Sunday, April 7, 2013

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.


  1. Dan
    I look forward to the rest of your history of the 125th PA. I see total casualties according to OR, 19, 1 198, are 145, but Wallace shows 229; as of now, the number I have for total in the battle is 670 from Carman. Do you have other data?

  2. What a great post, looking forward to the rest of them. I had an ancestor who fought for Company K of the 125th PA, so I enjoy learning what I can about their history.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I looked up a roster, and some of the names listed are my family names . . . hopefully I can claim even distant kinship to these brave and faithful soldiers!

  4. My ancestors were a part of the HUNTINGDON Bible Company. I am glad they choose to honor God in their service to our nation.