of men.” However, on April 16, Slifer amended his initial memorandum, instead remarking now, “The Secretary of War [Edwin Stanton] has just notified the department that none but Infantry and Riflemen will be taken, he can receive none but those who carry muskets or rifles.”
Curtin stated the same in an April 17 message of his own. “The General Government want Infantry and Riflemen and refuse to accept Cavalry,” he told Kane; “arms and equipments [sic] will be furnished by the government.”
Kane traveled cross-state from the suburbs of Philadelphia back to his northwestern Pennsylvania home in Smethport, McKean County, barely 15 miles south of the New York border. Upon arrival on the evening of April 16 or the morning of April 17, he immediately drafted an announcement asking for volunteers to protect the Keystone State.
“VOLUNTEER RIFLES! MARKSMEN WANTED!” the banner screamed. “By authority of Governor Curtin, a company will be formed this week of citizens of McKean and Elk Counties, who are prepared to take up arms immediately, to support the Constitution of the United States and defend the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Kane broadcasted. “I am authorized to accept at once for service, any man who will bring with him to my headquarters a Rifle which he knows how to use.”
“Come forward Americans, who are not degenerate from the spirit of ’76,” Kane implored as he incited the historical example of the Revolution. “Come forward in time to save the city of Washington from capture—in time to save the flag of the Union there from being humbled as it has been at Fort Sumpter [sic].” He specified that those who were interested could enlist at, “Headquarters at the Bennett House, Smethport. Muster Roll at the same place, and questions answered. Apply without further notice.”
At the McKean County Court House in Smethport on the evening of April 18, Byron D. Hamlin, a local Democratic lawyer and politician, introduced Kane, who delivered a public address. Kane “reviewed the incidents of the last few days, read the proclamation of President Lincoln calling for volunteers, and announced that he had been commissioned by Governor Curtin to raise a force of one hundred volunteers,” recalled Thomas J. Thomson, a Clearfield County native who eventually joined Kane’s ranks.
In his speech, Kane “stated his belief that the organization of an effective force was the best preventative of war, and his hopes that the rallying of the people might result in the resumption of harmony without the shedding of fraternal blood,” added Thomson, who rose to the rank of first sergeant, was captured at the Battle of Mechanicsville, and suffered a wound at Fredericksburg. “Suitable resolutions were passed, looking towards the support of the projects of Colonel Kane, and the latter resumed his work of organizing his company.”
“Kane immediately began his canvass of McKean, Elk and Cameron Counties,” Thomson remembered. “Selecting his lieutenants for the work of recruiting with admirable discrimination, he established his headquarters at Smethport, while his messengers on horseback went from town to town and village to village, till from these three counties three companies were recruited” for what soon officially became the 42nd Pennsylvania Infantry, or the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, led by newly minted Colonel Thomas L. Kane.
After obtaining his first recruit, Pvt. Hiram Woodruff of Company G, who was killed at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, Kane traveled to Benezett in southern Elk County, where a “leading lumberman,” Cobe Winslow, had already procured the enlistments of 109 “men and boys” to fill Kane’s ranks. Additionally, Kane requested the aid of McKean County Sheriff James M. Blair, who gained an additional 67 recruits. “Aroused by the firing upon Fort Sumter,” within days, Kane had several companies at his service including the “Elk County Rifles,” the “Cameron County Rifles” (otherwise known as the “Wild Cats”), and the “McKean County Rifles.”
On one occasion, across the street from Kane’s headquarters in Smethport, Pvt. James Landregan “noticed a deer hide hanging outside” a butcher shop, according to Thomas Thomson. “Crossing the street, he pulled out his penknife, cut off the tail and stuck it in his cap,” Thomson continued. “Upon his return to headquarters, Kane noticed his headgear, seized upon the idea suggested and instantly announced that the force he was recruiting should be known as the ‘Bucktails.’ Without waiting a minute all who were around headquarters rushed over to the butcher shop, knives were produced, the hide cut into strips resembling tails, and the strips mounted in the caps of the men.”
Per a newsman for the Kane Republican (the town of Kane, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1863 by Thomas Kane), another version of the famous Bucktails’ origin involved Capt. William T. Blanchard, a former construction worker who was subsequently wounded at Harrisonburg in 1862. In Smethport, “‘Blanchard and Col. Kane were discussing the question of insignia,’” the story went.
“‘A large deer was hanging out in the front of a market opposite the public square. Blanchard noticed it and said, ‘Why not take a buck’s tail?’” the recollection maintained. “Kane replied, ‘That’s just the thing.’ They went over and cut the tail of that deer and the hide was cut into small pieces and put on the soldiers’ hats. The first man to wear the bucktail was James Landigran [sic].’”
Just ten days after Fort Sumter was first fired upon, Kane’s recruits signed their muster rolls and took the oath that made them U.S. soldiers. After 6:00 a.m. on April 23, 1861, Kane delivered their first military orders in the Smethport Court House, and by 8:00 a.m. “they were marched and filed in the street fronting the Bennett House, where Kane proposed three cheers for the Hon. Byron D. Hamlin, President of the first Union meeting held in McKean County since the attempt to dissolve the Union, where they were given at a will,” wrote Sergeant Thomson. “Short appropriate speeches were made by” Hamlin and Wayne County dignitary Noble E. Eldred, “after which three cheers were called for and given for the McKean County Rifles, three for Colonel Kane and three for the Stars and Stripes which hung in front of the hotel.”
“About 9 A.M. the command, ‘Forward, march,’ was given,” Thomson recorded. “The march was a long one.”
In the months and years to come, the 42nd Pennsylvania Infantry earned acclaim as the “Bucktails,” “Kane’s Rifle Regiment,” and the “1st Rifles,” proving itself to be one of the Commonwealth’s most decorated Civil War units. The regiment produced celebrated officers like Charles Biddle and Roy Stone, who created a “Bucktail Brigade” of his own (dismissively nicknamed the “Bogus Bucktails” by veterans of the original regiment), comprised of the 143rd, 149th, and 150th Pennsylvania. In his regimental history, History of the “Bucktails” (authored alongside writer William H. Raunch), Thomson said that he and his comrades vowed to fight against a Confederate armed “service rendered by men in bondage”; to end “negro slavery”; to “resent the attack upon the flag”; to “save, with their life’s blood if necessary, the integrity of the Union, and to assert with such power that it should never be questioned again, the supremacy of the Nation over the individual States within the limits of the Constitution.” The regiment dedicated its monument at Gettysburg, west of Little Round Top, on September 2, 1890.
Thomas Kane was wounded and captured in the summer of 1862, but led with distinction and was promoted to brigadier general that September. While in command of a brigade in the Army of the Potomac’s Twelfth Corps, Kane distinguished himself in the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, as his men held the right end of the Union line on Culp’s Hill—for which he was later brevetted a major general. Ailing health forced General Kane to be initially reassigned to a draft depot in Pittsburgh, but he ultimately resigned his commission and worked for the remainder of his life as an engineer, railroad organizer, and prohibition activist, until his death in 1883.
 “WAR! WAR!! WAR!!!” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 13, 1861, 1.  A.G. Curtin, “To the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” April 9, 1861, in Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, of the Session Begun at Harrisburg, On the First Day of January, A.D. 1861 (Harrisburg, PA: A. Boyd Hamilton, 1861), 709.  Thomas L. Kane to Curtin, April 13, 1861, in O.R. Howard Thomson and William H. Raunch, History of the “Bucktails,” Kane Rifle Regiment of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (Philadelphia: Electric Printing Company, 1906), 6; “MAJ.-GEN. THOMAS L. KANE,” in History of the Counties of McKean, Elk and Forest, Pennsylvania, with Biographical Selections (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1890), 559.  Abraham Lincoln, “Proclamation Calling Militia and Convening Congress,” April 15, 1861, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), vol. 4, 332.  Kane to Curtin, April 15, 1861, in History of the “Bucktails,” 6-7; A.K. McClure, Abraham Lincoln and Men of War-Times. Some Personal Recollections of War and Politics During the Lincoln Administration (Philadelphia: The Times Publishing Company, 1892), 57-61. McClure’s use of the term “border States” was not used in the traditional sense (states which allowed slavery to exist but remained loyal to the U.S.), but rather in reference to the fact that Pennsylvania itself shared its southern border with a slave state.  Eli Slifer to Kane, April 15 and 16, 1861, in History of the “Bucktails,” 6-7.  Curtin to Kane, April 17, 1861, in History of the “Bucktails,” 7-8.  Kane, “VOLUNTEER RIFLES!” in History of the “Bucktails,” 8.  Thomson and Raunch, History of the “Bucktails,” 9, 402, 427.  Thomson and Raunch, History of the “Bucktails,” 11, 423.  “Seen From The Hilltop,” Kane Republican (Kane, PA), April 13, 1935, 4; “MAJ.-GEN. THOMAS L. KANE,” in History of the Counties of McKean, Elk and Forest, Pennsylvania, 559.  “Seen From The Hilltop,” Kane Republican, April 13, 1935, 4.  Thomson and Raunch, History of the “Bucktails,” 11-12.  Thomson and Raunch, History of the “Bucktails,” 12.  “Forty-Second Regiment, Bucktail,” in Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65; (Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, 1869), vol. 1, 907-943; Thomson and Raunch, History of the “Bucktails,” 1, 4; John P. Bard, “Dedication of Monument. 42nd Regiment Infantry,” Sept. 2, 1890, in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg: Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Mark the Positions of the Pennsylvania Commands Engaged in the Battle (Harrisburg, PA: E.K. Meyers, 1893), vol. 1, 276-283.  “MAJ.-GEN. THOMAS L. KANE,” in History of the Counties of McKean, Elk and Forest, Pennsylvania, 559-560.