Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Great Discovery In An Antique Store: John Dechant: Sergeant Major, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry

You just never know what you might find. . .

Recently, a friend of mine named Britt was exploring an antique store in Frederick, Maryland. 

Arriving at a stack of old cabinet cards, he examined each one, looking for any names, photographer's mark, and so on.  On the back of one, he saw the name "John Dechant." On front was an inscription of where the photograph had been taken and by whom, "D.W. Boss, Mechanicsburg, Pa."  And so he did an internet search for a John Dechant from Mechanicsburg and up popped a hit. . .a link to a listing for a John Dechant who is buried in Mechanicsburg. And inscribed upon the tombstone: Co. K 48th Regt. Penna. Vol. GAR 

Britt had discovered a post-war image of John Dechant, the Sergeant Major of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. And the price for this image, well, just one dollar.  You simply can't beat that. 

A Post War Image of John W. Dechant
Discovered For Just $1 At An Antique Store

Prior to this fortuitous discovery, I had never before seen an image of Dechant, wartime or otherwise and so I was simply thrilled when Britt had sent this along to me.  
Born on February 27, 1841, John Dechant was twenty-years of age when the Civil War broke out. A laborer from the small Schuylkill County town of Cressona, young Dechant decided to volunteer his services and on October 1, 1861, became a member of Company K, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He stood 5'10 1/2" in height, had a dark complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair.  Dechant must have certainly impressed for, as the war progressed, he advanced in rank until, on June 6, 1865, he became third and final Sergeant-Major of the regiment. He was mustered out of service when the regiment disbanded the following month. 

He moved to Mechanicsburg, PA, at some point during the post-war years, though little is known of him from there.  In May 1875 his name appears--alongside a John Sponslor, who also served in the 48th--in the Carlisle Weekly Herald as having attained a licensed to keep and operated a hotel, restaurant, and serve liquor in Mechanicsburg. He lived on Market Street in Mechanicsburg and one day--it appears as though to be in the 1880s-1890s--donned what appears to be his best grey suit and made his way to the photography studio of D.W. Boss to have his picture taken. 

He passed away at the too young age of sixty, on March 23, 1901, and was laid to rest with full military honors in the Mechanicsburg Cemetery. 

Notice of the funeral of John Dechant
Carlisle Weekly Sentinel, March 27, 1901

Fast-forward some 118 years later to the year 2019, and there was Britt, in that antique store shuffling through a stack of old photographs, and discovering this image of John Dechant, Sergeant-Major of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. 

I suppose I, too, will now look more closely at those pictures I sometimes just pass by since as this story illustrates, you never know what you might just find.  .  . 

The Grave of John Dechant

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Stabbed To Death In Silver Creek: The Murder Of A Civil War Soldier

If not one of the most tragic, then at least it was one of the saddest stories in the history of the 48th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry. 

One of its soldiers, at home on furlough, murdered in Silver Creek. 
And it all began, apparently, with an argument over who was a better general: George McClellan, or Ambrose Burnside. . . .

It happened late on a Friday night--February 26, 1864. The war-weary, veteran soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry were at home in Schuylkill County, on their month-long regimental furlough. Over the past two-and-a-half years, these tough, seasoned soldiers had campaigned in North Carolina, slugged it out at 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, and at Fredericksburg—the regiment having suffered heavily during each of these sanguinary engagements—and had just recently endured what may have been their toughest trial yet, shivering in the cold, snowy mountains of East Tennessee.  It was there, one month earlier and while the regiment was encamped in those cold, snowy mountains, when the question was asked of the men: would you enlist, again, for another three-year term of service?
With the war still raging and its end still nowhere in sight, the government desperately needed veteran soldiers like those of the 48th whose original enlistments were due to expire in the late summer of 1864. And so the government offered various incentives if these tried and true soldiers agreed to reenlist for a second term of service: a $300 bounty, the designation of ‘Veteran Volunteer,’ and, if at least three-quarters of the regiment decided to re-enlist, the ability for the regiment to retain its numeric designation, meaning the 48th Pennsylvania would continue to exist as the 48th Pennsylvania. 
But maybe most appealing of all, at least to those who hadn’t seen their families in more than two years . . . a thirty-day furlough home.
For many, it was an easy decision. Having already seen the horrors of war, still, they were committed to the cause, and devoted to one another. For others, their decision was to fulfill their original enlistment and then, hopefully, return home after an honorable discharge. The regiment at this point numbered around 400 men. 316 decided to reenlist.
A heroes’ welcome greeted these weary 316 upon their arrival in Pottsville on February 3, 1864. Patriotic music was played, flags were waved, speeches given, and toasts made, as hundreds turned out to welcome back their sons, their husbands, their brothers, and their fathers from the front. A beautiful new stand of colors was presented to the regiment, to replace their torn and tattered flags of '61. After all the fanfare and celebration, the soldiers made their way to their homes. . .
Three-and-a-half-weeks later—and just one week before the regiment was scheduled to depart, once more, for the seat of war—one of these veteran volunteers would be dead; murdered at the home of his sister-in-law in Silver Creek, Pennsylvania.

His named was James Shields and he was about twenty-one, maybe twenty-two-years old. He had enlisted in December 1861 at age nineteen. He was a laborer with blue eyes, auburn-colored hair, and a light complexion. He had survived the worst of the war up to this part, walking away unscathed from the hell of 2nd Bull Run and Antietam, Fredericksburg, and East Tennessee.
But late on that fateful Friday evening, at his sister-in-law's home in Silver Creek, he and a friend—another hard-fighting soldier of Captain William Winlack’s Company E, named David McAllister—found trouble in the form of two men: Patrick Goldey and Peter Curren.
It was about 9:00 p.m. when James Shields and his comrade-in-arms McAllister arrived at Hannah Shields’s home. Once inside, James went into the kitchen while McAllister made his way into the living room. It was there, in the living room, where McAllister “got to arguing politics” with Patrick Goldey. It appears their conversation boiled down to an argument over who was the better general: George B. McClellan or Ambrose Burnside. 
McAllister, Shields, and the rest of the soldiers of the 48th were very much devoted to Burnside, the heavily whiskered, hard luck commander, under whom they had served since their days in North Carolina. It is not known whether Goldey, or Curren had been in the service—though a quick glance through Pennsylvania’s service records does not reveal that they had—but, apparently, Goldey was speaking poorly of Burnside, calling him a “mean man,” and probably some other, worse, things. McAllister would not let the attacks on his corps commander go unanswered. He responded that at least Burnside “did not get on a gunboat like McClellan when fighting was going on,” a reference to the July 1, 1862, Battle of Malvern Hill during which McClellan watched the battle unfold from the decks of a boat in the James River. 1864 was also an election year and McClellan was seen as the likely Democratic Party candidate who would take on Lincoln at the ballot box. Not wanting to argue further with Goldey, McAllister left the living room and went into the kitchen where his comrade James Shields had been. Peter Curren, sometimes known as Hugh Curran, was also there. It is not known what, if anything, was said by or to McAllister when he arrived in the kitchen but, soon after, Patrick Goldey was there, too, in the now cramped kitchen of Hannah Shields's home. 
Seeing Goldey, Curren said, “Paddy, he’s the man that said he’d shoot you,” apparently pointing to, or gesturing at McAllister. McAllister denied the allegation, to which Curren called him a liar. According to McAllister, Curren then reached into the inside pocket of his coat. McAllister put his hand onto the handle of his pistol but decided instead to escape the escalating situation and seek help. He quickly hunched down and made his escape through a window in the kitchen. 
McAllister ran to the nearby home of Henry Donoho’s and returned with him to Hannah Shield’s house, he said, not more than five minutes later. But by then, it was already too late. 
Arriving back at the house, McAllister“found Shields dead in the back kitchen.” He had been stabbed in the heart, repeatedly in the chest, and several times in the abdomen. At the back door of the house lay another man--John Stinson--dead.
McAllister was gone, he said, not more than five minutes. So what happened inside that kitchen after he made his escape?
Hannah Shields later testified that Curren—probably soon after McAllister had escaped through the window and seemingly looking for trouble—told Patrick Goldey that it was instead Shields, and not McAllister, who had said he was going to shoot him. Hannah Shields protested, saying that Curren was lying—that James had said no such thing. Curren and Goldey grabbed a hold of James, holding him down in a stooping position, one of them reaching for Shields’s pistol.  Attempting to defuse the situation, Hannah told James to give her his pistol; he said he would. She reached for it just as Patrick Goldey grabbed it from Shields’s pocket.  Hannah then grabbed Curren, begging the two men--

"for God's sake"--not to kill her brother-in-law. But sadly--tragically--her pleas went unanswered. Curren told her to back off or he would take care of her next. He gave her a shove and, while doing so, hit her on the lip. 

It was in the midst of this melee that James Shields was stabbed to death.
Who stabbed him? Was it Curren? Goldey?

Goldey ran off first, said Hannah, followed closely by Curren.  At this point, another man, John Stinson—an innocent bystander, perhaps, who had heard the commotion in the kitchen and who was on his way to help—was near the back entrance of the house when Goldey and Curren ran off. Hannah Shields saw Curren grab hold of Stinson. He gave him a shove, she said, and told him to get inside. “When I saw him next,” Hannah testified, “Stinson was dead.” He had received a gash to his thigh which severed an artery and the poor man bled to death. The knife used to kill Shields and Stinson was later found; it was “a shoemaker’s knife sharpened down to a keen edge and narrow point.”
Word of the murders spread quickly. Shields was killed at about 10:00 p.m. Within an hour, word of it arrived in Pottsville and Constable Christman immediately obtained a warrant to arrest the men involved.  Christman, with a squad of soldiers belonging to the 1st New York Artillery—who were in Schuylkill County, in part, to suppress striking miners and ensure the coal mines remained in operation, as well as to put down any draft resistance—set off for Silver Creek where they arrested Curren, Goldey, and two other men who were apparently involved, or at least present.
The following afternoon these men appeared before the magistrate who set a trial date for the following week.
At that trial, Curren was found guilty of the crimes and sentenced to just five years in prison. Goldey and the other two men were acquitted of all charges.
A few days after the trial, the veteran soldiers of the 48th departed Pottsville, their month-long furlough having come to an end.  Private James Shields, of course, was not with them; his remains had already been laid to rest in Schuylkill County.  
But departing with his company and his regiment once more was the man who was with Shields that tragic night. 
David McAllister would see much action in the months ahead, at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and at Petersburg.  He survived the war and was mustered out of service as a sergeant on July 17, 1865. Returning home to Schuylkill County, I could only wonder if the veteran McAllister paid a visit to the grave of his murdered friend James Shields, who had been stabbed to death in Silver Creek. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In all of my years studying the 48th Pennsylvania I have never come across a photograph of Private James Shields. But late last week, arriving in my inbox from out of the proverbial blue, was an image of the man who was with Shields the night he was murdered:  David McAllister. 
Christopher Jordan, a collector of Civil War images, sent me the image, which is a part of his collection. Of course, seeing a "new" face of the 48th is always a special thing for me, but I was particularly struck by this image.  It is McAllister's expression that is most striking. His eyes are piercing and the look on his face is one of pride, determination, and hard work. The brass on his kepi:


David McAllister
Company E, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry
(Courtesy of Mr. Christopher Jordan) 

David McAllister was one of those guys who was in the war from start to finish. Along with James Shields, McAllister began his Civil War service as a private in the Wynkoop Artillery, a militia company based out of Silver Creek, and one that was formed and led by Captain William Winlack. The Wynkoop Artillery marched off to war on April 22, 1861, and soon formed part of the 16th Pennsylvania Infantry--a three month regiment.  Upon the expiration of this three-month term of service, most of the Wynkoop Artillery enlisted for a three-year term, and their company became Company E, 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. McAllister said he was nineteen years of age when, on August 20, 1861, he signed up to serve under Winlack in the 48th PA. But it would appear that he lied about his age in order to enlist.  According to what is inscribed upon his tombstone, McAllister was born April 4, 1844, making him just seventeen years of age in the summer of 1861. He stood 5'7" in height and was described as having a Light Complexion, Sandy Hair, and Grey Eyes. Like Shields, McAllister was a laborer by profession. He entered the 48th as seventh corporal; by war's end, he was a sergeant.  McAllister's name appears among the "missing" at Second Bull Run but it would seem he soon returned to the regiment following that chaotic fight. David McAllister's life was still just beginning when he was mustered out of service when the regiment was disbanded on July 17, 1865. He died in Coal Township, Northumberland County, on June 25, 1907, at the age of 63, and laid to rest there at Saint Edward's Cemetery. 

It was an amazing thing to see this image of McAllister, a man I had previously 'known' only through the regimental records and as the man who was there the night Shields was killed. For me, his is a "new face" of the 48th. 

I can only hope that perhaps one day an image of James Shields will be discovered. . . 

***Thank you to Mr. Christopher Jordan for sending along his CDV image of McAllister and for letting me use it to tell this story. The details of Shields's murder and the testimonies of David McAllister and Hannah Shields appeared in the March 5, 1864, edition of the Miners' Journal.*** 

David McAllister
(Photograph Courtesy of Mr. Christopher Jordan) 

The Grave of David McAllister