When James Hard died on 12 March, 1953, in Rochester, New York, the final firsthand battle memories from U.S. Civil War were forever lost. Hard was the last verified soldier on either side of the conflict who actively fought—in his case, as a teenaged infantryman in the 37th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment—at First Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg.
There were others still alive, however, such as John Caleb Leatherman, who were children and teens during the war years. In Maryland’s Frederick and Washington Counties, and just across the Potomac in West Virginia’s Shepherdstown, these elders possessed indelible memories of South Mountain, Antietam, or Monocacy lain down through civilian, juvenile lenses.
One example was Jacob E. Eavey. On 15 August, 1948, he died in the Guildford Nursing Home in Boonsboro at age 97 after a professional life spent running a grocery shop at 29 North Main Street, Keedysville. Eavey was the son of Samuel Eavey (1828-1911) and Catherine Ecker (1828-1868) and was born in Porterstown on 21 October, 1850. He would marry Clementine Eugenia Keedy (1850-1929) and father five daughters and one son.
Like John Leatherman, Eavey kept vivid memories of 16 September, 1862. Whilst John spent the 16th in Middletown, helping his mother nurse wounded soldiers from the previous day’s fighting, 12-year-old Jacob spent it “sitting on a fence beside the road, watching the soldiers striding down South Mountain” on their way to meet their individual destinies at the Battle of Antietam, reported the Hagerstown Daily Herald of 16 August, 1948. When fighting kicked off at Sharpsburg on the 17th, Eavey stood near his parent’s smokehouse in Porterstown, just to the east of Sharpsburg, as a Rebel shell tore through and wrecked the building but spared his life.
Charles Upton Grossnickle came into the world on the old Grossnickle homeplace near Wolfsville on 16 August, 1856, son of Elias Grossnickle (1829-1912) and Nancy Stottlemyer (1832-1888). He would grow up to become a farmer like his father, as well as a banker who lost his fortune in the Great Depression. Always a stalwart member of the Church of the Brethren, in December 1956 he was interviewed for The Brethren Evangelist. The lengthy article included personal memories from the war years:
“The Grossnickles were strong Union sympathizers…. In 1862, during the Battle of South Mountain, the cannon shots could be distinctly heard from the Grossnickle home. The hills intervening prevented seeing any smoke of battle, but each of time the cannon shots were heard, his mother and the other women present would cry. They knew that it meant death to the soldier boys.
“In 1863, when Lee’s men were on their way to Gettysburg, the sound of marching feet were heard along the rippling Catoctin. The soldiers, he said, marched two by two. They came by the Grossnickle Church [of the Brethren] but did not disturb it in any way. Neither did they bother any of the farm buildings. As they traveled, they were looking for horses. They looked over the Grossnickle’s horses, rejecting one in the field that was not up to their standards, taking the three good ones. When Upton’s father pleaded with them not to take his horses, the officer replied, ‘I will be tied to a stake and shot if I do not take them.’ There was nothing more to do but watch them leave.
“The soldiers were hungry and Upton’s mother baked bread and pies for them…. One of the Confederate soldiers, or ‘Rebels,’ as Upton called them, complained about not having a hat. ‘My father took the straw hat off my head and gave it to the boy. I do not know whether I had been fighting bees or not, but [I] had knocked the crown out of the hat. The soldier boy took it off his head, turned it over, and remarked, ‘This one doesn’t have any bottom in it.'”
William Knode Hoffman was the son of John Calvin Hoffman (1832-1895) and Clara Jane Knode (1837-1906). He was born in Funkstown on 30 September, 1860. The Hoffmans relocated to Sharpsburg when his father went to work for a merchant there. William was just shy of two years old when the two armies clashed, turning his home village into a war zone. While he kept a few partial memories of what his family endured, he incorporated his parents’ retellings, which have since been largely backed up by documentary evidence. William was interviewed about the Hoffmans’ experiences in 1912 during the 30th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of Antietam. William Hoffman lived to age 72, dying in Hagerstown on 6 October, 1932.
In Sharpsburg, as his family and neighbors realized their danger, “They hurriedly gathered the important belongings of home, … abandoned the town, and across country, they tramped to the Potomac River, which was crossed at the old Brien’s Furnace, three miles down the river from Sharpsburg,” reported the Daily Mail, which included his 1912 interview in its 21 September, 1976 issue.
“In the flight, father took me on his back, but Mother, always careful of the baby, hearing the cannons firing, soon said, ‘Carry him in the front, so that a shell will not strike him in the back,'” William recounted. Another local woman had fled with the Hoffmans holding her infant wrapped in a shawl. When she eventually sat down to rest, it was discovered that she had been carrying the child upside down the whole way from Sharpsburg.
Whilst the cannonade boomed, the family took refuge in a cave on the Virginia [now West Virginia] side of the Potomac. On 18 September, they recrossed the river in a boat because the bridge was burned during the battle. Virginia was Confederate territory, so they were promptly arrested, but sent back to Sharpsburg under escort after their status as Marylanders had been verified. As an old man, William said he retained a memory of dead soldiers sprawled on the ground seen during the return trip to the family’s home.
Charles William Quynn (1858-1943), son of John Thomas Quynn (1816-1889) and Mary Margaret Hanshew (1827-1896) who lived in South Market Street, Frederick. He vividly remembered the sounds of the nearby Battle of Monocacy on 9 July, 1864.
“He heard the booming cannon and he danced and clapped his hands in childish glee,” noted the Frederick News of 12 January, 1938. “His mother, he recalls, stopped him and explained that men were being killed and wounded and it was no time to be happy.”
Quynn, who ran the Central Hardware Store in Frederick and is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, also recalled a skirmish in which Confederate cavalry chased mounted Union troops past his house with fire flashing from their guns.
Mary Bedinger Mitchell (1850-1896) wrote of her childhood Civil War experiences in The Century Illustrated Monthly, July 1886. The then-11-year-old was the daughter of Henry Bedinger (1812-1858), a Virginia congressional representative and ambassador to Demark, where Mary also lived during her early childhood.
Mary wrote, “Suddenly, on Saturday, the 13th of September, early in the morning, we found ourselves surrounded by a hungry horde of lean and dusty tatterdemalions,”—Confederate soldiers—”who seemed to rise from the ground at our feet. I did not know where they came from, or to whose command they belonged…. When I say that they were hungry, I convey no impression of the gaunt starvation that looked from their cavernous eyes. All day they crowded to the doors of our houses with always the same drawling complaint: ‘I’ve been a-marchin’ an’ a-fight- in’ for six weeks stiddy, and I ain’t had n-a-r-thin’ to eat ‘cept green apples an’ green cawn, an’ I wish you’d please to gimme a bite to eat….’ Their looks bore out their statements, and when they told us they had ‘clean gin out,’ we believed them, and went to get what we had. They could be seen afterward asleep in every fence corner.”
On 14 September, the Bedinger family was “awakened by heavy firing at two points on the mountains…. We sat watching the bellowing and smoking Heights’ for a long time before we became aware that the same phenomena were to be noticed in the north.” The Bedingers retired that night still unaware that the thunderous cannon and smoke they saw from their vantage in Shepherdstown were signs of the Battle of South Mountain. They learned more the next day when wagon after wagon carrying wounded Confederates rolled into town and disgorged their human contents on the streets.
“There were no preparations, no accommodations,” Mary recalled. Then, suddenly, “Men ran for keys and opened the shops, long empty, and the unused rooms; other people got brooms and stirred up the dust of ages; then swarms of children began to appear with bundles of hay and straw, taken from anybody’s stable. These were hastily disposed in heaps, and covered with blankets—the soldiers’ own, or blankets begged or borrowed. On these improvised beds, the sufferers were placed…. Our women set bravely to work and washed away the blood or stanched it as well as they could…. Then there was the hunt for bandages. Every housekeeper ransacked her stores and brought forth things new and old. I saw one girl, in despair for a strip of cloth, look about helplessly, and then rip off the hem of her white petticoat.”
When the Battle of Antietam commenced, in Shepherdstown, “We could hear the incessant explosions of artillery, the shrieking whistles of the shells, and the sharper, deadlier, more thrilling roll of musketry; while every now and then the echo of some charging cheer would come, borne by the wind,” Mary remembered. “On our side of the river there were noise, confusion, dust; throngs of stragglers; horsemen galloping about; wagons blocking each other, and teamsters wrangling; and a continued din of shouting, swearing, and rumbling, in the midst of which men were dying, fresh wounded arriving, surgeons amputating limbs and dressing wounds, women going in and out with bandages, lint, medicines, food. An ever-present sense of anguish, dream, pity, and, I fear, hatred—these are my recollections of Antietam.”
“I can’t imagine any group more likely to remember details than the children who watched everything familiar explode in carnage beyond comprehension. Many of them were haunted forever by the scenes and experiences that had shattered their world,” wrote Kathleen Ernst, the author of Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign, when, “after the book was published, a man attending one of my programs politely called me out for including the memories of such young witnesses. Surely, he said, they were unreliable. I can’t imagine any group more likely to remember details than the children who watched everything familiar explode in carnage beyond comprehension. Many of them were haunted forever by the scenes and experiences that had shattered their world.”
Moreover, without these children, as elders, speaking publicly, much of what civilians endured during the war years would be lost to Marylanders now and forever. Ω