The Pittsburgh Blues were one of the notable Pennsylvania units to serve and engage in action during the War of 1812. The Pittsburgh Blues took part in several major battles, including the Battle of Mississineway (December 18, 1812) and the Battle of Fort Meigs (April 26, 1813), as well as a number of smaller skirmishes against the British troops and the British-allied Indians. Throughout their service they earned excellent reputations for their superior conduct under fire.
At the time of their honorable discharge, they received the following commendation on August 28, 1813 in Seneca, Ohio: “The Pittsburgh Blues, commanded by Captain Butler, and those of Greensburg, by Lieutenant Drum, of Major Alexander’s battalion, having performed their services, the General [William Henry Harrison] hereby presents them an Honorable discharge. The General has ever considered this corps as the first in the Northwestern Army. Equal in point of bravery and subordination, it excelled in every other of those attainments which form complete and efficient soldiers. In battle, in camp, and on the march, their conduct has done honor to themselves and their country.”
General Harrison would repeat and further embellish his praise of the Pittsburgh Blues in later reports and visits to Pittsburgh.
We know about the actions and activities of the Pittsburgh Blues through a stream of contemporary newspaper reports, and also through journals kept by two of the members of the company: Private Charles Pentland, who kept a daily journal during his war service; and Private Nathan Vernon who wrote a detailed memoir of his service several years later.
The best history of the Pittsburgh Blues was written by (Captain) John H. Niebaum for a talk he gave at the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society (Pittsburgh) on April 25, 1916. The lecture was published as a four-part series that appeared in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine in 1921 and 1922.
Captain Niebaum’s articles, which appear below, provide an overview history of the Pittsburgh Blues, as well as a transcript of Private Pentland’s journal, and short biographies of each of the members of the Pittsburgh Blues.
Noted War of 1812 historian John C. Fredriksen re-discovered Private Vernon’s memoir and wrote about it in an article published in Pennsylvania History magazine in 1989.
The officers of the Pittsburgh Blues were sworn into service on August 14, 1812; the rest of the company of sworn in on September 1, 1812, and were mustered into service on September 10th. They left Pittsburgh on September 20th, traveled to and fought in Ohio and the Northwest Territory against British troops and British-allied Indians throughout a very harsh and cold winter. They were honorably discharged on August 28, 1813; and arrived back in Pittsburgh victoriously to military salutes and an outpouring of the Pittsburgh citizenry on September 10th, 1813. A very eventful year in the life of these Pittsburghers, and the nation.
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This company-sized formation was established in 1807 and was among the first military units to take up Pennsylvania Governor Simon Snyder’s call for troops to serve in the Old Northwest Territories. The U.S. Congress acted upon President James Madison’s Declaration of War on June 18, 1812.
A few weeks later, on August 12, 1812, a large public meeting of a sizable portion of Pittsburgh’s 5,000 citizens was held and several resolutions were discussed and voted upon in support of the government’s declaration of war. Also discussed was the Governor’s appeal for Pennsylvania troops. There was fear that a British invasion from Canada, with the assistance of British-allied Native Americans, would threaten the Great Lakes area, as well as Pittsburgh and Ohio. Pittsburgh was still a major departure gateway for trade and settlers moving to the western territories that had been acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Unlike most state militia units of the time, the Pittsburgh Blues enlisted for an entire year, rather than the usual one month or three month enlistments. The Blues were formally recognized as a volunteer company of the Pennsylvania Militia, but they were armed, uniformed, and equipped at their own expenses.
Several officers of the Pittsburgh Blues, including Captain R. Butler (son of noted Revolutionary War hero General Richard Butler), were sworn into service on August 14, 1812. Less than two weeks later, on August 27th, Captain Butler received orders from the Secretary of War that they were to join General William Henry Harrison’s command. The full company of Pittsburgh Blues was officially mustered into service on September 1, 1812 and went into camp on Grant’s Hill (now currently the site of the Pittsburgh Court House in downtown Pittsburgh) on September 10th. It was on September 20th that the company struck camp, crossed to the north side of the Allegheny River, and a day later went into camp on the banks of the Ohio River. (Their encampments took place near the Point, where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers come together to form the Ohio River.) On September 23rd, the troops entered boats for the trip down the Ohio River to Cincinnati where they were to meet up with General Harrison and his Northwest Army.
The Greensburg Rifles, another notable Pennsylvania company, traveled with the Pittsburgh Blues in keel boats on the Ohio and would later serve alongside the Blues.
The Blues saw their first hostile action in skirmishes with British-allied Indians on December 17th near Fort Greenville (which was the most extreme frontier settlement at the time) and the next day took part in the fierce Battle of Mississineway. The Pittsburgh Blues played a pivotal role in the victorious battle, providing timely support when ordered to sure upon one area of the battle. Later General Harrison cited their crucial service in this battle.
Two African Americans, Frank Richards and William Sidney, traveled and fought with the Pittsburgh Blues and “gained reputations for coolness under fire and unflinching bravery in time of danger.” [Niebaum.]
Captain Niebaum’s four-part series:
Historian John C. Fredriksen’s article on the Pittsburgh Blues and Private Nathan Vernon’s Service Memoir