- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

The day of the Battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in the War Between the States, with about 23,000 killed and wounded.

Days after the battle, the Army of the Potomac was occupied with burial details and caring for the wounded, both Blue and Gray, while thousands of family members came to the still-smoking battlefield searching for loved ones.

It was during this period of turmoil and grief that Sgt. Nathan Dykeman of the 107th New York Infantry made it into the pages of history by taking the Bible from the Dunkard Church.

The Dunkards, so called for their method of complete submersion in baptism, originally were known as German Baptist Brethren. In 1852, they constructed the small whitewashed building, without a steeple or stained-glass windows, called the Mumma Meeting House. During the battle, many soldiers mistook it to be a schoolhouse.

Ironically, the bloodiest day of the war to end slavery was fought in the back yards of that small group of pacifists, who completely opposed any form of war or slavery.

Dykeman went inside the church, which was being used as a hospital, and found that the large Dunkard Bible remained open on the altar table. When he left, he took it with him as a battlefield souvenir. When he was on furlough, a comrade helped him take the heavy book — 9 by 12 by 21/2 inches — to Dykeman’s home in Millport, N.Y., just north of Elmira.

Nathan Dykeman and his brother James had enlisted at Havana (Montour Falls today) in the 107th New York Infantry. Both were assigned to Company H, and James, 22, mustered in as a private. Nathan, 24, was a corporal.

After Antietam, the brothers from Schuyler County faced some of the greatest challenges of the war on the blood-soaked fields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Early in 1864, the 107th was transferred to south-central Tennessee and became part of the Army of the Cumberland. James Dykeman was wounded in action May 25, 1864, at Dallas, Ga., but recuperated to fight at his brother’s side in Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea.

When the South surrendered, the 107th was in Raleigh, N.C., and the unit was immediately returned to Bladensburg, on the outskirts of Washington. The Dykeman brothers marched together for the final time on May 24 in the Grand Review down Pennsylvania Avenue.

As part of Sherman’s Western Army, they were reviewed by President Andrew Johnson. President Lincoln had been assassinated just weeks earlier.

Waiting to be mustered out of service, the brothers and a comrade walked over to the Bladensburg railroad station. While they were walking along the double set of tracks, a train came in their direction. James and the other soldier stepped off both sets of tracks, but Nathan stepped onto an adjacent track. The loud noise of the oncoming train’s steam whistle obscured the warning whistle of another train coming from his rear on the track to which he had just moved. He was killed instantly.

(Numerous publications assumed that Nathan died in New York around 1903. Pension records, however, show that he never made it home after the war.)

Late in 1903, his sister, wanting to do what was right, sought to return the Dunkard Bible to its congregation. She handed it over to the 107th New York Veterans Association, but none of the aging soldiers knew how to locate the Dunkards. Then someone remembered a black farmer, John T. Lewis, who lived near Elmira and claimed to be a Dunkard.

Mr. Lewis agreed to assist. Letters were exchanged with Elder John E. Otto of Sharpsburg, Md., and after more than 40 years, the old leather-bound book was returned home.

The Bible remained in the Dunkard Church until around 1914. By that time, a new Brethren church had been built in Sharpsburg. The Bible had been wrapped in brown paper and placed in a vault for safekeeping at Fahrney-Keedy Home in Mapleville, Md., and, because the congregation had become somewhat inactive, it was forgotten.

When Fahrney-Keedy remodeled, the heavy brown package, not known to contain the sacred volume, was used as a doorstop. Someone finally unwrapped it and discovered these words on a piece of paper behind the front cover:

“Sharpsburg, December 4, 1903.

“This Bible was taken from the Church after the Battle of Antietam by Sergeant Nathan F. Dykeman, September 28, 1862, Regt. 107, Co. H., N.Y.S.V. He is now dead and it fell into the hands of his afflicted sister. She presented it to the Company at their reunion this fall 1903 for which they gave her ten dollars.

“Their desire was to send it back to its home in the Brethren Church at Antietam Battlefield if it was still in existence. Through the kindness of Brother John T. Lewis, Elmira, N.Y., they received my name and address. They wrote me, I answered. The Bible is here after an absence of 41 years, 2 month, 6 days. It is supposed to have been placed in the Church by Daniel Miller.

“John E. Otto”

The Dunkard Church was destroyed during a windstorm on May 23, 1921, but was rebuilt on the same foundation with original brick in 1962 with funds from Maryland and the National Park Service.

All the ministers who preached from the old Dunkard Bible — Michael Emmert, David Long, John Miller, Daniel Wolf and John Otto — have passed away, as have the young soldier who took the Bible and the old farmer who returned it to the congregation.

The role of the Dunkard Church on America’s bloodiest day is only a dim memory. The treasured book, however, is still in good condition and remains at the visitors center at Antietam. Each September, it is taken to the nearby rebuilt Dunkard Church and carefully displayed at a special Brethren worship service. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” — Matthew 24:35.

The author is grateful to Stephanie Gray, chief of resource education and visitor services at the Antietam National Battlefield, and John Howard, the battlefield’s superintendent, for going beyond the call of duty and making it possible for the author to reverently hold the original “battlefield Bible.”

Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and a frequent contributor to this page.

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