Saturday, February 2, 2019

"A Good Man Gone:" The Story of Private John C. Cole, of Pottsville: Husband, Father, Soldier, 43rd United States Colored Troops

John Cole was forty-four years old in the spring of 1864; a shoemaker from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, who was able to comfortably provide for his family. He had been married already for seventeen years--he and his wife, Caroline, having wed on March 25, 1847, in Philadelphia--and he was the father of four sons: the oldest, Charles, being then sixteen years of age, followed by John Oliver Cole (age 15), Joseph Cole (11), and Alexander Cole (5). Tragically, John and Caroline Cole had lost a child, William Douglas Cole, in the 1850s, but, in that spring of 1864, Caroline was pregnant once more, this time, as it turned out, with a baby girl who would be born in early May and who would be named Estilena. But when Estilena was born, her father was many miles away from their home in Pottsville, serving in the uniform of the United States as a soldier in the 43rd United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.).

We can only speculate as to what it was that motivated forty-four-year-old John C. Cole to volunteer as a soldier and fight for a country in which, as African-Americans, he and his family were denied full citizenship and treated as inferior; to leave behind the comforts of his home in Pottsville--his family and his pregnant wife--to don the Union blue. Perhaps it was a strong patriotic impulse; a desire to fight for all the United States stood for and all it represented--the ideals and promises, at least, of the nation's founding. Or perhaps it was a determination to fight for the literal freedom and liberation of four million persons from the brutal bonds of slavery. Or perhaps it was a combination of such aspirations that compelled him to enlist. He became a soldier on March 30, 1864--a private in Company E, 43rd United States Colored Troops, which was a part of the First Brigade, Fourth Division, of the Ninth Army Corps. Commanding that brigade was one of Cole's fellow-townsmen: Joshua K. Sigfried of Pottsville.

Three summers earlier, Sigfried had helped to raise the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a regiment recruited almost entirely from Schuylkill County and in whose ranks were a good number of coal miners. He had led the 48th from 1862 until the spring of 1864 when he was asked by General Burnside to take command of one of the two brigades of black soldiers that composed the newly-created Fourth Division of Burnside's Ninth Corps. Sigfried's elevation to brigade command allowed for Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pleasants to assume command of the now veteran 48th Pennsylvania Infantry and in the summer of 1864 it would be Pleasants who would mastermind the engineering and tunneling of the Petersburg Mine, work carried out by his soldiers in the 48th Pennsylvania.

The mine was detonated early on a scorching hot Saturday morning--July 30, 1864. Pleasants's plan had succeeded brilliantly but the follow up assault would prove one of the worst disasters of the war for the Union army. Pleasants and his soldiers, who had labored so hard, in the excavation and tunneling of the mine were exempted from participating in the attack and so, caked with mud and dirt, they watched the terrible ordeal unfold, stunned--and angered, no doubt--that their efforts were so infamously squandered. They would watch as line after line of Union blue--primarily from the 9th Corps--rushed forward, only to have their attack stalled and then stopped in the Crater or just beyond. Lines were enveloped in the smoke and in the dust; soldiers crowded, unable to move, stuck in the blasted Confederate trenches and even in the Crater itself. Efforts were made to break the stalemate at the front, including a determined attack made by the black soldiers of the Fourth Division.

Around 7:30 that hot morning, Col. Joshua Sigfried led his brigade forward. Charging forward within the ranks of the 43rd U.S.C.T. was forty-four-year-old John C. Cole, the shoemaker from Pottsville. As he formed in line prior to the attack--forlorn, as it would turn out--we can only now wonder what he was thinking as he prepared for his first fight. No doubt he thought of his family, 300 quiet miles away in Pottsville; of his wife Caroline, his four boys, and his baby girl whom, sadly, he would never get to see, never get to hold. . .

At some point during the fierce struggle, Private John Cole was wounded. He somehow made it back to Union lines, either on his own or with some assistance. After five painful days in a makeshift field hospital behind the lines at Petersburg, Cole later placed in an ambulance headed toward another hospital, this one at City Point. It was in that ambulance, on August 4, 1864, and during the painful journey to City Point, that John Cole died. His remains were laid to rest hundred of miles away from his home and family in Hopewell, Virginia, at what became City Point National Cemetery, though his stone misidentifies his remains as "B. Cole."

Meanwhile, in Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, all the talk about town was on Pleasants and the men of the 48th Pennsylvania--after all, it was these men--their sons, brothers, neighbors--who, despite the failure of the follow-up assault at the Crater, had nevertheless earned great fame and great plaudits as the soldiers who tunneled under the Confederate lines, whose efforts in that endeavor, at least, proved so successful. Throughout the month of August, many columns of the Miners' Journal newspaper were devoted to Pleasants and the work of the 48th Pennsylvania but in the September 3, 1864, edition appeared this notice of the death of Private John C. Cole:

"An industrious and respected resident of Pottsville;" "an excellent workman;" "an exemplary man;" and "one who gave his life freely in defence of the great principle of human freedom and happiness;" "A good man gone."

A fitting tribute, indeed, to John Cole.

Although identified as "B. Cole" this may very well be the gravestone of John Cole in the City Point National Cemetery, Hopewell, Virginia 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"Distressing Occurrence:" The Tragic, Untimely Death of Sergeant Samuel Clemens, Co. E, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

Samuel Clemens survived the very worst of the American Civil War, making it through all the trying campaigns and hellish fights in which the 48th Pennsylvania was engaged, though certainly not unscathed. Records indicate that was wounded no fewer than three times in battle: at Fredericksburg in December 1862, at the Wilderness in May 1864, and at Petersburg on August 16, 1864. 

Still, though, in late July 1865, he made it back home. 

After serving as a private in the three-month 16th Pennsylvania Infantry (April-July 1861), Clemens, along with three of his brothers, enlisted into the ranks of Company E, 48th PA, in the summer of 1861. At the time of his enlistment, he was 25 years of age, stood 5'6" in height, had a Light Complexion, Grey Eyes, and Sandy Hair. His occupation was given as Laborer, employed, no doubt, at one of Schuylkill County's many coal mines. And it was back to the mines he went following his discharge from the army. Sadly--tragically--it was there--and not on any of the Civil War's many sanguinary fields of battle on which he fought--where he lost his life; on the night of October 31, 1865, just three months after Clemens and the surviving veterans of the 48th Pennsylvania returned home from the conflict. And it was quite sudden, too. An article that appeared in the Miners' Journal a week following his death, reported that Clemens had lost his footing at work and fell down the Windy Harbor coal slope, plummeting some ninety feet to the bottom and was instantly killed. The article, entitled a "Distressing Occurrence," noted that Clemens was an "honorable, patriotic young man," who served his country "from the commencement of the Rebellion to its close," and who "was distinguished for bravery and good conduct." It further noted that Clemens had just recently been married and now left "a young wife and a large circle of friends to deplore their sad bereavement." The remains of Samuel Clemens were laid to rest in the Presbyterian Cemetery, Pottsville, Pennsylvania. 

The Grave of Samuel Clemens
Presbyterian Cemetery, Pottsville, Pa

A sad story, for sure (and one cannot help but feel sorry for Clemens, who made it home from the war only to be killed three months later) though his was certainly not the only occurrence of this. George Beaumont from St. Clair, for example, who served in the 88th Pennsylvania and who lost two brothers in battle--William at Gettysburg and John at Petersburg--made it back home and after the war returned to work in the coal mines. And there he was killed, in November 1868, at age 35.

These and other such tragedies only serve to reinforce Captain John Porter's assertions that, in many ways, army life was much safer than work in the coal mines. A native of Middleport in Schuylkill County, Porter commanded Company I, 48th PA. Many of Porter's volunteers were farmers, students, clerks. . .but there was, of course, a good number of coal miners. During his time in uniform, Porter wrote often to his wife and several times expressed his opinion that soldiering in the Civil War was far easier than laboring in the coal mines. From Pleasant Valley, Maryland, on October 14, 1862, for example, Porter wrote that while he would never "persuade" anyone to enlist, still he was "satisfied that the soldier has an easier life than the man who has to work from early dawn til late at night in the Coal of Schuylkill County."

Thursday, January 10, 2019

At Long Last. . .A Regimental History of the 96th Pennsylvania!

The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War
[Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing Co., 2018]
The 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, although perhaps the best known, was certainly not the only unit raised primarily in Schuylkill County during the American Civil War. Companies A and C of the 50th Pennsylvania, several companies of the nine-month 129th Pennsylvania, and several companies of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, for example, were also recruited principally from the county's coal towns and agricultural districts. And then there was Schuylkill County's "other" regiment--the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a hard-fighting, tough as nails infantry regiment which was organized during the late summer of 1861 and which served for the next three years in the famed Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, participating in some of the war's most sanguinary fights and in some of its most storied campaigns. I say "other" regiment simply because, for far too long, the history and the memory of the 96th Pennsylvania remained little told and often sadly overlooked, particularly compared to other Schuylkill County units, such as the 48th. But now, at long last, we have a regimental history of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry. 

Written by David Ward, a native of Schuylkill County and a long-time student of the 96th who wrote about the regiment for his master's thesis, The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War provides an excellent history of this long overlooked regiment. Lively and well-paced, Ward's examination of the 96th takes us from the regiment's origins in Schuylkill County and then follows the actions of the regiment during its three-years of service as part of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, documenting well its transition from a green, untested unit to a hard-fighting, seasoned regiment that came to be relied upon for its steadfastness and its intrepidity upon the field of battle; a regiment that departed Schuylkill County late in 1861 with 1,200 men and which returned, three years later, with only 120 left. Ward tells of the marches and the battlefield maneuverings, chronicles the successes as well as the failures of the regiment on their many fields of battle, and provides a dramatic look at the regiment's most famous battlefield actions--at Gaines Mill, Crampton's Gap, Salem Church, and at Spotsylvania, each where the 96th suffered fearful losses. Along the way, Ward offers keen analysis of the leadership demonstrated by the regiment's high ranking officers upon these fields of battle, with a focus on the 96th's two commanding officers, Col. Henry Cake and Lt. Col. William Lessig. But perhaps even more interesting, or at least more fascinating, is the examination Ward provides on all the political in-fighting and controversies that seemingly plagued the high levels of command in the 96th; of Cake's and then Lessig's maneuverings to bypass the seniority system when it came to promotion and, instead, to nominate and commission their friends to fill vacancies. We also learn of how these two men, although brave and competent battlefield leaders, actively worked to ruin the military careers of those they either did not personally like or who stood in the way of their cronies' promotions. This was something not unique to the 96th; indeed, it occurred far too often in volunteer Civil War regiments. Yet, in the case of the 96th, it seemed a pronounced and persistent reality. 

While Ward does a fine job in telling the regiment's military history--its actions on their fields of battle--one of the strengths of this book is that he also nicely weaves into the narrative a social history of the regiment as well. For example, Ward examines the social and ethnic backgrounds of the 96th's soldiers, which essentially mirrored the social structure of Schuylkill County at this time. We discover, also, the motivations of these men--why they enlisted and how the endured both the monotony of camp life and the sheer horror and hell of the battle--as well as their thoughts on the war itself as well as the war's leaders. Ward also does an excellent job in documenting how the soldiers in the regiment felt about race, slavery, and emancipation, and how these thoughts changed over time. 

To tell the story of the 96th Pennsylvania--of the regiment's many trials and triumphs--Ward relies most heavily on the soldiers themselves, utilizing their letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and memoirs and in so doing presents an authentic history using the soldiers own words. The firsthand accounts of those who fought either alongside or against the 96th on the battlefield are also plentifully used throughout. Ward also presents the history of the regiment objectively, telling the good as well as the bad, where the regiment succeeded and where it fell short or failed. 

I know David Ward personally and knew for some time he was writing a history of the 96th. I am so very pleased to see his dedicated efforts come to fruition. At long last, we have a regimental history of this long overlooked regiment. This is an excellent book and for anyone with an interest in the Civil War soldier; for anyone who has an interest in the Civil War's Eastern Theater and in the famed Sixth Corps; and especially for anyone who is interested in Pennsylvania's and particularly Schuylkill County's Civil War history, it is highly recommended. 

For more and to order your copy, click here.

The 96th PA at Camp Northumberland, 1862 
[Library of Congress]

Officers of the 96th PA, 1862
[Library of Congress] 

Here is what some others have said about The 96th Pennsylvania in the Civil War

“David Ward’s The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War is a fine history of the Infantry. A regiment in the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps, the 96th Pennsylvania served with distinction in the campaigns in the East. Ward’s book has all the elements of a model regimental history from its moving narrative to its research in many unpublished manuscripts and newspapers. The book is filled with accounts by its members and all the intrigues that plagued volunteer units. It is a most welcome work.”— Jeffry D. Wert, author of The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac

“A History of the Ninety-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers is one of the best Civil War regimental histories to be published in years. In a style reminiscent of Bruce Catton, author David Ward utilizes hundreds of first hand soldiers accounts to weave a narrative that puts the reader in the picture from the units genesis in the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania through its baptism of fire at Gaines Mill and the bloodbaths of Crampton’s Gap and the Overland Campaign. Ward utilizes the ‘new history,’ blending both military and social history to tell the complete story the men of the 96th”—Ted Alexander, Historian (retired), Antietam National Battlefield, author of The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day

“The 96th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment was one of the great combat units of the Civil War. Yet, amazingly, this hard-hitting outfit has enjoyed no regimental history—until now. This book fills that gap. It covers the 96th Pennsylvania in the chaos of battle, on the march and in camp. Generous quotations from officers’ and soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, which were uncovered through prodigious research in dozens of manuscript repositories, give the narrative a human touch. The 96th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War belongs in every Civil War library.”—Richard J. Sommers, author of Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"They Fell While Gallantly Defending a Just and Holy Cause:" The Dead of the 48th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg

Currier and Ives' Depiction of Fredericksburg
[Library of Congress] 

The attack of Sturgis's division of the 9th Army Corps against Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, is not as well remembered and not nearly as romanticized on canvas or on film as the attacks of the 2nd and 5th Corps. . .but it did happen and it was equally as futile and equally as deadly. 

The 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, which formed part of Nagle's brigade in Sturgis's division, took part in this forlorn assault. It was sometime around 1:00 p.m., reported the 48th's commanding officer, Colonel Joshua Sigfried, when Nagle's brigade moved to the attack. The 48th was initially held in reserve, on "an open field to the rear of town." Before them, the other regiments of Nagle's brigade--units from Maryland, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island--advanced directly toward the Confederate position, at the base of the heights. A heavy, incessant infantry and artillery fire tore into the surging blue lines, which were further disrupted by a creek, a rail line, and a railroad embankment. Even the 48th, although held in reserve, was not immune to the shot and shell and a number of men were wounded and one was killed. Around 2:30, the 48th received orders to move forward, to relieve the units on the front line, who had by now been pinned down by the murderous fire. "We started and went at double-quick (a distance of half a mile) under a most terrific fire of shell, grape and cannister from the enemy's batteries," reported Sigfried. Oliver Bosbyshell of Company G recorded that "The Forty-eighth marched by the flank toward the right a short distance until some obstruction had been passed when the command, 'Left face, double quick time,' came and running over the clear space down into a hollow, and up a slight rise of ground, the regiment became hotly engaged with the enemy." The soldiers of the 48th moved to front, exposed to the deadly fire, and arrived at a slight rise where they relieved the 21st Massachusetts Infantry, whose soldiers had exhausted their ammunition. And there the 48th remained until dusk when they, too, ran out of bullets. 

In a letter home, Lieutenant Curtis Pollock rather matter-of-factly summarized the regiment's actions that day: 
"After a run of about a quarter of a mile we reached the place where the infantry was firing. they were posted behind a small hill and were firing over the hill at the Rebs who were behind a stone wall at the bottom of the hill, on the top of which they had their breast works, and near the stone fence ran a small creek between them and us. We were lying down behind the hill for a few minutes waiting for a Regiment to fire all their ammunition before we relieved them. When they were through we went up to the brow and commenced well, we fired away, but could not tell whether we did any damage or not. We were relieved by other troops who had come up while we were firing, and we went back out of the road."

But perhaps it was Joseph Gould of Company F who best captured the confusion, the chaos, and the ghastly consequences of the regiment's efforts at Fredericksburg. Said Gould in his regimental history, published forty-six years after the battle: 
"It has been truly said that only those who participated in the contest know how much and how little they heard. We remember how the smoke, the woods, and the inequalities of the ground limited our vision when we had the leisure to look about us, and how every faculty was absorbed in our work; how the deafening noise made it impossible to hear orders; what ghastly sights we saw, as men fell near us, and how peacefully they sank to rest when a bullet reached a vital spot. [Sergeant August] Farrow and [Private David] Griffiths of Company F stood in the ranks to deliver their fire, though repeatedly commanded to lie down, until Griffiths was shot through the left lung and carried to the rear. Wounded men shrieked and others lay quiet; the singing and whistling of the balls from the muskets was incessant; and we knew very little of what was going on a hundred yards to the right or left. Participants in real fighting know how limited and confused are their recollections of the work, after it has become hot. All efforts to dislodge the enemy were unsuccessful, and the losses very heavy. Night put an end to the contest, and, having exhausted our ammunition, we were relieved by the 12th Rhode Island regiment and marched back to town. Cannon and musketry fire ceased their roar, and in a few moments the silence of death succeeded the stormy fury of the ten hours' battle. We were soon fast asleep in the streets of the town, tired out."

The cost was, indeed, heavy with seven men killed, forty-three wounded, and one missing. In a letter to the Miners' Journal written on December 16, Colonel Sigfried spoke to the families of those lost: "I deeply sympathize with the families and friends of those who have fallen, but," he said, "it is a source of great gratification to know that they fell while gallantly defending a just and holy cause."

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On this anniversary of the battle,a little about the lives of those of the 48th Pennsylvania who died at Fredericksburg 156 years ago while "defending a just and holy cause," follows. . . 

James Williams was twenty years of age when, in September 1861, he was mustered into service as a private in Company A, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. He stood 5'6" in height, had dark eyes, dark hair, but a light complexion. By trade, he was a boatman who called Berks County, Pennsylvania, home. In his regimental history, Oliver Bosbyshell noted that it was a "man in Company A" who had been killed while the regiment was lying in reserve on the afternoon of December 13, waiting to go in. That man was Williams whose remains now lie at rest in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

The Grave of James Williams, 48th PA
Fredericksburg National Cemetery

Like Williams, thirty-three-year-old Corporal Reuben Robinson of Company B, was a boatman who also called Berks County home, his residence in Reading. Unlike Williams, though, he was married, having wed Anna Weidner in June 1856 at the First German Reformed Church in Reading. He was also a father. It appears that, upon their marriage, Anna had a child--a son named James Franklin--though it is not quite clear (and probably unlikely) if Reuben was the child's father or if young James was the biological son of another man. Anna's application for a pension included testimonials from neighbors, however, that acknowledged that as long as they knew Reuben, that he always referred to James Franklin as his own and treated him as such. "He frequently declared in the presence of each of us," testified a few of Robinson's neighbors in Reading, "that it was his child." Sadly, on the 13th of December 1862, for James Franklin, the man who raised him as his father, Reuben Robinson, was killed in action before Marye's Heights. He and his mother would receive $8.00 a month from the government for their loss. Robinson, too, is interred in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. 

The Grave of Reuben RobinsonFredericksburg National Cemetery

Michael Divine (Devine) also served in Company B. He hailed from Branchdale, in the heart of Schuylkill County's anthracite coal lands, and he was, like many others in the regiment, a miner. His father, William Devine, who was born in Scotland, was also a coal miner and, like so many miners, gave his life to coal, dying of asthma and dropsy in Branchdale on January 7, 1857, when his son, Michael, was only fourteen years old. William Devine's death forced Michael into the coal mines at an early age and the young man worked to support his now widowed mother, Catherine. Michael gave the entirety of his seven-dollar-a-week pay to his mother and, when in the army, sent home $10.00 a month to support her. Catherine Divine, who lost a husband in 1857, lost her son Michael five years later, on December 13, 1862, when he was killed at age nineteen by a shell while attacking Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg. 

Sergeant Henry Williamson's death was sudden and it was shocking; his head was blown off by a shell as he and his comrades in Company D, 48th Pennsylvania, charged toward that stone wall at Fredericksburg 156 years ago. He was dead in an instant and, just like that, his three children lost their father and his wife a husband. He was wed at age 19, marrying Elizabeth DeCoursey, on November 2, 1856. Over the next five years, Elizabeth gave birth to three children: a son, Charles Edward Williamson, on April 10, 1857 (and only six months after his parents were married); a daughter Arabella, in February 1859, and another son, William Henry, on the couple's fifth wedding anniversary: November 2, 1861. But Henry was not home to celebrate his anniversary nor to witness the birth of his second son; he was, instead, at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, with the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, having volunteered in early September to fight for his country. 

James, Margaret, and Thomas Kinney, Jr., also lost their father to Fredericksburg's slaughter on December 13, 1862. Their dad, Thomas Kinney, was among the older soldiers in the regiment, enlisting in September 1861, into Company D at age 40. He was a laborer who stood 5'10" in height, had a dark complexion, dark hair, and blue eyes. He was born in Ireland but had immigrated to the United States sometime before 1844, for it was in that year that he married his wife, Charity Kinney, in Eaton, New Hampshire. Sometime before 1860, however, the Kinney's settled in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Like so many others in Union blue, Thomas Kinney fought for and died for his adopted country when he fell at Fredericksburg, 156 years ago. 

These were the men who lost their lives on December 13, 1862, while assaulting the Confederate position along the foot of Marye's Heights. Yet there were two other members of the 48th who died at Fredericksburg: Privates John Williams and William Hill, both of Company B, who both died very late on the night preceding the battle--December 12--while in town; killed, of all things, by the collapse of a chimney. The town of Fredericksburg had been bombarded, looted, sacked and in some places burned; it was a dangerous place to be, especially where the 48th was stationed. As Lieutenant Pollock of Company G related in a letter home: "About four o’clock [on December 12] we were marched down the street nearest the river to about the middle of the town and halted just in front of where a whole block of houses had been burned to the ground, nothing was left of them but the tall chimneys and the smouldering embers. Here we had orders to bivouac for the night and as we could not light any fires the men made their coffee and cooked their evening meal on the burning ruins. Soon after dark one of the chimneys fell down with a loud crash and as the men were lying all around under them at every little there was we all supposed two or three must be badly injured, if not killed, but by good fortune all the men got out but one, who was not seriously injured, he being near the bottom." Yet Pollock's information was incorrect; tragically, two men were, indeed, killed. William Hill was a coal miner from Pottsville, who was thirty-three years of age when he enlisted into the ranks of Company B, 48th, in September 1861.  John Williams was also a coal miner, though he was from Ashland, and but twenty-one years of age.

Fredericksburg, Virginia
[Library of Congress]

In addition to those who were killed, the 48th Pennsylvania also sustained 43 additional casualties in the number of men who were wounded, and we know that for some, their wounds proved mortal. Such was the case for Corporal Joseph Carter of Company A, Corporal John H. Derr of Company D, and Corporal Edward F. Shappell of Company I.  Carter was an overseer from Tamaqua, likely a supervisor at a mine, though only twenty-two years of age when he enlisted in September 1861 into the ranks of Company A, 48th PA. He stood 5'10" in height, had a light complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair. Carter succumbed to his wounds soon after sustaining them in combat at Fredericksburg. John H. Derr lived for three weeks following his Fredericksburg wound, spending Christmas and New Year's Day in the hospital, and passing away on January 2, 1863. He was a blacksmith by profession and twenty-one years of age when he traded in his blacksmith's tools for the musket of a soldier in September 1861. His remains were laid to rest at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Edward Shappell hailed from Orwigsburg in the rich farmlands of southern Schuylkill County and was a teamster by trade. He enlisted late in August 1861 at age twenty-seven. He stood 5'10", had sandy colored hair, grey eyes, and a light complexion. The date of his death remains unknown though it followed his wounding at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. 

The Grave of John H. DerrU.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's National Cemetery
Washington, D.C.

That is just part of the stories of these ten men of the 48th Pennsylvania who were killed or mortally injured by bullets, by shells, by chimneys at Fredericksburg in December 1862. 

More than just numbers and more than just soldiers, they were devoted husbands, loving fathers, devoted sons who all "fell while gallantly defending a just and holy cause." 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Soldier Story: Private William Straw, Musician/Fifer, Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

I always enjoy seeing a 'new' face of the 48th Pennsylvania, an image, that is, one of its soldiers I had never before seen, and thanks to Norman Gasbarro at Civil War Blog and to the descendants of a 48th soldier who posted photographs of him on a public family tree, I recently got to see a several images of  Private William Straw of Company K, and discover much more about him. 

Private William Straw
Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

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According to the information posted by his descendants, William Straw was born on October 12, 1841, in Packington, Leicestershire, England, the son of John and Frances Straw. Sometime either in 1847 or 1849, when William was either six or eight years of age, he and his mother immigrated to the United States, though there is some thought that she died on board the ship on their way to America. If this was the case, then it is likely young William Straw was met by and raised in the home of a relative who had already been residing in the United States. By 1860, he was residing in Llewellyn, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, and his occupation was that of a blacksmith. On April 22, 1861, ten days following the outbreak of civil war, nineteen-year-old William Straw was mustered into service as a private in Company G, 6th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a three-month regiment that was mustered out of service on July 27, 1861. After his ninety-day enlistment in the 6th PA, Straw volunteered once more and on October 1, 1861, was once more mustered into service, this time as a private in Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered in and would serve as a company musician, playing the fife. He was almost twenty years old, stood 5'3 1/4" in height, and was described as having a Light Complexion, Dark Eyes, and Light Hair. Straw served in the regiment for the duration of the conflict, having reenlisted for another "three-year or the course of the war" term in the winter of '64-'64. Mustered out when the regiment was disbanded on July 27, 1865, Straw returned to Schuylkill County and just a few month later, on October 1, married Mary Elizabeth Reed in Pottsville. Together, the couple had ten children over the next nineteen years though, sadly, two--a daughter, Minnie, and a daughter Dollie--would die in early childhood. The Straw family moved first to Tremont, then to Williamstown, and finally, to Philadelphia by 1894. 

William Straw died at age 64 from the effects of a stroke on April 5, 1906, and was buried at the Hillside Cemetery, Montgomery, PA. 

Straw and his Wife, Mary, touring Devil's Den at the Gettysburg Battlefield

Post-War Image of Private William Straw

The Grave of William Straw
Hillside Cemetery, Montgomery, Pennsylvania

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My thanks again go to Norman Gasbarro for locating this image of Private/Musician William Straw and posting about it on his website as well as to Straw's descendants who made these photographs and the information about Straw's life public on 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Is This A New Face of the Forty-Eighth?

Is this the image of a 48th Pennsylvania soldier?

I don't know how many times I've said it or heard it said over the years in reference to Civil War soldier photographs and particularly CDVs: "If only they would have signed their names," or "If only someone would have written down their names. . ." 

This is the common lament for most who collect Civil War images, and especially for those who collect images of soldiers from just one single regiment, such as the 48th Pennsylvania. But the fact is that for far too many Civil War soldier CDVs, there is no identification, no name...nothing to tell us, really, who they were, what they did, or what became of them during the war or after, if, indeed, there was an after for them. Instead, we have just an image, typically of a young man in a blue uniform, with a look of youthful pride or determination upon their face and more often than not, it seems, an officer. Yet even without a name (and who today writes the names of friends, family, or even oneself on the back of their photographs?), there are sometimes clues we can follow in an unidentified soldier's photograph. What is the photographer's backmark, for example; where was the photograph taken? What kind of uniform is the soldier wearing? Is there anything on that uniform, such as a corps badge or hat brass, to help better narrow down the search? Sometimes, and especially for those who collect from a single regiment or at least for me who has spent twenty+ years searching for 48th PA images, the question is: does he have the look of a 48th Pennsylvania soldier. Not an exact science or question, to be sure. .  .but in many cases, these are the only clues we get.

Have a look at this Civil War soldier CDV, both front and back. . .

Unidentified Soldier
Mortimer/Pottsville, PA
[Hoptak Collection]

What are your thoughts at first glance?  Is it the youth of this soldier? His rather short stature, perhaps? Maybe his uniform first grabbed your attention; maybe that it appears his uniform is way too big! especially his trousers. The photographer's backmark? That there are letters and numerals on the top of the kepi he is holding? These were the things that immediately caught my attention, along with the thought, at least to me after more than two decades collecting, that this soldier has the look of a the 48th, strange as it sounds. 

But was this soldier actually in the 48th? The 48th Pennsylvania was recruited almost entirely from Schuylkill County and Pottsville, the county seat and largest city, was home to a number of photographers during the Civil War, most notably A.M. Allen and Mortimer. This image, of course, has the Mortimer backmark, as does this image of Major Joseph Gilmour of the 48th. . .

Major Joseph Gilmour, 48th PA 
[Hoptak Collection]

As you can see, same carpet, same chair...Were these two images also taken during the same time? The Gilmour image was taken in February-March 1864; was the photograph of the unidentified soldier taken during this time as well, when the regiment was home on furlough and recruiting new members? Was this young man one of those new recruits who joined the regiment in the winter of 1864? Note the absence of veterans' stripes on his uniform and, again, his youthful appearance. . . 

Certainly, though, the 48th Pennsylvania was not the only unit to be recruited from Schuylkill County and Pottsville...not by a long shot. There was the 96th PA, for instance; several companies of the 50th PA, several of the 129th PA, and several from the 7th PA Cavalry, in addition to scores of other regiments who drew recruits from Schuylkill County. And, well, during the labor disturbances in '62-'63 and into '64 there were New York and New Jersey volunteer soldiers brought in to the county to help protect against draft resistance and violence and to help ensure the mines kept pumping out the anthracite to fuel the war effort. Many of these New Yorkers and New Jersyians no doubt went to Allen's or Mortimer's studios to have their 'likeness' taken. 

But what about that hat brass?

It's really, really difficult to see...partially hidden and upside down.

Trying to make sense of those letters and numbers, I scanned the image into my computer at a high resolution, magnified it, clarified it, and turned it right side up. . .

Is any of this now any clearer?

To me, while I cannot make out the top letter, which would have denoted what company this soldier belonged to (A, B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,K---and somehow I 'see' an E there), it does appear to me that the middle two numbers are, indeed, a "48" and the bottom letters "PV" for Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Does anyone else see this as well? 

Take a step back and look at it from a distance?

Again, it does appear to me that this young man was a soldier in the 48th Pennsylvania.

Or am I just 'seeing' 48 PV because I want to see it?  Are the letters and numbers simply too blurry to tell for sure. . .

Your thoughts, insights, etc, are appreciated!