On Oct. 16, 1861, at the age of 43, Abram Allen enlisted in the 86th Regiment of N.Y. Infantry, the “Steuben Rangers.” Abram also enlisted his two oldest sons. This shoemaker needed the three enlistment bonuses to pay off some personal and business debts. They were not concerned about their safety, since consensus was that the skirmish with the secessionists would not last long.
The three Allen men spent the early months guarding the nation’s capital. When the rebels threatened Washington, D.C., in May 1862, the Rangers were mobilized and ordered into Virginia to engage the enemy at what has become known as Second Manassas. After the battle, the regiment was withdrawn to Alexandria, Va., for several weeks of rest and recovery. The Rangers were then assigned to Fort Corcoran to defend the main railroad bridge into the city.
By June, under the command of Gen. Alfred Pleasanton, the 86th engaged secessionist troops at Fleetwood Hill, also known as Brandy Station. Here, among nearly 1,000 Union fatalities, the oldest of the boys, then 17, was killed and his father buried him. The younger son, Arthur, wrote in matter-of-fact terms to his mother about the death of his older brother, James. In that letter, he wrote they were moving to Pennsylvania. After Brandy Station, the troops moved north through Washington County to Gettysburg.
Confederate troops claimed the life of Arthur at Spotsylvania during the Battle of the Wilderness. Here, Abram was wounded and subsequently captured. He ultimately was imprisoned at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga. Andersonville has been described as being “the most fatal field of the war.” Nearly a third of the Union soldiers held at Andersonville died in captivity, mostly from disease. As a result of a troop exchange, Abram was released. But he never made it home to Canisteo, succumbing to disease en route.
The Civil War claimed three of the Abram Allen family. Fortunately, the third-oldest son did not fight in the Civil War. He was my great-great-grandfather.
I did not know the details of this story until a few years ago. A relative doing genealogical research into our family came across this part of our history. My description above does not do his story justice. Through her perseverance, nearly 150 letters written home by Abram and his sons came to light. These letters are compelling. They tell a tale of mundane daily camp life and sheer boredom. The days of violence are described cryptically, leaving the terror to the imagination.
We, in Washington County, encounter reminders of the events of 150 years ago daily. We only have to drive Harpers Ferry Road or Sharpsburg Pike, cross Antietam Creek or even look to the mountain ridge that runs east and south of Hagerstown to see reminders of the thousands of men who gave their lives. Like Abram, many originally entered the service for money. But over time that changed. They gave their lives for friends and comrades in arms. Ultimately, they gave their lives for ideals.
This year is the sesquicentennial of the dominant historical event in our county. The Battle of Antietam is one of the most important events in American history. Some historians rank it among the most important military events in world history. I will leave its place in history to the experts. But every time I go to Antietam National Battlefield, I can’t help but be moved. If there is hallowed ground anywhere, surely it is Antietam. Recently, I shared Antietam with a teenager from Eastern Europe. We stayed for hours; he, too, was not in a rush to leave. Unfortunately, because it is part of our daily lives, we sometimes take the events of 150 years ago for granted.
Since learning the story of Abram, I have a new perspective on my heritage. I also have a new appreciation of the impact the Civil War had on Washington County and on our country. Civil War-related events are planned nearly every weekend (a schedule can be found at www.marylandmemories.org). Take advantage of the opportunities to explore and investigate the many commemorative events this summer and fall. Take time to learn about the issues that confronted our country in the years leading up to the conflict.
The Civil War, more than any other event, made us one people committed to freedom, liberty and equality. Reflect on that and be open to the possibility that maybe you, too, will discover your own Abram Allen story.
David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is email@example.com.