Just short of his 97th birthday, in May 1950, John Caleb Leatherman spoke to reporter Betty Sullivan from the Hagerstown Daily Mail about his life and boyhood memories of the Union blue and Confederate grey armies’ descent on Frederick County, Maryland. The interview he gave is a boon for historians, as firsthand accounts from the Jackson and Catoctin districts—including Myersville, Wolfsville, Ellerton, Harmony, Jerusalem, Pleasant Walk, Highland, and Church Hill—are almost nonexistent. I recounted two of these pertaining to George Blessing, “Hero of Highland,” in a previous article, and Leatherman’s secondhand testimony was also integral to that reportage, as the Leathermans and Blessings knew each other well.
John Leatherman was born 15 December, 1852, in Harmony (also known for a time as Beallsville)—a nascent town that never fully took root. Today, it is a series of farms and old buildings set along Harmony Road. John was the son of farmer George Leatherman (1827-1907) and his wife, Rebecca Elizabeth Johnson (1827-1908), who married 16 December, 1847. The 1860 Census records that George Leatherman’s farm was worth more than $8,500 and his personal estate more than $4,000—some $360,000 in today’s dollars. At that time, the family had six children, the oldest of whom, Mary (b. 1848) was enumerated as deaf and mute.
Although he was listed in several Union draft registers of the Jackson District, it’s likely that Leatherman, who was in his 30s during the war, would have opposed serving. He was a devoted member of the Brethren, a pacifist German Baptist sect also known as the Dunkards, was elected to the clergy of the Grossnickle Meeting House in 1865, and would become a church elder in 1880. In an earlier article about Robert Ridgley, the longhaired still-breaker of Myersville, I wrote that Ridgley wanted to be buried near Leatherman, of whom he said, “I feel that I owe practically all from a spiritual standpoint to this Grand Good Man.”
On 12 January, 1861, at the Myersville schoolhouse, Leatherman led of a large group of Jackson District Unconditional Union voters to draft a resolution of support for the United States government against the Secessionists, including this item: “Resolved. That all persons who wage war against the United States Government for the purpose of destroying the Constitution and the Union made sacred by the blood of our Revolutionary fathers, be regarded as dangerous men, and as enemies directly and indirectly to our common country.” The entire resolution was published by the Frederick Examiner on 16 January and carried Leatherman’s name in large letters as the primary signer.
John Leatherman vividly recalled the morning of 13 September, 1862, when the road by his home became crammed with Confederate troops headed toward Middletown. “The same day found a larger Union detachment in hot pursuit of the Rebels, and that night Northern troops decided to camp in the six-mile area between Middletown and Harmony, on the eve of the Battle of South Mountain,” wrote Sullivan.
In John’s own words: “We were Unionists, of course, so naturally, we were glad to see the Federal troops, and Father more than welcomed them to the use of his fields. We had wondered at the Confederates passing through so hastily and not even offering to steal our horses, but as we found out later they didn’t have time to stop for anything.
“I remember that evening, the thirteenth, an orderly of one of the Union officers came up to up to the house and asked if he could buy some bread, butter, and other foodstuffs for the officers. Mother said they were welcome to all she could spare, of course. She was down to the springhouse getting things together for the fellow when an enlisted man walked up swinging a stick. He asked if she could spare some food, too, and she said she was sorry but that she had already given all the food she could spare. The soldier kept standing there in the springhouse, eying the three big, round loaves of bread that she had laid out on the bench for the orderly, and I was pretty sure I knew what was in his mind.
“When Mother took the orderly back in the milk house to get some butter, the soldier suddenly jabs that stick into one loaf, then another, then the last one—and scooted out the door. I didn’t say anything, of course. When Mother came and discovered the bread gone and he was already hot-footing it down through the meadow.”
Officers asked Mr. and Mrs. Leatherman whether they could sleep in the house that night and the couple heartily approved. When young John settled down to rest, not only were there Union officers bunking with them, their entire farm was covered in soldiers. “But when John arose the next morning, there wasn’t a soldier in sight. Someone had come after the three officers in the middle of the night because of a hasty change of strategy. By six in the morning, Union and Confederate forces were already in a pitched battle on South Mountain,” wrote Sullivan.
That the battle of South Mountain was both audible and visible to the residents of Harmony and other parts of the Jackson District is evidenced by Leatherman’s recollection that he “sat fascinated all day, watching the trajectories of shells above the trees of the mountain, followed by the little puffs of smoke that marked their targets. The battle raged all that day and, two days later, continued at the illustrious Battle of Antietam—the turning point of the Civil War,” noted Sullivan. Additionally, the Valley Register reported that cannonading from the action on South Mountain and at Sharpsburg was heard in Middletown.
On 15 September, George Leatherman and a neighbor went up South Mountain to help bury the dead. John and his mother hurried to Middletown, where they found the community overwhelmed by the wounded of both armies. At Zion Lutheran Church, Leatherman recalled, soldiers lay on every pew. “I’ll never forget that one poor man,” Leatherman told Sullivan, “lying there with just a stump sticking up where his one leg had been. I can still see his eyes today, the tragic way he looked up at me.”
Just a few short blocks away, 39-year-old Lt. Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, Kanawa Division, was suffering from a serious injury also sustained on South Mountain.
Hayes wrote in his diary, “I felt a stunning blow and found a musket ball had struck my left arm just above the elbow…. Fearing that an artery might be cut, I asked a soldier near me to tie my handkerchief above the wound. I soon felt weak, faint, and sick at the stomach. I laid down … perhaps twenty feet behind the line of my men, and could form a pretty accurate notion of the way the fight was going. The enemy’s fire was occasionally very heavy; balls passed near my face and hit the ground all around me.”
After making it off the battlefield, Hayes was moved by Union ambulance to Middletown. As he was a high-ranked officer, he was placed in the comfortable home of Jacob Rudy at 504 West Main Street and established a close relationship with the entire family. He would remain with them until the end of October. Hayes recalled that one day, the eight-year-old son of the family, Charlie, stood at the open window describing the comings and goings on the street below. When Hayes told Charlie he lived on a much-traveled road, the boy replied, “Oh, it isn’t always so. It’s only when the war comes.” Young John Leatherman could easily have made the same remark.
The catastrophic Battle of Antietam took place the day following John and his mother’s visit to the church. In the aftermath of the gory fighting, hundreds more wounded poured into the town and the valley around. We don’t know how often Mrs. Leatherman, and potentially John, returned to nurse the soldiers or bring them food and comfort items. It was probably a regular occurrence for some time. On the 19th, the Valley Register pleaded to “our country friends” such as the Leathermans to send to the Middletown hospitals “all the little delicacies they can spare, for the relief of the sick and wounded.” Local women were still occupied by the wounded on Halloween when the Ladies’ Union Relief Association thanked recent contributors and listed what had been donated. There were still wounded in the Lutheran church as late as January 1863, and the building did not reopen for worship until a renovation, paid for by more $2,000 in federal compensation for damages, was completed in August 1863.
John may have encountered both armies again a month earlier, when Union troops, “in pursuit of a flying enemy” after the Battle of Gettysburg, “caused our beautiful valley to be overrun with soldiers, this route being the nearest by [which] Gen. Meade could hope to intercept them,” noted the Valley Register on the tenth. “On Monday morning, General [John] Buford’s Cavalry, nearly 5,000 strong, with an abundance of artillery, passed through, and on Tuesday evening, the main body of the army began to arrive and push forward, and have so continued, night and day, up to the time of our going to press…. There is an almost total suspension of business here…. We have issued our paper, but not without much hindrance.”
The Confederates and Union forces clashed again on 9 July, 1864, at the Battle of Monocacy, as bands of rebels marauded in the Middletown Valley. Whilst George Blessing kept them off his property by blasting shotguns he had picked up off the South Mountain battlefield two years earlier, pacifist George Leatherman decided to move his own horses out of harm’s way by sending them to Pennsylvania. It was Blessing who became John’s lifelong hero. The story that he told reporter Sullivan of the Battle of Highland was possibly heard by the awestruck youngster from old Blessing himself.
On 30 December, 1873, Leatherman married “the prettiest girl I had ever seen,” Susan Rebecca Grossnickle, who was born in 1852 to Wolfsville farming couple Elias Grossnickle (1829-1912) and Nancy Stottlemyer (1832-1888). John and Susan had five children: Vernon Ward (1874-1967), George Upton (1877-1958), Roy Lester (1886-1980), Nannie R. (1888-1984), and Clare Edith (1891-1988).
“We were mighty happy together. When she took sick I didn’t leave a stone unturned trying to get her well. But she died, in 1909, just when I’d given up the farm and finished building this home [203 Main Street] for her here in Myersville. Guess that’s why I decided to stay here,” he said in 1950.
John waited more than a decade to marry the widow Ettie Olivia Mullendore Slifer (b. 1854) in 1920. He was 68 and she was 66. Ettie was his wife for eight years, passing away from the complications of diseases, 4 December, 1928.
“I guess you could say I’m rather content. I’ll be happy as long as I can get out every day and take a walk—see people and talk with my old friends. Sometimes I walk three or four miles a day,” he told Sullivan more than twenty years after her death. According to his obituary, he also served on the Frederick County School Board and “was a director of the Fahrney Memorial Home at San Mar for several terms.”
In 1950, Leatherman had 15 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Two of his grandsons had been killed during World War II. He occupied himself by teaching Sunday School at the Myersville Church of the Brethren. Sullivan quoted him, “Each week he spends a lot of time reading the Bible and preparing his lesson for the following Sunday. ‘It helps you to adjust yourself to this life,’ he says, ‘and if you learn how to do it right there’s no telling how old you could live to be.'”
John Caleb Leatherman died aged 99 years, one month, and ten days on 25 January, 1952. He was buried at Grossnickle Church of the Brethren in Ellerton. With him went his memories of the two great armies and the casualties left in their wake, and his recollections of how local civilians dealt with whatever washed up on the tides of war. Ω