Pennsylvania Militia Experience “An Awful Sight” at the Antietam Battlefield

In the Fall of 1862, the threat of invasion loomed large for the citizens of southcentral Pennsylvania. With General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on their doorstep, on September 4, 1862, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin issued a proclamation, calling on the citizens of the Commonwealth “to arm and prepare for defense.”[1] Less than a week later, Curtin issued a general order,

“calling on all able bodied men to enroll immediately for the defense of the State, and to hold themselves in readiness to march upon an hour’s notice; to select officers, to provide themselves with such arms as could be obtained, with sixty rounds of ammunition to the man, tending arms to such as had none, and promising that they should be held for service, for such time only as the pressing exigency for State defense should continue.”[2]

In short order Pennsylvania fielded twenty-five infantry regiments and various independent companies of infantry, cavalry, and artillery from each corner of the state. Brigadier General John Fulton Reynolds, himself a Keystone native, had been given charge of the growing militia force, and was quickly forwarding regiments to Chambersburg. The set of Franklin County, Chambersburg sat only 25 miles north of Hagerstown, Maryland, where lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia had reached on September 11.

Among the regiments responding to Curtin’s call was the 15th Pennsylvania Militia, comprised of companies from Allegheny, Mercer, and Erie counties, along Pennsylvania’s western border. Sporting colorful names like the East Liberty Guards, Duquesne Light Infantry, and Keystone Rifles, the men elected Robert Galway as colonel of the new regiment. Galway had previously served as a captain in the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves before a painful leg wound at the Battle of Dranesville in late 1861 knocked him out of service.

The various companies began leaving Pittsburgh on September 13, bound for Harrisburg without uniforms, arms, or camp equipage. By September 16 the regiment had consolidated at Harrisburg, where at the state capitol complex, they received their arms – a mix of 1837 Springfield flintlock conversions, and 1842 Springfield muskets. These arms had been rusting away for years and likely inspired little confidence in the men entrusted with them.

General John F. Reynolds

The regiment boarded cars on the Cumberland Valley Railroad for an uncomfortable ride south to Chambersburg. “The crowded condition of the car would not permit us to lie down, and to sleep standing was, owing to the rough motion of the cars, impossible,” recalled one member of the regiment.[3] However, no sooner had the regiment arrived in Chambersburg than they were ordered to Hagerstown, where General Reynolds was forwarding the arriving troops. Pennsylvania law prohibited the use of these militiamen outside the state, a point not lost on the recent recruits. Florence Biggert, a private in Company D, ‘The Pennsylvania State Guards,’ recorded in his diary that the order to Hagerstown “created a good deal of excitement at first, and one company turned out to leave the cars but the balance of the regiment were unanimous in their answer to go.”[4] Another member of the 15th Pennsylvania remembered it differently, boasting to his local paper that the men “hesitated not a moment,” that they “may have a hand at strangling the viper of secession.”[5]

The regiment arrived in Hagerstown, still without tents or blankets, and slept “with the grass for a pillow and the sky for a covering.”[6] While some of the Pennsylvania militia were already being sent forward to General Reynolds at Keedysville, five regiments at Hagerstown – including the 15th Pennsylvania – “refused to proceed.”[7]  Reynolds was flabbergasted that his troops “do not seem to relish the idea” of assisting the Army of the Potomac at Sharpsburg, complaining that “if the Penna. Militia did not turn out to fight they had better have remained at home.”[8]

On September 19 the regiment could nervously hear firing in the direction of the Potomac River, not realizing the gunfire was carrying more than 15 miles from the ongoing battle at Shepherdstown. Rumors were rife that the Confederates were in retreat, or that Stonewall Jackson was advancing on Hagerstown. That evening, several of the regimental guard abandoned their posts when a squad of Union cavalry passed along the road, fearing they were roving Confederates. Three times during the night the regiment was deployed in line of battle to meet an invisible foe, while one company wholly refused to leave camp for picket duty until chided by their comrades.

With the Army of Northern Virginia back across the Potomac River, on the afternoon of September 20, Florence Biggert and several comrades were granted permission to visit the nearby battlefield at Antietam. The group made it to the neighborhood of Tilghmanton, Maryland, before continuing the following morning. Biggert recorded in his diary a vivid account of his visit…

Dead near the Dunker Church

“Arrived at the first evidence of the fight about 8 o’clock, a house with a hole in it made by artillery. Soon began to see plenty of “sign” – the fence was riddled and knapsacks, cartridge boxes and etc. encumbered the ground. A little farther on in a cornfield lay hundreds, aye thousands of dead rebels, winnow upon winnow of the poor fellows lay there, some just as they fell, others where they had been carried by our troops. Trees were cut and broken, houses were riddled and many dead horses were lying where they were killed. It was an awful sight.

The dead along the Hagerstown Pike at Antietam.

The dead were terribly changed, faces black as negroes, bodies swollen horribly, and a most horrible stench arising from all parts of the field. Our troops were busy burying the rebels, having already buried all our own dead, we only being able to find 3 of our dead lying unburied. The field was covered with arms, which were in some placed piled up, but in many others were lying around loose.

The Lutheran Church east of Sharpsburg, damaged during the Battle of Antietam.

I captured a few relics, but the best had already been carried off. Saw a church in the midst of the battle-field which was completely riddled. Saw numbers of Union graves all nicely enclosed and marked, a great many Pennsylvanians.”[9]

After four hours of sightseeing, Biggert and his companions had seen enough. On arriving back at Hagerstown, the men found that their company had already re-crossed the state line and were safely stationed at Greencastle, Pennsylvania. The squad followed the railroad tracks and met the regiment there, departing for home on September 25 and arriving two days later. The men had been under arms in the service of Pennsylvania for less than two weeks.

The 15th Pennsylvania returned to a hero’s welcome in Pittsburgh. Headed by a brass band, the regiment paraded through the city and were received by Thomas Marshall Howe, Asst. Adj. Gen. for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who extolled their “willingness to face the stern realities of the battle field,” and their “patriotic alacrity.”[10]  To the untrained eye, “their haversacks, canteens, dusty clothing and bronzed faces gave them the appearance of veterans.”[11]

Even beyond Pittsburgh, praise was lavished on these short-term soldiers. General McClellan gushed that while “circumstances rendered it impossible for the enemy to set foot upon the soil of Pennsylvania…the moral support rendered to my army by your action, was none the less mighty.”[12] Maryland Governor Augustus Bradford praised the militia for “the readiness with which they crossed the border,” believing it to be “but an ideal line…Pennsylvania and Maryland are but one.”[13] However, not everyone was ready to heap plaudits on the militiamen.

General John F. Reynolds spent weeks fuming over his temporary command of the militia. On September 26, Reynolds wrote to his sister that he had “dispersed all the militia to their homes – which they were so exceedingly anxious to defend, only they preferred to wait until the enemy actually reached their own doorsteps before they encountered him.”[14] Writing home just two days later, Reynolds again railed against the militia, whom he believed were now

“…busy fighting their battles over again at home. I hope they will succeed in it to their own satisfaction at least if not to that of the public. I have no patience in thinking of them and their course while in the field much less to write about it. My own private opinion is, however, that if the militia of Pennsylvania is to be depended upon to defend the state from invasion, they had better all stay at home, they can be of no use in any military point of view if they are to act as they did here, every man to decide for himself whether he will obey the orders given or not and take his time at that to do it or no.”[15]

Reynolds may well have been speaking of Florence Biggert of the 15th Pennsylvania when he continued his diatribe on October 5, writing that the militia “were impatient beyond all conception and finally exhausted mine,” speaking of “the 20,000 [who] came to my office to inquire if he could not get a pass to go over the Rail Road, when the Regt. had marched, he having in the meantime under an improper representation obtained permission to visit the Battle Ground, 12 or 14 miles off, when he could walk to and back to Hagerstown after he knew there was no enemy there, but had refused to go the day before when his Regt. was ordered there and the prospect of meeting the enemy was tolerable certain.”[16]

In seemingly his last mention of the affair before putting the matter to bed, Reynolds hypothesized that the militiamen “had better not boast too much – they may have a chance to show their desperate courage yet without going over the state line.”[17] This would prove prophetically true only nine months later.

As for Florence Biggert, he again volunteered in June 1863 as part of Knap’s Independent Battery, Pennsylvania Emergency Light Artillery. His sojourn to Antietam the previous autumn would prove his only battlefield experience of the war.

[1] Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Vol. V, p 1147
[2] ibid
[3] Biggert, Florence C. “Some Leaves From a Civil War Diary.” Ed. Harry R. Beck. Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 42, Dec. 1959, p 366
[4] ibid
[5] Daily Pittsburgh Gazette and Commercial Journal, September 23, 1862
[6] Biggert, p 367
[7] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 19, Part II, p 329
[8] John F. Reynolds to Eleanor Reynolds, September 18, 1862. Reynolds Family Papers, Franklin & Marshall College
[9] Biggert, p 368
[10] The Pittsburgh Post, September 27, 1862
[11] ibid, September 26, 1862
[12] Bates, Vol. V, p 1147
[13] ibid
[14] Reynolds Family Papers, September 26, 1862
[15] ibid, September 28, 1862
[16] ibid, October 5, 1862
[17] ibid, October 14, 1862

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1 Response to Pennsylvania Militia Experience “An Awful Sight” at the Antietam Battlefield

  1. mark harnitchek says:

    thks Jon-Erik … this was not one of the Keystone State’s finest hours … i would have echoed MGEN Reynold’s frustration with the PA militia — why did they even bother to show up … many of their fellow citizens don’t high marks the following year from Allan Guelzo or Scott Sears in their battle narratives about Gettysburg.

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