A Moment In History by Jon Baughman
On Thursday, June 26, 1862 the battle of Mechanicsville commenced, being the first major battle in which Company F, the Hopewell Rifles took part (with the exception of the skirmish at Dranesville the previous December).
Following an artillery contest, in which the shells burst in rapid succession. Georgia and Louisiana troops crossed Beaver Dam creek and rushed forward. Company F was among several companies thrown forward as skirmishers. The charge of the enemy caused Company F to be recalled, but when the Confederate attack was repulsed. Company F moved forward again to its original position. Three times the enemy charged, and three times they were thrown back. That night the men rested where they fought. The dead were collected. wrapped in blankets, and buried, the wounded were sent to the rear.
An undated letter written by Aaron Foster at a later date seems to indicate that he had sustained a shoulder wound or injury, of which he complained about, in letters to his mother. Company F, not comprehending one of the orders to withdraw, had remained at its post. As a result some 55 men and officers of the Hopewell Rifles were captured, including Captain John Eichelberger and Lt. James Cleaver. The details surrounding the capture are somewhat clouded, and the prisoners included some two thirds of the company. They were taken to Richmond and detained there for six weeks, when an exchange of prisoners took place.
At the battle of Gaines Mill, General McClellan’s forces were not defeated, despite the loss of life. The skill of the Confederate commanders alarmed the War Department, who feared that the Capital was in danger. So early in the morning of June 27 McClellan was ordered to remove the 8th from the battleground and move some two or three miles down the Chickahominy to Gaines Mill, where they were placed in line of battle for the renewed conflict that was anticipated. Members of Company F were given the task of covering the retreat, which took place under the cover of darkness. The men tended campfires, made loud noise, fired rifles and did other things to make the Confederates believe the Army of the Potomac had held its position.
But as dawn approached the men had to make a hasty evacuation. Lt. Eli Eichelberger was among those who remained behind to tend the fires. One of his men was unable to swim; in the morning Eli remained behind to help the soldier cross the river.
When Eli reached the opposite side, he paused for a moment to dump the water out of his boots. When he looked up a rifle was pointed at his head, held by a Confederate soldier.
All of the staff officers of Company F were captured, along with about 55 soldiers. Regarding the capture of Eli Eichelberger, a southern newspaper published a report that the North was scarce of fighting men, that they had captured a “bare faced, barefooted Yankee officer” when he had taken off his boots to bathe his feet in a stream of water.
Lt. Eli, Capt. John Eichelberger, Lt. James C Leaver and the others were held in Libby Prison , Richmond. Libby Prison had a reputation for harsh treatment, poor rations, and numerous hardships. No doubt John, Eli and the others imprisoned there brought back tales of horror after the war ended.
Family tradition states that John’s wife, Sarah Eichelberger, drove from Hopewell to Virginia to visit her husband in Libby Prison.
Records of Company F stated that when captured the men left all of their clothing and equipment behind. When they were released from prison their clothing was so filthy and covered with vermin (fleas) that it became necessary to throw away what clothing they had in their possession.
The men were finally released in an exchange of prisoners at Aiken’s Landing on August 6, 1862. According to one source, enlisted men were released the 6th; the officers were not exchanged until the 13th.
John was exchanged for a Confederate prisoner, Capt. Trolley Graybill of Georgia. After their release the mon of Company F rejoined their regiment and went back to war.
As the prisoners were being taken to Richmond, the Battle of Gaines Mill commenced on June 27. The Confederates had 50,000 men; there were half that number on the Union side. Despite heroic efforts, that day at Gaines Mill ended in blood and defeat of the Union forces. During the night the men of the 8th and other troops crossed the Chickahominy and managed to destroy the bridges behind them , although two bridges downstream remained standing.
At dawn June 28 Stonewall Jackson’s Army was at one of the remaining bridges, ready to cross. Due to the alarming situation McClellan called a retreat by the whole army to the James River, where Union gunboats could keep supply lines open. The men of Company F took no part in the remainder of the Peninsula campaign (Seven Days campaign) which ended July 2.
According to the records of Company F., Hopewell Rifles, they left Harrison’s landing on August 11 by transport, arrived at Fredericksburg on the 13th, marched to Rappahannock Station on the 22nd. By this time, all of the men released from Libby Prison had rejoined the company. Records state that Company F “engaged in the battles on the following days to the 30th inclusive.”
Here Company F. as part of the 8th Reserve, joined Gen. McDowell’s 3rd Corps in the vicinity of Kelly’s Ford for the Second Battle of Bull Run. Here federal forces under General Pope met General Lee’s Confederates. A series of assaults on the Confederate lines were unsuccessful. The Union army lost 14,000 men. the Confederates. 9.000 men, killed or wounded.
Among those killed at Bull Run on August 29, 1862 was George Heffner, corporal, of Saxton. After the war, then the Saxton Post. Grand Army of the Republic was organized; it was named in memory of George Heffner. His place of burial is unknown.
Henry Figart (Figard), private, of Six Mile Run died September 11 of wounds received at Bull Run. He was buried in Military Asylum Cemetery, Washington. DC.
In September, the company started from Centerville and arrived in the vicinity of Frederick. Md. On September 17 the Battle of South Mountain broke out. The Second Brigade, of which Company F was a part, moved up the mountain on the slope and encountered a stronger force of the enemy … the 8th Regiment forming the extreme left of the division fought its way at every step and sustained a heavier loss than all other regiments o f the brigade combined. In the 8th, 17 were killed and 37 wounded.
Shortly after South Mountain, the Battle of Antietam broke out. General Lee had crossed the Potomac with 40,000 m en, in ten d in g to invade P en n sy lv a n ia . Lee took up positions on Antietam Creek. The resulting battle was somewhat indecisive, but it did force Lee to pull back and abandon his invasion plans.
At Antietam, Company F was with the 8th Reserve that was commanded by General Hooker and opened the fight on Sept. 16. On the following morning the 8th was ordered into a grove of trees to dislodge a body o f the enemy that had lodged themselves there and who were picking off Union artillery men. His duty was gallantly performed and the grove was taken From the trees the 8th delivered a steady fire on Confederate troops who were pinned down in a large corn field.
The men of the 8th began to go down the hill and into the corn, “they did not stop to think that their ammunition was nearly gone, they were there to win that field and they won it.” After a four hour fight the 8th Reserves were relieved by fresh troops. The next day Lee’s Army commenced a retreat to the Potomac.
When the 8th Reserves first went to war, they had 15.000 men; after Antietam it mustered less than 4,000 men fit for duty.1
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.