EDITOR’S NOTE: The Hopewell Rifles and the Pennsylvania Reserves had fought hard near Richmond, but the worst was to come. The Union and Confederate armies were headed for Bull Run again, and then Antietam. It was to be a blood-bath, and they would find themselves in the worst of it. Part three.
By Ned Frear
About a month later, and a year after it all began, the two armies were back where they had started— at Bull Run. The second battle of Bull Run was not a big loss for the Union— but another opportunity. It was becoming obvious that the Union had the men, but not the generals. At least, men like Meade had not been put at the top yet.
This time, the Union had Stonewall Jackson in a box and let him get out. One Union general was court-martialed, but the invasion of Pennsylvania the next summer, and the many big battles to come could be laid to the inability of the Union to capitalize on another good chance.
The Reserves gained distinction again, their historian records. And General Reynolds, back in action, picked up the colors during the heat of the battle. He was a favorite target for the Rebel sharpshooters, but he made it through a long afternoon.
General Pope said the Pennsylvania Reserves “rendered most galant and efficient service..”
They, and others, Pope said, “had been so much cut up in the severe actions in which they had been engaged, and were so much broken down and diminished in numbers by the constant and excessive duties they had performed, that they were in little condition for any effective service whatever…”
The Reserves had gone in with 6,000, and lost 652 men.
There was a state of emergency in Pennsylvania. Gov. Curtis feared an invasion. Lee waited for McLellan near Sharpsburg, a village within an hour and a half of Bedford today. The Battle of Antietam was to be the biggest of the war. Meade had command of the Reserves now, and was ordered to storm a mountain full of Rebels. This was a preliminary, called South Mountain.
The Division History: “From behind every rock, tree and log, they forced the enemy with ball and bayonet; the color bearers struggled up the mountain side, and the men rallied around the flag, cheer after cheer responding to the rebel volleys from the summit; on- ward and upward the fiery line rolled and surged; the bewildered rebels saw in astonishment the smoke and flame rising from rock to rock.”
“‘What troops are these?’ anxiously inquired a rebel officer. ‘I don’t know, sir, I’ll see,’ said the colonel of an Alabama regiment. Peering over the rocky barrier that protected him, he exclaimed: ‘My God, it’s the Pennsylvania Reserves!’ and instantly he fell pierced by a dozen bullets.”
The 8th Regiment had to fight every step of the way, and took the worst losses in the brigade.
Catton put it this way: “Meade had his division of Pennsylvanians in front, and they went clambering up a high, steep-sided spur of the mountain ridge on top of which Confederate Robert Rodes had his fine brigade of Alabama troops. The Alabamians were badly outnumbered, but they had all the advantage of position and were rated as shock troops, under a general who was one of the best brigadiers in the Confederate Army, and before the night came down they gave the Pennsylvanians a bad time of it.”
“Coming up through the wood, the Bucktails caught it from a slim Confederate skirmish line hidden behind trees. The Rebels here were expert marksmen, and woods fighting was their specialty. They went dodging back from tree to tree, reloading under cover and drawing a good bead before they fired.”
“But the Bucktails came from mountain country and were pretty good riflemen themselves. They got the wood clear at last, and then Meade’s men had nothing but open fields in front of them, and the Rebels had to give ground.”
By dark, they had the top, and killed or captured the Alabamians.
McClellan hesitated. He had Lee, about two to one, but he thought Lee had more men. Noon came and went, and no attack. McClellan put the Pennsylvanians on his right, for a flanking expedition.
It was late afternoon, and Meade’s men were in the thick of it again. They had marched into John B. Hood’s men near the East Wood.
Meade, says Catton, “came riding up, brusque and impatient, to look the situation over.” He got them lined up quickly and moving ahead. There was heavy fire, but it was a standoff. Evening fell. A dismal, drizzling rain fell all night.
The Reserves slept on their arms, a few paces from the rebels. Pickets could peer across and see each other, and six rebels once stepped within the line of the first brigade in the dark.
“The morning came in like the beginning of the Last Day, gray and dark and tensely expectant. Mist lay on the ground, heavy as a fog in the hollow places, and the groves and valleys were drenched in immense shadows. For a brief time there was an ominous hush on the rolling fields, where the rival pickets crouched behind bushes and fence corners, peering watchfully forward under damp hat brims.”
Their generals knew the men had not eaten, and asked early relief, but no help came. With the dawn, rifles cracked again.
Stonewall Jackson had massed his men on high ground around a Dunker church. Meade’s Pennsylvanians were in the center of the Union line, which was to go through the East woods through a cornfield, and to that church.
When they joined, “there was an appalling confusion of shattering sound, an unending chaos of violence and heat and intense combat, with fields and thickets wrapped in shifting layers of blinding smoke so that no man could know and understand any more of what was happening than the part he could see immediately around him.”
They surged back and forth in the East woods. “They went beyond the bounds of sanity and endurance at times…” Catton reports the battle “might well have been the most savage and consuming fighting American soldiers ever engaged in.”
“Meade’s Pennsylvanians had gone into the cornfield at the center of the line, and their story is about the same: advance and retreat, charge and countercharge, victory and retreat all blended.”
“Once the center brigade broke under a driving Rebel charge and went streaming toward the rear. Meade came thundering up with the battle fury on him, yanked the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment back into line, hurried it off to a vantage point by Mr, Miller’s fence.”
“A Georgia regiment, lying unseen in the corn. let fly a volley from a distance of thirty feet, knocking out half the regiment at one sweep.” “The Pennsylvania color-bearer went down with a foot shot off, struggled to his knees, jabbing his flagstaff into the ground, and struck wildly at a comrade who tried to take the colors away from him. A charging Georgian shot him dead, and was himself killed by a Pennsylvania lieutenant; and there were the wild tumult and heavy smoke and crazy shouting all around, with the entire war narrowed to the focus of this single combat between Pennsylvanians and Georgians.”
“Then the Pennsylvanians broke and fan again— to be stopped, incomprehensibly, a few yards in the rear by a boyish private who stood on a little hillock and kept swinging his hat, shouting:
“Strangely, on that desperate field where men were madly heroic and full of abject panic by turns, this lone private stopped the retreat.”
“What was left of the regiment fell in beside them. Fugitives from other regiments in the shattered brigade fell in with them, and Meade, who had gone galloping away to bring up a battery to plug the gap, came back and got the uncertain line straightened out.”
The cornfield at Antietam was far less famous than the wheatfield at Gettysburg, but it may have been more important.
Another 500 Pennsylvanians were killed, lost or wounded.
But Lee silently drew his army back to Virginia.
Currently a resident of Burke, Virginia - I'm originally from the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have been a student of the Pennsylvania Reserves since 1997 and thoroughly enjoy telling their story. By trade I'm a former IT Professional but presently working as a Letter Carrier for the United States Postal Service.