In the distance, there was a storm brewing, both figuratively and literally. Standing on the breastworks overlooking Harrisburg, Camp Hill, Lemoyne, and Mechanicsburg, I could see the storm in the distance. The storm that brought me here was an approaching battle as the Confederate army advanced northward into Pennsylvania.
However, another storm – a physical one – was on the horizon.
“So much for a nice day,” I muttered, knowing that the black clouds would be upon me very soon. But the weather was not about to stop me from exploring this historic piece of land. Nestled among the residences of Lemoyne, the remnants of Fort Couch stand preserved on the hill overlooking the Cumberland Valley and Harrisburg itself.
A handful of markers scattered around the area explained the importance of this piece of land. I will be the first to admit the mound of dirt that stretched across the park did nothing at first to capture my attention. Without reading the signs to discover what I was looking at, I would not have had a clue of the importance of this place.
Fort Couch was a part of a series of forts and breastworks that were hastily erected in the June of 1863 as a means of defending Harrisburg. By late spring/early summer of 1863, reports of the approaching Confederate Army had Harrisburg in a panic. General Lee had once before attempted to take the war into the northern states, but failed with his defeat at Antietam. Lee was now moving his army northward and Pennsylvania was not prepared for an invasion.
The Federal Government responded to the northward movement of Lee’s army by creating two new departments within the Department of War: the Department of the Susquehanna and the Department of the Monongahela. On June 9, 1863, these were created to protect the industries within the borders of Pennsylvania.
The Department of the Susquehanna was to protect the lands between Johnstown and Harrisburg and eastward into Philadelphia. Its primary goal was to protect the city of Harrisburg and keep the Confederate Army from crossing the Susquehanna River at any cost.
General Darius Couch was placed in command of the newly created Department of the Susquehanna. Couch had commanded the II Corps under General Hooker’s leadership of the Army of the Potomac. After the disastrous Chancellorsville campaign, General Couch requested a transfer which was quickly granted.
Upon his arrival in Harrisburg, Couch discovered there was a lot work had to be done in order to protect the state capital. While the city was in a panic, the residents had done very little to protect themselves from the threat of the approaching Confederate Army.
Between June 14 and 19, 1863, General Couch oversaw the erection of breastworks, known as Fort Washington, on the western bank of the Susquehanna River to protect the railroad and toll bridges that crossed the river. If the Confederate invaders captured this piece of high ground, Harrisburg would be at the mercy of the Confederate Army.
Fort Washington, located in the area of present-day Cumberland Street in Lemoyne, covered sixty acres and had twenty-five cannons to defend it. However, the fort had one weakness: a higher hill, roughly half a mile away, if captured, would allow Confederate artillery to bombard Fort Washington.
General Couch immediately set out to erect another set of breastworks on the higher grounds to the southwest. Using African American railroad workers and volunteers, the breastworks were erected to defend the fort that was built to defend Harrisburg. General Couch would name this fort after himself.
After the completion of Fort Couch, it was decided that more breastworks were needed to be built to help defend Harrisburg. These breastworks were located on Haldeman’s Hill to the southwest of Fort Couch.
Both Forts Washington and Couch and the connecting breastworks were manned by volunteers from Pennsylvania and New York. From the beginning there were major issues between the volunteers and the citizens of Harrisburg. The New York volunteers thought that the residents of Harrisburg were lazy and had no motivation to defend themselves. And, they did have a valid point – only a handful of volunteers came out of Harrisburg to help erect the forts and breastworks. Most of the citizens claimed they would help build defenses for their city only if they were paid. It was due to Harrisburg’s African American community and the Pennsylvania Railroad that the breastworks were erected.
As more soldiers arrived in the city, the tensions between the residents and volunteers increased. The New Yorkers already had a poor opinion of Harrisburg’s citizens. Meanwhile, the citizens of Harrisburg thought that the New York Volunteers believed they were better than others. Residents began accusing the New Yorkers of helping themselves to chickens, eggs, and crops; of looting houses; and of destroying fences and outbuildings for firewood.
The New York Volunteers blamed the thefts on the Pennsylvania Volunteers. The Pennsylvanians denied the thefts and blamed the New Yorkers. Despite the volunteers fighting among themselves, they were united by their hatred of the citizens of Harrisburg.
The fears of the approaching Confederate Army were not unfounded, the army would advance as close as Mechanicsburg. Here on June 30, two Confederate Calvary units under the command of General Albert Jenkins clashed with New York militia forces and members of Landis’s Philadelphia Battery at the Battle of Sporting Hill. The skirmish left sixteen dead and thirty to forty soldiers injured on both sides.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Sporting Hill, General Jenkins pulled his forces back to Carlisle. Never again would Confederate forces get this far north. In a little over a week the Confederate Army would pull completely out of Pennsylvania, retreating back into the Shenandoah Valley.
Though the forts were there as a means of defense, thankfully the hastily erected breastworks never had to be fully tested by the main force of the Confederate Army. The height of the breastworks made it almost impossible for the cannons to be effective; once the invaders got close the Union Army they would not have been able to maneuver the cannons to fire down the slope.
Standing on top the breastworks, I could not help but be taken in by my surroundings. The view from the top of this hill was amazing though most has been blocked over the years by developments. At places one can still see quite a distance. I could only imagine the view from the area in June 1863.
The dark clouds had finally arrived and a cold rain started to fall as I made my own retreat back to the vehicle, bringing an end to my day’s journey. The Battle of Sporting Hill would have to wait for another day as the cold rain turned to a mix with some snow.
Sadly as I looked into the history of Fort Couch, I discovered that these breastworks are the only thing remaining from the defense of Harrisburg. All the other forts and camps built in the Harrisburg area are gone – victims of progress as the capitol region expanded.
The remains of Fort Couch are on public grounds along Indiana Avenue and can easily be visited. Parking can be found on any of the streets bordering the remnants of Fort Couch. I would ask that you remember to treat the area with the respect it deserves as a part of our state’s Civil War history.
Note: The Department of the Monongahela was headed by General William T.H. Brooks. This Department was to oversee fortifications in Western Pennsylvania and portions of Ohio and Virginia. General Brooks made his headquarters in Pittsburgh, which he made sure was fortified. After Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the forts around Pittsburgh were abandoned and the volunteers were sent home.