The following post first appeared on the blog of Antietam Battlefield Guide Dave Maher (Pennsylvania’s Emergency Men) on Dec. 23, 2011.
In 1826, Jacob Higgins was born in Williamsburg, PA, in what would later become part of Blair County. Growing up in a rugged, mountainous region of the state, and coming from an ancestry of “hardy stock”, Higgins learned early many of the characteristics of toughness, and independence.
“My father’s side of the house,” wrote Higgins, “came from the North of Ireland. My mother’s side came from Germany. My mother died when I was seven years old. My father died a year or two after and I was left penniless and to shift for myself as best I could. I worked on a farm for a while for my victuals and clothes, then I got a few dollars per month, and finally went to the carpenter trade and worked at that until the Mexican War broke out.”
With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Higgins soon joined “the Wayne Guards”, Co. M of the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry in 1847. Heading to their muster point at Pittsburgh, Higgins and his company floated along the Pennsylvania Canal, until reaching Hollidaysburg. Here they boarded the famous Allegheny Portage Railroad, and rode it’s series of incline planes up and over the rugged terrain of Blair and Cambria Counties, arriving at Johnstown. From here, the Co. once again boarded canal boats for the final leg of their journey to Pittsburgh, where they would be sworn into Federal service, organized with the rest of the 2nd Regiment, and shipped off to the seat of war in Mexico, where they would fight in the army of Gen. Winfield Scott.
While on picket duty one night, in the Sierra Madres, Higgins had a memorable run-in with a “local”:”I was quietly seated on the little knoll and no enemy appeared to be near me except the frisky mosquito, but all of a sudden some wild animal appeared in the forks of the road. It looked to me to be about six feet long. I at once cocked my gun and the click of the lock attracted the attention of the animal as it squatted down and then in one bound leaped across the road and disappeared. I afterwards learned that the animal was a jaguar or American tiger.”
Another dramatic moment took place in the small Mexican village of Azotla. Trying to catch up with a group of his fellow soldiers, who had gone to the village earlier in the day, Higgins entered Azotla and found it deserted. Entering a store, which was left wide open, Higgins recalled that he, ”…heard a noise and on looking behind me saw three large brawny Mexicans standing at the front door with large knives or cutlasses in their hands and two others standing in the back door. There I was without any arms whatever to defend myself. I just leaned back against the counter shelf with a sigh of despair and as my eyes dropped down, as it were, I saw a large Mexican sabre lying under the counter unsheathed almost at my feet. I stooped down, picked it up and walked out from behind the counter in a careless manner, but not a word had been spoken yet by the Mexicans or myself. But at this time I raised my sabre, pointing up towards the stairs and called out to my comrades, which I knew were not there, to come down. That threw the Mexicans off their guard and I kept advancing toward the door, swinging the sabre above my head and glancing toward the stair until I got close enough to strike which I did with all the strength I was able to command. I struck one on the left side of the neck and another on the right side. One fell to the right and the other the left and the third one jumped out of the way. I jumped out the door and if ever I did any fast running it was at that time.”
By September 1847, Winfield Scott’s army had pushed within striking distance of the Mexican capitol, but first had to assault the remaining stronghold at Castle Chapultepec. Higgins described the charge toward the castle gates: “The grape and canister came down on us thick, not to mention the continual rattle of the musketry which showered us with bullets as thick as hail. Men were falling all around me, but I escaped unscathed. Many of the bullets came so close that the wind off them nicked my hair. I consider that close enough. Some of the rascals stood until we ran bayonets through them or knocked them out with clubbed muskets. We found the road strongly fortified and had to charge right up to the mouths of the cannons and turn them on the men that used them until we could reach the city gates. It was at this point that I was struck on the leg by a splinter off of the gate. We held our position all night and the next morning we marched into the besieged city. Here we planted the stars and stripes on the capitol where they now proudly wave.”
Upon returning home from the war, Higgins began work at the Portage Iron Works, while remaining active in the Pennsylvania Militia. When the Civil War broke out, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin looked to all able military leaders of the Keystone State. Higgins became commissioned as Colonel of the 1st Pennsylvania Militia (not to be confused with the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers, which served for three months). In August of 1861, he raised and lead Co. G, 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, and was soon promoted to Lt. Col. At the Battle of Drainesville, in December, Higgins personally lead the 1st Pennsylvania in an attack on the town.
In 1862, Higgins resigned from his position in the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, and was soon commissioned as Colonel of the 125th Pennsylvania Infantry, which he also helped raise. Filled with over 900 men from Higgins’ native Huntingdon/Blair County region, the 125th was to serve an enlistment of nine months. Rushed to the front, the veteran Higgins would lead his “green” regiment into their first battle, the Battle of Antietam, as a part of the Union army’s 12th Corps.
Just days before Antietam, the 125th was pushed towards the fighting at South Mountain, where they were spectators to some of the carnage of that battle. The sight of the lifeless body of Union General Jesse Reno, who had been killed during the fight, and was being carried to the rear, was a memorable event for the men of the new Pennsylvania regiment.
Three days later, during the terrible Battle of Antietam, the 125th moved toward the battlefield to support the Union I Corps, already in action early in the morning. Upon arriving at the gruesome scene that nearly two hours of prior combat had created, Higgins and the 125th advanced into the hotly contested West Woods. “I gave the command,” wrote Higgins in his Official Report, “and my men started forward with a yell, driving the enemy before them and gaining possession of the woods. Here I took some prisoners whom I sent to the rear.“ Soon, however, the overwhelming pressure of rebel reinforcements took it’s toll on the 125th. “[The rebels] continued to advance, when I ordered my skirmishers to rally, and gave the command to commence firing. A most destructive fire caused the enemy to halt. I held him here for some time, until I discovered two regiments of them moving around my right, while a brigade charged on my front. On looking around and finding no support in sight I was compelled to retire. Had I remained in my position two minutes longer I would have lost my whole command.” Within a very short time, the “green” 125th Pennsylvania suffered 229 casualties. [to read Higgins' entire Report, click here.]
Having been on the march from Harper’s Ferry, the 125th was not engaged during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.At the Battle of Chancellorsville, in May 1863, after a surprise attack on the Union flank, the 125th helped to rally the shattered troops that were fleeing in confusion. When their brigade commander, Thomas Kane, was injured, Higgins took command of the brigade and shepherded it through the chaotic battle. The 125th performed admirably once again, and they, along with the rest of Gen. Geary’s 12th Corps division, were one of the last units to leave the field at Chancellorsville. Their coolness under the stress of battle was personally commended by both Geary and Gen. Henry Slocum, 12th Corps commander. Within days of the fight, the Regiment was headed back to Harrisburg, having finally reached the end of their nine month enlistment. The 125th Pennsylvania was officially mustered out of service on May 18, after which time, Higgins returned home to Duncansville, where he resumed his work at the Portage Iron Works.
However, as events unfolded that summer, Higgins would soon be marching off to war again, but this time the march wouldn’t be nearly as far.