Jeremiah Mickly’s great-grandfather John Jacob Mickly had been one of the men who moved the Liberty Bell when the British attacked Philadelphia, secreting it away in the basement of the Reformed Church in Allentown, PA. His was a typical story of ministers who enlisted on both sides during the Civil War to serve as chaplains, although in Mickley’s case, he chose to serve with a regiment composed entirely of African-American soldiers.
On December 2, 1862, just eleven days before the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, Jeremiah Mickly said goodbye to his wife and two children and reported for duty with the 177th Pennsylvania Infantry to become a Civil War chaplain. The only known photograph of Mickly shows him dressed in the standard chaplain’s uniform of the day: a plain black frock coat with a standing collar and black buttons with plain black pantaloons. Like many other Civil War soldiers, Mickly re-enlisted for service after his stint with the 177th ended, becoming chaplain of the 43rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops.
Mickly’s ministry sent him traveling across south-central Pennsylvania. He preached first in McKnightstown and then in Perry county as pastor of the Blaine Church. By the time he was mustered into the Union army, Mickly had moved once more, but the historical evidence is unclear. On his regiment’s muster-in roll, Mickly cited Lancaster as his hometown, whereas his 1862 official military records give his residence as “Cashtown, Franklin county.” It is conceivable that Mickly was a “visiting pastor,” a minister without a permanent congregation. A Union army chaplaincy, on the other hand, offered a minister more security in that he gained a steady evangelical audience and more money than civilian work offered: But the work was dangerous; technically, an army chaplain was a soldier, and at any moment he might be called upon to pick up a rifle to assist his regiment.
Mickly was drafted for a nine-month hitch in the 177th Pennsylvania Regiment of the Union army, one of many Union army companies raised in Adams county, although not the first. The first company was the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment, company E, which left for the battlefront on April 19, 1861, and the second company was the First Pennsylvania Reserve, Company K, which was mustered in on June 8, 1861. Mickly and the 177th left Pennsylvania for Virginia on December 2, 1862, arriving in Suffolk, where it spent eleven weeks clearing forests and erecting military forts. But Mickly and the 177th did experience some brief moments of military drama. On January 30, 1863, “a reconnaissance was made, in which the entire force in and about Suffolk joined, with the exception of the 177th, which by order of General Peck, was left in charge of the defenses. During the absence of the forces, Colonel Wiestling was attacked by a body of rebel cavalry which was handsomely repulsed.”
By March 1863, the 177th was transferred to Deep Creek, Virginia, where it infiltrated an enemy mail line carrying attack plans of Confederate General James Longstreet. Later that spring, the regiment chased Confederate mail boats on the Blackwater River in Virginia. The 177th was mustered out in Harrisburg on August 7, 1863.
It was not unusual for white men to serve in more than one Civil War military outfit, but white officers of black troops were considered nonconformists. They were ridiculed by their fellow Union soldiers and despised by the Confederates. Mickly’s military record is silent about Mickly’s motives for wishing to serve with the colored troops, but there are commendation letters from Adams county clergymen: William Dietrich, minister of the German Reformed Church of Gettysburg; William Reilly, professor of theology at Mercersburg Seminary; and, Reverend Jacob Ziegler of the German Reformed Church of Gettysburg. Ziegler wrote that Mickly was “in every way qualified” for the job as chaplain.
These endorsements persuaded the 43rd Regiment to elect Mickly as chaplain on September 27, 1864. Mickly vividly describes his experience with the 43rd in both his correspondence and his history of the regiment. In the fall of 1864, the 43rd was part of the 25th Army Corps, First Brigade, commanded by Major Godfrey Weitzel. The men were stationed just south of Petersburg, Virginia, in October, 1864, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant decided to surprise Robert E. Lee’s forces at Hatcher’s Run. The plan was to distract Lee by moving Union troops across the James River near Fair Oaks, while on the other side, three Union corps, including the 43rd Regiment, would attempt “to cut, and if possible hold both the Boydton Plank Road and the Southside Railroad, the two remaining arteries whose severance would bring on the collapse of Petersburg.” Things went wrong, however, when a gap opened between the Union lines, allowing Confederates to disrupt the Union initiative. Mickly wrote that the 43rd “held the position of skirmishing on the advance of the 9th Corps line of battle and most gallantly assisted [sic] two lines of breast works.” The last regiment to leave the field, the 43rd counted 1 officer and 4 men killed, 8 officers and 54 men wounded and 6 men missing. It was during this battle that Mickly suffered a knee injury in a fall from his horse. He recovered enough to remain in uniform until his muster-out, but he suffered knee problems for the rest of his life.