Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Unharmed have I passed through where the dead and wounded were falling all around me" – Pvt. George Nickels, 89th NY

In a December 2012 blog post (read here), I shared the fascinating letter of Pvt. George Nickels, of Co. F, 89th New York.  In that letter, written September 30, 1862, Nickels details his regiment's actions late in the afternoon during the Battle of Antietam.  Nickels' regiment, part of Fairchild's Brigade, Rodman's Division, of the Union 9th Corps, had fought bravely, and ferociously that afternoon.  The 89th, and several other regiments, pushed further than any other Union regiments that day; reaching the outskirts of the small town of Sharpsburg.  Eventually, the timely arrival of Confederate reinforcements, lead by General A.P. Hill, arrived at just the right spot.  Hill's men crashed into the left flank of the 9th Corps, and brought an end to the forward movement of the 89th New York.  The 89th was forced to give way back across the killing fields they had struggled over just moments before.  Sundown would finally bring an end to the bloody Battle of Antietam.  Fairchild's Brigade would suffer the highest percent casualty rate of any Union brigade that fought that day; 48%.  Of the 455 casualties in the brigade, the 89th New York would suffer 103 men killed, wounded, and missing during the fight.

In the September 30th letter, Nickels mentions, "I have written one hasty letter since our fight," however, what this "hasty letter" contained, I thought would remain a mystery of history.  Until now. Just in the same unexpected manner as the September 30th letter made its way to me, another one of Nickels' Antietam accounts would appear before me.  This time, an ancestor of 89th NY veteran Oliver Orville, who had read my original post, and who had recently uncovered a copy of the letter written by Nickels, thankfully emailed me a copy.

In this letter, dated September 19, 1862, Nickels hastily takes a few moments to write to loved ones back home.  Letting friends and family know outright of his post battle condition, he goes on to provide updates on several friends and comrades, as well as give readers a glimpse into the chaotic and terrifying moments of the Battle of Antietam.  Aside from being historically fascinating, this 'prequel' letter also helped me identify and annotate a previously unidentified soldier who had been named in Nickels' September 30th letter; William B. [Byron] Livermore.

Another interesting aspect of this letter is that one of Nickels' comrades, James Northrup, takes the opportunity to piggy back off of Nickels' brief letter home, and tell his loved ones of his "close call".

Even 151 years later, you just never know what small pieces of a much larger and scrambled puzzle will emerge.  Each piece helps us see a little more history.  Enjoy!

Battle of Antietam 
Sharpsburg Md 
Sept, 19, 1862 

Dear Friend, 

I am still sound and well. Unharmed have I passed through where the dead and wounded were falling all around me. Our brigade charged up hill, over plowed ground at the enemy behind a wall and rail fence. When we got within 12 rods of the fence we stopped about five minutes and exchanged shots with the rebels and one at least fell dead from my shot and I drew good sight on a number more. Almond [Orville Oliver] they say just gave them a shot and was going to reload when he was struck by a bullet; we think in the thigh and fell disabled. We have not heard from him, but is probably in a hospital of ours or the enemy’s. 

We soon got tired of giving them the advantage of the fence and at the same time stand the fire of their cannon on our flank so we charged over the fence and drove them. We took a good many prisoners. Just then they brought up several thousands on our left. Their fire was terrible and the ground was covered with dead and wounded. We had to fall back or all be taken prisoners. 

When we formed in line we had only about 1/3 of the men who went in with us. The rest were killed, wounded and scattered. 
Byron Livermore had his right arm shattered above the elbow by a musket ball and had to have it taken off. He is doing well. The rest of the Lisle boys are well. Of ten boys at the right of our company where I stood 8 were killed and wounded. There were 23 killed, wounded or missing since the fight of day before yesterday in our company. Most of them are wounded. We had a brisk fight last Sunday [Battle of South Mountain] and have been in reach of the enemy ever since. Burnside gave us the credit Wednesday, of being one of the best fighting regt. In the service. No regt. was ever exposed to a more deadly fire. 

Well good bye, write soon. I have no time to write more.  

Yours truly, 
Geo L. Nichols [Nickels]

 Please say to our folks that I have no time to write, but I am alright. I was hit once, but my sword turned the ball and I was not injured. George has written all I suppose. I will write as soon as I get a chance to send a letter. 

In haste, James E. Northrup 

New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd ed. Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912., available from accessed September 12, 2013; Internet.

Rafuse, Ethan S., Antietam, South Mountain, & Harpers Ferry: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hodge Podge: lectures, events, and blogs

I want to take a moment to once again thank the Shippensburg Civil War Roundtable, and the Mechanicsburg Museum Association for inviting me to speak to their organizations.  In September, I was invited to speak in Shippensburg about my ongoing research into the Emergency Militia of 1862.  It was a great thrill to not only return to the town of my alma mater, but to speak in the Cumberland Valley where so much of the stories I told took place exactly 150 years earlier.  It was a great honor to be able to tell the often overlooked story of those Keystone men.

Earlier this month, I spoke in Mechanicsburg about the Locust Grove Cemetery (a historic African American burial ground located in Shippensburg), and the preservation project to record, conserve, and commemorate such a priceless historic resource.  I had an opportunity to be a part of this project while studying Public History at Shippensburg University.  Click here to read more.  While it can be nerve wracking to prepare for such public talks, in the end, being able to share local history with others is always extremely rewarding.

In March, the Mechanicsburg Museum Association will be presenting two unique Sunday afternoon presentaions relating to Mechanicsburg during the summer of 1863.  Of course, in 1863, as in 1862, Pennsylvania was on high alert, but this time the Rebel army did indeed invade the Commonwealth.  In June of 1863, they made their way up through the Cumberland Valley, town by town, until finally capturing Mechanicsburg on June 28.  Hoping to use the town as a jump off point for an attack of the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, less than 10 miles away, the Rebels were instead ordered to march south, and converge on Gettysburg.  Mechanicsburg and Harrisburg were spared.

On March 10, the Mechanicsburg Museum Association will be offering a lecture on Mechanicsburg Civil War era buildings, which are still numerous throughout the borough.  Click here for info. 
On March 17, Mechanicsburg Museum Association will be hosting the Mechanicsburg Main Street Committee as they discuss the many events being planned for the 150th Anniversary of the occupation of Mechanicsburg, this June.  Click here for more info.

Mechanicsburg Museum Association events take place at the historic Cumberland Valley Railroad station.

To stay on top of other Sesqucentenial events taking place in the Cumberland Valley this year be sure to check out the following pages:
Cumberland County 150
PA Civil War 150
Cumberland County Historical Society
Monterey Pass Battlefield
Shippensburg Historical Society
Mechanicsburg Museum Association

And finally, I wanted to take a minute to introduce to you the newly created blog of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office (PHPO).
Click here.  
As stated on the blog, "The role of the PHPO is to identify and protect the architectural and archaeological resources of Pennsylvania. Our responsibility is to work with individuals, communities, local governments, and state and federal agencies to educate Pennsylvanians about our heritage and its value, to build better communities through preservation tools and strategies, to provide strong leadership, both individually and through partnerships, and to ensure the preservation of Pennsylvania’s heritage."  The PHPO posts a new article every Wednesday on a range of subjects from archaeology to the National Register of Historic Places; from historical markers to preservation planning, and more.  Look for a post from yours truly in mid March.