In June 1863 the Lehigh Valley's fields were fertile, Bethlehem's hotels bustled with visitors and Northampton County's citizens scheduled a meeting in Bath to plan a celebration.
The Allentown Democrat announced on June 10, 1863 that a "meeting is to be held at Bath on the 13th … to make preparations for the reception home of the 153rd (Northampton Co.) regiment. Their term expires on the 6th of July."
The Democrat did not know that between the publication of its June 10 edition and day of the big homecoming, the men of the 153rd Pennsylvania Infantry would fight and die in the most famous battle ever waged in the western hemisphere: Gettysburg.
As the county prepared to welcome its men back from a nine-month tour of duty, the Democrat reported the Valley looked prosperous, with farmers describing "the crops as looking remarkably healthy," while Bethlehem hosted an influx of visitors.
After nearly a year away at war, the regiment presented a stark contrast to the prosperity of their home county when they arrived back home in Easton on July 25, just three weeks after suffering a casualty rate of nearly 40 percent at Gettysburg.
"The regiment came in common box cars with clothing tattered and torn," wrote Dr. John Peter K. Kohler, who gave up a busy practice in the Lehigh County hamlet of Egypt to be the 153rd's assistant surgeon.
"Horses had no tails, no manes — men's coats hung in shreds, and they looked as if they had not seen a barber for months. They were hungry and tired and glad to get to the fair grounds for something to eat."
Just as when the regiment left for war in September 1862, the town turned out for the men.
Lieutenant William Simmers writes in his memoir of the 153rd that 5,000 people lined Northampton Street, which was "gaily decorated with flags and ever-greens."
"They landed and marched into town amid the firing of cannon, ringing of bells, waving of handkerchiefs by thousands of fair hands, huzzas, &c," he wrote. "The wounded were conveyed in carriages."
He said the men enjoyed a grand feast at the fair grounds near present day 17th Street, then headed home "surrounded by their fathers, brothers and sisters, and from the affectionate greetings they received, we judged that some of the young soldiers had left sweet hearts behind them."
All was not joy. In a diary entry two weeks earlier, Dr. Kohler had written about his eagerness to the get back to Easton and how he looked forward to the "immense ovation" the men would get. And he was mindful the return would also bring pain.
"It will be a sad for many mothers and fathers and wives. How grateful we the living ought to be."
Microfilm copies of The Allentown Democrat courtesy of the Allentown Public Library.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun