He took a rough and ready group of lumbermen, and turned them into a rough and ready group of soldiers.
Watson McNeil came late to Pennsylvania as a frail bank cashier, a political activist and then as one of the most fierce and revered officers of the Civil War.
In the years leading up to the war, McNeil spent time in Washington, D.C., working at the U.S. Coast Geodetic Survey and U.S. Treasury Department. He also studied law while in Washington, but, plagued by a lung disease, sought a less sultry climate and found relief in the clear mountain air of northwestern Pennsylvania.
In 1861, following President Lincoln's call for troops, McNeil joined as a private a band of lumbermen, farmers and artisans from the backwoods of northwestern Pennsylvania, almost all of them hunters and skilled marksmen who brought their own rifles with them. On April 28, 1861, a company of 101 men was organized in Warren and McNeil was elected the company's lieutenant. McNeil was six feet tall with black hair, eyes and beard. He had soulful eyes that gave him a distinctive melancholy appearance. His quiet and efficient manner made him popular with the troops.
Since many of its members were lumbermen who gained fame floating rafts of lumber down rivers to market in the days before it was shipped by rail, the company adopted the colorful name "Raftsman Guards."
The Raftsman Guards received a summons from Governor Curtin to serve in the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, and they were mustered into the 13th Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment as Company D with other companies composed of brawling backwoodsmen from upstate Pennsylvania.
This regiment arguably became Pennsylvania's most famous Civil War unit. It became popularly known as the "Bucktails" after its men adopted a buck deer's tail as an insignia and proudly wore it on their caps as a symbol of their prowess as riflemen. The regiment was also known as the First Pennsylvania Rifles, and as Kane's Rifle Regiment, after their colonel Thomas L. Kane who recruited most of its members. When Company D elected its officers, the troops chose Hugh McNeil as First Lieutenant.
Throughout 1861, the Bucktails and McNeil continued to prove their worth. The regiment spearheaded an attack at Dranesville, which provided a much-needed morale boost for the North after a crushing defeat at Bull Run during the previous summer.
Shortly after McNeil became colonel of the Bucktails, the regiment was divided into two forces. The six companies under McNeil's direct command would remain with the Pennsylvania Reserves, and fight with the Army of the Potomac in the Virginia Peninsula Campaign. McNeil, stricken with typhoid, was prevented from active participation on the Peninsula until the Union retreat at Harrison's Landing.
In August 1862 the Bucktails under McNeil fought bravely at the Battle of Second Bull Run, despite a decisive Confederate victory that opened the way for their invasion of Maryland. The Bucktail Regiment's two forces were now reunited under Colonel McNeil. On September 14, 1862, as skirmishers with McClellan's Army of the Potomac, the Bucktails attacked the Confederates at South Mountain, MD. A spirited charge led by McNeil drove the Rebels down off the mountain. At South Mountain McNeil also became the subject of a legendary feat of marksmanship. A group of Rebels, sheltered behind rocks, had been unleashing a deadly fire upon the Bucktails. McNeil saw two of the Southerners taking aim through an opening in the rocks. McNeil announced "I will try my hand. There is nothing like killing two birds with one stone." McNeil grabbed a rifle, carefully aimed, and fired. Both Rebels disappeared, and McNeil announced: "All is right now, charge the rascals." Upon overtaking the enemy's position, the troops discovered that McNeil's bullet had struck a slanting rock in their front, and had been deflected such that it had passed through the heads of both Rebels.
South Mountain, however, would be McNeil's last hurrah. On September 16, 1862, at Antietam, McNeil deployed the Bucktails as skirmishers in advance of the rest of the Pennsylvania Reserves. They crept forward to within 75 yards of the enemy when McNeil jumped up and shouted, "Forward Bucktails, Forward." [quote callout] An instant later Hugh McNeil was shot dead though the heart. Seeing their beloved colonel fall to the ground, the enraged Bucktails furiously attacked the enemy and drove them back until darkness brought the day's fighting to a close. Captain Dennis McGee, who assumed temporary command of the Bucktails after McNeil's death, remarked that "A braver man than him [McNeil] the army did not hold."
McNeil's body was escorted to Auburn, NY, where he was buried with full military honors. An historian of the Pennsylvania Reserves wrote: "Colonel McNeil was not only an accomplished scholar and a gallant soldier, but he was what is more and greater, a devout Christian...He entered the service of his country from a sense of duty; devoted to the cause of the constitution, he laid down his life a willing sacrifice on the altar of universal liberty, and died in the defense of republican government."
Information for this section was contributed by John Zwierzyna.
Image Courtesy of The State Museum of Pennsylvania