War in human form

From John Hennessy:

[What follows is due entirely to the generosity of John Hoptak, historian at Antietam National Battlefield, who has devoted much of his life to documenting and chronicling the wartime experiences of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. Recruited from the coal regions of central Pennsylvania, the 48th was one of the Union army’s most interesting units–gaining fame as the excavators of the famous mine at Petersburg in July 1864. The regiment, part of the Union Ninth Corps, also saw heavy service elsewhere, including at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. John maintains a blog where he shares both his work and his insights. The value of his work goes beyond documenting the service of a single regiment; by doing that, he offers up one of the more compelling testaments to the human experience of war, as experienced by these men of Pennsylvania.  Check out his site here–it’s worth a regular visit.   John has shared with us–explicitly for Mysteries and Conundrums–some powerful material he has gathered about a member of that regiment who was killed on May 12, 1864. We are grateful.]

War takes its most powerful human form when it narrows from the panoramic to the personal, from broad vistas to individual faces.

Private Henry J. Ege.

Henry Ege of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania was too young to fight when the war began.  But, the war waited for him, grinding along for three years until he turned 18. In February 1864, he enlisted in Company I of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry.  Too young to have built anything like a profession, his occupation was simply listed as a “laborer.”  Blue-eyed, 5’5″ tall, the youthful boy soon found himself in the 48th’s camp near Annapolis, Maryland.

April 13, 1864
Dear Parents
I take my pen in hand to let you know that we are all well at present time and hoping that these few lines may find you enjoying the same state of happiness. I have not much news to tell you this time. I am out of money and would like if you would send me about five dollars as soon as you receive this letter. I would not have written for some money but we don’t know when we will get paid, a person feels lost if he has no money out here. General Burnside and Gen. U.S. Grant were here today, they are very fine looking Generals. The rest of the Orwigsburg boys are all well. I have no more news for this time. I had a letter from my school master C.H. Meredith. No more at present. Excuse bad writing for I had a bad pen.
Answer Soon
From Your Son
Henry J. Ege

[I am always struck by sons who in letters home to their parents signed their full name, plus initial, as if their parents wouldn’t know them otherwise.]

Weeks later, the 48th Pennsylvania and the rest of Burnside’s Ninth Corps took to the field. On May 12, 1864, amidst a grinding campaign whose intensity stunned even the hardest veterans, the 48th went into battle at Spotsylvania Court House.  In the dank pre-dawn gloom, Henry J. Ege and the rest of his regiment and brigade advanced against the Confederate lines just east of the Muleshoe Salient. It was probably then that Henry fell with a gunshot wound to the head.

We do not know if he died instantly, or if he lingered. But when he did die, he was likely among friends, for his grave was marked.  Word soon traveled to Schuylkill County–to Henry’s namesake father, a carpet-weaver, his mother Hannah, and five siblings–that Henry J. Ege Jr. had died.

The headboard from Henry Ege’s 1865 field reburial at Spotsylvania, in possession of the family.

When, a year later, Union soldiers returned to the battlefield to accord the Union dead at Spotsylvania a proper burial (for more on the reburial efforts, click here), Ege’s grave was well enough marked that the crews were able to mark his grave anew with a hand-painted, mass-produced style headboard of the sort that in 1865 and 1866 were common sights on the Spotsylvania landscape.  Sometime between June 1865 and 1867, (when the Union dead were gathered from the battlefield and reburied in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery), members of the family traveled to the battlefield to retrieve his remains.  Henry J. Ege lies today in his hometown of Orwigsburg.

Henry Ege’s grave in Orwigsburg today.

The family still has the headboard placed over Henry’s grave at Spotsylvania by burial crews in 1865. It is one of only two headboards from our battlefields known to survive (the other is on display at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center), and the only one that is entirely intact.

John Hoptak also passed along two other images of men from the 48th Pennsylvania killed at Spotsylvania.

Charles Abel T. StClair

Private Charles Abel T. St.Clair was, like Ege, a new recruit, a laborer, and just 19 years old when he went into battle on May 12, 1864. He was just 4’11” tall–surely one of the shortest men to serve in the Union army. He too was buried on the battlefield, but the fate of his grave is unknown. Most likely he lies in the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg, or perhaps still on what was the Neil McCoull farm at Spotsylvania.

Lieutenant Henry Clay Jackson is at right

First Lieutenant Henry Clay Jackson was a veteran of several battles–captured at Second Manassas, wounded at Knoxville. He was shot through the neck and killed on May 12, 1864. Tradition holds that he is buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, though his name does not appear on the burial records there. Nor was he identified by the 1867 reburial teams. Likely he lies in an unknown grave.

Our thanks again to John Hoptak.