LEMOYNE, Pa. (WHTM) — Along Indiana Avenue in Lemoyne is a park with three historical markers-two from the State Historical and Museum Commission, and a granite marker placed by the Camp Curtin Historical Society. They mark Fort Couch, a reminder of a time when the people of Harrisburg nervously prepared for invasion.
In June 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee invades Pennsylvania. They work their way up the Cumberland Valley, their ultimate target-the capital city, Harrisburg.
In charge of the defending the city, General Darius Couch, commander of the newly created Department of the Susquehanna. General Couch had commanded the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac; but after the debacle at Chancellorsville, he informed Lincoln he could no longer serve under General Hooker. He accepted the appointment to head the new department and took the train to Harrisburg on June 11th. He was given an office in the Governor’s wing of the State Capitol (this would be the old capitol, which burned down in 1897), and started dealing with the problems of organizing a defense.
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There were many problems, however. Couch’s orders were to raise a volunteer corps to defend the region. Volunteers were few in coming, and calling out state militias involved an incredible legal muddle of clashing State and Federal “emergency” powers. It wasn’t until June 15 that the nature of the emergency was clear enough that Lincoln was able to issue a proclamation requesting the states to send militia units to help defend Pennsylvania. Men started to arrive, either as part of units, or by themselves. Couch had to deal with the problem of getting these men organized and put into position. He also had to arrange for defending the city of Harrisburg-and because of the local geography, Harrisburg is a sitting duck.
Across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg is Hummel Heights, located in Lemoyne. Also known as Bridgeport Heights, it towers 137 feet over the city. If Confederates take this position, their artillery can blast the city into rubble. It must be defended.
Work on fortifications begin just a few days after Couch arrives. The digging starts with volunteers, but most of the work is done by railroad construction crews (many of them African American) whose services are donated by Pennsylvania, Northern Central, and Cumberland Valley Railroads. Fort Washington is the first defensive work completed. It is located at the eastern edge of the Heights, with a clear view of Harrisburg.
But a problem with Fort Washington soon becomes apparent—the ridge summit is not even. To the west of the Fort is an area of higher ground. If Confederate forces took that land, they would blast Fort Washington to bits. So, a second fortification is constructed, about 800 yards to the west—Fort Couch.
But Darius Couch is none too pleased with his namesake. The ground on Hummel Heights contains lots of shale. If forts get bombarded, flying chips of shale will caused more casualties than the cannonballs themselves. But Couch has to work with what he has.
Fortunately the two forts are never put to the test. On June 28th General Lee learns the Union army is on the move, and on June 29th 1863, with Confederates skirmishing with Union militia just a few miles from Harrisburg, Lee recalls his troops to prepare for battle. The two armies will meet at Gettysburg, and Harrisburg is spared.
After the war, the forts are pretty much forgotten. Fort Washington disappears completely, lost under development, and marked today only by the names of a couple of streets—Old Fort Road and Washington Terrace. The embankments of Fort Couch suffer from decades of neglect, becoming overgrown with weeds and trees. But with the increase in interest in the Civil War, the brush has been cleared, some of the trees have been removed, and historical markers have been added. So, people can now see the last remaining evidence of a time when Harrisburg was a target for war.