Sunday, June 22, 2014

Soldier Stories from Antietam: Captain Allen Zacharias, 7th Michigan Infantry

One of the goal's for the staff of Antietam National Battlefield is for all visitors to gain a better understanding of the men who fought at Antietam 152 years ago. While the battle is perhaps best known for his high casualty numbers, we hope that visitors are able to look past numbers and see casualties for who they were: people who are every bit as ordinary as we are today, who did extraordinary things when called upon. These soldiers were not lines on a map, but people with families, hopes, and fears. The story below is but one example of this.

Allen Zacharias was born on May 15, 1833, in Clear Springs, Maryland, a community in Washington County, where the Battle of Antietam would one day be fought. When he was 8 years old, he and his family moved to Monroe County, Michigan, where they remained for many years. Zacharias remained in Michigan for his education, attending the University of Michigan where he graduated in 1860. Upon his graduation, Zacharias moved to Mississippi and worked as an instructor at a State Military Institute. 

It was not long after his move to Mississippi that hostilities began between the North and the South. Having been raised in Michigan, Zacharias returned to his home state and enlisted as a corporal in Company K of the 7th Michigan, and he rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant on June 25, 1861. At that time, Zacharias was 28 years old. On March 10, 1862, he was commissioned a Captain in the same regiment. He served with the 7th Michigan during many battles and engagements in the summer of 1862, including those during George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. On June 28, near Fair Oaks, Virginia, Zacharias wrote the following in his pocket book, expressing a fear that he would soon be killed and he would become one of the many dead buried as unknown soldiers.

Allan Howard Zacharias was born May 15th, 1833, in Clear Springs, Washington County, Maryland, and removed with his father to Monroe County, Michigan, in 1841. Graduated A.B. from University of Michigan, June 1860. Went to Mississippi in September, and became a professor, and in February, 1861, principal of the State Military Institute, at Brandon, in that State. Resigned his position in May and returned to Michigan, when, from a solemn sense of duty, he enlisted as a corporal, and promoted first lieutenant June 25th, and to a captaincy March 10, 1862 and was with the regiment at Yorktown, West Point, and Fair Oaks, May 31 and June 1st. 
Friend--if you find my body lifeless upon the field, bury it decently, mark its resting place, and inform my friends in the regiment and my father. Do this and you shall be liberally rewarded and have the gratitude of my friends.
A.H. Zacharias, Captain, Company K, 7th Michigan

While Captain Zacharias had gone to the trouble of writing out this note in his pocket book during the Peninsula Campaign, he would not need it then. Zacharias survived that campaign unharmed, but he was not so fortunate at the Battle of Antietam. As a part of John Sedgwick's Division of Edwin Sumner's 2nd Corps, the 7th Michigan saw significant action on September 17, 1862. They were in Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana's Brigade in the second line of Union troops from Sedgwick's Division in the West Woods, roughly 50 to 100 yards behind the lead line of Willis Gorman's Brigade. When a strong Confederate counterattack swept into the woodlot and on to their left flank, the 7th Michigan was caught with its left flank exposed, along with the rest of Sedgwick's men. Dana's brigade suffered heavily, losing 898 casualties in less than an hour of fighting in the West Woods. The 7th Michigan alone lost 221 men killed, wounded, and missing. With thousands of Confederates under the command of generals such as Lafeyette McLaws, Jubal Early, William Barksdale, and Joseph Kershaw bearing down upon them, these Federals had little choice other than to retreat from the field.

Following the fierce fighting in the West Woods, a soldier from Maine came across a severely wounded man holding a letter in his hand. The letter was as follows:

To Peter K. Zacharias, Monroe, Michigan:

Dear Parents, Brothers, and Sisters--I am wounded mortally, I think. The fight rages around me. I have done my duty; this is my consolation. I hope to meet you all again. I left not the line until nearly all had fallen and colors gone. I am getting weak; my arms are free, but my chest all is numb. The enemy trotting over me, the numbness up to my heart. Goodbye, all.

Your son, Allen.

While Captain Zacharias had taken the time to write a letter home to tell his family of his impending death, he would last longer than he expected. The soldier from Maine who found the Captain mailed the letter home, telling the Zacharias family of their loved one's fate. Allen Zacharias would live several more months before he succumbed to his wounds. He died on December 31, 1862, in a hospital in Hagerstown, Maryland. His words show that in what he thought were his last hours on Earth, Zacharias was concerned for his family, so much so that he went to the effort of writing a goodbye letter. This story was repeated on numerous battlefields countless of times during the war, showing just a glimpse of the humanity and fear that Civil War soldiers had during combat.

Source: Townshend, David. G. The Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry: The Gallant Men and Flag in The Civil War, 1861-1865 (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Southeast Publications, Inc., 1993).