Friday, October 28, 2016

A Sad End To A Promising Life: Captain Peter Fisher, Co. D 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

Peter Fisher, pictured as a Lieutenant
(U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center) 
All I really ever knew about Peter Fisher was from what I gleaned from the regimental records.

I knew, for example, that he was twenty-two-years-old when he enlisted into the ranks of Company D, 48th Pennsylvania, on September 23, 1861; that he stood 5'9" in height, had a fair complexion, blue eyes, and sandy hair. I knew also what Peter Fisher looked like, for there is a photograph of him held in the collections of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His residence was Pottsville and his occupation, a mason. He was enlisted as fifth corporal but was soon promoted to sergeant, then to lieutenant, and, ultimately to captain.

Then, abruptly, on July 21, 1864, he was dismissed from service.

I did not know why he was dismissed; the regimental records did not indicate why. . .I knew only that he had been dismissed.

Then, two weeks ago, I received an email from a descendant of Peter Fisher's and I discovered the reasons why. And not only that, but I discovered more than I ever thought I would about this young captain who had risen so rapidly through the ranks...about his inspiring and promising start and about his sad, sad ending.

He was born in Germany--specifically in the Duchy of Saxe-Meinigen--on February 8, 1839, and was the ninth child born to Johann Georg Fischer, a master butcher, and to Margaretha Eckhard Fischer. Peter would never truly get to know his father, who died in 1841 at age 45, just two years after Peter's birth. Young Peter would spend his childhood in Saxe-Meinigen but at age fifteen, he set sail for a new country--and a new life. He arrived in the United States on August 10, 1854, after a forty-nine-day voyage aboard the Bark Parkfield. In immigrating to America, young Peter Fisher was following in the proverbial footsteps of an older sister, who had made the journey across the Atlantic several years earlier with her husband and baby. At age fifteen, Fisher--who declared himself a tailor--took up residence first in Ashland, then later in Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Six years after his arrival, on September 21, 1860, twenty-one-year-old Peter Fisher petitioned for U.S. citizenship and became an American citizen. Seven months later, this new American would volunteer his services to fight for and defend his adopted country.

Peter Fisher's Petition For U.S. Citizenship 
[Courtesy Mr. Charles Achenbach] 
On April 17, 1861, Peter Fisher marched off to war as a private in the Washington Artillery, a Pottsville-based militia company, which, early the next evening, arrived in the nation's capital along with four other companies of Pennsylvania volunteers. As it turned out, the 475 soldiers composing the ranks of these five Pennsylvania companies were the very first Northern volunteers to reach Washington following the outbreak of war and they would thus all become known, proudly, as First Defenders. Upon his arrival in Washington, Private Peter Fisher found himself billeted in the U.S. Capitol Building, and a short time later, he shook the hand of a grateful President Abraham Lincoln, the leader of Fisher's new nation now steering that nation through its greatest trial. Fisher and his fellow First Defenders would spend most of their three-month term-of-service quartered in an around Washington, D.C. In late July, 1861, and with their ninety-day commitment fulfilled, he and the other members of the Washington Artillery were discharged and returned home to a hero's ovation in Pottsville. But the war was a far, far way from being over and throughout Schuylkill County, volunteers continued to answer their country's call. Most of the returning members of the Washington Artillery would re-enlist that summer, this time to serve not for ninety days but for "three years or the course of the war," whichever should come first. Fisher was among those who chose to volunteer once more, and on September 23, 1861, he was mustered back into Federal service, this time as fifth corporal in the ranks of Company D, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

He must have surely shined as a soldier and an officer both in camp and upon the field of battle, for on December 10, 1862, this twenty-two-year-old mason from Pottsville who, less than ten years earlier, had set sail for a new life in the United States, was promoted from corporal to the rank of 1st Lieutenant. The next summer, he was commissioned captain of Company D.

So then how, after such a meteoric rise through the ranks, was this man suddenly dismissed from service, late in July 1864?

As noted earlier, the regimental records do not indicate the reason, or reasons, why; they simply note that he was "dismissed." It was not unusual for volunteer officers to be dismissed; indeed, it was somewhat common. And since most of the time this occurred it usually involved either alcohol or cowardice, my natural initial assumption was that Fisher must have been dismissed for one of these reasons. But as I discovered two weeks ago, this was not the case.

As it turns out, Captain Peter Fisher was officially dismissed from the service of the United States, with loss of all pay and allowances, for "conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman, in appearing at a theater in Cincinnati, in company with a prostitute, and for absence without leave."

In late January 1864, Captain Peter Fisher was reported as being absent from his regiment--absent without authorized leave. At that time, the veteran soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania were just then making their way back home to Schuylkill County for a much-deserved thirty-day furlough, after having spent a miserable winter encamped in the snow covered mountains of east Tennessee. Their journey home took them through Lexington and Covington, Kentucky, and presumably through Cincinnati, Ohio. The regiment had passed through the Queen City back in April, 1863, on their way westward to Kentucky and ultimately to Tennessee; now, they were retracing their steps on their way back home. But as the rest of the regiment boarded train cars and headed home, Captain Peter Fisher decided to stay. He was AWOL from January 25, 1864, until March 13, 1864, when he was arrested in that theater, in company with that prostitute. Several months later, on July 21, 1864, he was dismissed from service by way of the Adjutant General Office's Special Orders No. 244.

The circumstances surrounding Fisher's dismissal from the service were in no way unique as there were others dismissed for the same or similar reasons. What makes Fisher's story both compelling and sad, however, is what else was happening in his life during this very same time and how short a life he had yet to live following his dismissal.

It was Peter Fisher's great-great grandson, Mr. Charles Achenbach, who reached out to me several weeks ago. He was hoping to locate the grave of Captain Fisher but, unfortunately, I could not help him. I knew only that he had been buried in Pottsville's Odd Fellows' Cemetery but despite the many, many times I spent exploring that graveyard, I had never came across Fisher's grave. Over the next few days, however, Mr. Achenbach very generously shared with me his family's story, his ancestry, and some documents pertaining to Captain Peter Fisher. He is Fisher's great-great-grandson, which means, of course, that Fisher must have been a father. And, indeed, he was. He was married as well. Sometime early in the 1860s, either before the war or while Fisher was at home on leave in Pottsville, the precise date is not clear, Peter Fisher wed Anna Barbara Welsch, the daughter of a brew master and also a native of Saxe-Meiningen in Germany. And on February 6, 1864, Anna Barbara gave birth to a baby boy, Johannnes Fisher, who would go by John for the rest of his life. It is not known if Peter Fisher was present when his son John was born, for this fell during the time he was Absent Without Leave from the regiment. Perhaps he was; likely, he wasn't. It was just a month later, he was arrested in that theater in Cincinnati.

John Fisher, Mr. Achenbach's great-grandfather, was raised by his mother Anna Barbara and by her new husband, Mr. Frederick Fenno, a veteran of the 105th Pennsylvania "Wildcats, in the Fenno household, and alongside nine step-siblings. Anna Barbara married Fenno likely in 1868, and Fenno raised John as one of his own children.  Throughout this life, however, John had kept his last name of Fisher, even though he would never know his father, Captain Peter Fisher, who was dead less than five months after his dismissal from the service.

It is not clear how Fisher died. Perhaps it was due to an illness he contracted during the war. Indeed, his service records do indicate that he was in the hospital in July and August of 1862 and July and August of 1863. But whatever the cause, Captain Peter Fisher passed away on December 16, 1864; dead at the age of twenty-five.

It was, indeed, a sad end to one who's story had been so inspiring. The story of a fifteen-year-old immigrant to the United States, who grew up without a father, who nevertheless found a new life in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, and who, just seven months after becoming a citizen of the United States took up arms in defense of his adopted land; the story of a young man who proved to be a good soldier, rising rapidly through the ranks from private to captain. But then, during what should have been the happiest days of his young life, everything came crashing down. . .

I am grateful that Mr. Charley Achenbach shared the story of his ancestor with me, and I thank him for providing so much of the information for this post, as well as for the photographs posted below of Anna Barbara Welsch Fisher Fenno and Johannes Fisher. I thank him also for his willingness to let me tell that story on this blog.

Mr. Achenbach's hope is to locate Captain Fisher's final resting place and his headstone in Pottsville's Odd Fellows' Cemetery, in order to get it properly marked with the words "First Defender" upon his grave, as a tribute to Fisher's service. Having learned Fisher's story, I, too, hope that he succeeds.

Anna Barbara Welsch Fisher Fenno  (1840-1912)
Courtesy of Charles Achenbach

Mr. Johannes Fisher, Peter Fisher's Son
Courtesy of Charles Achenbach