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.

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