He had never been in the smoky, confusing haze of gunfire. Never watched helplessly as strong young men fell dead in front of him. Until the Battle of Antietam, William Reichard didn't know war.
Reichard, barely 20, left Allentown in the summer of 1862 for a nine-month stint in the U.S. Army. His first combat came a month later at Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.
Nearly 12 hours of cannon and gunfire left 23,000 men dead, wounded or missing. Six generals were killed. Entire regiments were nearly depleted. Those who survived were never the same.
For Reichard, the battle was what soldiers called "seeing the elephant" -- experiencing for the first time the reality of killing and the possibility of being killed.
Reichard's story of becoming a soldier is preserved 150 years after the outset of the Civil War because the Allentown native wrote 140 letters to his parents, seven sisters and three brothers.
His grandson gave the letters to the Lehigh County Historical Society, which published them in 1958 and maintains the original copies in its archives, which are available to the public. In terms of volume, the Reichard collection ranks among the most extensive in the state, said Scott Hartwig, a supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Reichard writes of being "mustered in," a time of enthusiasm. He writes of the justness of the Union's cause, a belief that never seems to waver. He tells of burying a friend and longing to hear a sermon. And, to a younger brother who wants to join up as a drummer boy, he offers sobering advice.
'I like camp life very well'
William Reichard first wrote to his parents on Aug. 10, 1862. The location in his heading is Camp Curtin, indicating he was near Harrisburg and Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin.
"Dear Father and All ... I thought I had better write you a few lines to let you know how we are getting along. We like camp very well. There are 7 in our tent, namely Knauss, Bieber, Wint, Ritter, Brader & Stull, a stranger but a gentleman, & myself....
"Mother do not grieve about my leaving for I shall try to live as good as I can. Shall take your advice. I like camp life very well. ..."
Three days later, he wrote from the Senate chamber in Harrisburg.
"I thought I would take this opportunity to write to you again as there are a number of Allentonians in here. We were marched to town yesterday morning at 9 o'clock to be examined ... only about 6 were rejected, strangers to me. When I was called up I was requested to strike my hands together over my head, then jump up which I did pretty well. I was then asked my age and showed my permit and then I passed on. We did not return to camp before 3 o'clock when we were mustered in and are now Uncle Sam's boys."
Reichard was a private in the 128th Pennsylvania Regiment, which became part of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Gen. George B. McClellan. The general, under pressure from President Abraham Lincoln to move against the Confederate capital of Richmond, planned to attack the city from the north in conjunction with a smaller Union force led by Gen. John Pope.
On Aug. 19, Reichard composed his first letter from Confederate territory, writing "Here we are in the sacred soil of Virginia."
Then in late August, Pope's army collided with rebel forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run. On Aug. 31, Reichard wrote home saying he heard the cannons from Bull Run in the distance.
"The fight must have been terrific yesterday for the cannonading was kept up all day long; it would seem strange to you to hear the thundering of the distant artillery, but we are used to it, we expected to receive orders to move every minute but did not get off."
Pope's army was defeated and retreated to Washington, D.C., to defend it against possible attack from the rebels. Union forces were defeated again on Sept. 15 at Harpers Ferry, just one day after troops under McClellan claimed victory at nearby South Mountain.
Though Reichard still hadn't fought when he wrote home on Sept. 15, he got his first glimpse of the enemy at South Mountain.
"We marched all afternoon until midnight when we camped on the battle field of the day; most of our men gave out about 11 o'clock. Milt, Willoughby, and myself stopped about 2 miles from camp ground and caught up to them about day light. ...
"At camp we saw a number of rebel prisoners, and wounded of both sides. ... I saw 4 dead rebels.
The battle ground was about 1 mile distant of our camp ground. We surely expected to get in a fight yesterday but the rebels skedaddled .... McClellan passed us on the way down the mountain. He said that another day like Sunday then the rebels would be whipped. ...
"The road down the mountain was strewn with knapsacks, coats, and other things. The rebels are the most miserable looking set of beings I ever saw, they mostly have grayish uniforms hardly two alike, some are barefooted."
Despite the minor victory at the South Mountain skirmish, the Union defeats at Bull Run and Harpers Ferry opened the way for Gen. Robert E. Lee to march his Confederate army north into Maryland, eager for a victory that might persuade the border state to join the Confederacy and prompt European nations to become allies.
'Great change has taken place'
Lee gathered his forces in Maryland at the town of Sharpsburg, which was protected by rolling hills and the Antietam Creek, and McClellan moved to attack.
Reichard and the 128th Pennsylvania Regiment fought under Gen. Joseph Mansfield, who commanded the 12th Corps, one of two anchoring the right wing of the Army of the Potomac. The other, the 1st Corps under Gen. Joseph Hooker, began the attack about 5 a.m. on Sept. 17.
The Union attack ran into withering fire from the rebels under the command of Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, with heavy losses on both sides from rifle fire and artillery in an opening between two woods known as Miller's Cornfields. Reichard's regiment entered the battle about 7 a.m.
More than 8,000 men were killed or wounded in the action there.
Hooker, who was 47 and a veteran of the Mexican-American War, would later write "the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield."
Reichard, who was barely out of boyhood, described the carnage to his parents in a letter a few days later.
"We fought in a woods, had to first cross an open ploughed field, and drove the rebels out the woods into a corn field; we had been marched the night before at 11 o'clock, about 4 miles to the field and stayed until daylight when we formed and marched forward. I cannot describe it to you the way the balls and shells whistled around us, but we drove them back. I never knew that such a continual roar of Musketry and Artillery could be fired off. If one has never been in a battle he can never rightly imagine how it is."
Hooker survived the day and would become the commander of the Army of the Potomac the next year; Mansfield died from his wounds. Neither of their attacks succeeded in pushing the Rebels out of their positions, and the action later that day would be at places like Bloody Lane and the Rohrbach Bridge. The Union claimed victory when the rebels retreated from the battlefield the next day.
On Sept. 19, Reichard wrote home to let his family know he "got through safe," though many Pennsylvania boys had not.
"Frank Ritter fell, dead in the commencement of the fight. Wilgh. and some others carried him out of the woods. We buried him last evening under a locust tree in the field. If his father wishes to fetch his body I think he better come with Lieut. Miller. We marked his grave with a head board with his name and ref. and residence. I tell you the balls and shell fell thick and fast. Our Col. fell in the beginning of the fight. We were ordered out and did not get together before next morning. The rebels have retreated. I was in one battle and expect to get soon in more but hope by the grace of God Almighty to get through safe again if [it is] his will. We have very scant living since leaving Frederick, had 16 crackers and some bacon to last 4 days. We also eat apples and corn which we picked up along the way. We drew some rations yesterday to last 2 days, 14 crackers a piece. I had written sooner but could hardly get time or chance to send .... "
And, for the first time, Reichard's letters take on a reflective tone.
"They say a sermon will be preached in brigade today. I hope so for it will be the first since I left home. A great change has taken place in our comp. [company] since the battle, many wish to hear about Christ and religion ...."
'It ain't going to school'
The Union victory at Antietam gave Lincoln the momentum he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in areas of rebellion. It also effectively killed any hope the Confederacy had of intervention from European countries.
After Antietam, Reichard spent weeks unfit for duty. His letters home blame diarrhea, headaches and soreness. Until his enlistment expired, he wrote mostly of the monotony of camp life and provided updates of his whereabouts and the health of other hometown soldiers.
Reichard never questioned the purpose of the war. He wrote adamantly that most soldiers supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as well as his 1863 Enrollment Act, which was essentially a draft for men between 20 and 45.
But perhaps the most telling insight into Reichard's attitude toward war and a soldier's life is his advice to younger brother Allen on Oct. 3.
"Allie I can hardly inform you how happy I felt in opening Tillie's letter to find one enclosed from you dear brother. It made me feel that you had not forgotten me 'away down here in Dixy.' I showed your letter to the other boys and they all praised it. ... "I am glad to hear that you little boys are still so patriotic ... when you are old enough if necessary you will be fit to 'gird on the armor and be marching along' for our beloved Union. Still as long as you are so young I would advise you to stay at home and not go for drummer boy, for it ain't going to school, but I don't want you to think I complain about the soldiers' life. I only want you to know that that this life would be too hard for either you or Eddie."
After the war
William Reichard was mustered out of the army on May 19, 1863. He answered another call for volunteers on July 1, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and became a sergeant in Company K of the 41st Regiment.
The regiment was sent to Carlisle, Mercersburg and Greencastle, engaged in one skirmish, and was discharged in early August.
Reichard returned home to Allentown, married, and lived with his wife, Emma, and three children,Harry, Fred and May, at 503 Chew St. He died in 1911 at the age of 68.
Unlike the men who perished on the field of battle, Reichard lived to see what he longed for when he wrote his parents on May 9, 1863:
"So then with my sincere love to you, mother and all the rest, I will close hoping we may soon meet again under the family roof.
From your son,
William J. Reichard"
Originally published May 29, 2011Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times