Monday, April 8, 2013

Baptized by Fire (part 3 of 3)

Baptized by Fire: The 125th Pennsylvania at Antietam, Part 3
By Ranger Daniel Vermilya
This is the third of a three part series on the 125th Pennsylvania Infantry at the Battle of Antietam. You can read parts one here, and part two here.

Just as their experience in battle had been new, the aftermath of Antietam brought unforeseen experiences for the men of the 125th Pennsylvania. Many searched the battlefield to look for their dead and wounded comrades on the war torn landscape. The morning after the battle, Private Robert Cozzens of Company F made his way to the Dunker Church to search for his comrades who had fallen. Before reaching where his company fought, Cozzens came across the body of George Simpson, laying as though he was still holding the Regimental Colors in death as he had in life. After Confederates stymied several attempts to remove Simpson’s body during the day, that evening Simpson’s remains were brought back into Union lines.
On the evening of September 18th, Captain William Wallace made his way to the Hoffman Farm, where some of the wounded and dying from the regiment were being treated. Wallace wrote of this visit with great emotion, contrasting the terrible sights with the higher calling to which he and his men were dedicated:
My visit to the barn hospital when darkness set in left some unfading memories. The amputated limbs strewn about outside made a ghastly sight under the glare of the torchlights, and the audbile sufferings of the maimed and wounded comrades and the comatose condition of others would have made the vocation of a soldier for empty honor or fame utterly abhorrent to me. But we were actuated by higher motives, and the righteousness of our cause justified the sacrifice.[1]
Among the wounded in that barn was John Randolph Simpson, the brother of George Simpson. After being severely wounded in his retreat from the West Woods, Simpson had been helped to the Hoffman barn by a comrade, and there he lay in agony for several days. Surgeons initially diagnosed his wounds as being mortal, but upon reexamination, it was determined that Simpson could survive if given the proper care at home because none of his major organs had been damaged.
            While John Simpson struggled for life, his father needed to be told what had become of his sons.  J. W. Curry, a reverend and first cousin of George and John Randolph Simpson who was with the 125th in an unofficial capacity, sent a letter home to his Uncle John Simpson, informing him of the fate of his two sons. The letter, dated September 19, told George Simpson’s grieving father that his son was shot down “while nobly bearing forward the ensign of his Country.”[2] While he had hoped to bring the body home to Huntingdon, Curry noted that due to the warm weather, decay had begun and he was forced to purchase a coffin and bury George on the field.

Despite Curry’s best wishes for eventually bringing his cousin’s remains home, it was at Antietam where George would remain. In 1916, a much older John Randolph Simpson, by this time an accomplished attorney in the Huntingdon area, came back to visit the same field where his brother had been killed. After touring the countryside with his family, Simpson went to the National Cemetery where he visited his brother’s grave. The Cemetery Superintendent informed Simpson that one year before his visit another member of the regiment had come to pay their respects to their fallen color bearer. Upon seeing the grave, the old soldier broke down in tears. He asked that Simpson’s grave be adorned with flowers each year on Decoration Day, and he provided some funds to this end. That veteran was none other than Private Eugene Boblitz of Company H, the man who had picked up the flag after Simpson had fallen in battle at Antietam, only to be shot down himself.[3]
            Stories such as these tell of the significance that the Battle of Antietam had for these green soldiers from Pennsylvania, a significance that extended for the rest of their lives. The men would go on to serve out their nine month enlistment in the Union army, only seeing significant combat again at Chancellorsville. The regiment mustered out of Federal service on May 18, 1863, though many of its members would again volunteer their services as Pennsylvania Emergency Militia during the Gettysburg Campaign.
More than four decades later—on September 17, 1904—the survivors of the 125th Pennsylvania met near the Dunker Church on the fields of Antietam to dedicate a monument to their shared sacrifices, a monument adorned with a statue of George Simpson bravely clutching the regimental colors. Several men who had been instrumental in the formation of the regiment and had fought bravely in its service were there to dedicate the monument with speeches and remarks. Among these men was the former Captain of the regiment, William Wallace. In his remarks, he harkened back to the formation of the Company that he had raised in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, quoting both Shakespeare and Scripture, noting both that “there is a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will,” and “in all our ways [we]should acknowledge Him, who doeth according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth.”[4] Wallace went on to introduce his friend and former Lieutenant, Theodore Flood, the same divinity student who had prayed with Wallace many years earlier in the back of his Huntingdon office. When introducing Flood, Wallace noted that he was a man who had “received his baptism by fire near this spot.”[5]
While Wallace was speaking of only one man with these words, they applied to all of the Huntingdon Bible Company, and to the 125th Pennsylvania as well. The story of this company and this regiment is one of faith and courage in the midst of terrible suffering and slaughter. Only one month removed from their homes and farms, these men had their baptism by fire on the now peaceful fields surrounding the Dunker Church. Of the many green regiments in the Union ranks at Antietam, the 125th Pennsylvania performed as bravely and effectively as any. Their experience at Antietam ranged from the success of boldly taking a valuable position at a crucial time in the battle to the depths of facing a withering Confederate counter attack. For the men of Company C, having left home with a Bible in one hand and a musket in the other, they acquitted themselves well on America’s bloodiest day. At Antietam, their battle cry of “In God We Trust” led them forward into a tempest of death and despair. As their call was taken up by the rest of the 125th Pennsylvania, these men declared that the same faith and determination which had drawn them from their homes and into the army would likewise draw them into one of the bloodiest and fiercest firefights of the entire Civil War. Their baptism by fire at Antietam is one that should not soon be forgotten.

[1] O.R. Vol. 19, Part 1, 177.
[2] J.W. Curry letter to John Simpson, September 19, 1862 (typed transcript), Antietam National Battlefield Library, 125th Pennsylvania File.
[3] “J.R. Simpson, Esq., Visits Antietam”, Huntingdon Globe, June 22, 1916.
[4] William Wallace, September 17, 1904, in 125th Pennsylvania, 220.
[5] Ibid.

Baptized by Fire (part 2 of 3)

Baptized by Fire: The 125th Pennsylvania at Antietam, Part 2
By Ranger Dan Vermilya
This is the second post in a three part series on the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Antietam. Click here to read part one of this series.

By September 16, the 125th  Pennsylvania, along with the rest of the Union Twelfth Corps, had arrived along the banks of Antietam Creek. That evening, the regiment’s colonel Jacob Higgins received orders to prepare the 125th Pennsylvania to move across the creek to prepare for battle the next day. Beginning in the late evening hours of September 16, the men of the Twelfth Corps began a long and winding march across the Upper Bridge over the Antietam and through the farm fields and woodlots just west of the creek, moving to the support of Joseph Hooker’s First Corps.  After marching through the darkness and the rain, the men of the 125th Pennsylvania came to a halt at around 1:00 AM on the 17th and began settling down on the plowed fields of the Line Farm for a few hours rest. As soon as the first rays of dawn began to break through the misty, rainy morning, the men of the 125th Pennsylvania and the 12th Corps could hear the sounds of battle echoing through the air. The rookie soldiers of the 125th were soon ordered forward toward a twenty four acre cornfield owned by David Miller.  Advancing with the rest of Brigadier General Samuel Crawford’s Brigade, the 125th Pennsylvania began to encounter enemy fire as they came close to the front lines, just north of the East Woods. On their way to the front, they saw their corps commander, Joseph Mansfield, fall mortally wounded; several members of the regiment claim to have helped carry the mortally wounded general back to a hospital at the George Line farm.[1]
Around 8:30 AM, the 125th Pennsylvania began to push southwest along the Smoketown road, heading straight for the Dunker Church and the West Woods behind it. Their advance occurred just after Brigadier General George Sears Greene’s Division had moved south along the same road to a pasture east of the small white-washed church. Why this advance occurred is not entirely clear. Several different accounts claim this movement was ordered, yet none are clear as to who ordered it. In his report, Brigadier General Samuel Crawford, noted that the 125th “in the general movement had pushed on into the woods beyond our lines, and had become seriously engaged with the enemy…”[2] Colonel Higgins attributed the movement to a request by an unnamed colonel who needed support for his overwhelmed troops. Upon ordering his men forward, an order which Higgins claimed that Crawford approved, the 125th moved toward the Dunker Church and the West Woods.
As they moved across the battle scarred fields, the rookie Pennsylvania soldiers were ready for a fight. When the regiment neared the Hagerstown Turnpike, they prepared to push across it and to enter the West Woods near the Dunker Church.  It was at this time, Lieutenant Theodore Flood later recalled, that Captain Wallace stood in front of the line and yelled, “Boys, remember our Battle-cry ‘In God We Trust’”.[3] Flood and Wallace were each members of Company C, the famed Huntingdon Bible Company (discussed further in part one of this series). The cry was soon taken up along the regiment’s line and the green soldiers moved forward with thoughts of God and Country in their hearts. Pushing forward into the woods, the regiment’s right flank entered a ravine and the left remained within twenty or thirty yards of the Dunker Church.
Lieutenant Theodore Flood later suggested a connection between this phrase and the same words appearing on U.S. coinage in February 1864, noting that in his visit to Antietam in October of 1862 Abraham Lincoln learned of the 125th Pennsylvania and their story, thus suggesting to Salmon Chase that the phrase “In God We Trust” was an appropriate one to use. While this story is plausible, there are no corroborating definitive accounts to prove the link between the regiment, Lincoln, and Chase. Rather than inspiring the same phrase on currency, the most remarkable aspect of this battle cry was that it brought the men of the Bible Company full circle; just as they had left home a few weeks prior with a Bible in one hand and a musket in the other, they now had proclaimed their trust in God in the midst of the most terrible day of the American Civil War. As they pushed into the West Woods, they did so with a firm reliance in the righteousness of their cause and in the protection of Divine Providence.
Unbeknownst to them, the 125th Pennsylvania was about to be a part of one of the fiercest fights on the field that day.  At this point in the battle, they were the only unit from the Twelfth Corps which had entered the West Woods that far south, establishing a tenuous yet important foothold. To their south-east sat George Sears Greene’s Division, and to their north was George Gordon’s brigade of Alpheus Williams’s division. They were now in one of the most pivotal spots on the field, threatening Lee’s flank from the west side of the Hagerstown Turnpike. As the 125th Pennsylvania pushed into the West Woods, they quickly encountered advance elements of Jubal Early’s Brigade. After driving these Confederates away with a brisk line of fire, more trouble stirred in the distance.
All morning, Robert E. Lee had been worried about his left flank. Lacking any key defensive terrain, he needed to continually throw reinforcements north to fend off the repeated Federal assaults. As the 125th Pennsylvania entered the West Woods, Lee began sending the divisions of Lafayette McLaws and John Walker toward that area. Unbeknownst to Lee, a large Federal division was also heading toward the West Woods. Major General John Sedgwick’s division was the first command from the Union Second Corps to arrive on the field that day. Being led both by division commander Sedgwick and 2nd Corps commander Major General Edwin V. Sumner, these Federals moved due west from the East Woods, entering the West Woods just north of the 125th Pennsylvania’s position. This occurred at around 9:15 am. Sedgwick’s infantry advanced to the north of the 125th Pennsylvania and encountered Confederate artillery and infantry posted on Hauser Ridge.
Amid the confusion of this advance, the 34th New York, part of Brigadier General Willis Gorman’s lead brigade in Sedgwick’s division, broke away from the rest of its command and drifted south toward the Dunker Church. The 34th New York ultimately occupied a plot of ground just behind and to the right of the 125th Pennsylvania.
It was at this point, having just been reinforced, when the tide of battle began to turn against the Pennsylvanians; Lee’s reinforcements had arrived. Lafeyette McLaws’s men spearheaded a massive attack directly into the flank of the Federals in the West Woods, as men from Jubal Early’s brigade advanced directly against the 125th Pennsylvania, engaging them in a fierce firefight behind the Dunker Church. As Early’s brigade went head on into the fight, Joseph Kershaw’s brigade of South Carolinians began to advance directly against the left flank of the 125th Pennsylvania position. Early and Kershaw were also supported by William Barksdale’s Mississippians, who were threatening the right flank of the Pennsylvanians.
It was not long before the effects of this Confederate counter attack began to take a heavy toll on the men from the Keystone State. Men began to fall by the dozen, and among them was Color Sergeant George Simpson. When Simpson was struck in the head by a rebel bullet, both he and the regimental colors fell down in a bloody heap. Private Milton Lytle later remembered that Simpson was killed instantly. As Simpson’s body fell it did so with the regimental colors wrapped firmly in his arms.[4] Quick to pick up the flag was Private Eugene Bablitz of Company I, only to be hit twice by rebel bullets, forcing him to throw the flag toward the regimental line. The banner, now stained red with the blood of two color bearers, fell several more times as each man who bravely stepped forward to raise it was shot down. Sergeant Walter Greenland was the last of those who picked the colors off the ground to hold it aloft. Writing home to his brother the next day, Walter recalled:
I was about 300 yards to the left of the colors and when we came out of the woods, I saw the colors laying on the ground. I threw away my musket and ran for them, by the time I got them in my hands the “Reb’s” [sic] were not fifty yards off. But I got out safe. I tell you what, the bullets flew around me, I was not hurt bad, a ball struck my ear. It stung considerable, my musket was struck in the middle, knocked all to pieces.[5]

As the battle flag of the 125th Pennsylvania fell from one man to the next, the regiment’s line of battle was likewise falling apart. The Pennsylvanians were out in front of the largest Confederate counterattack against Union lines that day. Kershaw’s South Carolinians and Barksdale’s Mississippians proved to be more than the 125th Pennsylvania and the supporting 34th New York could bear.
The subsequent Union withdrawal from the woods was by no means orderly. Several men wrote of not knowing the line had fallen back until they noticed a decrease in the rate of fire from those around them. One such individual was Sergeant John Randolph Simpson, whose brother George had just been killed. Simpson remembered being left “almost alone in the line” near the church. Deciding quickly that he “would sooner take the chances of being shot than of being captured and taken to Libby prison,” Simpson fell back across the Hagerstown Turnpike towards his retreating comrades. Once across the road, Simpson stopped to load his musket, noticing that the enemy infantry was now only fifty yards away. As he loaded his gun, Simpson felt a sharp pain, saw his left arm fall limp and blood begin flowing from his chest. In a state of panic, he dropped his weapon and made for the rear along with the rest of the now routed 125th Pennsylvania. During their retreat from the West Woods, Sergeant Greenland came upon Captain Wallace of Company C. Wallace assumed the colors from Greenland and, with the colors safely furled, headed for their prior position in the East Woods; once there he unfurled the flag and began rallying his scattered regiment.
For the remainder of the day, the 125th Pennsylvania played only a supporting role for the action on the northern end of the field. After their retreat to the East Woods, Colonel Higgins was approached by Sixth Corps commander William Franklin and told to help support the placement of artillery and infantry units. As the day stretched into late afternoon, it became clear that the heavy fighting at Antietam was moving southward, and those men on the northern end of the field could begin to assess the damage that they had suffered that morning.
The 125th Pennsylvania had entered the field that day with approximately 700 men present for duty, almost the size of a small brigade. During the time in which they were engaged, the regiment lost 145 men killed and wounded for an official casualty rate of twenty percent. Several veterans later suggested that eighty four men were wounded but did not report their condition, bringing the casualties up to 229 for a rate of thirty three percent. In the Huntingdon Bible Company, roughly twenty percent had been killed or wounded. Other regiments that day sustained higher casualties, but few green regiments performed as well or suffered as heavily as did the 125th Pennsylvania.
While they did not hold their position for long, the 125th Pennsylvania had been the first Union regiment to push into the West Woods behind the Dunker Church that day. Because of their forward position, they were exposed and vulnerable to the largest Confederate counterattack at Antietam. The Confederate attack which swept into their flank was the only time during the battle when Confederates outnumbered Federals on a particular part of the field. Despite their full ranks, there was little these Pennsylvanians could do to stop the Confederate onslaught. In his official report, Samuel Crawford, who had taken command of the First Division of the Twelfth Corps when Alpheus Williams took the place of the mortally wounded Joseph Mansfield, allotted special praise for the 125th Pennsylvania, as well as the green 124th and 128th regiments from that state, all of whom behaved “with great promptness and with the coolness of old troops, although they had not before been under fire.”[6]

Part three of this series on the 125th Pennsylvania at Antietam will be posted in a few days. It will discuss what happened to the regiment and some of its soldiers after Antietam.

[1] Different accounts from members of the regiment mention several men of the 125th Pennsylvania helping to carry Mansfield to the rear. Among them are accounts from Captain William Wallace and Colonel Higgins, which both appeared in letters and Huntingdon newspapers after the war (copies in Antietam Battlefield Library).
[2] O.R. Vol. 19, Part 1, 485.
[3] Theodore Flood, “On the March and in Fire of Battle,” in The History of the 125th Pennsylvania, ed. William Wallace.
[4] Huntingdon Globe, June 26, 1902.
[5] Walter Greenland letter to brother, September 18, 1862, (typed transcript), Antietam National Battlefield Library
[6] O.R. Vol. 19, Part 1, 484. 

Make a Wish

Battlefield Wish by Keith Snyder

Why was I so nervous? It was just a battlefield tour. Over the last thirty years with the National Park Service, I have led literally thousands of battlefield tours, hikes and walks. But this time it was different and I was anxious. Wait a minute, hadn’t I guided numerous VIPs across the battlefield -- Senators, Congressmen, foreign dignitaries, State Department officials, Generals, Cabinet Secretaries. Heck, I met Jimmy Stewart, Nancy Reagan and once spent the whole day leading the entire Kennedy family around Antietam with renowned Civil War historian Shelby Foote. Still I was apprehensive. This was not about me, it was about a young man who has been through radiation and chemo and was traveling 3,000 miles to visit the park.

This tour was different, unlike any I had been asked to present before. It was for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, For a young man with a life threatening illness, it was his dream to visit Antietam, Manassas and Gettysburg battlefields. Now I have always known that Antietam is special place, sacred ground that should be preserved forever. However, I had not thought that if facing the greatest challenge in life that I would choose touring the battlefield as my one wish. Kids in this incredible program have done amazing things -- jammed with Carlos Santana, flown in a Navy fighter jet, gone to the Super Bowl, acted as the Chairman of Nintendo and of course vacationed in Disney. But for fifteen year old Clark, a young Civil War buff from California, his wish was to tour the battlefields.

The night before the tour I was very apprehensive. So I jumped on my mobile meditation device (better
known as a lawn tractor) for two hours of contemplation. As the blades whirled and the engine hummed, I prayed for strength and clarity of thought, because for Clark I wanted to be at my very best.

The next morning was unusually clear and cool for the longest day of the year. Clark arrived with his older brother, Mom and Dad. He was a little shy, but very much a typical kid from what surely seemed a wonderful family. We spent the next five hours together sharing the incredible story of the worst one-day battle in American history. We talked about the normal battlefield subjects of weapons, tactics, terrain and soldiers. However, we also focused on the courage and sacrifice of the young men who once marched to the Cumberland Valley. How they faced adversity, doubts and fears. How there are more important things in life than ourselves. Things like preserving our nation, our flag and freedom. We stood where young Johnny Cook once stood. Just so happens that he was also fifteen. 

At Antietam, he was the bugler for Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery. At the horrific Cornfield, Johnny assisted his wounded commander, faced mortal danger and helped load and fire the cannon. For his bravery, Johnny was awarded the Medal of Honor.

After a full day on the battlefield, we finished with a shopping spree in the park bookstore arranged by Antietam’s Superintendent and donated by Antietam’s generous cooperating association. Clark seemed so happy with his Antietam t-shirt, cap and model cannon. It was then that Clark’s father said to me that, “we are so blessed.” I will never forget his words or the quiet smile of his son. I will cherish forever the gift that I had been given of the privilege of sharing this day with this remarkable young man and his family. A powerful and poignant reminder of what is important-- the precious gift of life, family and making wishes come true.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Museum close-up: relic pyramid

Museum close-up: Relic Pyramid by Ranger Mannie Gentile

Last September, just in time for the 150th, we opened the new exhibit gallery in the Visitor Center Museum.  This space allowed us to get some exceptionally interesting artifacts on display.  One of the real hits with visitors is the "relic pyramid".

In the years following the war a sort of relic-based folk art became popular, and the designs were quite unique.  Frequently made by the veterans themselves, these wooden pyramids are typically covered with battlefield relics which are screwed, nailed, and stapled to the supporting wooden structure.

About three years ago Antietam National Battlefield acquired from our sister park at Gettysburg three relic pyramids made in the years following the battle of Antietam.  All of the attached items were salvaged from the battlefield in the days before the battlefield became part of the public trust under the protection of the Park Service.

The results are pretty fantastic and the best of the three is now on display in the new gallery of the Antietam visitor center musem.

Here are some close-up views for you.

The closer you get the more you see.  Don't forget to click on any of these images for an even 
larger view.

An elongated case shot with a ball still in the suspending matrix.  Case shot is a hollow projectile containing numerous lead or iron balls and a small bursting charge.  Upon detonation over the heads of an advancing troop formation, the shell fragments and balls rained lethal destruction downward.

A Union belt plate above a damaged Bormann time fuse.

Company letters, regimental numbers and a metallic carbine cartridge.

Here's something you don't see too often; a Williams cleaner-bullet with the zinc disc still intact.  Upon firing, the convex disc at the base of the bullet scraped the interior of the barrel to clean built-up powder residue which could impede loading.

A battered paper cartridge containing powder charge and bullet.  

A bullet in a piece of wood.

A flattened Burton ball from the East Woods.

A shoulder scale from an enlisted man's dress uniform.

A copper sabot.  This was attached to the base of an elongated Confederate Mullane projectile.  Upon detonation of the propellant charge the softer copper sabot was forced into the rifling grooves of the iron gun barrel imparting the spin which characterized the more accurate rifled guns.

A sword pommel.

Stars formed from Bormann time fuses and bullets, and a patriotic inscription. 

An eagle breast-plate surrounded by musket balls.  Plates such as this were attached to the cartridge box  crossbelts of Union soldiers.

A State of New York belt plate in a wreath of Burton balls.  James H. Burton at the Harpers Ferry Armory developed the one-piece Burton ball,  an American improvement over the two-piece minie bullet, the namesake of its inventor - Claude Etienne Minie.

A small eagle button which still has some sky-blue wool attached to it.

The shackle from a Carbine belt.  This attached to a ring on the cavalryman's carbine to prevent him from losing it while fighting on horseback.  The tool to the right is an implement issued with rifles which includes two screwdriver blades and a nipple wrench.

Be sure to explore the new gallery on your next trip to Antietam National Battlefield; 
your National Park.

Baptized by Fire

Baptized By Fire

Baptized By Fire: The Huntingdon Bible Company and the
125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at Antietam
by Ranger Dan Vermilya (part 1 of 3 parts)
“It was a dreadful struggle and we were thrust into the very furnace of battle.”
—Theodore Flood

On September 17, 1862, two mighty armies clashed along the banks of Antietam Creek in what was the bloodiest single day battle of the Civil War. Some of the men who fought that day were experienced veterans, having seen action during the Peninsula Campaign or at the Battle of Second Manassas only seventeen days prior. While the majority of the regiments engaged at Antietam had seen combat before, there were a significant number who saw battle for the first time that sunny September day. As much as 20% of the Army of the Potomac that day had no prior combat experience. Indeed, not only were many of Major General George McClellan’s troops inexperienced, but the army had also been reorganized at the start of the campaign.
Among the new units who were a part of this reorganization was the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. In the 125th Pennsylvania, one company in particular stands out. Company C of that regiment was known as the Huntingdon Bible Company, as many of the men were from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and had left home being publicly dedicated to both God and country. The baptism by fire these men received at Antietam displays not only an instance of success for green troops in battle, but it also reminds us of the deeper motivations which sustained many soldiers during the American Civil War.
The story of the 125th Pennsylvania and the Huntingdon Bible Company began in July of 1862. That month, as numbers of volunteers were dwindling and the conflict continued to rage, President Abraham Lincoln called for 300,000 additional volunteers to put down the rebellion. Through bounties, the 1862 Militia Act, and state mobilization efforts, many thousands of men left their homes and picked up muskets to fight in the war. On July 21, 1862, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin issued a proclamation calling on the people of his state to fulfill their obligations as citizens, noting, “To sustain the government in times of common peril by all his energies, his means and his life, if need be, is the duty of every loyal citizen.”[1] The call was for nine month volunteers to form twenty one new regiments, and for twelve month volunteers to fill in the ranks of regiments already in service. Various counties within the state were also given quotas to fulfill.
In Huntingdon County, these calls roused several citizens who decided to act. Among these men were William Wallace, a prominent citizen and coal miner; Theodore Flood, a young divinity student; and John Randolph Simpson, a young law student. Upon hearing these calls for more volunteers, these three met in Wallace’s Huntingdon coal mining offices to discuss raising troops for the war. At this meeting, a very special mission was agreed upon for the troops they were planning to raise. According to Flood, William Wallace suggested recruiting men in “the name of God and religion.” The men from Huntingdon would have daily prayers with roll call in the morning and an official motto for the regiment, which they agreed to be “In God We Trust.” After discussing these matters, Wallace, Flood, and Simpson decided that the best way to proceed further was to dedicate their efforts with a prayer. The men closed Wallace’s office door and went to the back of the room to pray for success in their endeavors.
Shortly after this meeting, Wallace issued a public proclamation calling for volunteers for the Union war effort. Wallace attributed the defeats the Union had suffered in 1861 and 1862 to a lack of faith in God among the people of the North. Thus, to achieve both martial and spiritual victory, Wallace announced:
In responding to our Country’s call for more men, let us humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord, and so deport us that he will dwell with us, guide our counsel, go out before us, and strengthen our hearts in the shock of battle. I therefore propose to you, my countrymen, to raise a company, every man of which shall take his Bible with his musket, and go out in His fear.[2]
Thus was born the Huntingdon Bible Company, or Company C of the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
Colonel Jacob Higgins, a veteran who had been wounded in the Mexican War and had served in 1861 as an officer in the First Pennsylvania Cavalry, took command of the young 125th Pennsylvania at its formation.  The various companies of the 125th Pennsylvania came from Huntingdon, Blair, and Cambria counties in Central Pennsylvania. They enlisted in the month of August, and soon began making their way toward the state capital in Harrisburg to prepare for war. Once in Harrisburg, the companies began electing officers and organizing themselves into an official fighting unit. 
The soldiers of Company C elected William Wallace as their captain. Theodore Flood became a First Lieutenant and John Simpson a First Sergeant. Company C was given the honor of being named the color company for the regiment, and it was none other than John Simpson’s brother George who assumed the distinct privilege of bearing aloft the regimental flag. John Randolph Simpson and George Simpson would serve side by side as Sergeants in the Huntingdon Bible Company, with George holding the regimental colors high. George had worked as a printer before the war, and had served in a three month regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers between April and July of 1861. With his return to the service, he was now risking his life once again for his nation.
In just a few weeks, these Pennsylvanians found themselves in the middle of what would prove to be the deadliest war in American history. Having been sent to Washington in late August, they remained there during the Battle of Second Manassas, building earthworks on Arlington Heights to defend the city against the menacing Confederate presence thirty miles away. Following the Union defeat at Manassas and the subsequent reorganization of Union forces under Major General George B. McClellan, the 125th Pennsylvania was placed in the Twelfth Corps of the Union army, previously commanded by Nathaniel Banks but soon to be led by Joseph Mansfield. As the men began moving northward in early September, few knew the fate that awaited them at the end of their march.
For the 125th Pennsylvania and much of the Twelfth Corps, the beginning of the Maryland Campaign contained little action. The men were held behind in Frederick, Maryland during the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862, thus missing out on their first chance to experience combat.  John Randolph Simpson later recalled the march up and over South Mountain soon after the battle there had been fought and seeing the body of recently killed General Jesse Reno brought down amidst the aftermath of the battle.[3] 

This is the first of a three part series of articles on the 125th Pennsylvania and the Huntingdon Bible Company. Future posts will be marked as Part 2 and Part 3 of this series. All of the source material for these posts was obtained from the Antietam National Battlefield Library.

[1] Governor Andrew Curtin, July 21, 1862, in War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols., 128 parts, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1884), Series 3, Vol. 2, 208. Hereafter referred to as O.R. with the accompanying series, volume, part, and page numbers.
[2] William Wallace, “War Reminiscences,” in The History of the 125th Pennsylvania, edited by William Wallace (J.B. Lippincott Co.: Philadelphia, 1906), 167.
[3] “Recollections of J.R. Simpson Relating to his Participation in the Battle of Antietam on the Seventeenth Day of September, 1862,” (typed transcript), Antietam National Battlefield Library.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lilacs at the Roulette House

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd
Walt Whitman

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!  
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.