In the Footsteps of the 130th Pennsylvania at Antietam

The monument to the 130th Pennsylvania Infantry in the Sunken Road at Antietam National Battlefield.

Mustered in mid-August 1862, the untested recruits of the 130th Pennsylvania Infantry barely had time to learn how to be soldiers before they were thrown into the chaotic battle of Antietam on September 17. There, they were heavily engaged in assaults on the Sunken Road during the bloodiest single day in American history. Mere days after the battle, they returned to the place of their baptism by fire to bury the dead in that same area – both comrades and enemies alike. Among them was my fourth-great grandfather, Jacob Reever of Company K. I recently travelled to Antietam to follow in the footsteps of this nine-month unit and learn a little more about what they did there, both during the battle and after.

Earlier in September, the 130th was placed in the Second Brigade, Third Division, Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Brigaded with the 14th Connecticut and the 108th New York, two other new regiments, it may have been some comfort that the division was commanded by the well-regarded Brigadier General William French and included more veteran regiments. Passing through the fresh wreckage of the battle of South Mountain on the evening of September 14, the regiment had their first sight of the harsh realities of wartime service. Bivouacking on the battlefield, they awoke the next day to the grim realization they had unknowingly slept amongst the dead. Continuing to pass through portions of the battle, Private Edward Spangler of Company K recalled the first time he saw a dead soldier, a fallen Confederate cavalryman “shot through the head, and his blood-covered face and glassy eyes made a ghastly sight. He was the first dead soldier I saw, and it was by no means a pleasing spectacle.”[1] On September 16, the regiment endured scattered artillery near the Pry House, and was issued additional ammunition to prepare for the coming day.

A period image of the Roulette Farm. Note the overturned beehives near the home. NPS.

As the hellish combat of that fateful September day began, the 130th crossed Antietam Creek and pushed towards the Roulette Farm around 9AM. As the division’s brigades realigned in preparation to attack towards the soon-to-be famous Sunken Road, the veteran brigades were placed in front and behind the new recruits. The lead brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Max Weber, pushed aside Confederate skirmishers around the farmstead. As the 130th followed that brigade, they faced their own unique hazards at the Roulette Farm. Not only did they fight leftover skirmishers around the farm, but an enemy artillery shell struck one of the Roulette’s beehives, sending the angry insects swarming around the unfortunate Pennsylvanians and causing some disorder.

Clearing the Roulette Farm, they now pushed over rolling hills towards the Sunken Road, the eroded lane serving as an impressive Confederate defensive position. Weber’s lead brigade found taking the lane a harder task than pushing aside skirmishers, and the rookie brigade, including the 130th, pushed up to support them. As they crested the final slope, they were soon halted by a concentrated mass of enemy fire. Atop the ridge, they slugged it out with entrenched Confederates for well over an hour. In a clear reference to their previous encounter with nature, Spangler wrote now that “The bullets flew thicker than bees, and the shells exploded with a deafening roar.”[2]

Looking towards the Sunken Road (beyond the slope) from the Roulette Farm.

Though French’s division stalled in the fields between the Sunken Road and the Roulette Farm, additional Union troops from Major General Israel Richardson’s division, including Brigadier General Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade, later arrived and broke the southern portions of the Confederate line. This success heartened the tired men of the 130th, but their fight was not yet over. Colonel Henry Zinn, commanding the regiment, reported that as Confederates withdrew and lines shifted, the regiment was later engaged in a smaller fight on the flank. Soon out of ammunition and separated from the rest of their brigade, they withdrew back to the reserve line at Roulette Farm, falling in with Kimball’s brigade. Though the battle raged for hours to come, the regiment’s role in it was over. They spent the night near the Roulette Farm.

In his after-battle report, French noted “The conduct of the new regiments must take a prominent place in the history of this great battle. Undrilled, but admirably armed and equipped, every regiment, either in advance or reserve, distinguished itself, but according to the energy and ability of their respective commanders.”[3] This praise was echoed by Colonel Dwight Morris, commanding the rookie brigade, who wrote “The men in my brigade were all new troops, hastily raised, and without drill or experience, and, although under fire for the first time, behaved with great gallantry.”[4] The men of the 130th began the day having never fought in a battle and only a month removed from civilian life. They ended the day having endured fear and enemy fire (and bees) while playing an important role in the bloodiest day in American military history. Zinn wrote his official report two days after the battle, placing the regiment’s casualties at 32 killed, 146 wounded – a very tough day for a regiment’s first battle.[5] Other records place the number of casualties even higher.

A print of the 130th Pennsylvania burying the dead near the Sunken Road. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 10/18/1862.

Yet, their time at Antietam was not over, as the 130th soon returned to the battlefield. Simon M. Whistler recalled that mere days later “by reason of having incurred the displeasure of its brigade commander, [the regiment] was honored in the appointment as undertaker-in-chief” at the Sunken Road.[6] The task of burying hundreds of fallen soldiers fell to them. Whistler further described the scene in an address at the 1904 dedication of their battlefield monument: “The weather was phenomenally hot, and the stench from the hundreds of black, bloated, decomposed, maggoty bodies, exposed to a torrid heat for three days after the battle, was a sight truly horrid, and beggaring all power of verbal expression.”[7] Clearly, the sights and smells of this duty stuck with him long after the war. Gesturing to the landscape around the gathered veterans, Whistler declared “Just over there in Mumma’s field in one ditch you placed 185 Confederate corpses, the one on top of the other, and indecorously covered them from sight with clay.”[8] In his postwar memoir, Edward Spangler recalled the same sights, noting a Confederate “riddled with seventeen bullets” as well as stating “This Lane was literally packed with their dead. At one point, according to Captain Hope [James Hope of the 2nd Vermont, who created well-known paintings of Antietam], thirteen dead bodies lay on a heap.”[9] As much as the sights and sounds of combat at Antietam stuck with the men of the 130th, their experiences in the aftermath meant just as much.

Decades after the battle, the surviving veterans of the regiment returned to Antietam in 1904, reminiscing about bullets and bees at the Roulette Farm. They then moved to the Sunken Road, the place they had fought so hard against and where they had buried both friend and foe and dedicated their regimental monument. Reading their accounts and walking this hallowed ground gave me greater appreciation for the range of challenges men like Edward Spangler, Simon Whistler, and Jacob Reever faced on September 17, 1862 and in the aftermath. It is a crucial reminder that names and numbers on paper are more than that – they’re individual people with individual experiences and struggles, and climbing the rolling hills of Sharpsburg where they fought and died brings us ever so slightly closer to them.

[1] Edward W. Spangler, My Little War Experience with Historical Sketches and Memorabilia (York, PA: York Daily Publishing Company, 1904), 27.

[2] Spangler, 31.

[3] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XIX, Part I, 323-324.

[4] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XIX, Part I, 332-333.

[5] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XIX, Part I, 335-336.

[6] Pennsylvania at Antietam: Report of the Antietam Battlefield Memorial Commission of Pennsylvania and Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Mark the Position of Thirteen of the Pennsylvania Commands Engaged in the Battle (Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg Publishing Company, State Printer, 1906), 164.

[7] Ibid,.

[8] Ibid,.

[9] Spangler, 36.

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