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155 years ago today – York County regiment “saw the elephant”

The monument to the 130th Pennsylvania Infantry at Antietam. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Bullets flew hot and thick on the morning of September 17, 1862, in the fields outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland. All across the acrid, smoky battlefield, many men — including scores from York County, Pennsylvania — shrieked in pain, cried out in terror, or screamed at the enemy. War, until then only something to be imagined, became real that day for the boys of the 130th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

The regiment had been formed in Harrisburg in August under the command of Colonel Henry I. Zinn, a 26-year-old who taught school in Monroe Township, Cumberland County.  For the native of Dover in York County, 1862 would prove to be a horrible year. Two of his three children died of disease. He would be killed in December during the battle of Fredericksburg.

Zinn’s new regiment consisted of six companies from Cumberland County and vicinity and four from York County. After initial training, the men went by a Northern Central Railway down to Baltimore (receiving a hero’s welcome during a brief stop in York) and then on to Washington, DC. They performed guard duty for a couple of weeks before marching to Rockville, Maryland, staying there from September 7 until the 12th. Then, they headed toward Sharpsburg as Major General George B. McClellan concentrated his army after some of his men discovered Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s secret orders to his commanders wrapped around some cigars in a field near Frederick. On the 17th, the new soldiers of the 130th “saw the elephant,” a colorful phrase for seeing combat for the first time.

It was a sobering, and for many, a life-changing event.

The Roulette and Mumma farms at Antietam National Battlefield Park

About 8 am, the 130th marched into the fray. An artillery battery rushed past the rookie soldiers and deployed into firing position. “It was a grand and inspiring sight to witness batteries going headlong into action,” Private Edward W. Spangler later penned, “the neighing of horses, the rumbling of caissons, the halt, the furious cannonade, the officers on their chargers with swords gleaming in the sunlight, with buglers clanging out the orders, the passing of ammunition, the ramming, the sighting, the firing, and the swabbing — the guns booming in chorus like heaven-rending thunder.”

The 16-year-old Spangler (from Jackson Township) and his awe-struck companions watched the Federal guns bang away at distant Confederate lines. Soon, the order came to advance. Despite a painful carbuncle, Spangler took his place and moved forward, albeit somewhat slower than his comrades. The inexperienced regiment forded Antietam Creek in three columns and then formed into battle line with the rest of the brigade, with the other two brigades of the division behind them. They slowly moved forward toward Rebels ensconced in a sunken farm lane. As the 130th Pennsylvania passed through the Roulette farm, some of the men “showed the white feather,” bolting for the rear rather than face the enemy guns.

The rest of the men continued to advance until they received orders to lie down. “I hugged the ploughed ground so closely that I must have buried my nose in it,” Spangler admitted. “I thought of home and friends, and felt that I surely would be killed, and how I didn’t want to be.” The men rose, reformed, and marched forward to a position where they could exchange volley fire with the Rebels. With his first shot, the fear left Spangler and he began concentrating on the task at hand. “The excitement of battle made me fearless and oblivious of danger;” he explained, “the screeching and exploding shells, whistling bullets and awful carnage around me were hardly noticed.”

Unable to advance any farther by the fury of the Rebel musketry, the 130th Pennsylvania found itself next to the 7th [West] Virginia of Nathan Kimball’s oncoming brigade [blogger Scott Mingus’s great-great-uncles, the Chambers boys, were fighting in the latter regiment] as “the battle raged with the greatest fury.” Spangler “could not help admiring the admirable discipline of these veterans, standing up as if on inspection, and firing from a perfectly straight line.” The youth fired the forty rounds in his cartridge box, as well as his reserve forty rounds, and then scrounged another ten rounds from the body of a dead soldier from a Delaware regiment. At one point in his excitement, Spangler forgot to remove his ramrod and shot it toward the Rebels. He found another one and kept firing.

Finally, at 2 p.m., the 130th Pennsylvania, by then totally out of ammunition, was relieved and sent to the rear to rest and regroup. Only eight men remained on the firing line of Spangler’s 65-man company; the rest were shot, run away, or had helped carry the wounded off the field. Six men lay dead; 13 others were badly wounded. Almost half of the 130th Pennsylvania was gone; 40 dead and 265 wounded or missing.

The York County boys had indeed “saw the elephant” at Antietam.

A handful paid the ultimate sacrifice, less than six weeks after enlisting.

All quotations are from My Little War Experience with Historical Sketches and Memorabilia, by Edward W. Spangler (York, PA: York Daily Publishing Company, 1904).