Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Captain Allen Zacharias of the 7th Michigan Infantry at the Battle of Antietam

During battle in the Civil War, some soldiers had fears which were greater than death. These fears had to do with loved ones at home. Should that soldier fall in battle, he would want to know that his family would be looked after and cared for. Quite often, soldiers worried that if they fell in battle no one would ever know what became of them and their remains would not be cared for. Many soldiers feared being killed with all traces of their existence fading away in the maelstrom of death and confusion that comprised the aftermath of battle during the Civil War. Civil War battles were violent affairs, and their aftermath saw medical and human support systems become completely overwhelmed and unable to care for each casualty as he deserved. This inability to properly care for everyone extended to both the living and the dead. As I have written previously, these were the days before dog tags, and identification of a soldier's remains often depended on whether that soldier had anything on his person which would identify him or who it was who was doing the grisly work of burial. The story of Captain Allen Zacharias gives a voice to these fears and concerns of soldiers during the Civil War.

Allen Zacharias, a resident of Erie Township in Monroe County, Michigan, enlisted as a corporal in Company K of the 7th Michigan, and he was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant on June 25, 1861. At that time, Zacharias was 28 years old. On March 10, 1862, he was commissioned a Captain in the same regiment. He served with the 7th Michigan during many battles and engagements in the summer of 1862, including those during George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. On June 28, near Fair Oaks, Virginia, Zacharias wrote the following in his pocket book, expressing a fear that he would soon be killed and he would become one of the many unknown dead.

Allan Howard Zacharias was born May 15th, 1833, in Clear Springs, Washington County, Maryland, and removed with his father to Monroe County, Michigan, in 1841. Graduated A.B. from University of Michigan, June 1860. Went to Mississippi in September, and became a professor, and in February, 1861, principal of the State Military Institute, at Brandon, in that State. Resigned his position in May and returned to Michigan, when, from a solemn sense of duty, he enlisted as a corporal, and promoted first lieutenant June 25th, and to a captaincy March 10, 1862 and was with the regiment at Yorktown, West Point, and Fair Oaks, May 31 and June 1st. 
Friend--if you find my body lifeless upon the field, bury it decently, mark its resting place, and inform my friends in the regiment and my father. Do this and you shall be liberally rewarded and have the gratitude of my friends.
A.H. Zacharias, Captain, Company K, 7th Michigan

While Captain Zacharias had gone to the trouble of writing out this note in his pocket book during the Peninsula Campaign, he would not need it then. Zacharias survived that campaign unharmed, but he was not so fortunate at the Battle of Antietam. As a part of John Sedgwick's Division of Edwin Sumner's 2nd Corps, the 7th Michigan saw significant action on September 17, 1862. The 7th Michigan shared the same fate as did the 106th Pennsylvania. They were in N.J.T. Dana's Brigade in the second line of Union troops from Sedgwick's Division in the West Woods, roughly 50 to 100 yards behind the lead line of Willis Gorman's Brigade. When a strong Confederate counterattack swept into the woodlot and on to their left flank, the 7th Michigan was routed along with the rest of Sedgwick's men.

Following the fierce fighting in the West Woods, a soldier from Maine came across a severely wounded man holding a letter in his hand. The letter was as follows:

To Peter K. Zacharias, Monroe, Michigan:
Dear Parents, Brothers, and Sisters--I am wounded mortally, I think. The fight rages around me. I have done my duty; this is my consolation. I hope to meet you all again. I left not the line until nearly all had fallen and colors gone. I am getting weak; my arms are free, but my chest all is numb. The enemy trotting over me, the numbness up to my heart. Goodbye, all.
Your son, Allen.

While Captain Zacharias had taken the time to write a letter home to tell his family of his impending death, he would last longer than he expected. The soldier from Maine who found the Captain mailed the letter home, telling the Zacharias family of their loved one's fate. Allen Zacharias would live several more months before he succumbed to his wounds. He died on December 31, 1862, in a hospital in Hagerstown, Maryland. His words show that in what he thought were his last hours on Earth, Zacharias was concerned with his family, so much so that he went to the effort of writing a goodbye letter. This story was repeated on numerous battlefields countless of times during the war, showing just a glimpse of the fears and concerns that Civil War soldiers had during combat.

Source: Townshend, David. G. The Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry: The Gallant Men and Flag in The Civil War, 1861-1865 (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Southeast Publications, Inc., 1993).

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