A Philadelphia Regiment’s September Baptism by Fire

This blog post was researched and written by long-time Laurel Hill Cemetery tour guide, Russell Dodge.

A new, unexperienced Union Army regiment from Philadelphia, the 118th Pennsylvania “Corn Exchange” Infantry, found themselves in combat at the Battle of Shepherdstown on September 20, 1862 after only 20 days of being in the army. Because of confusion with orders, they were alone in fighting 4,000 Confederates in their first battle, which had tragic and devastating results. Some of those who fought that day, including the regiment’s commander, lie at rest today in Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill Cemeteries.

When General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, made the decision to invade Maryland in September 1862 after his victory that August at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, he set in motion a bloody campaign that resulted in three battles: the delaying action of South Mountain on the 14th; the terrible carnage of Antietam on the 17th; and the final actions at Shepherdstown, (West) Virginia, on the 20th. The last action has often been treated by history as almost an afterthought – the number of men and casualties involved paling in comparison to the bloodletting a few days before at Antietam. Yet for a green, newly raised Union Army regiment from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it would prove to be an introduction to the war unique among the annals of the Union Army. The outcome and legacy of that regiment’s participation at Shepherdstown can be found at Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill Cemeteries in the graves of many from that unit who rest in the two burial grounds’ rolling hills.

The shocking and ignominious end to Major General George B. McClellan’s May-June 1862 Peninsula campaign, which saw the Army of the Potomac pushed back from near Richmond, Virginia, and forced to retreat to Washington, D.C., solidified the reality that the war would not be over that spring. On July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 more volunteers to fight and defeat the rebellion. The recruitment response to his call was tepid at first, prompting Congress to pass the Militia Act of 1862, which, among other things, enacted a military draft in states that did not meet recruitment quotas. In part to prevent a draft from happening, local communities and leaders across the North stepped up recruitment efforts, augmenting their enlistment pitches with cash bounties as enticement.

Led by its director Alexander Cattell, The Corn Exchange Bank and Brokerage House in Philadelphia set up recruitment offices and offered hefty bounties of up to $160 for enlistees in August. Ads, recruitment posters, and newspaper articles all touted “The Corn Exchange Regiment” that was being formed, and the regiment gained the nickname it would be known for throughout the war and beyond, even before it was fully recruited and had entered Federal service. When the unit was finally mustered into the Union on August 30, 1862, its official designation was the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, but the “Corn Exchange Regiment” moniker would persist. Nearly all its men called Philadelphia their home.

Recruitment Poster courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Appointed to lead the new fighting force was Colonel Charles Mallet Prevost, a 44-year-old lawyer and pre-war Pennsylvania Militia officer who spent the previous months with the Army of the Potomac as an aide on the staff of Brigadier General Francis E. Patterson. His militia experience and field service gave him an advantage many volunteer officers did not have at their commissioning although he had never commanded troops before, an aspect that would have grave consequences for the 118th Pennsylvania less than a month later. The regiment’s officer corps was largely as raw as the recruited enlisted men:

— Twenty-two-year-old Joseph Mora Moss interrupted his studies for the Protestant Episcopal Church ministry to enlist, and he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in Company K.
— Thirty-five-year-old businessman James P. Perot, who was an executive with the Corn Exchange Bank, was commissioned as 1st Lieutenant and Regimental Adjutant.
— Twenty-year-old merchant Captain Courtenay M. O’Callaghan received command of Company I.

Not all the men chosen as officers were green, though. Francis Adams Donaldson, commissioned Captain of Company H, was a seasoned veteran by the summer of 1862, having previously served in the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and seeing action with the regiment from the disastrous Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861 to the Seven Days Battles in June-July 1862. Thirty-five-year-old Irish-born Henry O’Neill, commissioned Captain of Company A, had spent thirteen years in the British Army prior to his immigration to the United States in 1860. The ranks of enlisted men of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry included 19-year-old William Simons, and brothers Alfred and Ephraim Layman, 18 and 17-years old respectively, both carpenters in Philadelphia. The men were training at Camp Union in the East Falls section in the city when the news of the Confederate invasion of Maryland was received, and they were hastily marched first to Baltimore, then to Washington, D.C., then to their place amongst the pursuing Army of the Potomac, with whom they arrived on September 12, 1862. It wouldn’t be long until this raw, untried group of soldiers would be called to do their part.

The early morning hours of September 17, 1862 saw the opening of the Battle of Antietam, near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland and along the banks of the river that gave the engagement its name. By the end of the day, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers would lie dead and wounded, and place names like Miller’s Cornfield, the West Woods, the Dunker Church, the Bloody Lane, and Burnside’s Bridge would be forever burned in the country’s memory. General McClellan, the Army of the Potomac’s commander, attacked the smaller forces of General Lee’s piecemeal, which produced no tactical victory for either side. The Corn Exchange Regiment was spared the carnage and destruction, being held in reserve during the battle. Their time had not yet come. The next day both armies prepared for a renewal of battle, but neither commander continued the fight and by evening the Army of Northern Virginia began their withdrawal. The path of retreat would take them several miles to the west to a ford alternately called Boteler’s or Blackford’s Ford, crossing the Potomac from Maryland to Virginia. The ford was just east of the town of Shepherdstown, (West) Virginia. Colonel Prevost received orders for his men to occupy an area near Burnside’s Bridge and as they passed through the torn battlefield, they saw the horrible results of battle for the first time. Captain Francis Donaldson related later in a letter home, “It was a horrifying sight that set us all along the route, especially in a corn field through which we passed. Here our people had been subject to a dreadful fire, and the ground was thickly strewn with mangled bodies”. Despite the sickening scene, Colonel Prevost had the men drill once they arrived at their assigned designation, knowing his inexperienced men needed all the discipline they could get.

After the Confederates had crossed over the Potomac into Virginia, elements of the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps pursued. Robert E. Lee ordered 64 guns and a small rearguard force of 600 men to defend the ford and left his artillery chief, Brigadier General William Pendleton, in command. Union artillery, 70 guns in all, then occupied the Maryland side. Eager to find out where the Confederate Army was, V Corps commander Major General Fitz John Porter ordered a reconnaissance across the river on September 19th, consisting of two regiments aided by a withering barrage from the federal artillery. That force routed the Confederate rearguard and captured four artillery pieces before they were recalled. When word got to General Lee that the Federals had crossed over to Virginia, he ordered a halt of his Army’s movements and directed a much larger force to return to the ford. That set the stage for the next day’s battle.

September 20, 1862 opened with Porter’s men preparing to make a much larger crossing of the river, as two full brigades were ordered to make the reconnaissance in force to learn exactly what the situation was with the Confederate Army on the Virginia side. Union cavalry had been ordered to lead the crossing but the horsemen were tardy and never made it over. This left the infantry without their mobile cavalry screen to aid in early warning if an attack was coming. That blunder would prove deadly for the federals, especially for the Corn Exchange men.

The 118th Pennsylvania crossed with the rest of its brigade, commanded by Colonel James Barnes. There were high cliffs on the Virginia side of the ford, which had to be circumnavigated or traversed to get to the plain beyond where the rest of the Union troops were. Colonel Barnes spoke to Colonel Prevost, asking him if “he can get his men on top of that cliff,” to which Colonel Prevost replied that he would try. Whether Colonel Barnes meant for the 118th Pennsylvania to go over the cliffs to the plains below or to position themselves on the other side of the bluffs was never ascertained. Colonel Prevost understood it to mean his men were to remain on the cliffs. Very soon they would learn how bad that position would be.

The force that General Lee sent back to the ford was Major General A. P. Hill’s Light Division. The size of the attacking force surprised General Porter, who then sent out orders for his men to return to the Maryland side after fighting began. As a “reconnaissance in force,” his two brigades did their job to gain information on the Confederates and were not there to enact a full-blown general engagement. Despite being under severe Union artillery fire, Hill’s men attacked aggressively, inflicting several casualties, including some amongst the 118th Pennsylvania ranks. Despite being in combat for the first time, the men from Philadelphia generally stood strong. Word then went to the Union regiments on the Virginia side to withdraw, but the orders to the 118th Pennsylvania fell prey to the confusion of battle and Colonel Prevost’s strict adherence to military protocol. Colonel Barnes ordered an aide to inform the two regiments on the 118th Pennsylvania’s right flank to retreat, but apparently neglected to tell him to also inform the Pennsylvanians. The aide noticed the Corn Exchange regiment was still standing fast, so he told a member of the unit to relay to Colonel Prevost the orders to withdraw. When the colonel was informed, he rejected it outright, as the messenger was from his own unit, not a member of Colonel Barnes’s staff. “I do not receive orders that way! If Colonel Barnes has any order to give me, let his aide come to me!” he thundered. While observing strict military protocol, this steadfastness would be the key to the disaster the regiment would fall under.

Federal regiments on the 118th Pennsylvania’s left flank withdrew as ordered, and Confederates rushed to fill the position, pouring fire into the Pennsylvanians. It was at that point that another disaster was in the making – roughly half of their rifles were found to be defective, unable to fire, leaving the men defenseless. Captain Donaldson was surrounded by his men, all of them asking what they should do after they realized they could not shoot back. Some of them took rifles dropped by their killed and wounded comrades to use to defend themselves. Confederates had filtered into a ravine that was part of the 118th’s position, and Colonel Prevost ordered his right two companies to turn and “refuse the line” to meet the flanking threat. That movement was mistaken as a retreat by a good portion of the men of the regiment, and many turned to scramble away while at the same time the center of the line wavered in the face of the Confederate attack. Seeing this, Colonel Prevost grabbed the regiment’s flag to rally his men. His action briefly stabilized his line, but he was then shot through the left shoulder and went down. As he was brought from the field, he passed the command to Lieutenant Colonel James Gwynn. The green and inexperienced men of the Corn Exchange, left alone in the fight because of the garbled orders to retreat, fought on. More men fell dead and wounded, including Captain Henry O’ Neill who was shot through the arm.

Colonel Barnes, horrified to find to the regiment was still fighting on the Virginia side of the river, sent a second order to retreat. Before it reached the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Gwynn had again stabilized the line, and tried to order a bayonet charge, but his orders were drowned out by the cacophony of rifle and artillery fire, and only a few men heeded the directive. By this time, four full Confederate brigades had closed in on the 118th’s position, now roughly 4,000 rebels against the 700+ Unionmen. On the left side, the Confederates lined up and unleashed a devastating volley. Lieutenant J. Mora Moss, the young divinity student, fell dead along with his Captain, Courtland Sanders. A bullet had pierced his heart. The men were at their breaking point when Adjutant James P. Perot, who had been informed of the second retreat order, found Colonel Gwynn with the news. Colonel Gwynn gave the order to his beleaguered men, but not before the Confederates screamed the infamous rebel yell and tore into the Pennsylvanians. The regiment finally broke. Scores of men found themselves unable to escape the Confederates and became prisoners. Among them was Adjutant Perot, who was surrounded soon after bringing the retreat order to his commander.

J. Mora Moss
J. Mora Moss Grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery Section G Lot 250

The panicked Unionists tried to get away by any means possible. Dozens headed for and fell down the steep bluffs to the river below, with many receiving severe and sometimes fatal injuries. Captain Courtenay M. O’Callaghan of Company I was injured after sliding down the bluffs. A mill dam afforded some measure of river crossing, the water being knee deep at some points. Men pushed in bunches over the dam, some falling and being swept away, and some being shot by the Confederates as the rebels overtook the bluffs. Many men simply threw their weapons away and jumped into the river. Some, like those trying to cross at the mill dam, drowned or were shot. All the while, Union cannon on the Maryland side dropped shells to keep the rebels at bay but only succeeded in killing some of their own Corn Exchange men. The Confederate fire didn’t abate after the survivors reached the Maryland side – a number were shot down thinking they had escaped the Confederate onslaught. Finally, the Union artillery and rifle fire made the Confederates’ positions untenable, and when the balance of the 118th Pennsylvania got to safety, the Confederates withdrew. The Battle of Shepherdstown was over. The ordeal of many of the men from Philadelphia was not.

The dawn of the next day revealed the terrible aftermath of the battle. The dead of the 118th Pennsylvania lay everywhere – at the bottom of the bluffs, all along the mill dam, in the ravine that had marked the unit’s position, even dangling from a fallen tree that had slowed some of the men’s frenzied retreat. Orders from Major General Porter strictly forbade anyone from crossing the river to help the wounded. However, one 118th officer, Lieutenant Lemuel Crocker, defied the general and crossed anyway, retrieving bodies of fallen officers and men and pulling wounded to safety when he could. One of the bodies he retrieved was that of young Lieutenant Moss, while another was Private William Simons, who was killed at some point in the beginning of the action. Lieutenant Crocker would be personally dressed down by General Porter and reprimanded after he finished his grim humanitarian efforts, but no further punishment was meted out.

A contingent from the Christian Commission in Philadelphia arrived on the scene to assist the recovery efforts after the colossal bloodletting at Antietam and they joined in the efforts to retrieve their fellow Philadelphians from Shepherdstown. George H. Stuart, Chairman of the Commission, later detailed his experiences in a letter to the Philadelphia Public Ledger. On the Virginia side, Stuart found the Layman brothers, Ephraim and Alfred, amongst the strewn about dead. Ephraim lay wounded on the shore, a hole blown out of his side. His brother Alfred had refused to leave him, and somehow escaped serious injury. Below the bluffs the bodies of Lieutenant Moss, Private Simons, and two other officers were found where Lieutenant Crocker had left them and the injured Captain O’Callaghan was found and brought to safety. George Stuart remarked in his report, “On top of the bluff, and for some distance in the field extending from the bluff, dead bodies were laying in every direction.”

The 118th Pennsylvania had indeed paid a heavy price for “seeing the white elephant” for the first time. The regiment had 737 men when the battle started. When the casualties were assessed afterward, it was found that 3 officers and 60 men had been killed, 101 were wounded, and 105 were missing and assumed prisoners. The fighting at Shepherdstown cost the Union Army 361 men – 269 of them from the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry alone.

The Union men buried their dead, treated their wounded, and the war went on. Despite their tragic and ignominious baptism by fire, the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry served through the rest of the war, being present in all the major battles of the Army of the Potomac, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Petersburg, Five Forks, and Appomattox. They would officially record 9 Officers and 132 Enlisted men killed or mortally wounded and 1 Officer and 111 Enlisted men felled by disease during their service. Of the veterans of Shepherdstown that now rest in laurel Hill and West Laurel Cemetery, the first two to arrive were casualties of the battle. Young Private William Simons was brought home by the Commission and was buried in the family plot in Section L, Lot 122 of Laurel Hill. The plot was purchased by the family only a few months before; Private Simons was the second person buried in it. Next was Lieutenant J. Mora Moss. Where he was first buried after his body was recovered from the Potomac’s banks was not recorded, but on December 18, 1862, he was reinterred in Laurel Hill in Section G, Lot 250, three months after he was killed. He was the first to go into the family plot.

The years would see more 118th Pennsylvania men find a permanent home in the two cemeteries. Adjutant Perot would be paroled 10 days after being captured, and was eventually exchanged, but he resigned his commission on January 17, 1863. He would briefly return to service as Lieutenant Colonel of the 49th Pennsylvania Emergency Troops, a unit raised during the Gettysburg Campaign, but saw no action. He passed away at age 46 on January 14, 1872, and was interred in Laurel Hill in Section 4, Lot 84.

Irish-born Henry O’Neill survived his Shepherdstown wound, received a promotion to Major of the regiment, and ended the war with a brevet of Lieutenant Colonel, US Volunteers. He died on May 12, 1874, and was buried in Laurel Hill in Section 9, Lot 121. His younger brother, Reverend William J. O’Neill, the Corn Exchange regiment’s Chaplain from 1863 to 1865, missed Shepherdstown but also lies in the plot.

Colonel Charles M. Prevost’s wounding at Shepherdstown kept him out of service until April 1863 and likely saved him from a court-martial. He returned to lead his regiment at the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, but his wounds from September 20, 1862, compelled him to leave field service after the battle. He was commissioned Colonel of the 16th Veterans Reserve Corps and served as commandant first at the federal prison at Elmira, New York, then at Camp Butler Prison in Springfield, Illinois before being honorably discharged in January 1865 with a brevet of Brigadier General, US Volunteers. Post-war, he rose to Major General in the Pennsylvania National Guard. When he died on November 5, 1887, he was buried in Laurel Hill in Section B, Lot 64 and is counted as one of 31 Union Generals interred in the cemetery.

Charles Mallet Prevost Grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery Section B Lot 64

Captain Courtenay M. O’Callaghan never recovered from the injuries resulting from his fall from the bluffs at Shepherdstown and was eventually discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate on February 14, 1863. He moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, and became a prominent business and social leader there. However, when he died on October 13, 1891, his remains were brought back to Philadelphia to lie in the family mausoleum in Section 10, Lot 87 of Laurel Hill.

Alfred Layman stayed with his brother Ephraim until Ephraim died of his wounds the day after the battle. Ephraim Layman was eventually buried in what became Antietam National Cemetery. Alfred continued to serve though the rest of the war, rose to the rank of Sergeant, and saw action at Gettysburg and the Wilderness. He was honorably discharged on June 1, 1865. After the war he attended Hahnemann Medical College, became a doctor, and served Philadelphia until his death on December 6, 1913. He was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lot 174 of the Woodlawn Section.

Lastly, Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, who miraculously went unscathed at Shepherdstown while his men fell all around him, served until December 1863. He and Colonel James Gwynn, who assumed command of the 118th Pennsylvania after Colonel Prevost resigned, had bad blood between them. In December 1863, after Colonel Gwynn returned to the regiment following a four-month recruiting and recuperation absence, Captain Donaldson engineered an altercation with the man he called the “Irish Blackguard Colonel” as part of a plan to be dismissed from the Army and no longer serve under Gwynn. The plan worked – he was found guilty of disobeying orders and summarily dismissed from the service in January 1864. Somehow, though, Francis Donaldson managed to gain an audience with President Abraham Lincoln, in which he pleaded for the removal of the dishonorable part of his discharge. The President, after hearing his case, recommended the “disability” of Francis Donaldson’s discharge be removed, and it was. Donaldson returned home, and briefly had an insurance company partnership with General Prevost before forming his own insurance company, which he successfully ran for fifty years. He was active in veterans’ affairs and reunions and was present when the 118th Pennsylvania’s monument was dedicated at Gettysburg. He died at age 87 on May 3, 1928, one of the last surviving members of the Corn Exchange men and was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bryn Mawr Section, Lot 601. Next to him lies his older brother, John P. Donaldson, who served in the Confederate Army during the war. Captain Donaldson wrote long and detailed letters home during his service, mostly to his brother Jacob, and it is because of those letters that today we know a great deal about the day-to-day experiences of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The letters were consolidated and edited by historian Greg Acken and published as the book Inside The Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experiences of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson. In it, we can relive the heroic and tragic stand of the Corn Exchange Regiment on that fateful September 1862 day on the banks of the Potomac River where the young Philadelphians were baptized by fire in a manner that few other units in the Civil War ever experienced as their first introduction to combat.

Francis Donaldson’s Grave in West Laurel Hill Cemetery Section Bryn Mawr Lot 601

Works referenced:
“Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson” (1998) by J. Gregory Acken.

“History of the Corn Exchange Regiment, 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers: From Their First Engagement at Antietam to Appomattox; To Which Is Added a … and a Complete Roster” (1905) by the Survivors Association, 118th (Corn Exchange) Regt., P.V.

“Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862” (2016) by Thomas A. McGrath.

“CROSSROADS OF FREEDOM: Antietam 1862: The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War” (2002) by James M. McPherson

Simons, William, Moss, J. Mora, Perot, James P. burial cards, Laurel Hill Cemetery Archives.

http://john-banks.blogspot.com/2015/10/wading-into-history-shepherdstown.html

“Philadelphia Public Ledger”, September 30, 1862.

Personal Laurel Hill Cemetery field visits by the author.

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