"At camp we saw a number of rebel prisoners, and wounded of both sides. ... I saw 4 dead rebels.
The battle ground was about 1 mile distant of our camp ground. We surely expected to get in a fight yesterday but the rebels skedaddled .... McClellan passed us on the way down the mountain. He said that another day like Sunday then the rebels would be whipped. ...
"The road down the mountain was strewn with knapsacks, coats, and other things. The rebels are the most miserable looking set of beings I ever saw, they mostly have grayish uniforms hardly two alike, some are barefooted."
Despite the minor victory at the South Mountain skirmish, the Union defeats at Bull Run and Harpers Ferry opened the way for Gen. Robert E. Lee to march his Confederate army north into Maryland, eager for a victory that might persuade the border state to join the Confederacy and prompt European nations to become allies.
'Great change has taken place'
Lee gathered his forces in Maryland at the town of Sharpsburg, which was protected by rolling hills and the Antietam Creek, and McClellan moved to attack.
Reichard and the 128th Pennsylvania Regiment fought under Gen. Joseph Mansfield, who commanded the 12th Corps, one of two anchoring the right wing of the Army of the Potomac. The other, the 1st Corps under Gen. Joseph Hooker, began the attack about 5 a.m. on Sept. 17.
The Union attack ran into withering fire from the rebels under the command of Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, with heavy losses on both sides from rifle fire and artillery in an opening between two woods known as Miller's Cornfields. Reichard's regiment entered the battle about 7 a.m.
More than 8,000 men were killed or wounded in the action there.
Hooker, who was 47 and a veteran of the Mexican-American War, would later write "the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield."
Reichard, who was barely out of boyhood, described the carnage to his parents in a letter a few days later.
"We fought in a woods, had to first cross an open ploughed field, and drove the rebels out the woods into a corn field; we had been marched the night before at 11 o'clock, about 4 miles to the field and stayed until daylight when we formed and marched forward. I cannot describe it to you the way the balls and shells whistled around us, but we drove them back. I never knew that such a continual roar of Musketry and Artillery could be fired off. If one has never been in a battle he can never rightly imagine how it is."
Hooker survived the day and would become the commander of the Army of the Potomac the next year; Mansfield died from his wounds. Neither of their attacks succeeded in pushing the Rebels out of their positions, and the action later that day would be at places like Bloody Lane and the Rohrbach Bridge. The Union claimed victory when the rebels retreated from the battlefield the next day.
On Sept. 19, Reichard wrote home to let his family know he "got through safe," though many Pennsylvania boys had not.
"Frank Ritter fell, dead in the commencement of the fight. Wilgh. and some others carried him out of the woods. We buried him last evening under a locust tree in the field. If his father wishes to fetch his body I think he better come with Lieut. Miller. We marked his grave with a head board with his name and ref. and residence. I tell you the balls and shell fell thick and fast. Our Col. fell in the beginning of the fight. We were ordered out and did not get together before next morning. The rebels have retreated. I was in one battle and expect to get soon in more but hope by the grace of God Almighty to get through safe again if [it is] his will. We have very scant living since leaving Frederick, had 16 crackers and some bacon to last 4 days. We also eat apples and corn which we picked up along the way. We drew some rations yesterday to last 2 days, 14 crackers a piece. I had written sooner but could hardly get time or chance to send .... "
And, for the first time, Reichard's letters take on a reflective tone.
"They say a sermon will be preached in brigade today. I hope so for it will be the first since I left home. A great change has taken place in our comp. [company] since the battle, many wish to hear about Christ and religion ...."
'It ain't going to school'
The Union victory at Antietam gave Lincoln the momentum he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in areas of rebellion. It also effectively killed any hope the Confederacy had of intervention from European countries.
After Antietam, Reichard spent weeks unfit for duty. His letters home blame diarrhea, headaches and soreness. Until his enlistment expired, he wrote mostly of the monotony of camp life and provided updates of his whereabouts and the health of other hometown soldiers.
Reichard never questioned the purpose of the war. He wrote adamantly that most soldiers supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as well as his 1863 Enrollment Act, which was essentially a draft for men between 20 and 45.
But perhaps the most telling insight into Reichard's attitude toward war and a soldier's life is his advice to younger brother Allen on Oct. 3.
"Allie I can hardly inform you how happy I felt in opening Tillie's letter to find one enclosed from you dear brother. It made me feel that you had not forgotten me 'away down here in Dixy.' I showed your letter to the other boys and they all praised it. ... "I am glad to hear that you little boys are still so patriotic ... when you are old enough if necessary you will be fit to 'gird on the armor and be marching along' for our beloved Union. Still as long as you are so young I would advise you to stay at home and not go for drummer boy, for it ain't going to school, but I don't want you to think I complain about the soldiers' life. I only want you to know that that this life would be too hard for either you or Eddie."
After the war
William Reichard was mustered out of the army on May 19, 1863. He answered another call for volunteers on July 1, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and became a sergeant in Company K of the 41st Regiment.
The regiment was sent to Carlisle, Mercersburg and Greencastle, engaged in one skirmish, and was discharged in early August.
Reichard returned home to Allentown, married, and lived with his wife, Emma, and three children,Harry, Fred and May, at 503 Chew St. He died in 1911 at the age of 68.
Unlike the men who perished on the field of battle, Reichard lived to see what he longed for when he wrote his parents on May 9, 1863:
"So then with my sincere love to you, mother and all the rest, I will close hoping we may soon meet again under the family roof.
From your son,
William J. Reichard"
Originally published May 29, 2011