Leader . . . Disciplinarian . . . Governor
Bro. Hartranft was the son of Samuel and Lydia Hartranft in New Hanover, north of Pottstown. His father was a farmer who purchased and operated an inn in Norristown and then diversified into real estate and a stagecoach business. John first attended Marshall College in Mercersburg, Franklin County, then transferred to Union College where he specialized in civil engineering. There being little opportunity as an engineer after graduation, he became a deputy sheriff in Norristown, advanced to lieutenant colonel in the militia, was admitted to the bar, married Sallie Douglas Sebring of Easton, and started to raise a family.
At the outset of the Civil War, Col. Hartranft commanded the Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers, which was Montgomery County's regiment of ninety-day enlistees. That turned out to be an embarrassment for him. He was humiliated at the Battle of Bull Run on July 2l, 1861, when the regiment of volunteers walked away because their enlistments had expired that day. He pleaded with them to stay on voluntarily for a few hours to carry out that engagement; but his plea fell on deaf ears and they marched homeward. Col. Hartranft stayed and fought, but his reputation was tarnished.
But, within four months, he commanded a new regiment, the 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, of which half were from Montgomery County and the others from Centre, Northampton, Union, and Snyder Counties. There he led with dignity and acclaim.
The opening paragraph of a most interesting feature in the Winter 2000 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage, the quarterly publication of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, an Associate Historian and Associate Editor, Louis M. Waddell, tells a lot about the character and ingenuity of Bro. Hartranft:
"Although Colonel John Frederick Hartranft (1830-1889) was only in his thirties during the Civil War, the rank and file of his 51st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment fondly called him 'Old Johnny.' His soldiers especially respected his ability to make the right decisions in combat and his altogether impartial and basically humane discipline. With a mind and eye trained as a civil engineer at Union College, in Schenectady, New York, Hartranft, in several crucial battles, advantageously repositioned his troops to thwart the Confederates. Under fire he would order his men to lie quietly, prone to the ground, until he judged it time for them to rise, fire, and charge. Their discipline born of drilling and their personal loyalty to him made such commands feasible. He was also especially careful in positioning the artillery batteries assigned to his sector of the battlefield."
Later in the article it is noted:
"He drilled the 51st incessantly ... Although always insisting on the respect he believed his rank demanded, Hartranft played baseball with the men ... In December 1863, when a mere 180 men remained after several years of grisly campaigning, the 51st's enlistments expired. Camped in Tennessee and longing for their families and homes in Pennsylvania, the men were cold, went without shoes, and resorted to grubbing meals from dried corncobs. On their last official day of duty, 'Old Johnny' addressed them, extolling the Union's grand cause. Slowly, over the following two weeks, one-by-one, the veterans signed on again. It was as if his humiliating failure at Bull Run had been reversed."
In Major General John Frederick Hartranft: Citizen Soldier and Pennsylvania Statesman published in 1995, historian Al M. Gambone traced Bro. Hartranft's role in 23 major battles; but the Battle of Gettysburg wasn't one of them. "Old Johnny" had served in the grueling 1863 campaign in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee under Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Ambrose E. Burnside, then was called east again to serve with the Ninth Corps for the bloody Spring campaigns of 1864 in Virginia.
Because of his good judgment in the battlefield, he received temporary assignments to command brigades and divisions for several years until he was promoted to the rank of general after leading the recapture of Fort Stedman in Virginia on March 25, 1865.
Very briefly in the post war, he continued a military career serving Bro. and Gen. Hancock in the District of Columbia. During the hysteria following the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Bro. Hartranft was the Provost Marshal of the Washington Arsenal Prison where the accused accomplices of assassin John Wilkes Booth were held and where four of them were hanged on July 7. It was he who was obligated to give the final order to spring the gallows.
Returning to civilian life late in 1865, he was elected State Auditor General, serving from May 1866 to January 1873 under Governor John White Geary. Bro. Hartranft ran for Governor, campaigning on his record as Auditor General and his integrity as a war hero. He was elected Governor in October 1872 and reelected in November 1875. At the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati in 1876, Hartranft was nominated as a "favorite son" candidate for President in an effort to stop Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, also a Pennsylvania native. It succeeded since the Convention compromised on an independent Republican and Civil War General, Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, who won the election.
During the administration of Governor Hartranft, the Commonwealth struggled with the difficult economic conditions of a depression and the raging of the Molly Maguires, the group of workers who terrorized mine owners and operators in the Anthracite Coal Region, all of which unto themselves are interesting stories for another time.
Bro. and Gen. Hartranft died Dec. 16, 1889 and is buried in the Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown.