U.S. Civil War: Remembering Soldiers

Upon the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, many are discussing whether it was caused by slavery or states’ rights, and are asking if the rebels, or their flag, should be honored. Instead of giving my view up front, I decided to first pay my respects to all veterans of that war, by simply sharing the story of one ordinary man, who served in that conflict.

Henry was an immigrant, born in the Rhineland, near the French border (1829). After sailing from the port at Havre, France, he arrived in New York (1852), and moved to Wisconsin, where he labored on a farm, and became a naturalized U.S. Citizen (1860).

On Aug. 19, 1862, he enlisted as a private, in the 29th Wisconsin Infantry. The 29th served with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, along the Mississippi River, in the Western Campaign. A book entitled Wisconsin in the Civil War by R. Wells reported: “The 29th, it might be mentioned, was quite a cosmopolitan regiment. Of its original 882 men, 576 were foreign-born, coming from 16 countries. Only 28 members had been born in Wisconsin.”

Henry and the 29th took part in Grant’s strategically important siege at Vicksburg (1863). From a position north of Vicksburg, the 29th Wis. first went west across the Mississippi River, then south past Vicksburg, and east across the river again, behind enemy lines at Bruinsburg, Mississippi. From there, they trekked north to Vicksburg, engaging the enemy five times along the way.

After the first battle at Port Gibson (1863), Brigadier Gen. George McGinnis wrote: “The 29th Wisconsin stood the brunt of the engagement, occupying the front and most dangerous position. It was here that the heaviest loss occurred.”

He added: “I cannot refrain, however, from special mention of the 29th Wisconsin, not that they fought longer and more gallantly than others—not that they are more brave or better disciplined, but that it is a new regiment and this was the first time that they had been engaged with an enemy, or that any of their men had ever been under fire. They fought like veterans and suffered severely, as their report of casualties will show.”

Henry and the 29th Infantry then moved on to Jackson, Mississippi, before turning north towards Vicksburg. On their way, they engaged the enemy again at Champion’s Hill (1863).

The report on the Wis. 29th was as follows: “I never saw fighting like this. The loss of my division on the field alone was nearly one-third of my forces engaged. Of the 29th Wis. in what words of praise shall I speak? Not more than six months in service, their record will compare with the oldest and best-tried regiments in the field. All honor is due to their gallant officers and men.”

Two years after winning the siege at Vicksburg, Henry was still fighting, but his number was up. The day before the very last rebel army surrendered, he was hit on May 25, 1865, in Mobile, Alabama. A Civil War Census (1890) said he was “wounded in the back by an explosion.” Pension papers said his wounds were to his head and legs. He was honorably discharged June 16, 1865, after serving the Union for 2 years, 9 months, and 28 days.

As a Civil War hero, Henry returned to farming in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. At age 36, he took an 18-year-old bride named Lena (1865). They would have 11 children. He later received a veteran’s disability pension (1891), before dying from chronic bronchitis (1896). At his gravesite in Wisconsin, he has a very large stone, written in German, with a Civil War battle star on it.

Surely, there are thousands of Southern families whose relatives were also soldiers, with stories just as compelling as this one. It is quite alright to share them, and in most cases, to be proud of them, (unless of course war crimes were involved, like the case of Capt. Henry Wirz, the commandant at Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia, who caused the death of 12,000 Union prisoners).

Today, we should separate the warriors from the war. Just as we should not blame the men who were drafted to serve in Vietnam, for the mistakes of the Senators who sent them there, we should not criticize the rebel soldier, called upon by their leaders to fight.

My guess is if my great-great grandfather Henry were with us today, he would be mindful of Lincoln’s admonition of “malice towards none,” he would sit down with his former enemies, and would have a few beers with them. Since they would soon forget for which side they had served, perhaps we should too. We should just remember all of them for the American soldiers that they were.


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