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Unity merchant led gallant militia effort to protect W. Pa. from rebels

Jeff Himler
| Wednesday, June 15, 2011

During the observance of the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, stories have come to light about one of the most celebrated area denizens who took part in the Union military effort --- Thomas Foster Gallagher.

He and his younger brother George operated a successful mercantile business in New Alexandria, the T & G Gallagher Store, which opened more than a decade before the Civil War.

Thomas Gallagher, born Jan. 17, 1822, "was a large figure for his time," notes John Matviya of New Alexandria, a board member and archivist of the Derry Area Historical Society.

Originally from Unity Township, the Gallagher brothers "came to New Alexandria because they saw it as a preferred location for their store rather than Greensburg or Latrobe," Matviya said. New Alexandria was situated along the "pike" (old Route 22) leading to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

The store remained in the family until 1940.

While George Gallagher made trips to Philadelphia to purchase merchandise for the store, his brother became a leader in the Pennsylvania militia and demonstrated "an unusual talent for handling troops," according to a biographical sketch by Matviya.

'Just farmers'

Thomas Gallagher became colonel in command of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, one of 15 state volunteer regiments formed in 1861 in response to the secession of the Southern states. The 11th Pennsylvania gained the alternative federal title of the 40th Infantry when it was mustered into service on July 1, 1861.

Matviya pointed out that the Pennsylvania reserve regiments, which were converted from state to federal service, had to overcome the view that they were not up to par with other U.S. Army units.

"The regular Army didn't think much of them. They thought they were just farmers," Matviya said.

Gallagher was among those who proved the military mettle of the local reserves. Despite major setbacks -- being captured along with most of his regiment at the battle of Gaines' Mill, Va., and being severely wounded in the later battle of South Mountain in Maryland -- he ascended to the rank of brevet brigadier general at the close of his Union service.

Gallagher's misfortune at Gaines' Mill occurred on June 27, 1862.

"It was the second day of battle, in what is known as the Seven Days' Battles," Matviya said.

Those engagements were part of the Peninsula Campaign in southeastern Virginia, a failed attempt to take the Confederate capital of Richmond. A contemporary report of the action at Gaines' Mill attributes the capture of the 11th Pennsylvania to an "ill turn of fortune" rather than poor judgment by Gallagher.

In his recounting of the battle, Maj. Gen. George A. McCall praised Gallagher and the commander of a New Jersey regiment that was also captured for "having held their ground until it was tenable no longer."

McCall wrote: "In the heat of the action, the Eleventh Regiment, becoming enveloped in the smoke of battle, continued the fight after the rest of the line had retired. ... Notwithstanding the peril of his position, (Gallagher) gallantly kept up a galling fire on the advancing foe."

Gallagher soon discovered that his men and those of the 4th New Jersey Regiment were surrounded by the enemy, cut off from any hope of retreat.

"They were compelled to surrender," McCall concluded.

Gallagher spent nine weeks in Richmond's Libby Prison before he was released as part of an exchange for Confederate soldiers being held in Northern prisons.

Not all of Gallagher's regiment was taken out of action at Gaines' Mill. Company B of the 11th Pennsylvania, recruited from Indiana County, escaped capture because its men had been detached to serve as "pioneers."

"They were like the Corps of Engineers. They went ahead to build roads and clear fences so the army could move forward," Matviya said.

Morgan's Raiders

After Gallagher was released from prison, Matviya noted, he was promoted to command the Third Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, which included the 11th Regiment. In the Battle of South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862, he led the right-hand front of the Union forces in a successful charge on the road to Antietam, but he was badly wounded.

He went home to New Alexandria.

He was leading troops into conflict less than a year later. Accepting command of the 54th Pennsylvania Militia, Gallagher took a share of the credit for bringing to ground Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his 2,500 cavalrymen.

Morgan's Raiders set off a panic among Northern communities during a far-ranging, three-week incursion through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio in July 1863.

When Gallagher and his men went to Ohio in search of Morgan, there was a real fear that the Confederate raiders might make Western Pennsylvania their next target.

"They were looking at it in terms of protecting their own place," Matviya said.

Morgan and his men were corralled on July 26, 1863, at Salineville, Ohio.

Part of Morgan's force was caught between Gallagher's men, who had taken up a position in the town, and a pursuing Michigan cavalry force. After a short skirmish, 223 men and nine commissioned officers of Morgan's command surrendered with 108 horses.

Under Gallagher's orders, Union cavalry led by Gen. J.M. Shackelford pursued Morgan and his remaining troops. Gallagher reported the pursuers "had come up with Morgan near Scrogg's Church, and that the whole force had surrendered about 4 p.m."

Gallagher and his men were back in Pittsburgh by about 11 p.m. the same day.

According to a 1934 centennial edition of the New Alexandria Press, Gallagher returned from the campaign against Morgan with "many trophies of real interest to the historical-minded people of New Alexandria," including a Confederate soldiers' payroll sheet that was passed down to his children.

Gallagher was elevated to the rank of brevet general and served in the peacetime state militia.

He was twice elected to the state legislature, beginning in 1867.

According to a 1906 "History of Westmoreland County," a wartime malady eventually caught up with him in 1883, when he "died from a disease which he contracted in Libby Prison."

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