Monday, April 8, 2013

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. 

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