|3rd PA Reserves first state colors retired in December 1863|
In our last "Pennsylvania at Antietam" post we covered Burnside's late afternoon attack which ultimatelyproved to be the end of the action on the bloodiest day in American history. Now we will shift back towards where the fighting began on September 17, 1862, near Miller's famous cornfield. The unit at the center of our discussion is the 32nd Pennsylvania, also known as the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves.
When discussing the reserves it is only proper to mention the details which set the Reserves apart from other Pennsylvania units in the Civil War. The Pennsylvania Reserves are truly the result of a fascinating political feud that, in the end, proved beneficial to the Federal service. In 1861 after the firing on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion. The state of Pennsylvania went a great deal over their quota. Lincoln's first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was a sworn political enemy of the Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain.
Although Curtain wanted the troops to be mustered into Federal service, Cameron would not allow the extra troops to enlist. Rather than allow these patriotic volunteers to be disbursed, Governor Curtain decided to create fifteen new units with these ardent men, completely financed with state funds. They became known as the Pennsylvania Reserves. Although they still kept a volunteer designation, they were mostly known by their Reserve unit designation. One of the more famous of these fifteen units was the 13th Reserves (42nd PA also known as the 1st Rifles), or better known as "The Bucktails."
|Colonel Horatio Sickel|
The 3rd PA Reserves were one of those units funded with state backing and they mustered into Federal service on May 20, 1861. The regiment hailed mostly from the Philadelphia area and was commanded by Colonel Horatio G. Sickel who by wars end would be brevetted to Major General of Volunteers. The regiment was attached to McCall's (then Meade's) Division and saw its first action during McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. They were first engaged at Mechanicsville on June 26, 1862 where they lost five men in action. A few days later they began a series of engagements in which the regiment's strength would become significantly reduced. At Gaines' Mill on the 27th they lost 86 men and at Glendale on the 30th they lost another 91 men.
After the fatiguing and trying campaign that became known as the Seven Days Battles, the 3rd Reserves moved slowly with the rest of the Army of the Potomac to the aid of Pope's Army of Virginia near Manassas Junction. At the end of August the regiment was engaged in the Second Battle of Bull Run losing 48 more men as battle casualties.
Shortly after a battle at Chantilly, VA on September 1, 1862 General Lee decided he would invade Maryland. His men crossed the Potomac on September 4th and the Maryland Campaign was under way. Being forced to pursue and reinstated as army commander, George McClellan had to pursue. Slowly he crept out from the Washington defenses in search of the Army of Northern Virginia. Harassed by the constant phobia of being outnumbered, he made poor headway until the tides shifted in his favor with the discovery of Special Order Number 191 which was lost in transit by one of Lee's staffers. The orders contained the entire blueprint for Lee's plan of action in Maryland. With that information in hand, McClellan set out to destroy Lee's Army north of the Potomac, again at a snails pace.
|Lt. Colonel John Clark|
In the 3rd Regiment of PA Reserves, a change in command was under way because of sick leave necessarily granted to the unit's commander, Colonel Horatio Sickel. With that Lieutenant Colonel John Clark took command of the regiment and led them into the Maryland Campaign. Clark was just over a month shy of age forty and had been through the thickest of the regiment's actions thus far in the war. Before the war Clark was a construction man, most notably working on the Welland Canal in Canada where he met his wife Elizabeth. He spent some years living across the border and also spent stints in Massachusetts and New York before finally settling down in Holmesburg, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. He was employed on some of the larger public works projects in the country and this experience and knowledge would help to curtail his career in the military.
At the outbreak of war he quickly enlisted and was elected Captain of the Holmesburg Volunteers, in which capacity he served through the Peninsula Campaign. On August 1, 1862 he was promoted to Lt. Colonel and led the regiment in that role through the bloody engagements at Second Manassas. At South Mountain the regiment played more of a true reserve role during Meade's attacks against Turner's Gap. They first held the right flank of the division and were then ordered to defend a battery which had great difficulty moving up the mountain subsequently with no losses. Clark and the men he was leading were an experienced and combat hardened bunch. Based on the intelligence at their disposal and after severe but brief contact with the enemy on Sunday the 14th of September, the men of the 3rd Reserves and Lt. Colonel Clark knew that something on a grander scale was brewing and close at hand.
|Colonel Sickel's August 1, 1862 order stating Clark's promotion|
to Lt. Colonel therefore making company elections necessary
From Lt. Colonel Clark's Official Report on the Maryland Campaign which he submitted on October 2, 1862...
I followed them[Ransom's Battery] down to the turnpike and on to Antietam Creek, but in consequence of the road being blocked up with trains and troops, we were unable to rejoin the division until sunrise on the 16th. On the morning of the 16th we took our place in the division and marched with them until near what was afterward the battle-field of the 17th. Here I was ordered to throw out eight companies of the regiment as skirmishers in different directions. With the balance of the regiment I marched to the woods, where the enemy opened fire upon us with artillery, and remained in this wood all night.
Although it might not sound like much, these actions would have huge implications for the 3rd Reserves on the following day. First off, they lost eight companies to skirmish duty on the evening of the 16th which might not have been so bad, except that they did not get a substantial number of these men back for the following morning. Lt. Colonel Clark states later in his report that the regiment numbered only about two hundred men on the morning of the 17th because his skirmish detail had difficulties finding the regiment in the dark. The woods that the balance of the regiment moved to were the North Woods. A lesser inspected portion of the battle of Antietam is the fighting that actually started on the 16th. Along with artillery fire there was also a great deal of fighting going on between little pockets of skirmishers. As the night wore on, the firing died down. Weather moved in as well and a light rain started to come down. Many of the men on both sides knew that there was a larger storm coming in the morning.
Into The Thick Of It
Indeed General McClellan had planned to launch attacks with his larger army on the morning of the 17th.His plan was to strike and envelope both Lee's left and right before delivering the knockout blow at his center, just as the Lee's army could take no more. He ordered General Hooker and his First Corps to launch their attacks at daylight. As we see in every major battle of the Civil War, even the best laid plans in many cases do not live up to the fluidity of battle. General Lee and his veterans were ready to deal with the crisis.
|Initial position of Magilton's PA Reserve Brigade which |
included the 3rd PA Reserves (monument visible)
As dawn broke on the morning of the 17th of September, 1862, a drizzle and fog gave way to the sounds of Hooker's 1st Corps moving into position. General Meade's Division of Reserves was up early. Marching to their right (west) they deployed in line of battle north of Miller's Cornfield and near the Poffenberger Farm. From there Hooker ordered his corps forward into the cornfield and towards a white washed building on the far ridge line against a belt of woods, the West Woods. Confederates of Lt. General Stonewall Jackson's Left Wing of the Army of Northern Virginia awaited the eager northerners. Parts of Doubleday's and then Meade's Division slammed into Texans, Mississippians and Georgians just as they lost their cover coming out the south side of the cornfield.
Included eventually in this advance was Magilton's Brigade which included the 3rd Reserves under Lt. Colonel Clark. As stated earlier, Clark went into action with about two hundred men.
We first marched some distance by the right flank, then closed column by division and approached the enemy. When near enough we deployed into line of battle; but unfortunately we halted and fronted two or three times, which kept our flank for a considerable time exposed to a heavy fire. The last time our men became somewhat confused, but were soon rallied and held the enemy in check for a time until General Meade got a battery in place, which aided very materially in turning the tide of battle at that point until re-enforcements arrived on the ground.
Although details are somewhat scant in Clark's official report, their advance into the cornfield was one of great confusion. They moved forward (south) at about 7AM and as they progressed they encountered retreating Federal troops and the sounds of heavy fighting were all around them. To their right was the Iron Brigade and to the left parts of Hartsuff and Christians' Brigades. The action was quite fluid as the confused whirlpool ebbed and flowed. D.R. Miller's Cornfield turned into a bloody nightmare for both sides. As the 3rd Reserves advanced men were dropping at every step, but in the confusion it was hard to tell from which direction they were receiving the devastating fire. It was at some point during the advance that Lt. Colonel Clark was wounded. A shell exploded within feet of his horse. Shrapnel broke one of his fingers and the explosion scared his horse causing him to fall from the saddle. He remained on the field despite his injury. Finally though, the regiment could move forward no more.
|Looking across Miller's Cornfield from just east of Dunker Church.|
The PA Reserve Monuments are in the distance.
Major William Briner said this about the fight in a letter to the Reading Times the day after the battle:
The battle commenced at daylight and continued all day; we held possession of the field. The rebels made several desperate attempts to turn our right flank, but we repulsed in every attempt. At times the cannonading and musketry was terrific.
I deeply regret to say that Capt. Straub, of my Company D, was killed while gallantly leading his men in the thickest of the fight. He fell by my side. I raised him up, and with the assistance of some of the men, we bore him off the field. He never spoke after he was shot. The ball entered his back on the right side and came out at his left breast. We were exposed to a cross-fire from the rebels as we were changing our position in front of their line. I had him carried about three miles to the rear, to the small village of Keitsville [Keedysville], where he was buried for the present.
Fred Hendley was also killed. He was shot in the head and must have died instantly. I had him buried decently in his blanket, on the battle field.
O. Achey was wounded – shot through both legs, below the knees. Of Company F, James Lees, Peter Rusk and Henry Jones, were killed and buried side by side with Hendley.
As Clark states in his report, Meade then ordered up a battery under the command of Dunbar Ransom (5th US Battery C) which somewhat stabilized the line. The Federal troops could not stand their ground in that deadly space for long though. Totally exposed to the withering fire of Hood's hardened veterans, they started a short withdrawal to the north side of the cornfield. Smoke choked the space around them as they made their way off the field, many of the men stumbling over their fallen comrades. Again from Lt. Colonel Clark's report:
We were then relieved and ordered to retire to the rear. I would state that the eight companies of this regiment sent out as skirmishers were detained so late on Tuesday that many of the men and some of the officers were unable to find the regiment in the darkness; consequently we had short of 200 men in the engagement. Out of this number our killed and wounded was just 25 per cent. I take pleasure in mentioning the efficient aid rendered me on the field by the following officers: Maj. William Briner, Actg. Adjt. H. S. Jones, Captains Harkins, Straub, and Davenport, Lieutenants Bamford, Nicholson, and Glenn.
After reaching a position short of where they started their advance, a short but deadly lull hung over the slaughtering fields. For the 3rd PA Reserves, the brief and bloody fight was over. During their advance into Miller's Cornfield with Lt. Colonel Clark at their front, the regiment lost 12 men killed and 36 wounded for a total of 48 casualties, twenty-five percent of the number engaged.
With this early action over, fighting near Antietam Creek had only just begun. Around 9AM, elements of both the Twelfth and Second Corps made attacks all along the Confederate left and center. From the trap in the West Woods, to the Hagerstown Pike, to a sunken farm lane forever known as Bloody Lane, the casualties were unfathomable. The final attacks of the day took place on the southern part of the field where Burnside's Ninth Army Corps attempted to finally deliver the decisive blow to Lee's right flank. Just in the nick of time though, A.P. Hill and his light division showed up from Harpers Ferry after a long forced march to drive back the Federal onslaught. By day's end 23,000 men were casualties in what forever stands as the bloodiest single day in American history.
The Continuing Saga
For John Clark, Antietam proved to be he his final major battle. Although he led ably through all his service, the Federal government had bigger plans for him. Because of his skill in the public works sector during the antebellum years, he was transferred to the Department of United States Military Railroads and given command of the Fredericksburg/Acquia Creek Line. Before the end of his term of service he was transferred to Tennessee to work in a similar position, both of which he served very well. His term of service ended in 1864 and in the postwar years he continued to play a large role in the railroad system. He oversaw the building and management of several prominent Pennsylvania lines before serving in the state legislature. He died in 1872 after a deeply committed life of service to his state and nation.
Monument to the 3rd PA Reserves at Antietam
Even after Clark's transfer, the 3rd Reserves still had some action left. After Antietam they fought withdistinguished service at Fredericksburg under the command of Colonel Sickel, where they lost 117 men during Meade's charge against Prospect Hill. At the start of 1863 they were transferred to Alexandria, Virginia and were not reattached to the Army of the Potomac for the spring campaign like many of the other reserve regiments. Colonel Sickel rose to brigade command, but the brigade remained in the defenses of Alexandria until April of 1864 when it was attached to General Crook's army in WestVirginia. On May 9, 1864 while Grant and Lee were tussling in the Overland Campaign, Colonel Sickel led the brigade in a gallant attack on Confederate General Albert Jenkins forces at Cloyd's Mountain. Jenkins was mortally wounded and Sickel led a heroic charge against the Confederate fortifications, driving them from their position. Sickel eventually took command of Crook's army on account of the general's sickness. The 3rd Reserves encountered the enemy for the last time at New River Bridge where they lost five men. Their term of enlistment expired and their war record could truly speak for itself. Colonel Sickel continued in the service until the end of the war being sited for gallantry at Petersburg and eventually being brevetted a Major General of volunteers.
The 3rd PA Reserves served with distinction in many of the great battles of the American Civil War and that list includes the bloodiest day of that war, Antietam. Their veteran stamina and coolness under fire could certainly be attributed to their brave commanders. They, like most of the units that struggled on the fields around Antietam Creek, felt the deep rooted losses that pervaded through their ranks. Many of their comrades were lost forever. A monument forever marks their initial line of battle near the North Woods at Antietam. The wounded soldier atop, emphatically waves his hat in victory as he gazes across that bloody cornfield in defiance of the enemy.