The 51st Penna. left their wooden winter quarters behind as they embarked on trains after being reassigned from Virginia to duty in Ohio. The soldiers were herded into wooden boxcars with rude benches to sit on for the long ride to the West.
Scores of Civil War regiments passed through York on the Northern Central Railway, particularly early in the war as they were being shuttled from training sites to the South to their designated assignments. Some trains steamed through town without stopping, making the run from Harrisburg to Baltimore as an express route. Others paused in York, but the men had to stay in the railcars. In other cases, the soldiers were allowed off the train to stretch their legs, use the depot’s facilities, and perhaps grab quick bite to eat.
Some took the opportunity to tour the prosperous and attractive town of some 8,600 people. For a few soldiers, that sojourn made them AWOL.
The 51st Pennsylvania had gained fame as one of the two regiments (the other being the 51st New York) that stormed and carried Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam. Now, on March 28, 1863, they were on their way to the Western Theater as part of the IX Corps, a unit that was being sent to the Department of the Ohio under Ambrose Burnside.
A brief stopover in Baltimore that night proved troublesome. The train rolled into town at 11 p.m., but was not due to leave for York until 1 a.m. Several men began strolling through the city, being warmly greeting by most locals. However, some of the Keystoners “got drunk and became riotous,” but most were spared from being thrown into the local jail because of the regiment’s past highly positive association with Baltimore’s 2nd Maryland Infantry. Some others were not as fortunate, being locked up in Fort McHenry as deserters. They would not be released for several days.
The rest of the regiment was rounded up and herded onto the NCR cars for the northern trip across the Mason-Dixon Line back into their native state. At 1 a.m. on the 29th, the train departed Baltimore and steamed through the night. By daybreak, it was entering the southern tip of York County. At 10 in the morning, the train stopped at the NCR depot in York.
According to the regimental historian, “The citizens had coffee ready made and gave them a good breakfast, but here, as in Baltimore, a few more got left behind…” War-weary Union soldiers strolled through York’s streets and interacted with the locals. For a few, either from exhaustion, residual drunkeness, or most likely simply not making it back in time, the sound of the train whistle signaled the departure of their comrades.
Contemplating what to do, the strays, not wanting to be imprisoned (and possibly shot) as deserters, debated what to do. They spotted an oncoming express train, ran along side it, and jumped on board. They caught up with the regiment at Marysville, a town north of Harrisburg. There, they learned that a large number of other comrades had left the train during its brief stopover in Harrisburg, many with an eye to going home instead of to Cincinnati. Several were convinced to get back on board or be arrested as deserters; the rest refused and were indeed hauled away to face punishment.
For the rest of the men of the 51st Pennsylvania, they faced long days on the westward bound trains until they arrived at their posts. Most got drunk in Pittsburgh, where “whiskey flowed as freely as water” during a lengthy stop there. They finally arrived in Cincinnati on March 31.
Many soldiers would never see the Keystone State again, as disease and battle casualties substantially thinned their ranks before they finally returned to Pennsylvania to muster out of the service once their three-year enlistment expired.