"They will not be forgotten"
A Narrative History of the 138th Pennsylvania.
by Stephen Light
"ADAMS COUNTY TO ARMS!" read an advertisement in Gettysburg's Star and Banner newspaper on July 17th, 1862. President Lincoln had issued a call for 300,000 more troops, and Gettysburg was preparing to answer that call. The ad which appeared that day appealed to the "patriotic, able-bodied men of Adams County to come forward immediately and enroll themselves in the defense of the Union." Thus began the recruitment of Companies B and G of the 138th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. This regiment, like many of the regiments in the Civil War, was composed of citizen soldiers who had volunteered to leave their families, homes, and jobs to serve the United States. In fulfilling their duty to their country, many men would fall wounded, killed, or victim to disease. Others would survive the war and go on to do great things in their own private lives. All should be remembered. This is a narrative history of the 138th regiment.
The 138th Pennsylvania was formed in response to President Lincoln's call for 300,000 troops in the summer of 1862. Originally, many of the troops answering this call enlisted for nine months of service. The War Department, however, issued an order outlawing the acceptance of these nine month troops, and the 138th was the first regiment under the call for 300,000 accepted for three years of service. Companies A,C,I, and K were recruited from Montgomery County, while Companies D, E, and F consisted of men from Bedford County. Company H was recruited in Bucks County.
Company B of the 138th was raised in Adams County, specifically in the town of Gettysburg, and was originally captained by John F. McCreary. The men in Company G called the Adams County towns of Bendersville and Heidlersburg home. James H. Walter originally captained this company. The following essay, while an overall study of the 138th, focuses particularly on the two companies raised in Adams County. The reason for this is that the three newspapers in the town of Gettysburg at the time were used extensively as sources, and their reporting was understandably more focused toward their hometown soldiers.
John F. McCreary's involvement with the town of Gettysburg in the Civil War began well before his efforts at raising a company in 1862. At the outbreak of the war McCreary was a student at Pennsylvania College, located at the northern end of town. In the spring of 1861, following the firing on Fort Sumter, rumors spread throughout Gettysburg that secessionists from Baltimore planned to march on the town. In response, McCreary organized a student militia company to aide in the town's defense. The students, led by their elected Captain McCreary, drilled nightly behind the main edifice of the college, Pennsylvania Hall. Occasionally they would put on a show for the local townspeople by performing drill in the town square.
By the summer of 1862, the federal and state governments in the North began to consider calling more troops into service, either through volunteering or drafting. In June the Governors of several states, authored a resolution requesting that Lincoln "at once call upon the several States for such number of men as may be required to fill up all the military organizations now in the field." In response, the President issued a proclamation calling for 300,000 men.
Following the President's proclamation, a recruiting office was set up in the clothing store of Gettysburg businessman George Arnold, located on the southwest corner of the town square on Chambersburg Street. In order to encourage enlistment, inducements such as bounties were more liberal than they had ever been before. On July 26th, a war meeting held in the Courthouse on Baltimore Street resolved to raise appropriations to pay a bounty of fifty dollars to any soldier enlisting from Adams County.
In addition to these monetary inducements to enlist, media propaganda was also used extensively. The newspapers invoked the ideals of patriotism, duty and honor, and made full use of the commonly accepted perceptions of manhood to pressure men to enlist. "Break from the arms that would fondly caress you," a poem printed in the Star and Banner instructed, "Maidens shall weep for you when you are gone! Hark the bugle blast! sabers are drawn! Never or now! cries the blood of the nation." The local Democratic newspaper, the Gettysburg Compiler, also urged on the recruitment process, stating that the country was "a common inheritance, the birthright of all, and should be defended by ALL, as well against external as internal foes."
The threat of conscription was yet anther method used to encourage enlistment. At the beginning of the recruitment stage, the national government assigned each county a quota to fulfill. Adams County's quota was set at two companies. If the county did not meet this requirement, then a draft would complete the quota. This served to pressure men to volunteer and receive an enlistment bounty rather than waiting for a draft notice. In the end, Adams County would fulfill the quota that had been set.
By the 12th of August Captain McCreary had enlisted about one hundred men in Gettysburg, and was preparing to leave the town to be mustered in at Harrisburg. Captain Walter had enlisted about 70, with more enlisting every day, and also expected to leave soon. Captain McCreary's company boarded railroad cars to report to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg on August 13th. The trip was made in cars "generally used for carrying 'swine.'" The men arrived at the capital city at 1 P.M. and then moved out to Camp Curtin, situated about 1 mile outside of the city. Three days later Captain Walter's company would follow.
It was at Camp Curtin that the 138th regiment first took shape. Until this point in time, the two companies from Adams County had no regimental designation, but rather were independent companies. At Camp Curtin, aside from being organized into a regiment, the men received their first military instruction and were issued their equipment and uniforms for the first time. The camp atmosphere at this time must have been one of great excitement, as companies from all over Pennsylvania arrived in response to the President's call. Troops poured in by the thousands as companies consolidated and regiments formed as rapidly as possible.
Camp Curtin was according to one soldier of the 138th a "dusty, filthy, and very loathsome" place to stay. Another soldier, writing to the Star and Banner under the pen name of "Star," reported that dust in camp was about four inches deep. Despite this, the soldier stated that the camp was well supplied with good water through wells, hydrants and a canal. By August 26th the organization of the regiment was complete and it was mustered into the service of the United States. Charles L. K. Sumwalt was appointed the Colonel of the regiment. Captain McCreary's men were designated Company B, while Captain Walter's men became Company G.
The appointment of Colonel Sumwalt at the time was largely engineered by the companies from Adams County. Sumwalt lived in the area and was well known to the people there as a man of high religious character. In the town of Gettysburg, the news of his appointment was received very well. "He possesses capital qualifications," the Compiler reported, "and the boys of the 147th [sic] may congratulate themselves on having so gallant a leader." As will be seen later, the regiment would soon regret this appointment. Underneath Colonel Sumwalt was Lieutenant Colonel Matthew R. McClennan, an appointment that no one would regret.
At Camp Curtin that summer assembled many of Adams County's youngest and brightest, as they readied to go to war. Company G contained Jacob Hankey, Pennsylvania College class of 1861, and 14 year old Isaiah B Crist, who would graduate from the college in 1872. Company B had its share of past and future college students, including George W. Hemminger, Lewis W. Detrich, and Henry Grossman. One student soldier, Harvey W. McKnight, would go on to become president of Pennsylvania College after the war.
Also a member of Company B was Corporal Peter Thorn, gatekeeper of the Evergreen Cemetery in the town of Gettysburg. His wife Elizabeth would later dig 105 graves after the battle of Gettysburg while six months pregnant, and is today immortalized by a monument in the cemetery. Nicholas G. Wilson of Company G and J.A. Kitzmiller Company B would see battle close up with their comrades over the next three years, would survive and go on to become prominent members of the Gettysburg community following the war. Elias Hartzell would see many of the same battles as Kitzmiller and Wilson, though sadly he would not return home alive. These citizen soldiers were the makeup of the 138th as it rapidly prepared for war. They were blacksmiths, such as Kitzmiller, Teamsters, such as Wilson, and farmers, such as Hartzell. They were supporters of the war and by extension mostly favored the Republican Party. There is not enough information available, however, to say whether or not a majority were abolitionist.
On the 30th of August, just four days after having been mustered in, the regiment received its arms, equipment, and clothing. At one in the afternoon that same day, the regiment started for the front, believing their destination to be Washington D.C. Instead, the regiment was taken to Relay Station, a railroad junction about nine miles outside the city of Baltimore. That first night the regiment stayed in the railroad cars, packed in very tightly. Despite the cramped conditions, there were "but few murmurs, and the cry was don't mind this boys, we are going to fight for Uncle Sam."
The next morning the regiment was marched off to their new campground near the station. It was decent place to stay, with plenty of shade provided by a grove of trees. According to one soldier there was plenty to eat, including fresh bread and plenty of good beef. The regiment received the task of guarding the Baltimore and Ohio railroad lines from Confederate raiders and sympathizers. "We have not much excitement but plenty of life to keep all in good spirits," a soldier reported to the Star and Banner . Another stated that according to reports the regiment would soon see battle.
What the men reporting to the Star and Banner did not realize was that those reports of impending battle would soon prove to be false, at least as far as the 138th was concerned. Despite the men's desire to "fight for Uncle Sam," they would be stationed in and around Relay Station for quite a while. From September of 1862 until the end of June 1863 they would guard the railway lines, keeping the valuable Baltimore and Ohio running smoothly. Activities during this time were regimented and included drill, guard duty, and fatigue duty. While stationed here the regiment was instilled with discipline and became familiar with the battlefield tactics that they would need later on in the war. The drill was mostly handled by Lt. Colonel McClennan.
Although guarding railroads seemed dull and inglorious, the 138th's job was necessary. Relay Station was an important junction where the B&O and Washington railroads ran through. Over the tracks large trains continually ran, carrying soldiers and supplies to the armies at the front. The junction was situated at the Patapaco River, and a substantial railroad bridge crossed it nearby. Any trains headed towards Washington, Harper's Ferry, or the Army of the Potomac front had to first pass through Relay Station. Union troops guarded the station from the beginning of the war.
The regiment spread out at different points all along the railroad. Four companies were stationed at Relay Station, two on duty one day, the other two on duty the next. Company G was stationed at Fort Dix, near to the junction, while Company B was stationed at the village of Ellicott's Mills. Life for the soldiers here contained considerably fewer hardships than life for at the front. The men had plenty of food to eat, and a number of ladies visited the camps often. "Why, there seems to be a whole regiment of ladies quartered up here," a soldier writing under the pen name of "Typo" reported. For many the only serious concern was the absence of their paychecks, which they failed to receive for quite some time in their first months of service.
Though protected from the hardships of campaigning and battle, the regiment did not escape suffering from some of the common occurrences that threatened every Civil War soldier. On the 28th of October the Sentinel reported that a number of the men from the regiment had taken sick, and asked the townspeople to forward anything that would serve to cheer the sick soldiers. A few weeks later, the paper carried the news of the death of William Walker and David Stoner, from Company G. Both soldiers had died of typhoid fever. Disease was the most common cause of death among soldiers throughout the war.
During their stay at Relay Station the 138th had to put up with a humiliating episode involving their very own Colonel Sumwalt. Despite his "capital qualifications" as the Compiler had put it, Colonel Sumwalt's military career was destined to be short-lived and ill fated. While the regiment was stationed in and around Relay Station, Sumwalt set up headquarters at a local hotel and, according to the regimental historian, rode a "high horse" throughout their stay. If this was not enough to win the displeasure of the regiment, it soon became clear that Sumwalt was an alcoholic. On March 30th, 1863, after a court martial, Sumwalt was dismissed from the service, Lieutenant Colonel McClennan taking over in his stead.
Unfortunately for Sumwalt, this was not the last the regiment would hear from him. The ex-Colonel stayed around the village of Ellicott's Mills after his removal. Sumwalt had become known for making statements that many in the regiment deemed disloyal, and following the death of Stonewall Jackson in May of 1863, he appeared in front of Company B wearing a crape in mourning of the general. When told to take it off, Sumwalt dared the soldiers to remove it themselves. This "was done in double quick time, and before this rebel was aware of it there was a guard over him." Sumwalt was imprisoned until taking an oath of allegiance.
As the drama surrounding Colonel Sumwalt unfolded, the regiment continued to mark time at Relay Station, drilling and guarding the railway lines in the area. Occasionally the men would capture and imprison Confederate sympathizers living in the surrounding villages and towns. Despite the relative comfort of the 138th's life at Relay Station, the soldiers longed to see action. "The men are becoming dissatisfied with the inactivity of service," reported Typo. "They are anxious to be led forward where they can not only win laurels for themselves but help their brethren in arms to put a speedy end to this most wicked rebellion."
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's invasion of Pennsylvania in June of 1863 ended the dull life of guarding railroads for the 138th regiment, and marked the beginning of their active service that the soldiers would in later years talk about most. At midnight of June 13th Company B woke to the sounds of the long roll and received orders to throw out a picket line in anticipation of an expected cavalry raid. While no cavalry appeared, the company was ordered out the following two nights to keep watch again. Then, on the 16th of June marching orders were received. At ten that night the soldiers boarded a train headed toward Frederick. "We were left under the impression that we were only going on a scout," Typo reported, but he soon found out otherwise when the train arrived at Sandy Hook, Maryland. Getting off there, the men marched to Harper's Ferry, a march Typo found very fatiguing for "Sunday Soldiers" used to guard duty.
Upon arrival at Harper's Ferry, the 138th was organized into Elliot's Brigade and ordered to Maryland Heights, a high piece of ground opposite the town and on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Stationed on the heights, the regiment constantly picketed the area, and remained in line of battle, expecting a fight at any moment. At night, according to soldier correspondent Typo, Rebel campfires could be spied through telescopes. The soldiers in the regiment felt as if they had instantly been transformed from dull garrison troops into hardy campaigning troops. "We were playing soldier for 10 long months," Typo wrote, "and now we are experiencing reality."
In the excitement of all the activity surrounding the move to Harper's Ferry, the soldiers of the 138th seemed to forget the fact that, though they were now very close to the Army of Northern Virginia, they were not yet soldiers at the front. As the battle of Gettysburg raged in the beginning of July, the 138th and the rest of Elliot's brigade was in the midst of guarding war material as it was transferred from Harper's Ferry (which General Meade decided to abandon) to Washington. Arriving at the Capital after successfully accompanying the supplies, Elliot's brigade boarded cars and traveled by rail to Frederick Maryland. They arrived at this place on July 7th, just a few days after Lee had been turned back at the home town of the men from Company B.
At Frederick the troops who had been at Harper's Ferry were organized into a division under General William H. French and placed into the Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Owing to the wounding of General Dan Sickles, General French took over command of the corps, leaving General Elliot in charge of the division. Now officially part of the Army of the Potomac, the 138th participated in the pursuit of Lee's army. On the 16th of July the regiment crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, entering Virginia. For a brief period of time between July 22nd and July 29th Captain McCreary found himself in command of the regiment, Colonel McClennan and Major Lewis May having been placed under arrest on the accusation of having not properly mounted a picket post. It was during this period of time in which the regiment first came under fire, at Wapping Heights, Virginia. The regiment never became engaged and no one was wounded, however. The accusations against McClennan and May were decided to be only a misunderstanding, and on the 29th the two returned to the regiment.
Throughout the rest of the summer and early autumn, the 138th continued to adapt to life at the front. Nothing much happened on either side during these months. The Armies remained in and around the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, resting and refitting from the Gettysburg Campaign, and looking for an opening to seize the initiative. The days were exceedingly hot, and when ordered to march, many of the men died of sunstroke. The camp of the 138th was moved several times throughout the summer and early fall, and for the most part their duties consisted of mounting picket guards. While on picket duty, often the mosquitoes posed more of a problem than enemy soldiers did. Meanwhile, rumors circulated among the men that their attachment to the Army of the Potomac had only been temporary, and that they would soon be returned to their former duties.
During the lull in the action, the soldiers of the 138th took to the time to speak their mind on political matters back at home. In the November elections of 1863 Governor Andrew Curtin faced off against Democratic challenger George Woodward, who as a judge had ruled that the soldiers at the front would not be able to vote. Having been deprived of this privilege, the soldiers looked for other ways to voice their political opinions. The October 8th edition of the Star and Banner ran a series of resolutions that they had passed at a camp meeting. These resolutions declared support for Curtin, the Republican candidate, and equated a vote for Curtin with loyalty and a vote for Woodward with disloyalty. The resolution was signed by about 70 men in Company G and more than 70 men in Company B, showing the widespread appeal of the Republican Party in the regiment, as has been earlier stated.
The publishing of the resolutions in support of Curtin was not the only time in which the men from the 138th expressed their political opinions to their hometowns through the news media. In fact, their letters to the Star and Banner (an admittedly Republican paper) frequently condemned the actions of "Copperheads," or peace Democrats, causing trouble at home. These letters often called Copperheads cowards for not joining to fight for the Union, and claimed that they were a worse set of men than Confederate soldiers. In one such letter Typo from Company B threatened to "send to Headquarters and receive permission to have a squad of Adams County soldiers sent there, who will arrest every villain of them, and have them tried for High Treason, after which they will receive the traitors doom." Without a doubt the soldiers of companies B and G despised Copperheads. For these soldiers supporting the war, and by extension the Republican Party, was a question of patriotism. At this point in time, it was the only political question that seemed to matter to them.
The relative quiet that allowed the 138th time to draw up resolutions in favor of Governor Curtin was broken up on October 10th. With two corps of the Army of the Potomac heading westward to reinforce Chattanooga, General Lee attempted to flank the federal army. In response, the Army of the Potomac retreated to Centreville, where the game was turned and the Confederates were forced to retreat themselves. The activity between Lee and Meade resulted in little fighting aside from a small battle at Bristoe Station. Throughout this time period, the regiment was divided, with part guarding wagon trains and another part guarding the corps ambulances. Still, the 138th had not seen its first engagement.
By the end of the month the Confederates had retreated all the way back to the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, and the 138th had been relieved of guard duty and returned to its brigade to participate in the pursuit. On November 6th, Colonel J. Warren Keifer, commanding the brigade which included the 138th regiment, received orders to be ready to march the next morning with eight days rations on each soldier. The next day the march began, and the regiment crossed the Rappahannock River at five in the evening. The march continued on the 8th of November, Keifer's brigade leading the entire Army of the Potomac as it marched towards Brandy Station, Virginia. Nearing Brandy Station, a Confederate rearguard was found deployed atop a hill, disposed to contest any advance.
The 138th, along with the 110th Ohio, was ordered to push forward and drive the Confederates from the hill. The men advanced swiftly. Regimental historian Osceola Lewis remembered that "Shells whizzed over our heads and through our ranks, tore up the turf before and behind us; fragments of shrapnel hummed about our ears; and solid shot bounded over and around us." Shortly after the engagement began a shell slammed into the center of the 138th's line, exploding as it hit Captain Lazaras C. Andress, mortally wounding him. The shell burst also carried away Sergeant Abraham Rapp's left arm. In the engagement five other men from the 138th would fall, but the hill would be carried, the Confederate artillery barely making an escape. Despite the loss of Captain Andress, the skirmish at Brandy Station proved to be a successful introduction to combat for the regiment. In his report Colonel Keifer would offer special commendation to the men for their "splendid conduct" in their first battle.
Following the skirmish, the Army of the Potomac halted at Brandy Station, remaining there until the end of November, when it moved out again on what would later come to be known as the Mine Run campaign. On November 26th the 138th marched away from Brandy Station and crossed the Rapidan River. The march continued the next day, until the Confederates were encountered at about noon. The 138th and the rest of Keifer's brigade received orders to form upon the left of troops in front already engaged. The order was executed, and the brigade was formed, with the 138th occupying the extreme left of the brigade line.
The brigade's position rested atop the crest of a hill and behind a fence, except for the men of the 138th, who found themselves resting in an open field. At about three in the afternoon the line was assaulted by the famed Stonewall Brigade. "I cannot pause to describe the constant roar of musketry and the terrific fire," Sergeant Major Henry Grossman reported to the Star and Banner . "[The Confederates] twice massed their forces," he continued, "and displaying their colors advanced with the evident design of charging upon us, but the 'boys' poured in so terrific a fire of buck and ball that each time they fell back in confusion." The Rebel Colors surged forward three times, and were shot down three times, as was a mounted officer urging on his men. "The opposing lines became wrapped in one dense sheet of musketry and from left to right the terrible crash of arms resounded," wrote Lewis. Late in the fight Colonel McClennan would fall with a wound in the foot, which caused a great deal of anxiety amongst the soldiers who were seeing their first battle of any substance.
At one point in the engagement Nicholas G. Wilson—1st Sergeant of Company G—received quite a scare. A rebel bullet ripped into his knapsack, in which he had stored forty rounds of ammunition. The bullet ignited the other rounds and the knapsack was blown right off his back. He was otherwise unhurt. Private John T. Weikert of Company B remembered shooting down an officer moments before he himself went down with a wound in the right arm, while Isaac Moore of Company G later ranked the engagement as one of the hottest battles he had been in. This statement seems quite impressive considering the battles he would later see.
The battle of Locust Grove, as the engagement came to be called (Or Paines Farm as the Confederates called it) ended for the 138th after the repulse of the second Confederate charge. While the skirmish at Brandy Station in early November was the regiment's first experience under fire, Locust Grove was considered by most their first real battle. Total losses for the regiment were three officers and fifty-two enlisted men. Three men of Company B and two of Company G were killed, while five men in the former and six in the latter were wounded. It is clear that the men of the regiment were proud of their service in the battle. Sergeant Major Grossman reported that "The Adams County Companies, B and G, bore their part bravely, and though under heavy fire, stood their ground and fought like heroes." In later years the veterans of the regiment would accord Locust Grove a high place among their list of accomplishments, certainly higher than many other regiments of the Army of the Potomac would have rated it. The fact that the men first saw heated battle at Locust Grove seems to have given it a special meaning. Certainly the engagement was heated and many fell, but the men also remembered it as the place where they first passed the test of courage.
At nightfall the regiment was withdrawn and supplied with more ammunition. The men bivouacked within hearing distance of the groans and cries of the Confederate wounded, which had been left on the field. That night the Confederate army retreated westward to its defenses around Mine Run creek. On the 28th of November the Army of the Potomac followed. For the next few days Meade searched for a way to attack the Confederates, who were strongly entrenched. Twice the 138th received orders to prepare to make a charge, and both times the regiment stood in battle line awaiting the order to advance. "The suspense was terrible," Grossman remembered. Eventually, no attack would be made and the army would cross the Rapidan once again and settle into winter quarters.
Winter quarters were set up around Brandy Station, Virginia. The soldiers laid out log huts of all different shapes and sizes, though the camps as a whole were laid out in an organized fashion. They were properly drained and policed, creating suitable living conditions through the winter. As Typo put it, the life in their winter quarters was "quiet cozy." The wives and children of most officers were able to visit and live at the front during this time, making life especially enjoyable for them. About once a month the regiment would go on picket duty, but aside from that the regiment had no duties of any consequence to speak of.
Throughout the winter a number of activities went on to help make camp seem more like home. On January 14th members of the regiment began to build a church. Just two days later the makeshift place of worship was completed. On the 25th of January a Grand Ball was held at Division headquarters, attended by a number of women from Washington. In February Colonel McClennan, who had returned home to recover from his wound received at Locust Grove, visited the regiment. McClennan by this point had become intensely popular with the men, and was received heartily. He was unable to return to duty because of the severity of his wound, though he expected that he would soon take command again.
Throughout the winter and early spring months the men put the regimental church to a great deal of use. "A great revival is in progress throughout our brigade," Elias Hartzell noted in his diary, "There has been a great many converted in the past week, & more to their number, many more are added daily." The soldiers swept up in the religious fervor held prayer meetings three times a day.
By March, the weather had begun to improve and preparations began for the new campaigning season. On the 13th Colonel McClennan returned to take over command of the regiment, and on the 18th the men turned in their old Harper's Ferry smoothbore muskets for Springfield rifles. The old muskets, which fired buck and ball .69 caliber shot, were great at close range, but evolving technology had made them inferior, and the men were glad to get their hands on a rifle that could fire at a much greater range. On March 24th the entire Army of the Potomac was reorganized, as the 1st and 3rd corps were broken up and combined into the 2nd, 5th and 6th corps. In the new organization, the 138th found itself now a member of the proud 6th Corps, commanded by John Sedgwick.
As the new campaigning season neared, the newly reorganized army drilled and equipped themselves for what would soon prove to be their most difficult and bloody campaign yet. Many of the regiments in the army that had enlisted in 1861 were nearing the end of their three year terms of service. Those reenlisting received a furlough as a reward. According to Typo, the men of the regiment were eager to reenlist, but as their original term of service was not due to expire until 1865, they were not allowed to.
Ulysses S. Grant had by this point taken over management of the entire war effort, and decided to keep his headquarters with General Meade and the Army of the Potomac. By the beginning of May, Grant was ready to launch an all out offensive on the Confederacy. "Great preparations [are] being made for a move of the army," Elias Hartzell noted in his diary for the 3rd of May. The next day would find Hartzell and his comrades on the march toward more bloody encounters.
May 4th, 1864 dawned with the Army of the Potomac on the move towards the Rapidan River once again. Six days of rations were issued and the 138th took up the march at 4 A.M. The day was hot and according to Hartzell, many soldiers came down with sunstroke. The regiment's goal for the day was Germanna Ford, a distance of 18 miles from their starting point. A detachment of the 67th Pennsylvania had been attached temporarily with the 138th, increasing their numbers. Reaching the ford at about sunset the regiment proceeded across a pontoon bridge and camped for the night on the south side of the Rapidan.
In the regiment's engagement in November at Locust Grove, and since then, Colonel J. Warren Keifer had been acting brigade commander for the 138th. On the morning of May 5th a replacement would arrive for Keifer and he would return to commanding the 110th Ohio in the same brigade. His replacement was Brigadier General Truman Seymour. With their new commander in place, the 138th and the rest of the brigade spent much of the morning of May 5th guarding the ford and pontoon bridges. Meanwhile, just to the south, the battle of the Wilderness (named for the dense undergrowth and forest it was fought in) had commenced.
In the afternoon the brigade was relieved of guarding the ford and ordered to proceed to the 6th Corps front, which was heavily engaged already. After a great deal of marching and countermarching, the brigade arrived at the extreme right of the federal line and went into position in thick woods, the 138th being in the second line of the brigade. At dark orders were received indicating that the brigade only had a Confederate skirmish line in their front, and that they should attack. Obeying orders, the men went forward in the growing darkness, only to find that they were not facing merely a skirmish line, but rather an entrenched battle line. "A fierce infantry engagement at night in a wilderness is an awful scene to behold," Lewis recorded, "and a most terrible work in which to participate." Elias Hartzell wrote that the battle was tremendously hot, and he received a wound himself toward the end of it. After a prolonged fire fight with the Confederates behind their earthworks, General Seymour decided that no chance existed for gaining a decided advantage, and the brigade was withdrawn. The losses for the front line regiments were heavy, and Colonel Keifer himself received a wound. The second line, including the 138th, received less damage, the regiment suffering twelve to fifteen casualties.
During the night the regiment laid in line of battle, and the soldiers could clearly hear the sounds of Confederates chopping trees and strengthening their works in front of and beyond the federal flank. Colonel McClennan, fearing for the safety of the vulnerable flank, personally reported the noises to General Seymour and recommended that action be taken to protect the flank. Nothing, however, was done.
At dawn of May 6th Hartzell, who had remained with the regiment all night despite his wound received the day before, finally walked to the rear in search of a hospital. It was the beginning of a convalescence period that would take him away from regiment until the end of July, where he would rejoin it in an unlikely place. Meanwhile, at the front, instead receiving orders to strengthen their lines and protect against a flank assault, the orders for the 138th on the morning of May 6th were to attack the enemy again.
The enlisted men knew the ordered assault would fail. "[It] had no promises of victory," Lewis recalled, "for every man who bore his part in it, from the private soldier up to the Regimental commander, knew by the difficulties already met, that such an attack in such force, was next to madness." The assault had been attempted the night before, and had failed with heavy losses. Now, after listening to the Confederates strengthen their works throughout the night, the charge was to be repeated again, in broad daylight.
For this morning assault, the 138th was placed in the front line. The regiment moved forward through nearly impenetrable underbrush and under a destructive fire from both their front and flank. The fire cut down the men left and right. Color Sergeant Samuel Aikens had his hand mangled by a bullet and dropped the flag. Rushing to the flag Sergeant Charles H. Fitzgerald of Company C seized it and planted it in the ground, then began to fire away with his musket. Cyrus G. Cook of Company G remembered that all the men on either side of him for one hundred yards had been killed or wounded, excepting First Sergeant Nicholas G. Wilson and Corporal William Reed. Finally Cook turned and walked back to where a new line of survivors had been established, on the way noticing that the impenetrable underbrush that had obstructed their advance had been completely shot off. Ultimately the regiment, along with the rest of the assault troops, was compelled to retire to its original position. The losses were heavy. For the entire day the 138th suffered 153 casualties. While this includes fighting that occurred later in the day, most of the casualties were suffered in this morning assault.
The soldiers returned to their original works where they rested for much of the day. Orders arrived toward evening allowing the soldiers to cook their dinner and make coffee. In the process of doing so, the brigade on the right of Seymour's was overrun by a surprise flank attack. Before the men could grab their weapons and form into line, a mob of disordered federal soldiers was thrown upon them, pursued by victorious Confederates. The 138th was caught up amongst the panicked soldiers and a hastily retreated. The Confederates were able to take many prisoners, including General Seymour himself. Eventually however the line would be restored and nightfall ended the conflict.
The flank attack that rolled up the 138th's line and forced it to retreat marked the end of the battle of the Wilderness. Following a day of rest the armies would move on during the night of May 7th, southwards towards Spotsylvania Court House. Meanwhile the casualty lists made their way back to home towns, where they would soon appear in local newspapers. "The recent heavy battles in Virginia have resulted, of course, in large loss of life and limb," the Compiler informed the citizens of Gettysburg on May 16th. "As the details shall be made public, mourning will spread throughout the land, and it is hardly to be expected that our own county should escape." As the fighting continued during the spring of 1864, the casualty lists grew and the papers continued to report the somber news. On the 24th of May the Sentinel carried news of the casualties in Company B during the battle of the Wilderness. Henry Grossman—who had been promoted from Sergeant Major to Lieutenant a month before—was listed among the wounded along with 16 others. Charles Dickson and Sergeant Findley Biesecker were listed as killed.
On May 8th, as the 138th moved southward in Virginia to future battlegrounds, Elias Hartzell lay in a field hospital near the old Chancellorsville battlefield. From there he would head to Fredericksburg, where he would see the body of Major General John Sedgwick, the commander of the 6th Corps (of which the 138th was a part), pass on its way to Washington for burial. The following day Hartzell would himself set off for a hospital in the Capital. During Hartzell's convalescence, he would write home to his father, giving some sense of his experience in Virginia. "When you tell how the corn & other crops are growing," he wrote, "I thought Nature still lived & [wondered] if it had been dead & cursed in Virginia."
Meanwhile at the front there was no rest for the weary men of the 138th. Following the Wilderness Grant and Lee continued to spar with each other. There was significant fighting every day and often major battles, including one of the bloodiest of the war at the "Bloody Angle" at Spotsylvania on May 12th. From the end of the Wilderness however, through to the end of May the 138th avoided seeing action in any major pitched battles. Instead there was constant skirmishing and sniping, which perhaps was no better. Indeed, many of the 138th would become casualties during this time period, including J.A. Kitzmiller, who would lose his left arm. "During this period untold hardships of exposure and danger were endured," remembered Osceola Lewis.
Continually the armies inched southward, closing in on the Confederate capital. After an unsuccessful assault Grant would decide to swing around the Confederate flank. Lee would counter the move and it would be repeated after another assault with heavy losses. In this way the month of May passed with constant fighting. The last day in May found the 138th in line of battle along the south bank of the Totopotomoy River. That night at midnight the men took to the road and began to march towards the crossroads of Cold Harbor.
The next day at about 10:30 A.M. Cold Harbor was reached. The federal cavalry which had been holding the crossroads was relieved by the troops of Colonel Keifer's 110th Ohio. Throughout the rest of the morning and afternoon more troops filled in and deployed on line and at 6 P.M. a general assault was ordered. The luck that had kept the 138th out of the bloodier battles since their unfortunate experience in the Wilderness had run out. At the appointed hour the regiment, stationed in the front line of the brigade once again, moved out. In order to reach the main Confederate line the men had to first cross a swamp and then make their way up a thickly wooded ridge. Lewis would later write of the action:
The shot and shell came upon us like a hailstorm. The whiz-zoo-oo of the bullets, the rattle of the grape and the roar of shells—tearing up the earth and wrenching large limbs from trees, hurling them in all directions—added to the awful grandeur of the scene, and was well calculated to test the courage of the stoutest heart.
Despite the difficulties, the regiment swept up and over the rifle pits and entrenchments of the Confederates, and many prisoners were taken in the process. A battery of artillery narrowly escaped capture as well.
The operation for the 138th and other regiments involved in the assault was deemed quite a success, and perhaps some considered it somewhat redeeming after having been swept away by the night flank attack in the Wilderness on May 6th. The performance at Cold Harbor was exceptional enough to draw the praise of General George Meade. Meade would write to the commander of the 6th corps, asking him to give his thanks to General J.B. Ricketts—the commander of the 138th's division—"and his gallant command for the very handsome manner in which they have conducted themselves to-day." Meade continued by saying that if the success could be followed up, it would prove a great victory for the army. Two days later, on June 3rd, the Army of the Potomac would try to follow up the success. Unfortunately for them, by that time the Confederates had made their position impregnable, and this more famed assault would result in a great loss of life on the Union side. Luckily for the 138th, they would see little action in the second assault.
After Cold Harbor the fighting continued, and the Army the Potomac would soon cross over the James River and move south of Richmond in an effort to take the city of Petersburg, where an important railroad network came together. Unable to take the city right away, soon the armies would settle in for a long siege. The 138th however, would only see the first weeks of the siege before they would receive a strange order. On July 6th the regiment was ordered to proceed to City Point—a vital supply and transportation base for the Army the Potomac on the James River—and from there by water and railroad to Harpers Ferry. To the men of the regiment the order to return to Harpers Ferry, the place where they first became combat troops in June of 1863, seemed odd. What they did not know was that a detachment from Confederate Army under command of Jubal Early had been sent into the Shenandoah Valley with orders to invade the North and threaten Washington. The 6th Corps was being sent to stop it.
Aboard the steam ship "Jersey Blue" the regiment debarked from City Point on July 8th and proceeded to Baltimore. Among the first troops to arrive there, the men were boarded onto railroad cars and rushed toward Frederick, arriving at the Monocacy River . Here local garrison troops were attempting to stop General Early's advance towards Washington. The battle began the next day, July 9th. For the men of the 138th, the importance of the battle could not be missed. The rest of the 6th Corps, hurrying to help protect Washington and Baltimore, needed time enough to arrive, and the 138th, along with the rest of the 3rd division, were to hold on until that could happen.
The federal troops, outnumbered by a margin of about three to one, held on stubbornly under the weight of a Confederate attack. After a long firefight with however, the lines of the 138th began to give way as units on their flanks began to retire. Cyrus G. Cook remembered men on his left begin to run away. He called for them to come back, but upon turning again he saw that the entire line was in retreat and that only he and one other man were left. Cook luckily escaped just before the advancing Confederates got to him, but the other man—Corporal Amos Hummer—was captured. On his way to the rear Cook passed by Sergeant Nicholas Wilson, who had been shot in the right hand. Cook attempted to take Wilson's rifle but Wilson refused and carried it off the field in his left hand.
While technically a defeat, the action at the battle of the Monocacy bought enough time for the rest of the 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac to arrive in Maryland. Early's troops in turn retreated into the valley. The 6th Corps would spend much of the rest of the summer taking part in a series of advances and retreats. Finally, Grant decided that the Valley needed to be cleaned out of both Confederates and the food stuffs located there that fed them. To accomplish this he created a Middle-Military Division encompassing the Shenandoah Valley, and appointed General Phillip Sheridan to the task. The 138th made up part of this new military district.
In the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864 the regiment would see more combat, and more casualties. On September 19th about forty men from the regiment would fall at the battle of Opequon. Among those casualties was Captain James H. Walter, who fell with a serious wound. Walter had commanded Company G since it had been first recruited. Also listed among the wounded was Corporal Peter Thorn, Evergreen Cemetery caretaker. On the 22nd at Fisher's Hill, Virginia the regiment took part in a charge that completely routed Early's forces. On October 19th, as the men of the slept in their camps near Cedar Creek, the army was surprised and flanked by Early's troops. The regiment quickly woke and formed up under arms. The army was pushed back a number of miles, but in the afternoon, upon the arrival of General Sheridan, who had been away from his troops, the 138th took part in the counter attacks that drove Early's army off of the field. A total of 42 men were listed as casualties.
Following the battle of Cedar Creek, the regiment would not see any more major action before winter. On November 2nd the regiment was sent to Philadelphia and was stationed there during the Presidential Election, returning to the Shenandoah Valley on November 11th. On December 3rd, the regiment made its way back to Washington—via the B&O railroad, thus passing by their old stomping grounds at Relay Station—and from there on to City Point on a steamer. On the 6th of December they would take the military railroad—which had been constructed by the Army of the Potomac for supply and troop movement around Petersburg—out to Fort Dushane. The regiment would remain at Fort Dushane through the winter, guarding the Weldon Railroad. "The winter of 1864-5 was bleak and dreary," Lewis wrote afterwards, "and the unabated vigilance they were required to preserve in the cold and inclemency of the weather, entailed much hardship on the troops of both sides."
Throughout the winter and early spring the regiment remained at its post. Yet most knew that the war was coming to an end. The siege of Petersburg had continued uninterrupted while the 138th had been off fighting in Maryland and in the Shenandoah Valley, and the Confederate army under Lee was on its last legs. Elias Hartzell, who had recovered from his Wilderness wound and rejoined his comrades in Maryland following the battle of Monocacy, wrote to his father expressing this opinion on March 5th, 1865. "I tell you Rebeldom will fail, & that before three months more," he wrote. "Deserters never came in so fast as at present. And if Lee is here two months more he will be minus of an army to do his fighting."
Hartzell proved to be correct in his assertion. In April the final campaign of the war in the east started in earnest. On April 2nd the regiment took part in the assault upon the Confederate works that finally broke through and ended the siege of Petersburg. The assault began at 4 A.M., after artillery nearby was discharged to signal the advance. J. Warren Keifer, having by this point returned to Brigade command and received a promotion to Brigadier General, remembered that the troops swept forward and did not suffer even a temporary check before they broke through the Confederate lines. After the breakthrough the brigade fanned out in many directions, and some confusion ensued owing to the predawn darkness. The 138th, which had been in the second line, continued straight ahead after passing over the entrenchments.
Realizing they had gone too far into the enemy rear, the regiment halted, although some must not have received the order. Two men from Company F, Corporal John W. Mauk and Private Daniel Wolford, went farther than the rest, and soon encountered two mounted Confederates with pistols demanding their surrender. Instead of surrendering, they fired, and Corporal Mauk brought one down, while the other galloped away. Later, this event would become perhaps the most famous episode of the 138th's service. The men on horseback were none other than Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia's 3rd Army Corps, along with one of his aides. Reading Confederate accounts of Hill's death, the regiment soon determined that it was Corporal Mauk who in fact had killed the general.
Following the assault on April 2nd, the pursuit of Lee's army began. On April 6th the regiment would see its final battle at Sailor's Creek, in which a large portion of Lee's army would be cut off and captured. Unfortunately, the last battle of the war for the 138th would also be Elias Hartzell's last day of life. Lieutenant Charles Walter buried Hartzell on the field where he fell. Three days later, Lee would surrender. Osceola Lewis remembered the scene upon hearing news of the surrender:
Camps were alive with indescribable excitement: men crazed with enthusiasm, though scarcely realizing the true aspect of the situation, shouted and leaped for joy, embraced and greeted each other, tossed up hats, and sent to the heavens such cheers as never before ascended from human throats.
The war was not quite over for the 138th. Following the surrender the regiment would make a four day, 110 mile march to Danville, Virginia, in an effort to reinforce William Tecumseh Sherman's army. Upon arriving however, it was found that the Confederates facing Sherman had already surrendered. From Danville the regiment went by rail back to Richmond, and then on to Fredericksburg and eventually Washington D.C., where the men laid out their last camping grounds. On Friday, June 23rd they were officially mustered out, and on the 24th they paraded in illumination and visited other camps, saying their farewells. The next day the men boarded railroad cars and proceeded to Harrisburg, where they received their final pay and were discharged on the 27th.
On the 30th of June, the citizen soldiers of Adams County returned home to a hero's welcome. As the train pulled up at the railroad station, the men were met by a procession of citizens and an escort of the 1st Connecticut Cavalry, which had arrived to celebrate the 4th of July in Gettysburg. The men paraded through the principal streets in the town and then halted in the town square, where they were welcomed home by a reverend from the town by the name of Warner, and the citizens gave them three cheers. Captain Earnshaw, who had taken over command of Company B when John McCreary was discharged for health reasons in September of 1864, responded with a few words for the citizens. As the soldiers had endeavored to do their duty in the field the past three years, he explained, they would now show that they could be good citizens as well. The Adams Sentinel , reporting on the ceremony, closed its article by saying: "They will not be forgotten."
Following the war, many members of Companies B and G would go on to become accomplished citizens of Adams County and the United States as a whole. Harvey McKnight, who had been a member of the regiment before being discharged on account of sickness in 1863, would see later service with other Civil War units, including the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. He graduated from Pennsylvania College in 1865, the Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1867, and in 1880 would be elected President of Pennsylvania College. Meanwhile, Nicholas G. Wilson recovered from his hand wound received at Monocacy, although two fingers were shot off. In 1873 Wilson was appointed the Superintendent of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, and in 1880 he was elected Director of the Battlefield Memorial Association. J.A. Kitzmiller, who lost his left arm at Spotsylvania, returned to Gettysburg and in 1869 began to study law under David Wills. He would eventually pass the bar, become an attorney, and quickly rise to become a powerful figure in both local and national politics for the Republican Party.
Many other men in the regiment returned to their homes, took up their previous occupations, and became citizens again. The 138th regiment perhaps did not fight the most battles of any regiment, or suffer the most battle losses. They did not even see active service from the beginning of the war straight through to the end. In this regard, it can be said that compared to other regiments in the Civil War, there was nothing special about the 138th. Yet their story deserves to be told as much as any. They were citizens, soldiers, and comrades above all, and they offered up their lives in an effort to preserve the Union. At the close of the war, those that survived returned home and resumed their lives as best they could. Yet none ever forgot the things they did and saw between 1862 and 1865. The terrible memories of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor would never go away. Neither would the memory of the thrilling news of ultimate victory at Appomattox Court House. Hopefully their stories, along with those of all Civil War veterans, continue to be told.
To Footnotes & Bibliography
Copyright © 2006 Stephen Light (Used With Permission as of 08/09/07)
Written by Stephen Light. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Stephen Light at:
About the author:
Stephen Light is currently a graduate student working towards a Masters in History Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Cooperstown, NY. He is a 2005 graduate of Gettysburg College, majoring in history with a concentration in the Civil War Era. He is originally from upstate New York.