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Remembering a fallen Civil War soldier from York, Pa.

Photo by Ann Marie Ahlers, 87th Pennsylvania Reenactors
Photo by Ann Marie Ahlers, Company C, 87th Pennsylvania Reenactors

Several thousand men from York County, Pennsylvania, served in the Union army during the Civil War, scattered among more than two dozen regiments or artillery batteries. A few units had relatively large numbers of York Countians, including the 166th Pennsylvania and 200th Pennsylvania. However, by far, the largest concentration of local men and boys served in the 87th Pennsylvania, where the majority of the individual companies came from this region.

One of their ill-fated soldiers was Lt. John Frederick Spangler.

On Memorial Day weekend, 2015, more than 75 people gathered at York’s Greenmount Cemetery to remember Lieutenant Spangler with a formal memorial service. A television crew from Channel 8 was there to cover the event, which they featured on a subsequent news broadcast.

Photo by Ann Marie Ahlers, 87th Pennsylvania Reenactors
Photo by Ann Marie Ahlers, Company C, 87th Pennsylvania Reenactors

John F. Spangler, a son of John Jacob and Sara Rodgers Spangler, was born in Maryland on February 26, 1830, according to his descendant Don Warner. His siblings included Levi, William Amos, Adaline Elizabeth, Jacob Casper, and Charles.

According to research by Dennis W. Brandt, as a teenager young Spangler was described as “a capital sportsman” for so many bagging prairie chickens while hunting in Illinois [York Democratic Press, December 7, 1858]. Spangler married Sarah Jane Jameson on November 22, 1859, in York. They eventually had two children:  Laura Belle (born on Sept. 6, 1860) and Howard Fry (born Sept. 29, 1862). At the time of the Civil War, Spangler enjoyed a very prosperous legal practice in York.

After the debacle at Bull Run in July 1861, it became clear to Northern policy makers that the war was not going to be a short, three-month affair, so President Abraham Lincoln began raising three-year regiments. The 87th Pennsylvania was one of many such regiments recruited in the Keystone State. John Spangler enrolled as a private in Company A in York on September 11, 1861. Exactly two months later, on November 11, he received a commission as a second lieutenant, still in Company A.

His wife went to live in Chicago with their daughter during John’s time in the service.

Late in December 1862, John Spangler and his comrades marched into Winchester, Virginia, a hotly contested town along the Valley Pike in the Shenandoah Valley which changed hands with alarming frequency during the war. The 87th was part of Maj. Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s division of the Eighth Corps. Within a month of this deployment, Spangler received another promotion, this time to 1st lieutenant on January 26, 1863. In mid-June of that year, Milroy ignored warnings that his position at Winchester was vulnerable to a major Confederate attack and subsequently stayed put instead of withdrawing to Harper’s Ferry.

The powerful Confederate Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia smashed Milroy’s isolated division, capturing thousands of men and routing the rest in an embarrassing defeat for the Union. Lieutenant Spangler was among a contingent of the 87th which escaped the disaster and decided to head home to Adams and York counties. He may then have been part of the little band of the 87th which took part in the defense of the Columbia Bridge on June 28 against elements of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate division. By the end December of that year, Spangler was at Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Pa., on recruiting duty.

Image from Prowell's History of the 87th Pennsylvania
Image from Prowell’s History of the 87th Pennsylvania


On March 26, 1864, Spangler wrote that it was “one of the most beautiful days we ever experienced. But in the evening of that day, the entire army was put under orders. A cavalry attack, from the enemy, was expected. All along the company streets our arms were stacked. For two nights  the men slept with one eye open and one leg out of bed. We were expecting an attack; but it never came.”

However, just a few months later, the Rebels indeed would attack the 87th Pennsylvania.

In the early summer, Jubal Early, now commanding an independent small army, headed north from Virginia into Maryland, with a goal of swinging south and threatening Washington, D.C. On July 9, Early’s veteran Rebels encountered Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace’s Federal force in several farm fields near the Monocacy River just outside of Frederick, Maryland. Lieutenant Spangler, having taken command of Company A on June 23 after the captain was captured at Petersburg, and the 87th were among the blue-clad defenders.

At the ensuing battle of Monocacy, some of Early’s men repeatedly attacked the 87th’s position. During the Rebels’ third charge, Spangler positioned himself between Col. James Stahle and Maj. Noah Ruhle, apparently to ask a question. He never had a chance to begin his inquiry. A Rebel bullet on a downward trajectory struck Spangler in his chest and lodged in his stomach. He was left for dead when the Union forces retreated. In horrible pain, he lay on the field of battle for 18 hours before being taken to the residence of a widow named Ruth Doffler in Frederick. He lingered for a few days and then breathed his last.

His anxious father, John Jacob Spangler, left his home on Water Street in downtown York and drove down to Frederick, but by the time he arrived, John was dead. The date of his death is variously given as July 17 or July 19, 1864.

The bereaved Jacob brought son’s body home for burial. The funeral took place at the residence of Sara Spangler’s father, David Jameson, in York. Flags throughout town hung at half-mast. Lieutenant John Frederick Spangler was buried with full military honors on July 18 in Union Cemetery on N. Penn Street. He was only 32 years old at the time of his death.

Ironically, his caregiver in Frederick, Ruth Doffler, struck up a relationship with his father Jacob and later married him, becoming his second wife.

Pennsylvania Monument on the Monocacy National Battlefield near Frederick, Md. Erected in 1908 to remember the troops of the 67th, 87th, and 138th Pennsylvania who fought at Monocacy. Scott Mingus photograph
Pennsylvania Monument on the Monocacy National Battlefield near Frederick, Md. Erected in 1908 to remember the troops of the 67th, 87th, and 138th Pennsylvania who fought at Monocacy. Scott Mingus photograph.

Decades later, Union Cemetery became defunct and the bodies were removed. John Spangler was re-interred on February 20, 1936, in Greenmount Cemetery off the Carlisle Road (now Route 74).

On Memorial Day, May 25, 2015, living historians from the 87th Pennsylvania, Company C reenactment group gathered by Lieutenant Spangler’s grave at Plot B4-3 to remember the fallen soldier in a solemn ceremony.

Sources: email communication from Don Warner to Scott Mingus; Dennis Brandt’s Civil War Soldiers Database on the website of the York County Heritage Trust; Mr. Brandt’s  award-winning book From Home Guards to Heroes on the 87th Pennsylvania; George Prowell’s History of the 87th Pennsylvania; and records of the Monocacy National Battlefield.