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Rare Civil War-era revolver comes home to Berks

When Confederate forces opened fire April 12, 1861, on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., it signaled the start of the Civil War.

“President Abraham Lincoln recognized Washington, D.C., lay vulnerable to attack,” said Amber Vroman, curator of the Berks History Center. “Action had to be taken to protect the capital.”

Just three days later, the president called on the militia of several states to defend the Union.

The first to respond were five volunteer groups of Pennsylvania soldiers, including the Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading. Their prompt action earned them the title First Defenders.

The Ringgold, made up of 101 men from Berks County under the command of Capt. James McKnight, was the first to leave home and arrive for duty, Vroman said.

Now a revolver once owned by one of those Reading men has made its way home to Berks and become part of the history center’s permanent collection.

The weapon belonged to Pvt. Daniel S. Yohn and is engraved on the butt and backstrap to read “Presented to D.S. Yohn 1861 by His Bro W.Y.”

A rare Civil War-era revolver is now part of the Berks History Center’s collection. The weapon was engraved “Presented to D.S. Yohn 1861 by His Bro W.Y.” It was presented to Daniel S. Yohn, a member of the Ringgold Light Artillery, the famed First Defenders.(Courtesy of the Berks History Center)

The young soldier was just 17 when he and the rest of the First Defenders rushed to Washington, Vroman said. His much older half-brother, William Yohn, must have been extremely proud when he presented Daniel with the revolver that same year, she said.

The exact date the older Yohn presented the Smith & Wesson model no. 1 second issue revolver to his younger brother is not known, Vroman said.

“My theory is that he (Daniel Yohn) received the gun from his brother after he returned home to Reading in commemoration of the famous mission,” she said. “While we’d love to believe Daniel was carrying the gun as a First Defender, not enough factual evidence has surfaced to prove that is the case.”

A rare Civil War-era revolver is now part of the Berks History Center’s collection. The weapon was engraved “Presented to D.S. Yohn 1861 by His Bro W.Y.” It was presented to Daniel S. Yohn, a member of the Ringgold Light Artillery, the famed First Defenders. (Courtesy of the Berks History Center)

Journey home

The story of how the antique weapon was returned to Berks began in October 2022, Vroman said. That’s when the gun’s former owner, Guy Mestdagh of Belgium, contacted the history center.

A collector of rare firearms, Mestdagh was looking for more information about the revolver’s original owner.

“He had already done extensive research,” Vroman said. “And we really didn’t have much more that we could add, but I figured I would go out on a limb, so to speak, and just see if he would be interested in selling it to us.”

Vroman said she was surprised when Mestdagh answered, “Sure, give me an offer.”

To come up with a fair price, she and Bradley K. Smith, archivist and associate director of the history center, researched similar pieces of the same era and presented their findings to the center’s museum committee.

When the committee agreed to an undisclosed lower offer than Vroman expected, she feared Mestdagh would reject it.

“Surprisingly, he was thrilled to accept our offer,” she said. “I just think he realized and understood the importance of the gun being returned to the community.”

Once the deal was made, Vroman faced the obstacle of getting it to the U.S.

“I quickly learned that importing an antique firearm from Belgium is nearly impossible,” she said.

After some creative thinking, Mestdagh enlisted the assistance of Netherlands antiques dealer Bolk-Antique Arms, who held the necessary licenses. Bolk served as a go-between, purchasing the revolver from Mestdagh and reselling it to the history center.

“After a long negotiation process and a journey of nearly 3,800 miles, we are thrilled that Daniel Yohn’s revolver found its way home to Reading,” Vroman said.

The Ringgold Light Artillery, made up of 101 men from Berks County under the command of Captain James McKnight, was the first to respond to President Abraham Lincoln's call to defend the Union, earning the militia the title the First Defenders. (Courtesy of the Berks History Center.)
The Ringgold Light Artillery, made up of 101 men from Berks County under the command of Capt. James McKnight, was the first to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call to defend the Union, earning the militia the title of First Defenders. (Courtesy of the Berks History Center.)

County history

The artifact’s direct ties to a local man and one of the county’s most famous military events, Vroman said, make it a special piece of county history.

Reading and Berks remained extremely proud of its First Defenders after the Civil War ended, she noted. Reports in the local newspapers show reunions were held into the early 1900s with the list of surviving veterans becoming shorter with each gathering.

A monument commemorating the patriotism and prompt response of the First Defenders was placed in City Park in summer 1901. A roster on its base lists the names of the volunteers.

“Third from the bottom is the name Daniel S. Yohn,” Vroman said.

The Ringgold Light Artillery First Defenders statue in Reading City Park.READING EAGLE
The Ringgold Light Artillery First Defenders statue in Reading City Park. (READING EAGLE)

On display

A Civil War-era revolver that belonged to Pvt. Daniel S. Yohn, a member of the famed First Defenders, is on display at the Berks History Center, 940 Centre Ave. It can be viewed Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For more information, call 610-375-4375 or email info@berkshistory.org.


Source: Berkshire mont

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