April 28th dawned as a cool, promising spring day for Past President Joe Schaeffer leading 23 First Defenders on the second “Joe’s Jaunt.” The destination was the Montgomery Cemetery in nearby Norristown, the final resting place of four Union generals.
The cemetery, located on a bluff above the Schuylkill River, had fallen into disrepair and suffered from vandalism for many years before the Historical Society of Montgomery County stepped in to provide “RIP” – Restoration In Progress – and return the grounds to a respectable condition worthy of the many heroes, officers and enlisted men, who rest here for eternity.
Our first stop was the impressive crypt commissioned by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Originally intended to house the entire Hancock family, only the general and his daughter are interred here. Hancock’s Civil War service is well-known (and was ably recounted during our April program by Wally Heimbach), and Hancock would go on to serve during the Reconstruction Era in the South and become a Democratic presidential candidate in 1880 when he lost the election to another Civil War general (of lesser note) – James A. Garfield.
Next up was a simple burial plot occupied by Brevet Brigadier General Adam Slemmer. Not exactly a household name, Slemmer’s most outstanding contribution to the Union war effort was holding Fort Pickens near Pensacola while a lowly lieutenant in the spring of 1861. There was some question whether this would become the flashpoint of the conflict before hostilities finally commenced on April 12th at Fort Sumter. Fort Pickens would remain one of only three Southern-based bastions to remain in Federal hands through all four years of the Civil War largely due to Slemmer’s initiative and quick action.
Our third stop was at the impressive monument for Major General (and later Pennsylvania Governor) John F. Hartranft. Located in a back corner of the cemetery, the site once had a dominating view up and down the Schuylkill that has since been partially blocked by trees. Hartranft was a steadfast battlefield commander who would become responsible for overseeing the Lincoln Assassination conspirators, most notably Mary Surratt, Later as governor, it would be Hartranft who would put down the 1877 Railroad Strike and the Coal Region activities of the Molly Maguires.
The fourth Civil War general resting at Montgomery Cemetery is Brevet Major General Samuel Zook, a brigade commander in Hancock’s Second Corps. Rushed to the Wheatfield to shore up Union lines on July 2nd, Zook suffered multiple wounds while directing his troops into action. Legend has it that Zook managed to survive until being told late on July 3rd the Army of the Potomac had won the battle and he could die in peace and happiness. (An impressive shaft located along the Wheatfield Road marks the site of his mortal wounding.)
Many more veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic repose quietly in the now-beautiful cemetery thanks to the Historical Society whose Executive Director, Barry Rauhauser, served as tour guide and expert historian. Marshalling local Boy and Girl Scouts as well as college students, the Historical Society staff is doing a wonderful job preserving history, promoting education and encouraging community participation
Following the walking tour, the First Defenders visited the adjacent visitor’s center and enjoyed light refreshments before dining at the nearby historic Eagleville Tavern on what was a picture perfect day for a “jaunt.”