For The Tribune-Democrat
“Look! They’re only children!”
That cry must have rung from the lips of many Union soldiers at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.
Among them were members of the 54th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a large part of whom was recruited in Cambria, Somerset and Indiana counties in late summer of 1861.
The Civil War began April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter and lasted four years.
The “children” were in the cadet corps of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, Va., who had marched for four days to reach New Market.
The 258 teenagers meant business, and they were firing very real bullets.
The VMI Corps filled a gap in the Confederate line in a very successful infantry charge that ousted the Union troops from a hilltop.
The “children” captured a Union cannon.
The 54th Pennsylvania had pretty mundane duties throughout its earlier service, and its troops were in their first major battle.
They had been assigned to guard and protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad across Maryland. Then they were assigned to the forces of Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, whose military performance did not live up to his own expectations and illusions.
Sigel took his force down the Shenandoah Valley. Although he had superior numbers, he took his time rather than make a bold attack.
This allowed Confederate Gen. John Breckinridge to gather strength in his troops, including the VMI students.
The two forces met at New Market. The 54th Pennsylvania was placed on the left of the line, next to the 34th Massachusetts.
When the rebels attacked, the Union lines broke and began a retreat.
The 54th Pennsylvania also retreated, barely escaping being surrounded, but it fought a strong rear-guard action to defend itself and other federal troops. Its service was exemplary.
Of the 840 Union casualties from the battle, 174 were members of the 54th PVI. This included 42 of the wounded who were captured by the Confederates.
Statue in their honor
New Market was not the end of intense action for the 54th PVI. Within two weeks it was again marching down the Shenandoah Valley as part of a new Union thrust.
In June 1864, three of its members earned the Medal of Honor for heroic service.
Pvt. Thomas Evans of Ebensburg received the medal for capturing the colors of the 45th Virginia Infantry on June 5 at the Battle of Piedmont.
During bitter hand-to-hand fighting, Evans grabbed a corner of the Virginia regiment’s flag and won a tug-of-war with the rebel soldier, whom he captured.
Musician John W. Snedden of Johnstown also earned his medal June 5 at Piedmont. Safe in the rear as a noncombatant, Snedden took up the rifle of a disabled soldier and fought with great effectiveness through the remainder of the action.
Pvt. John W. Mostoller of Somerset County earned his medal June 18 in the Battle of Lynchburg. Realizing that all of his Company B officers had been disabled, Mostoller led a charge against a troublesome Confederate artillery battery and forced its hasty retreat.
Now a bloodied veteran unit, the 54th PVI fought in several battles during the remainder of 1864, including Winchester and Cedar Creek. It was part of the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond from December 1864 to April 1865.
As the war was winding down, the 54th PVI was part of a force sent to cut off Confederate escape routes to North Carolina, but ran into superior forces at Rice’s Station. The men of the 54th were captured and forced to march without rations for four days.
Their captivity was ended by the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House – which ended the war.
Col. Jacob M. Campbell of Johnstown commanded the regiment from its inception in 1861 until its mustering out July 15, 1865, several times filling in as a brigade commander.
Lt. Col. Barnabas McDermott and Lt. Col. John P. Linton, also Cambria Countians, were among its leaders.
Following the war, Campbell was elected to two terms in Congress.
The statue of the Civil War soldier in Johnstown’s Central Park is intended to honor all from the area who served in the war, but especially the 54th PVI, which often has been referred to (erroneously) as “Johnstown’s own regiment.” A picture of a private in the regiment was used as a model for the statue.
A monument to the courage of the gallant Pennsylvania 54th stands on the battlefield at New Market. It is maintained by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Nobody could explain how Cpl. George Reed could have been transferred to the other Army following his death.
A Johnstown resident serving with Company E, 11th Pennsylvania Voluntary Infantry, Reed earned the Medal of Honor on Aug. 21, 1864, during the Battle of Weldon Railroad in Virginia.
In a way, he talked himself into the medal.
Reed was in some dense woods when he found himself surrounded by five Confederate soldiers of the 24th North Carolina Volunteers, including their flag bearer.
He was captured, but Reed soon discovered the rebel soldiers were lost in the woods and didn’t know which way to go.
Reed convinced the rebels that if they blundered into a Union position with their prisoner, they likely would be shot down in their tracks. He convinced them that their only safe course was to surrender to him and give him back his rifle.
A short time later, Reed led his five captives back to his own lines at gunpoint. He received the high medal for capturing the enemy flag.
Upon his death in 1906, Reed was buried in Grandview Cemetery. The government placed a marker on his grave, but it identified him as a soldier in the army of the Confederate States of America. How’s that for a Union hero?
His descendants pointed out the error to the late U.S. Rep John P. Murtha, who got the situation remedied.
A proper stone displaying an engraving of the medal and Reed’s correct service record was placed, and dedicated Nov. 11, 2006. The dedication included Civil War re-enactors in their blue uniforms, and the firing of a cannon salute.
Confronting a ‘giant’
The experience of Thomas Evans in earning the Medal of Honor at Piedmont was one that remained vivid in his memory for the rest of his life. His son, Thomas J. Evans, wrote his father’s words in an article he put together.
The words that follow are the soldier’s own as his son recalled them: “About noon, the captain ordered us to put bayonets on our rifles and then he moved the company up to the top of that ridge, where we laid down and fired a volley at the Confederates located in some woods at our front.
“We had surprised the rebels on their flank, and they were right mixed up.
“We had just loaded up when all of a sudden the captain ordered us to charge them. We jumped up with a big yell and took off across an open field for all we were worth, hoping those rebels wouldn’t start shooting before we could get in among them. When it came to shooting, you couldn’t beat those boys ...
“Suddenly, the biggest rebel I ever saw was right in front of me, waving a flag. ‘Rally, boys, rally,’ he was shouting. Well I was glad my bayonet was on my rifle instead of at my side, but I had never used it before except as a candle holder or to roast a little meat.
“Now here I was, with my rifle unloaded and about to attack this giant who was about the size of a full-grown grizzly bear.
“I hauled off and hit that flag staff a light, smart whack with the bayonet and it must have stung that Johnny’s hands. He sort of lowered the flag and I didn’t know what else to do except grab the cloth with my left hand and pull. ‘Let go Reb,’ I shouted. ‘Let go yourself,’ says he.
“We pulled back and forth and went around in a circle, him about to win since he was using two hands to my one. I finally managed to raise my rifle and says, ‘Drop that there flag or I will pin you to a tree.’ Well, now, he saw it wasn’t any use and gave up, and I sent him to the rear because the Minie balls were flying around right thick yet and there wasn’t any use of us both getting killed. I handed the flag to the lieutenant and got off another shot or two before the Confederates began to retreat.”
When Evans found the Virginia flag bearer later, he was surprised to discover that the “giant” really was no bigger than him. He talked with his prisoner and gave him some food as well as a bit of money to help him in the prisoner of war camp.
Long after his death, there was a dispute over where Evans was buried, Ebensburg or Beulah.
It was decided finally that he was in the Beulah Cemetery, and a monument has been erected there in his honor.
Protecting their chests
Sometimes you just have to do with what you have, especially if your life depends upon it.
That was the problem men of the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry faced as they drew up before Chancellorsville just before that epic battle.
The first job was to find some sort of protection from the rain of death they knew would be coming from Confederate cannons and rifles. Temporary breastworks were needed, and needed in a hurry.
The following is quoted from Samuel P. Bates’ “History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865:” “They were without spades, shovels or axes; but with an energy which signalized them during the war, they applied themselves to the arduous task with the only tools they could command, consisting of bayonets, tin cups and plates. With these alone, their fortifications were constructed.”
Company F of the 28th PVI had been recruited in Cambria County and Company B in Westmoreland. Before reaching Chancellorsville, it had been bloodied and had taken a toll on the enemy at the second Battle of Bull Run and at Antietam, as well as in numerous skirmishes.
The 28th marched about 125 miles to reach Antietam Creek, and when they arrived there at 11 p.m. Sept. 16, 1862, the men were ready to drop.
They stacked their arms and dropped down to sleep on the plowed field. In the morning, they scarcely had time to down a quick breakfast before they were thrown into one of the bloodiest battles of the four-year war.
Cannon and rifle fire was intense, but when a large Confederate force broke through Union lines, the 28th Pennsylvania fixed bayonets and charged, driving the rebels back. The regiment was under fire for about eight hours that day. It captured five enemy battle flags and a gun, but its losses were 266 killed and wounded.
Then the 28th was at Chancellorsville, where it again distinguished itself on the field.
Its breastworks provided some protection, but the 28th took heavy casualties when it was ordered to leave them and charge into the face of an enemy attack. They were successful.
Somerset County hero
John W. Mostoller of Quemahoning Township, Somerset County, knew what needed to be done, and he did it, as his company was being raked by deadly cannon fire during the Battle of Lynchburg on June 18, 1864.
All of the company’s officers and noncommissioned officers had been killed or wounded.
Only a private, the Somerset Countian rose to the occasion. Jumping to his feet, Mostoller shouted “Charge!”
The company followed him up the hill, overran the Confederate battery and captured it.
lt was said that Mostoller’s precipitous action may have saved his entire brigade. It was the type of leadership action American soldiers have displayed in subsequent wars.
Mostoller’s medal is believed to be the only one earned by a Somerset County soldier during the Civil War.
It was placed on display in the Somerset County Courthouse.