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History's Headlines: Last bugle call

William J. Reichard is not exactly unknown in the Lehigh Valley. His face graces the banner of an Allentown neighborhood association. And if you put his name into Google, out pops his picture. Pretty good for a fellow who’s been dead since 1911. But Reichard’s name is not one that can be dropped and get instant recognition. But it is his image as a young man of 20 in his Civil War uniform, complete with knapsack and bayonetted rifle at the ready, that makes him standout. Over the years, particularly since his letters to his family were donated to the Lehigh County Historical Society in 1958, and published in that year’s copy of the Proceedings, he has become something of an iconic image of that conflict.

The recent, fiery disagreement over the removal of statues of Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee has revived issues that divided the nation in the War Between the States. Over 150 years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, the argument goes on. In the words of that son of the South, William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s never even the past.”

William Jonathan Reichard was a small part of that past. Born on August 6, 1842 in Allentown he was the son of Jonathan and Elizabeth (Tombler) Reichard. William was one of 11 children- seven girls and four boys- who grew up in the family home at 503 Chew Street. The house is still there.

His father was a shoemaker who owned and operated one of Allentown’s first shoe stores at 533 Chew Street. Ignatz Gresser, awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in the Civil War, also followed that trade. After the war William followed his father’s craft. He was to marry Emma Hersh, by whom he had two sons.  Reichard was living in the house he was born in with his son Fred, a mailman, when he died. His letters were given to the LCHS by a grandson.

The Allentown Reichard grew up in went from an agricultural village to an industrial borough focused around the iron industry. But to judge from Reichard’s letters, it still maintained a lot of aspects of a small town where everybody knew everybody else.

Allentown tended to lean Republican while most of Lehigh County was solidly Democratic. Although there were a few exceptions, most of the population was supporting the war to hold the Union together and was either lukewarm or violently opposed to seeing it as leading to freedom for enslaved African-Americans. Reichard had no time for what he calls the “Copperheads” in Allentown, aka Southern sympathizers, and felt he was fighting for “right and justice,” although he didn’t directly discuss slavery in his letters.

Fort Sumter sent the First Defenders to Washington and several other military units had been formed by local leaders. On July 21, 1862 Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain responded to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers to serve nine months. Reichard enlisted in the 128th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment Company G, on August 6th 1862, his 20th birthday. Reichard’s first letter to his parents was written on August 10th, 1862 from Camp Curtain outside Harrisburg. Those expecting beautifully written, poignant letters from Reichard, like those featured in Ken Burns’ series “The Civil War,” will be disappointed. Nor will they find a lot of details about the tactics of generals.  The first letter sets the tone for the rest.

“Dear Father & All,

We are all well. I thought I had better write you a few lines to let you know how we are getting along. We like our camp very well. There are seven in our tent, namely Knauss, Bieber, Wint, Ritter, Brader & Stull; a stranger but a gentlemen & myself.” He asks that his father come and bring him two blankets before they leave and tells his mother “do not grieve about my leaving for I shall try to live as good as I can.”

The next letter includes an account of a Union army medical exam.

“We were marched to town (Harrisburg) yesterday morning at 9 o’clock,” Reichard writes. “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 was passed on.”

Later that day Reichard’s Aunt Susan, who lived nearby, came to camp to pick up a load of his dirty shirts. He goes to her home and picks them up and returns “with a tumbler of jelly;  you ought to have seen the boys jump when I fetched it in.”  Deeply religious, as was his father and active at St. John’s Lutheran Church, he adds that they are planning to hold prayer meetings and notes how beautiful the Methodist boys sing hymns.

Reichard writes they have been there for 5 days and only now are getting their uniforms. He writes to tell his father that if he wants to see him he has about a week. He has heard rumors that they are about to be transferred to Washington. “I suppose Allentown is mostly cleared out of young men for daily they are coming to join our Companies.”

On August 19th the 128th boarded trains at 3 A.M. at Harrisburg for Washington D.C. by way of Baltimore. They were to go to the Virginia side of the capital and build fortifications.

Although Reichard makes no note of it historians claim that throughout this period the men of the 128th were not put through any weapon training or even many marching drills. The only mention made of African-Americans in Reichard’s letters are casual references to women doing wash. The n-word is the only one he uses for them.

By the beginning of September Reichard records them on the move. The 128th is now into Virginia with troops passing them on the way to battle. Generals Pope and McClellan are seen and their armies are moving.

“The fight must have been terrific yesterday,” he writes his sister Amanda, using the bottom of his wash basin for a desk, “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.”

The 128th was to face three major battles: Stone Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.  Antietam had the most impact on Reichard. In his classic study of the battle, “Landscape Turned Red,” Stephen W. Sears describes the untrained 128th thrust into battle with most of its officers killed or wounded and losing 118 men. For Reichard, who saw his Allentown friend and tent-mate Frank Ritter “hit in the head by a bullet under the right eye” die next to him, it was personal. He and his friends buried Ritter. Reichard told his father the location in a letter so Ritter’s family could reclaim the body.

“I cannot describe it to you the way balls and shell whistled about us…I never knew that such a continual roar of Musketry and Artillery could be fired off. If one has never been in battle he can never imagine how it is. I only believe it is only by the will of Almighty God that I got save through,” he writes.

It was May 19, 1863 when Reichard was mustered out of the 128th . In the scare following the Confederate invasion before Gettysburg in July 1863 he joined an emergency unit to defend Chambersburg, Mercersburg and Greencastle. With the Union victory Reichard returned home in August.

For him the war was over.


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