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.




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

3 responses to “A terrible, honorable sacrifice finally memorialized

  1. In many ways the U.S. Civil War can be considered the first ‘modern’ war because it used industrial age inventions such as railway, machine guns and rifles, virtually for the first time. Industrial technology also gave a scale to the logistics that was unprecedented. The effects were devastating. Curiously, wars were being fought in my country, New Zealand, with effectively the same combination. The similarities have never really been drawn by historians (including me…). As you point out, the human cost remains poignant and relevant today.

    • RAM

      A some of the new military technology used so effectively during the Civil War got its baptism of fire during the Crimean War, particularly steamships and the Enfield rifled musket. During that conflict, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, later to be the rebel president, dispatched a small corps of military officers to observe the conflict. The group included Col. Robert E. Lee and Capt. George B. McClellan, who would face off against each other less than a decade later during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. McClellan and Lee learned some lessons, but obviously not all the implications of the new weapons technology, especially those rifled muskets’ radically increased effective range. In many ways, the Civil War previewed the almost unimaginable slaughter of World War I, as you suggest, industrializing war to a degree never before seen.

  2. Our great grandfather served as a courier on General Burnsides’ staff in Knoxville; he may have crossed paths with some of this story. (Born 1843; four wives; our grandfather born 1905.) Thanks for the interesting post!

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