Early in October the regiment moved to a position near Poolesville, Maryland, not far from the mouth of the Monocacy. It was here united with other regiments, forming a brigade,1 which was commanded by Colonel Baker, and was assigned to duty in guarding the fords of the Potomac, from Point of Rocks to Edwards' Ferry.
At one o'clock on the morning of the 21st of October orders were received from General Stone, in command of the division, for the right battalion, consisting of eight companies, A, C, D, G, H, L, N, and P, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Wistar, to march so as to reach Conrad's Ferry by sunrise. Upon its arrival it was reported by a mounted officer to division headquarters, at Edwards' Ferry, seven miles below. At seven A. M. Colonel Baker arrived, and proceeded down the river to confer with General Stone. At half past eight Lieutenant Colonel Wistar received orders to cross with his battalion, the only means provided for doing so being four scows, a skiff, and a small metalic life-boat. At ten Colonel Baker returned, and giving orders to hasten forward the men, crossed over and began to place them in position. They were afterwards joined by portions of the Fifteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts, and two companies of the Forty-second New York. At a little after midday an irregular fire of the enemy's skirmishers was opened from the tree tops of the circumjacent woods, principally directed upon the field officers.
At two P. M. companies A and D, under command of Captain Markoe, were sent forward on the left as skirmishers to ascertain the extent and disposition of the enemy's right flank. They had advanced but a little when they came suddenly upon the right of his line of battle concealed in a dense wood, and were at once hotly engaged. They maintained their position gallantly against overpowering numbers, until all of their officers and fully two-thirds of their men had been killed or captured, when they retired in good order, bringing back twenty prisoners, including an officer of the Eighth Virginia.
For nearly two hours the action continued, the enemy assaulting impetuously, and the little force, isolated and cut off from all supports, with no way of retreat, meeting him at every point, and stoutly resisting his advance. But the odds were too great, and gradually yielding ground, it was finally forced to give way, retiring in good order to the edge of the bluff. This point had scarcely been reached, when a determined attack was made against the left flank, which was gallantly met, and though outnumbered three to one, maintained its ground under a most destructive fire. At about four o'clock Colonel Baker fell at the head of his command, pierced by a number of bullets, while cheering his men, and by his own example encouraging them to obstinate resistance. The line now wavered, and shortly after, it broke and retreated in disorder down the bank towards the river, pursued by the victorious enemy, who rushed forward howling and screeching, and shooting and bayoneting all who came in their way.
No adequate means of transportation to the opposite shore, in case of disaster, had been provided. The only boat at hand was filled with the wounded and pushed out into the stream, but soon swamped and the men were nearly all drowned. Another rude affair, filled to its utmost capacity, floated down and was lost. Becoming desperate from the continued and merciless fire of the enemy, many leaped into the river and perished in the attempt to buffet the stream; some surrendered and were borne away into captivity.
Of five hundred and twenty who entered the engagement, three hundred and twelve were lost. The body of Colonel Baker was recovered, after a severe struggle, and sent to the Pacific coast for interment. Captain Harvey and Lieutenant Williams were among the killed. Captain Otter was either killed, or drowned while crossing the stream. Lieutenant Colonel Wistar was twice severely wounded but kept his place until he was completely disabled by a third wound when he was borne from the field. Captains Markoe and Keffar were wounded and taken prisoners. The color sergeant, seeing that all was lost, intent on saving the flag, stripped it from the staff, wound it about his body, and plunged into the stream; clinging to it until nearly exhausted, he was finally obliged to cast it from him to save his own life. It was never recovered.
After the disastrous day the regiment went into winter-quarters, where its thinned ranks were recruited, the command devolving on Majors Parrish and Smith. It was now claimed as a part of the quota of Pennsylvania, and its officers commissioned by the Executive. Lieutenant Colonel Wistar was promoted to Colonel.
Early in the spring of 1862, the brigade, now commanded by Brigadier General W. W. Burns, marched to Winchester to aid the advance of Banks. Soon afterwards it was detached from the latter's command and ordered to Washington, whence, upon its arrival, it was despatched by transports to join the army under M'Clellan, at Yorktown.
After three weeks spent in building roads, working upon the intrenchments, and skirmishing, all the preparations having been completed, an advance was made upon the enemy's works. But, advised of the design, he evacuated them the previous night and retreated up the Peninsula to Williamsburg, where he made a stand and where a warmly contested battle was fought. Driven from this point, he withdrew across the Chickahominy, taking shelter behind the defences of Richmond, and the Union army slowly followed on after him.
Upon the evacuation of Yorktown, the regiment was sent by transport with the rest of the corps to West Point, on the York River, with the design of' flanking the enemy, but arrived too late to accomplish the purpose.
1Organization of the California Brigade, Colonel E. D. Baker, Division commanded by General Charles P. Stone, General Banks' army. Seventy-first Regiment Pennsylvania Voluntears, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac J. Wistar; Sixty-ninth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Colonel Joshua T. Owen; Seventy-second Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Colonel De Witt C. Baxter; One Hundred and Sixth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Colonel Turner G. Morehead.
Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65, Harrisburg, 1868-1871.