Hopewell Furnace Workers: Soldiers, Iron Workers or Pacifists?

Berks County responded quickly to the beginning of the Civil War. In Reading, Hopewell’s Henry Miner joined Captain James McKnight and his Ringgold Light Artillery, one of the first volunteer units to reach the front. Roughly a dozen other furnace workers followed Miner’s lead in the months that followed. The number of Hopewell Furnace day laborers (wood cutters, colliers, etc.) who enlisted is hard to determine. But we know for certain that the Furnace hired workers of different ethnicities including Blacks and Irish, making this one of the first integrated communities where men were judged on their hard work and character and not color.

Isaac Coles was one of a group of freedom seekers who enlisted to help the Union Army. Other Hopewell villagers remained at the furnace. Although Berks County overwhelmingly supported the defense of the Union, individual opinions remain difficult to isolate. Perhaps the workers who remained at Hopewell were pacifists who objected to war, or perhaps they viewed themselves as performing a vital function by continuing to produce pig iron that was useful to the Union war effort.

The early summer of 1863 changed things for many at Hopewell, as the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the Keystone State. Pennsylvania’s Governor Andrew G. Curtin called for volunteers to join the state’s militia. Adam Bard and Samuel Williams left Hopewell for Reading and joined the 42nd Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Regiment.