Monthly Archives: July 2015

A terrible, honorable sacrifice finally memorialized

It’s been hot and humid here around and about the Matile Manse, and when that happens, I tend to hunker down and find things to do to procrastinate so I don’t have to leave my cool dehumidified confines and at the same time don’t have to get involved in difficult research.

What that means, in practice, is mining Ancestry.com for family info to fill in the gaps (which are many and wide) in my family genealogy. One way to waste a LOT of time is to delve, once again, into my Minnich clan. My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Wolf, married Johan Minnich in 1846 back in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Wolf and Minnich are both extremely common names in that place and time, so there are dozens of blind alleys to go down, trips that waste loads of time, so perfect for procrastinating.

So the other day, I fired up my family database once again, and started looking through the Wolf side of Mary Ann’s family and I noted that not only was her father named Michael, but so was one of her brothers, which struck me as interesting. Brother Michael’s information was pretty thin on the ground—birth date but no death date—so I started digging to see if I could at least put Michael to rest.

And that’s when an interesting, tragic story began to unfold. Michael was born in 1840 in Schuylkill County, the fourth son and fifth child of Michael and Becky Shaefer Wolf. They mined lots of coal in Schuylkill, and the Wolf boys went into the mines. That’s what they were doing the Civil War broke out. Brother Isaac signed up right away, enlisting in Company A, 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, enlisting in August, 1861, and marching off to war with the regiment’s 1,000 or so newly recruited soldiers in September.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield. (National Park Service)

As it turned out, the 50th Pennsylvania saw an awful lot of hard campaigning, from its very first commitment to action. Loaded aboard the sailing transport Winfield Scott, the regiment was shipped south to participate in the Union attempt to seize Charleston, S.C. On the way, a huge storm blew up and the entire regiment was nearly lost at sea off Cape Hatteras. From the inconclusive South Carolina campaign, the 50th moved back north to fight at Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg before being sent west to Kentucky and then to Mississippi, where they fought under U.S. Grant in the Vicksburg campaign. From there, they marched back east to Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap to Knoxville, Tennessee where it mustered just 80 soldiers fit for duty, although even some of those were still suffering from the effects of malaria contracted in the swamps around Vicksburg.

Gradually, the sick and wounded returned to duty during the stay at Knoxville, which was fortunate because the regiment was hurried northeast to throw back a Confederate advance into East Tennessee, which the American army did at the Battle of Blue Springs. Back in Knoxville thanks to the advance of Confederates under James Longstreet, the 50th was heavily engages at the Battle of Fort Sanders during the siege of the city until Longstreet was finally forced to retreat.

It was at Knoxville on Jan. 1, 1864 that the three-year enlistments of the 50th’s men ran out. Nearly the entire regiment reenlisted for another term, after which they took an extremely arduous march east and then on to Harrisburg in their home state. There they were granted veterans’ furloughs and they headed home with orders to return in early spring. It’s likely Isaac went home and talked with his younger brother, Michael, about serving in the 50th. Whatever his motivation, Michael enlisted as a private in his brother’s Company A on April 6, 1864. He was officially mustered in the next day, April 7 at Pottsville in Schuylkill County.

On March 20, the 50th, veterans and new recruits alike, rendezvoused at Annapolis, Maryland where it was organized, the troops drilled, and then assigned to 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, IX Corps. With their corps, the 50th marched south to join Gen. U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Their route took them through Washington, D.C. where they were personally reviewed by President Lincoln and on farther south across the old Bull Run battlefield where they’d fought so hard three years before.

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

Grant was aiming directly for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and was hoping to prevent him from reaching the fortifications around Richmond. As Grant attempted to force his IX Corps through a dense patch of woods and brush called The Wilderness, Lee struck in yet another of his ill-conceived offensives. Because the strategic fact was that while Grant’s American army could afford to lose men, Lee’s rebels could not afford to lose a single soldier.

The Battle of the Wilderness was a harbinger of bloody fights to come as Grant continually attempted to slip around Lee’s rebels to cut them off from Richmond. Grant had cold-bloodedly decided on a strategy of attrition after coming to the conclusion that the rebel armies simply could not withstand sustained combat due to lack of personnel. The close-quarters combat cost the Union 17,666 casualties, including 2,246 killed in action, which could be replaced. It cost Lee 11,033 irreplaceable, trained soldiers—1,477 of them killed. Although no one really understood yet, it was the beginning of the end for the South and slavery.

Not among the casualties were the Wolf brothers, even though the 50th Pennsylvania was heavily engaged. It must have been a sobering baptism of fire for Michael, but pretty much business as usual for Isaac.

Tactically, the battle was inconclusive, but strategically, it was one more disaster for Lee as he lost more than a division’s worth of priceless troops. Even more sobering for Lee was Grant’s tenacity. He was used to other American generals who, after a similar bloody fight, would have spent time reorganizing and licking their wounds. Not Grant.

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it's wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it’s wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After disengaging at The Wilderness, Grant immediately tried out-marching Lee, a futile hope—the Confederates were known for rapid marching. The rebels ended up beating the Union to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The 50th, along with the rest of Burnside’s IX Corps, moved southwest along the Fredericksburg Pike, encountering Cadmus Wilcox’s rebel division northeast of Spotsylvania at the Ni River on May 9. The 50th’s regimental history recounts what happened next: “With fixed bayonets, the Fiftieth, led by Lieutenant Colonel [Edward] Overton, charged up the up the steep ascent, and routed a force of the enemy greatly superior in number; but the success was gained at a fearful cost, losing in killed, wounded and missing, one hundred and twenty men.”

Among those who fell during that bloody assault was Michael Wolf, a soldier for just a month and two days. A Confederate Minié ball struck Wolf’s left arm just below the shoulder, shattering the humerus, knocking him out of the fight and the war. Brother Isaac again escaped without a scratch, and went on to serve for several more months before being mustered out on Sept. 29, 1864.

Michael was carried to a Union field hospital where surgeons, working as quickly as possible under grim conditions, amputated the arm at the shoulder since there was no sound bone left to form a stump. He was evacuated to Carver General Hospital at Washington, D.C., arriving there May 14. Not until July was he strong enough to travel. On July 6 he was discharged and sent home to Schuylkill County.

His sister, my great-great grandmother, Mary Ann, went to visit as soon as he arrived home and was shocked at the appearance of this once-hearty former coal miner. “I found him propped up in bed, his heart beating very hard and fast,” she recalled years afterward. Because of the way the amputation was done, there were problems with property routing blood vessels, creating heart problems. “From the time of his discharge to his death he was troubled all the time with heart disease and often had severe attacks of it so that he was confined to his bed,” Mary Ann recalled.

In 1868, my great-great grandparents decided try their luck in Illinois, first settling out on the Wheatland Township prairie where they farmed for a few years before moving to a place just north of Oswego in the old Village of Troy where Mary Ann maintained a boarding house and wove rag rugs on a loom Johann made for her while he found work on the railroad.

Michael, hearing reports of how nice it was in Illinois—and there being no market for one-armed coal miners—decided to move west, too. He settled with his sister and her family for a while, and then even found someone to marry. Elizabeth Orr was divorced with two growing children, but the couple apparently made a go of it on Michael’s slim $24 a month soldier’s disability pension. Elizabeth’s children married into local families and Michael dealt with the unnumbered health problems resulting from his short, disastrous, military career. He died in Oswego in 1884.

The Sept. 10, 1884 Kendall County Record carried his short, poignant obituary: “Michael Wolf, the one armed soldier who has been almost in continual distress—his arm was taken off at the shoulder joint, leaving no stump, which caused certain disarrangements in the arterial system and affected the heart—and who has been on the failing order for some time died the latter part of the week. The funeral took place Sunday afternoon from the house.”

He was buried with so many of his Civil War comrades in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

Michael Wolf's new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

Michael Wolf’s new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

The family was too poor to provide a tombstone for Michael’s grave, so it remained unmarked. Until this year. The local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War decided to make a project of obtaining stones for the unmarked graves of Union soldiers in the Oswego Township Cemetery. My friend Stephenie Todd worked to find living relatives of the fallen soldiers—blood relatives must sign off on the efforts to mark soldiers’ unmarked graves in order to receive a U.S. Government-supplied tombstone. Earlier this summer, volunteers set the veterans’ stones, including one for Michael Wolf obtained thanks to my distant relatives Ron Moses and Ted Clauser.

As readers of this blog and my column in the Kendall County Record newspapers know, I am no fan of the Civil War. It was fought over the most depraved of causes—the enslavement of human beings—which was so essential to the world view of a large fraction of the nation’s population that they were willing to commit treason and attempt to destroy their country in order to perpetuate it. For uncounted thousands of soldiers who fought against slavery and for national union, the war never ended. Like Michael Wolf, they lived lives of unending and perpetual pain, both physical and mental. The very least we can and should do is provide the small recognition of a grave marker for those who gave so much of themselves to keep our nation united and free from such a terrible stain. Now, thanks to some who’ve never forgotten their sacrifices, at least a few more of those unremembered veterans can rest a bit easier.

 

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

The ague: If it’s not one thing, it’s another

I was cruising the Net the other day and over at Only Oswego, Steven Jack posted a news release from the Church of the Good Shepherd here in Oswego promoting their community garage sale, the proceeds of which will be used to fight malaria in the Third World through a project named Imagine no Malaria.

That piqued my interest, as did a notice that West Nile Virus, which is carried, like malaria, by mosquitoes, has made its appearance in Kendall County again this year.

West Nile arrived in the U.S. carried by mosquitoes that apparently hitched rides on shipments from infected regions of the world. From the first documented case in New York back in 1999, it’s now spread across the U.S. Fortunately, it’s not an extremely virulent disease, so chances of catching it are not high.

Although the pioneers were mystified concerning the causes of the ague, medical researchers later pinned the blame on the female Anopheles mosquito. Today, the Fox Valley is pretty much ague-free.

Although the pioneers were mystified about what caused the ague, medical researchers later pinned the blame on the female Anopheles mosquito. Today, the Fox Valley is pretty much ague-free.

Malaria, on the other hand, is quickly spread by infected female Anopheles mosquitoes, is much easier to get, and didn’t need to be imported since we had a fine local strain right here in northern Illinois ready to infect all those eager pioneers who showed up in the first half of the 19th Century.

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries they didn’t call it malaria, though. They called it “the ague,” pronounced like “argue” without the “r.” Although only occasionally fatal by itself, the negative economic impact of the debilitating effects of the disease on county residents during the settlement era was significant.

When the pioneers arrived, they found significant areas of the county covered with water at depths from a few inches to a few feet, remnants of Ice Age glacial lakes. Generally called sloughs and marshes, these thousands of wetland acres helped retard flooding and kept groundwater supplies charged, but they also annually produced hordes of biting insects, including those pesky, hungry ague-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes.

Ague was so common that its mention was often off-handed in narratives of the era, something so usual it apparently almost went without saying. On the other hand, when folks wrote in their letters that their health was good, and inquired about the health of others, they weren’t asking idle questions.

Residents of Chicago in 1834, situated as it was in the midst of sloughs and marshes and the sluggish Chicago River, were prime candidates for the ague, especially since the log buildings of the era, including the two inns at Wolf Point illustrated above, had no window screens. And in any case, no one knew at the time the ague was caused by mosquito bites.

Residents of Chicago in 1834, situated as it was in the midst of sloughs and marshes and the sluggish Chicago River, were prime candidates for the ague, especially since the log buildings of the era, including the two inns at Wolf Point illustrated above, had no window screens. And in any case, no one knew at the time the ague was caused by mosquito bites.

According to historian R. Carlyle Buley: “There were varieties of ague—dumb ague, shaking ague, chill fever, and so forth. Some had the combined chills and fever each day or on alternate days, or even every third day; others had the chills one day and the fever the next. Whichever brand was favored, it was regular, but, like the moon, it appeared somewhat later each day; it often came back in season for years until a sort of immunity was established. Work schedules were planned to accommodate the fits.”

In the 1840s, Chauncy and Hannah Carr came out from Ohio and settled on one of the roads leading south between Oswego and Yorkville. On Oct. 17, 1846, she penned a letter to her mother back in New Haven, Ohio. Writing about her neighbors and her own children she reported: “We are all tolerably well at this time. We have had 2 or 3 attacks of the ague since we wrote last. Maria Campbell has it now though she is around the house most of the time. Harriet’s little babe has that breaking out yet. I think it must be a disease in the blood. Maria’s children once in a while have a chill very light. Thomas and Mary have had a little of the ague since I wrote before, but are quite Smart now. The Sickness have abated in a great degree here. But very few cases of the ague now that I know of.”

But the next day, continuing her note to her mother, Hannah was forced to report concerning her husband, a wagon maker and wheelwright, that: “Chauncey has shook with the ague to day and has been very unwell all the afternoon but is [better] so he is out now helping wait upon some teamsters that have just stopped. He worked too hard this forenoon was what brought it on I think.”

Cook County's Horse Collar Slough gives an idea of what thousands of acres of Kendall County wetlands looked like when the settlers arrived.

Cook County’s Horse Collar Slough gives an idea of what thousands of acres of Kendall County wetlands looked like when the settlers arrived.

The Carrs had settled near what the pioneers called “The Big Slough,” an ancient Ice Age lake that was the source of Morgan Creek. The area was extremely unhealthy, with the slough producing clouds of mosquitoes carrying the ague to nearby homesteads.

Evidence from the era suggests that other settlers who built their homes on higher ground away from the marshes and sloughs were far healthier. For instance, a series of letters in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum written by Elvirah Walker Shumway from her rural Oswego home to her relatives in Massachusetts seldom mention sickness, and never mention ague at all—the Shumways lived on high ground along modern Simons Road southeast of Oswego, which may have been the deciding factor.

James Sheldon Barber arrived in Oswego in December 1843, traveling with a wagon train from New York State. On Dec. 19, 1843, just days after arriving in Oswego, Barber wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, N.Y. about the trip as well as his enthusiasm for the Fox Valley area, although with one caveat. “If it was not for ague & fever here I should like it first rate,” he wrote, adding, “It is the most beautifull country I ever saw.”

While it was ignored as much as possible, the ague was never far from anyone’s mind back in that day. On July 28, 1844, Barber wrote a chatty letter to his parents about how his life was going on the western frontier. “My health is first rate & I feel in good spirits & no signs of the ague yet & think I shall escape,” he predicted.

By 1845, Barber was an old Illinois hand and an experienced ague victim. Writing to his parents in September, Barber admitted “On Wednesday I got a light touch of the ague & on Friday I got a good shaking but I have got it broke up and am now able to work a little so I think that I shall get along with this but it made me pretty sick you may depend.”

The folks back then had no idea what caused the ague. Most blamed it on “humors” arising from the soil during the night. It wasn’t until organized efforts to drain Kendall County’s sloughs and marshes got underway that the ague was beaten. And at that, wetland drainage wasn’t done to make the area healthier, but rather to create more cropland from all those submerged acres. And it all turned out to be successful, one effort unintentionally bolstering the other. And then when government-funded scientists discovered the link between mosquitoes and the ague (and malaria) the disease was vanquished in northern Illinois.

Of course, those efforts had their own unintended consequences. Draining Kendall County’s wetlands greatly raised the danger of flash flooding and the quick run-off of stormwater meant water table declines while frequent, extreme water level fluctuations in the region’s rivers and creeks became the norm. And all that DDT used to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes began decimating wildlife, including birds, fish, and mammals, until its effects became so alarming its use was banned.

Today we have the luxury of sending money overseas to help folks fight malaria since we’ve pretty much beaten it around these parts. The ague might be gone, but municipal governments are spending thousands of tax dollars to spray for the nasty little breed of mosquitoes that spread the West Nile virus to humans and animals alike, hopefully with less catastrophic effects on the environment than those caused by eradicating the ague.

As Emily Letella used to say on “Saturday Night Live,” it’s always something.

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