Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Monday, May 28, 2012

An Emergency Man Visits Antietam

With the Battle of Antietam over, and the Rebel army back across the Potomac River, the men of the Pennsylvania Emergency Militia who had entered Maryland, even stood poised in line of battle all day on September 19th outside of Williamsport, were finally given orders to return to Pennsylvania.  For one militiaman, coming within ear shot of a battlefield was not enough.  Upon returning to the camps just outside of Chambersburg, PA, Private John Witmer, Co. H, 2nd PA Emergency Militia, decided to once more head south.  Writing to his grandfather on Sept. 29, Witmer described the day-by-day actions of his adventure in the Emergency Militia, including his two day excursion to the battlefield at Antietam.  In his writings, Witmer offers us a fascinating glimpse of what the landscape looked like a full week after the fighting, and gives us insight into the scenes at the many field hospitals that littered the landscape.  At one point a soldier of the 15th Massachusetts acted as Witmer's battlefield guide, showing the militiaman where the 15th had suffered more casualties than any other regiment that day; over 50% (330 men) in roughly 20 minutes of fighting.  One wonders how Witmer's fellow militiamen reacted when he told them what he saw and heard during his Antietam battlefield adventure.  

Monday 22nd     We marched through Greencastle and encamped in a woods about a mile beyond.  Here I left the Regiment, and in company with [Robert] Houston, from the neighborhood...set out for the battle field of Antietam.  We walked to Green Castle and about five o'clock took the [train] cars for Hagerstown where we arrived about six o'clock.  We found all the hotels crowded, and it was with great difficulty that we got room to sleep upon the floor in an entry, and still more difficult to get any thing to eat.  We slept well that night - as it was quite an improvement upon lying on the ground in the open air.

Tuesday 23rd     We had a very scanty breakfast for which and our bed we paid seventy five cents, we then got upon the top of a stage [coach] paid one dollar and were driven out to the battle field, where we arrived about Eleven o'clock A.M.  We immediately went down across that part of the field where our right wing commenced the engagement, and through a cornfield out of which our men had charged the enemy, next through a piece of woods where nearly every tree was shattered by the fire from the artillery.  The ground every where was strewn with broken guns, knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, clothing and every thing that a soldier carries about him.  
                               We passed among the hospitals and found great numbers of wounded, both of our own and the rebels.  The barn floors, stables, hay mow's and in many cases the barnyards were filled with sick and wounded, besides the quantities in all the houses, in the neighborhood of the battle-field.  
an Antietam field hospital
We found Dr. Houston from about the Gap [in Lancaster County, PA], surgeon in charge of Sedgewick's [sp] division hospital.  He received us very kindly, and invited us to take dinner with him, which we did quite willingly.  He went over a part of the battle field with us and about for o'clock in the afternoon in company with a soldier* of the Massachusetts 15th we went over a part of it again.  He seemed interested in showing us where the heavy fighting had taken place, but as for that it was very evident that the ground along the whole line had been fiercely contested.  I picked up a good Enfield rifle which I brought home with me, likewise numerous bullets and such things as trophies.  We stayed all night at the hospital, and on

Wednesday 24th     started to join our regiment which we hoped to join before they were disbanded, we walked across the battle field to the turnpike and got into an army wagon going to Hagerstown and reached that place about 2 1/2 o'clock, just in time to take the cars for Greencastle.

*Could Witmer's guide have been one of these men?
(click "Faces of the 15th")

  Standing in front of the 15th Massachusetts monument, Antietam volunteer Jim Buchanan shares the story of the 15th with Antietam visitors, just as an actual soldier of the regiment had done with militiaman John Witmer.
Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania volunteers, 1861-5 : prepared in compliance with acts of the legislature. Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869. 

Witmer, John S. to Grandfather, September 29, 1862. Pennsylvania State Archives, Manuscript Group 7, Military Manuscripts Collection.


Vince said...

Here's a link to a biography of Dr. Joseph W. Houston, which describes a pretty remarkable war experience:

Also, in case you're interested, I typed up two letters from an Antietam aid mission by the Patriot Daughters of Lancaster:

Dave Maher said...

Wow, that is great stuff Vince! Thanks a lot for passing this along.