Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Soldier's Grave

"When then we'll hear St. Peter tell us loudly with a yell, 
Take a front seat you soldier men, 
For you've done your hitch in Hell!"1


THE IMPENDING STORM
It was just past 3 o'clock in the afternoon and the sounds of battle to the north came rolling in the direction of the men of the 50th Pennsylvania.  Their brothers of the Ninth Corps had worked much of the morning and early afternoon attempting to cross Antietam Creek against pesky Georgians that held the western bank.  With shear determination under a withering fire, the last attempt to land on the Confederate side of the creek was successful.

Advance of the Ninth Corps at Antietam.  Author.
Unfortunately for the men of the Ninth Corps the western side of the Antietam was only the first step in their assignment that day, and even that proved to be in some ways, quite a disaster.  The men of the 50th PA crossed newly christened 'Burnside's Bridge' with the rest of Willcox's Division and deployed in line of battle in the low marshy ground adjacent to the creek.  

The regiment had just seen action a few days ago in Fox's Gap on South Mountain.  Luckily in their support of a battery along the wooded crest of the mountain they suffered very little from Confederate fire, although they helped to repel at least one charge in the Union victory.  Now, as the men looked up through the trees of the Sherrick Farm, clearly they were about to face an entirely contrasting situation that might prove quite volatile.

In the ranks of the 50th PA on that day were the veterans of Company A, hailing from the borderlands of northeastern Dauphin County and western Schuylkill County, known today as the Hegins Valley.  These men had already done a lot of travelling so far in the war.  They began their service and saw their first action in South Carolina on the coast.  They then came north to join up with Pope's Army for the Second Manassas Campaign where they participated in the charge on Jackson's men in the railroad cut, losing heavily.  Only a few days later they were in the thick of the thunderstorm and lead at Chantilly.  

50th PA Monument and crest of the hill at Antietam. Author.
Finally around 3:30 pm the order to advance arrived.  The 50th PA in the center, Christ's Brigade lurched forward towards the high ground beyond around Sharpsburg.  As the crested the rise near the creek bottom they stepped out of the trees and once more entered into that man-made hailstorm.  Confederate artillery positioned around the town cemetery just over one thousand yards away, started plowing holes all through the battle line.  Men started falling like grass before the scythe, but forward the brigade went, all the while driving before them some crack South Carolina sharpshooters that wouldn't go easily.  

Pressing on to the north of the Sherrick Farm buildings, the regiment crested the highest ground to the east of Cemetery Hill and the town of Sharpsburg beyond only to realize that the units to their left were lagging behind because of the difference in navigable terrain.  And so, under a storm of shot and shell, they halted in the open fields on the crest of the hill, more men falling by the minute.

Finally as Welsh's Brigade came up on the left of Christ, the advance resumed and the drive towards town was on.  Some Federal units reached the outskirts of Sharpsburg and it looked as if once more, Lee's Confederates might be swallowed.  After a brilliant march from Harper's Ferry though, A.P. Hill's Division was just arriving on the Federal left.  Without waiting for direction, these worn out Confederate soldiers came smashing down on the Ninth Corps' flank like a sledge hammer.  Word passed along the line and before long, Christ's Brigade and the 50th PA were ordered to abandon their attempt to capture the visible spires of the town beyond.  They retreated back to the creek bottom on the western side of the Antietam and spent the night on their arms, worn out and disappointed.   

The 50th PA had paid dearly for their rocky advance, losing 8 men killed, 46 wounded and 3 missing.  Among the wounded was my Great Grandfather Sergeant Samuel Schwalm.  He wrote poignantly of his Antietam experience and had clearly been changed by what happened like so many men that were there.2  

"Camp 3 miles south of Sharpsburg, Maryland September 21, 1862

Dear wife, children, brothers, sister and all my friends,
I take once more the pleasure to write you a few lines and I will let you know that we were in hard fighting since I wrote you the last letter.  The first day our Regt. Was in was on the 14th.  William Bliles got wounded on his thumb and on the 17th Edward Harner got killed by a cannon ball and a bullet went in my cap and cut the skin a little on my head and one ball hit my rifle.  O God the dead and wounded lay by hundreds and thousands on the field the next day.  Our company is very much crippled and many are sick.  Since the 13th of August we have marched and fought nearly every day
Private Samuel Schwalm.  Author's Collection.
and many nights we have sometimes 4 days rations in our haversacks to carry and no tents to sleep.  O that the almighty God in heaven would make an end of this war.  We drove the Rebels out of Maryland.  They are on the other shore of the Potomac on the Virginia side.  I received a letter since I wrote last.  It was dated August 17th.  This is the first day we had time to write.  I did see in the letter that you would like to have the strut hores...I do believe it is too late in the fall for this summer, but you might ask J. Folk if it is not too cold, then you might get him cut and about the money, you might do just what you think would make a little interest and about...Shadle.  I see in the letter how you fixed it.  That is right enough.  I can't tell you how you should do it, just do how you think and further I let you know that I am well.  I was able to go with the Regt. The whole time, but I must say our boys look very hard worn down...we had in our company are sick.  Dear wife, how do you think the citizens in Maryland feel that the Rebels destroyed everything, burn the buildings down and steal what they can get.  Corn & buckwheat and everything's tramped down on the ground.  The line of battle was twice as broad as our valley at home.  The wives and children hardly knew where to go so they wouldn't get shot.  The name where the battle was on the 14th was near Middletown, on the Blue Ridge & on the 17th near Sharpsburg.  You might think how I did feel when I saw so many boys fall out of our Regt.  All I have to say is to take good care of our children.  O my dear children, whatever you do don't curse nor sear so if I can't see you any more in this world, that we can meet in heaven where no war and no fighting can be anymore.  I nearly forgot to write you that I see E.W. Klinger about a week ago...Ossman...Bull Run fight and Philip Wiest since we left Culpepper.  I will come to a close.  I hope that these few lines find you all in good health.  May the Lord bless you all. Excuse me for not writing more and all the mistakes.  I will send my love to you Elizabeth Schwalm.

From your husband,
Samuel Schwalm"3

A PERSONAL MISSION OF REMEMBRANCE
Since I was a kid, I remember hearing stories of my ancestor at Antietam and other battlefields.  In a large part, this connection is what spurred my passion for Civil War history and so, early on I began researching the 50th Pennsylvania in great detail.  There are a number of great books out there and a regimental history, but as many of you may know, in some ways we are only scratching the surface of the vast ocean of stories and perspectives.  No resources have moved me more however, than the letters written by my ancestor.  His words are so tangible to me as I'm sure other descendants experience.  

50th PA Monument at Antietam.  Author.
One of my early missions was to find the burial locations of all the 50th Pennsylvania's Antietam dead.  I found five of the eight fairly quickly and in some ways lost the trail for the remaining three men.  My thoughts have often gone back to my ancestor's letter and the man that he saw fall, Private Edward Warner, "killed by a cannon ball."  The regimental history also reports him as killed and not being able to find any more information in my research, I assumed like so many others that he was buried among the hundreds of unknown soldiers at Antietam.

On Saturday December 27, 2014, I was out perusing some of the cemeteries near my hometown with my wife for some known Civil War graves.  We made our way up the Hegins Valley and stopped at a number of cemeteries and found quite a few of the men from Company A of the 50th PA.  Finally after looking through the Union Cemetery at Gratz and getting late in the afternoon, it was either turn right and head home, or turn left and continue another few miles to one more cemetery.  After getting approval from the boss (the beautiful weather helped!) we drove a few more miles to St. Paul's United Church of Christ Cemetery in the small Hegins Valley village of Sacramento.  

I had a list with me of a few men from the 107th Pennsylvania and we found them fairly quickly.  Then my wife called my name and said, "there are three stars in a row over here!"  She was referring to the GAR stars and of course I quickly made my way up the hill.  Interestingly as I came around to the front of the headstones I noticed that they were nearly identical, with the names and dates as the only differing feature.  The stones were also in German.  The first one was for a man named Johannes R. Updegrof who died in 1863.  Further research has revealed that he was a member of Company F of the 173rd Pennsylvania.  The stars had aligned because my mother and my grandparents both speak German and so it was easy to transcribe the gravestone.  Updegrof had just been discharged from his service and tragically died on his trip home at Harrisburg, only twenty-three years old.

The grave of Private Edward Herner, killed on September 17, 1862 at Antietam -
St. Paul's United Church of Christ Cemetery, Sacramento, PA.  Author.
I then moved onto the next gravestone which was identical in format.  The name was 'Edward Herner' and although I could not read the German, I saw at the bottom the date 17 September 1862.  Immediately the wheels started turning and we got our pictures and hopped in the car excited about what we may have discovered.  After getting a translation to verify, the man whose grave we had found was Private Edward Herner (also spelled Harner) of Company A, 50th Pennsylvania, the same man that my ancestor wrote about more than 150 years ago after the horrible experience at Antietam.  Among the first to enlist with the 50th PA in 1861, Edward Herner was only twenty-four years of age when he was killed.  

To some this may seem to be a bit of a dour and anticlimactic discovery, but for me, it is a bit easier to rest at night and I now have plenty of motivation to find the remaining two men from the 50th PA that gave their lives for their country at the battle of Antietam.  Thank you grandfather Samuel, Their stories are not forgotten. 



Endnotes

1. Camp, Frank. Our Hitch In Hell. 1917.
2. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume IXX, Part 1 (Serial Number 27), page 196.  Interestingly the 50th PA Regimental History by Lewis Crater and Pennsylvania at Antietam list the regiment with nine men killed.  There are a number of possibilities with this discrepancy, however, the regimental monument tabulations show 8 killed, 46 wounded and 3 missing; total: 57 
3. Schwalm, Samuel, John David Hoptak, and David Schwalm. The Civil War Letters and Experiences of Samuel Schwalm of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. 1st ed. Scotland, PA: Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, 2011. 27.

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