In researching individual soldiers of the Civil War, the pre-eminent sources of information that come to mind are state rosters. Among the more notable efforts are Frederick Phisterer’s work, New York in the War of the Rebellion, compiled in 1890, as well as North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster. This massive roster project, undertaken from 1961 until the present by the state of North Carolina, was headed initially by Louis H. Manarin and later, in 1970, by Weymouth T. Jordan Jr., and has been periodically updated. From the Centennial era, other worthy roster projects were launched by Tennessee and Georgia.
Most all other states now have roster listings of some sort, and they all, over time, have proven lacking in one area or another. Phisterer restricted his listings to units and officers exclusively; Georgia’s rosters, compiled by Lillian Henderson in the 1960’s, contain only the infantry soldiers, with no cavalry or artillery troops.
It is the variances in these listings, even within the modern records, that make the background, skills and meticulous efforts of one man of particular interest. Samuel Penniman Bates was a native of Mendon, Massachusetts, yet it is he who Civil War researchers associate with Pennsylvania. Nowadays, any researcher worth his salt instinctively reaches for Bates’ work when looking for regiment, company, dates of service and anything usual or unusual about the vast majority of Pennsylvanians who served the Union.
Born in 1829, Samuel was educated at the Worcester Academy, and later at Brown University, from which he graduated in 1851. During his time in school he was remembered for his proficiency in the mathematics and in philosophy.
The following year, he immersed himself in further academic studies, and the writings of Milton and Shakespeare. He settled down in Meadville, Pennsylvania to teach ancient languages at the Academy there and eventually began to expand his lectures into the science and practice of teaching. His success with these lectures led him to become the Superintendent of the Crawford County (PA) schools.
This was more than fortuitous, as Crawford County is an extremely large, and at the time it was among the most influential, as it had an area nearly equal to the entire arable surface of Rhode Island. Bates’ position gave him the opportunity to communicate with many in the field of education not only in the county, but also across the state. In 1860, he resigned from his second term to accept the office of Deputy State Superintendent of Schools.
He held this position for six years. It would be during this time that many personal and professional associations were formed, many of which would serve him well in a wholly unplanned venue within a few years. The arrival of War, and its insatiable desire for young men who might otherwise have been carefree students in happier times, caused an unplanned reduction in many schools. However his gift for systematic observation and recordation did not escape the critical eye of his superior, Governor Andrew G. Curtin, who would, in 1866, appoint him to the newly-minted role of State Historian.
The Legislature had felt it appropriate to create the role, following the conclusion of hostilities, for the purpose of gathering material and forming complete accounts of the organizations from the state that had engaged in the conflict.
A contemporary account reviews Bates’ efforts –
“To write of events that transpired ages ago, where the material is ample, is comparatively easy; but to gather up the fragmentary annals of campaigns scarcely finished, and weave from them veritable narratives which shall stand the criticism of men who were a part of the great transactions, is a far more difficult and embarrassing task, and requires for its accomplishment a degree of patience and painstaking, of careful discrimination and wise judgment rarely possessed. For …years he was unceasingly employed…at an expense of nearly a quarter a million dollars, [[to produce] five…volumes of over 1,400 pages each, entitled History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, and [it] forms an enduring monument of the patriotism of the state, and of the research and taste of the author.”
Immediately afterward followed another absorbing project, detailing the Lives of the Governors of Pennsylvania (1873.) Then came three more works of particular interest to students of the American Civil War: Martial Deeds of Pennsylvania, (1875) , The History of the Battle of Gettysburg (1878,) and The Battle of Chancellorsville (1882.) During these years, Bates also produced a regimental history of the “Roundheads,” the 100th PA, (1878,) as well as a biographical memoir of Col. Oliver Blanchly Knowles, late Col. Of the 21st PA. Cavalry and Brevet Brigadier – General (1878.)
In between writing these works and others on Pennsylvania history, and raising seven children, the active Dr. Bates also found time to be social. In 1877 he toured Europe, and prepared a series of lectures entitled “Art Centers of Italy, Naples, Rome, Venice, and Florence.” Closer to home, Bates, “Chronicler of the Pennsylvania soldier,” though himself not a Union Army Veteran, accepted an honorary membership in the local Meadville chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, Post 331. In 1902, when he was laid to rest in Greendale Cemetery in Meadville, his headstone was accorded the traditional “GAR star.”
He, like so many others, had humbly performed his work for the Union; yet his efforts had been different. His detailed volumes had been directed against a different enemy – time; so the people of Pennsylvania and their descendants might long remember, collectively and individually, what their state and its people had helped to achieve.
Bert Barnett, Park Ranger