He had never been in the smoky, confusing haze of gunfire. Never watched helplessly as strong young men fell dead in front of him. Until the Battle of Antietam, William Reichard didn't know war.
Nearly 12 hours of cannon and gunfire left 23,000 men dead, wounded or missing. Six generals were killed. Entire regiments were nearly depleted. Those who survived were never the same.
For Reichard, the battle was what soldiers called "seeing the elephant" -- experiencing for the first time the reality of killing and the possibility of being killed.
Reichard's story of becoming a soldier is preserved 150 years after the outset of the Civil War because the Allentown native wrote 140 letters to his parents, seven sisters and three brothers.
His grandson gave the letters to the Lehigh County Historical Society, which published them in 1958 and maintains the original copies in its archives, which are available to the public. In terms of volume, the Reichard collection ranks among the most extensive in the state, said Scott Hartwig, a supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Reichard writes of being "mustered in," a time of enthusiasm. He writes of the justness of the Union's cause, a belief that never seems to waver. He tells of burying a friend and longing to hear a sermon. And, to a younger brother who wants to join up as a drummer boy, he offers sobering advice.
'I like camp life very well'
William Reichard first wrote to his parents on Aug. 10, 1862. The location in his heading is Camp Curtin, indicating he was near Harrisburg and Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin.
"Dear Father and All ... I thought I had better write you a few lines to let you know how we are getting along. We like camp very well. There are 7 in our tent, namely Knauss, Bieber, Wint, Ritter, Brader & Stull, a stranger but a gentleman, & myself....
"Mother do not grieve about my leaving for I shall try to live as good as I can. Shall take your advice. I like camp life very well. ..."
Three days later, he wrote from the Senate chamber in Harrisburg.
"I thought I would take this opportunity to write to you again as there are a number of Allentonians in here. We were marched to town yesterday morning at 9 o'clock to be examined ... only about 6 were rejected, strangers to me. When I was called up I was requested to strike my hands together over my head, then jump up which I did pretty well. I was then asked my age and showed my permit and then I passed on. We did not return to camp before 3 o'clock when we were mustered in and are now Uncle Sam's boys."
Reichard was a private in the 128th Pennsylvania Regiment, which became part of the Army of the Potomac under the command of Gen. George B. McClellan. The general, under pressure from President Abraham Lincoln to move against the Confederate capital of Richmond, planned to attack the city from the north in conjunction with a smaller Union force led by Gen. John Pope.
On Aug. 19, Reichard composed his first letter from Confederate territory, writing "Here we are in the sacred soil of Virginia."
Then in late August, Pope's army collided with rebel forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run. On Aug. 31, Reichard wrote home saying he heard the cannons from Bull Run in the distance.
"The fight must have been terrific yesterday for the cannonading was kept up all day long; it would seem strange to you to hear the thundering of the distant artillery, but we are used to it, we expected to receive orders to move every minute but did not get off."
Pope's army was defeated and retreated to Washington, D.C., to defend it against possible attack from the rebels. Union forces were defeated again on Sept. 15 at Harpers Ferry, just one day after troops under McClellan claimed victory at nearby South Mountain.
Though Reichard still hadn't fought when he wrote home on Sept. 15, he got his first glimpse of the enemy at South Mountain.
"We marched all afternoon until midnight when we camped on the battle field of the day; most of our men gave out about 11 o'clock. Milt, Willoughby, and myself stopped about 2 miles from camp ground and caught up to them about day light. ...