EDITOR’S NOTE: The battle of Antietam left the armies exhausted, but the Union had the advantage and could not capitalize. Gen. George McClellan, once the darling of the north, had frustrated president Lincoln long enough, with his vacillation and unwillingness to act.
By Ned Frear
McClellan couldn’t get his army moving, so Lincoln gave command Nov. 7 to Burnside, who caught up with Lee at Fredericksburg.
The Confederates dug in on the hills, but Burnside decided to assault them head-on. The Reserves, under Meade, made a gallant charge, but the rest of the army failed to support them, and the ground was lost.
John Eichelberger, Co. F commander, was wounded. Nearly 40 percent of the Reserves went down, of a total of 4,500. They had borne the brunt of it again.
Burnside. wanted to strike again, despite losing 11,000 men, but the November rains came, and Lincoln decided to give the army to Joe Hooker, who planned to attack in the Spring. Captain John Eichelberger was discharged Mar. 30, and Eli took command of the Hopewell Rifles, as the army camped for the winter.
By June, Lee was on the move, up the Shenandoah, toward the Pennsylvania border. Hooker was moving north to intercept him. Hooker had to be careful, because he knew Lee hoped to send Hooker dashing north, then slip through the gaps to attack Washington.
The Pennsylvania boys petitioned their generals to let them be led north to ‘defend their “homes, families and firesides.”
Meade managed to get two brigades sent north, and he himself was then chosen commander of the Army of the Potomac, as the two armies surged towards Gettysburg. General Reynolds, of Lancaster, was killed at Gettysburg.
Meade, of Philadelphia, had won the Union’s greatest fight. Meade had started the war in command of the second brigade, with the Hopewell Rifles. Then he had taken command of the division, which had been offered by Gov. Curtin to McClellan.
The Pennsylvanians were at Gettysburg, but out of the heavy fighting. No doubt they were so decimated that fresher troops were wanted. Some of the men from the Hopewell Rifles did see action at Gettysburg, but not all.
In August, Meade was presented a sword by his old division, and responded:
“No division in this glorious Army of the Potomac..is entitled to claim more credit for its uniform gallant conduct and for the amount of hard fighting it has gone through than the division of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps.”
“…I have only to appeal to Dranesville, where the first success that crowned the arms of the Army of the Potomac was gained, unaided and alone, by a single brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves.”
“I have only to refer to Mechanicsville, where began the six days’ fighting on the peninsula, and where the whole of Longstreet’s corps was held in check for several hours, and victory really won, by only two brigades of the Reserves.”
Meade defended his men, accused of running off at New Market Cross Roads, “because certain officers of the army, not knowing the true facts of the case, and misled at the time by the statements of others equally ignorant with themselves, and whose statements have since been proved incorrect, brought charges against this division on that occasion.”
“I was with the division during the whole fight,” Meade said, “and until dark, when it pleased God that I should be shot down and carried off the field. I have been told that the division ran off, but I know that I stayed with it until it was dark, and my men were engaged in a hand-to-hand contest over the batteries with the enemy. I do not say that there were not some who ran away, but that is nothing singular. There are cowards in every division; there are bad men in every corps. I do say, however, that the large body of the gallant men of the Pennsylvania Reserves remained on the field until dark, and did not leave it until the enemy had retired. Those guns were never captured from them.”
Meade went on: “I refer to South Mountain (the first stage of Antietam), and it is not necessary for me to say much of their conduct there, for their gallant ascent of the height in the face of the enemy and turning their left flank was witnessed by the commanding general, and they received full credit for it.”
“I speak of Antietam, where, on the sixteenth of September, the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, always in the advance boldly attacked that portion of the Confederate army in its front without knowing its strength, and continued to drive it until dark, and then held the position it had gained until the morning, when the battle was renewed.
“I speak again of Fredericksburg, where the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps crossed and led the advance, unaided and alone, up the heights, and held their position for half an hour while others crossed. Had they been followed and supported by other troops, their courage that day would have won a victory.”
Meade felt it was a matter of time now, as the fall of 1863 approached. “Give me the men,” he asked. But the Armies— north and south, were being broken up. Many were going west, and some Union troops were going north to quell the draft riots. The war would last more than a year.
The Reserves were in action again in October. Lee and Meade feinted, until they met at Bristoe Station, near Bull Run. The Reserves fell on the left flank of the Confederates, and routed them. Lee drew back.
They met again at Mine Run, but the 8th was not in this battle. The armies went to camp for the winter. By Spring, Grant was in command, with Meade, and their first battle of 1864 was to be in the wilderness— a Godforsaken tangle where men got lost, and whole divisions could be cut off and captured. They fought brutally, for three weeks.
Catton says there had never been a battle like this. No one could see much. The maps were imperfect, and the roads were bad.
“The Reserves,” he says, “were famous veterans— Meade’s own division, once upon a time.”
Their commander now was General Samuel Crawford, “a tall, chesty, glowering man, with heavy eyes, a big nose, and bushy whiskers,” who “wore habitually a turn-outthe-guard expression.”
“Crawford tried to bring his men in beside Wadsworth’s,” relates Catton in “Glory Road,” “but he had even more trouble than Wadsworth had had. One regiment blundered straight into the middle of a Confederate brigade and was captured almost entire, and the others stumbled around in the underbrush, lost all sense of direction and contact, and knew only that they were constantly being shot at from the most improbable directions by men they could not find.”
Catton wrote: “It seems the Reserves were just a trifle lukewarm about things anyway, this day. Most of them had refused to reenlist, and the division was fully aware it had only twenty-seven more days to serve before it would be sent home. Understandably, this tempered enthusiasm: who wanted to get shot, so near the end of his time as a soldier?”
But the Iron Brigade was routed, too, and “for once in their history the men of this famous command ran for the rear…”
The Hopewell Rifles were surrounded, and Capt. Eli Eichelberger later told his grandson how he had taken off his sword and tramped it deep into the mud of a stream bank when he realized the woods around were filled in every direction with Confederate soldiers.
A few days later in another battle there was ominous news for Meade and Grant. The Rebels were threatening to swamp the right, and if that happened, the whole army might cave in.
Meade was coldly furious with two staff officers who came rocketing in to tell him that all was lost. “Nonsense!” he shouted. “If they have broken our lines they can do nothing more tonight.” And, reports Catton, he sent the Pennsylvania Reserves over to stem the tide.
The Reserves entered the Wilderness with 3,400 men. 1,300 were lost. The units were phased out, but 1759 men re-enlisted and were formed into the 190th and 191st Regiments of Pennsylvania Volunteers. They marched to Petersburg and all subsequent battles. About 1200 men were mustered out, when it was over in April, 1865.
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.