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)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Corporal Benjamin F. Williams, Company C, 125th Pennsylvania

One of the projects I have been working on as of late has to do with the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Antietam. Their story is a fascinating one, and it is also one I will certainly be sharing more of in the weeks to come. In the course of my research on this regiment, I have found some moving letters, articles, and remembrances by veterans of the unit. The park library has a wealth of information on this regiment, and it has been very beneficial for me to look through. I would be remiss if I did not give a big shout out to good friend, park colleague, and fellow Steelers and Pitt Panthers fan Alann Schmidt for helping me in digging through these files.

Among the information in the park unit file on the 125th PA are a number of transcriptions and clippings from various newspapers in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, the home town for many of the men from Company C of the 125th PA. Among these articles are many notices that were printed in the days and weeks following the Battle of Antietam. This battle was the first for the 125th PA, as it was a 9 month regiment raised in the summer of 1862 by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to help meet Lincoln's call for another 300,000 recruits. As Antietam was the first major action for the 125th, many in Huntingdon and Blair Counties, where the regiment originated from, were anxious to hear of the fates of their loved ones in the aftermath of the battle.

Among the notices which were printed in Huntingdon in the days, weeks, and months following Antietam were three which dealt with Corporal Benjamin F. Williams of Company C, 125th Pennsylvania. Altogether, these notices are remarkable in the fact that they tell Williams's story in the aftermath of the battle and in so doing, they tell the story of thousands of men from both sides who had been wounded and suffered in pain and agony in hospitals both on the battlefield and in towns and cities far away.

On November 5, 1862, the Huntingdon Globe printed the following:

HAND AMPUTATED: Our young friend, B.F. Williams, of this borough, a member of Co. C, 125th P.V., who was wounded in the right wrist at Antietam, we regret to learn had his hand amputated on the 25th, ult. in the U.S. Hospital at York, PA where ha has been since that memorable battle. He has the sympathy of his many warm friends in his irreparable loss.

On November 19, 1862, the Huntingdon Globe issued another notice concerning Williams. While before Williams had been listed among those who had been wounded, now he was in a different category:
DIED--At York, Pa. on November 13th, BENJAMIN F. WILLIAMS, of Co. C, 125th P.V., in the 23rd year of his age. Williams was wounded in the wrist at the battle of Antietam by a poisoned ball. Some days afterwards, his hand was amputated, but the poison had spread through his whole body, and all the kind attentions of physicians and the good citizens of York could not save him. His remains were brought home and interred on Saturday with the honors of war.

The claim that Williams was shot by a poisoned ball is quite interesting. Most certainly, the musket ball was not in fact poisoned, but rather, the illness which Williams suffered was a result of germs and bacteria that caused an infection following the wound. While an odd mention, claiming that the enemy was using poison or other less than honorable weapons was not as uncommon as you might think. While by no means a widespread phenomenon, there are many instances in letters and diaries where soldiers from both sides claim that musket balls were poisoned, or that the enemy was shooting strange projectiles.

Also on November 19, 1862, a different paper, the Huntingdon "Journal and American", published an obituary for Benjamin Williams. This notice was considerably different than those printed by the Huntingdon Globe. For one, it wrote that Williams was 28 years old at the time of his death, whearas the Globe had suggested he was 23. The "Journal and American" also dedicated more space to writing about who Williams was and what his sacrifice meant. It chronicled his ordeal and his suffering, but placed it in the context of his sacrifice. It reads, in part:
It is with feelings of the deepest regret that we this week announce the death of our young friend, B.F. Williams... The deceased was wounded in the right wrist at the battle of Antietam, and after suffering several weeks in trying to wave his hand, he at last had to endure the pain of amputation. After his hand had been amputated, he was recovering and hopes were entertained for his speedy convalescence; but an abscess formed in his right side, which broke on Thursday last, and terminated in his death.

The "Journal and American" also made note that Williams had served prior to his enlistment with the 125th Pennsylvania. He had been a member of the "Standing Stone Guards," a company in a 3 month unit. After disbanding, Williams had returned to his civilian life until the call for 300,000 more soldiers came in the summer of 1862. With this call, "his patriotism and love of country prompted him again to enter the ranks of the gallant spirits who were rushing to the defense of the old Flag." The notice concluded by expressing heartfelt sorrow at Williams's passing: "We knew him well, and ever found him a genial companion and a true friend...The deceased was 28 years of age and his early, but glorious death, is mourned by many friends."

These posts help to breathe life into the story of Corporal Benjamin F. Williams of the 125th Pennsylvania. One theme which I try to drive home in every program I give at the battlefield is that while we may look at the casualties of Antietam as simple numbers and figures, the casualty numbers and figures represent real individuals. Benjamin Williams was a 28 year old who did not have to leave home to fight in 1862, yet he did, and in so doing, he paid the ultimate price for freedom.

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