By combing through military records, an Iowa genealogist gets glimpses into the lives and suffering of long-lost relatives.
This tale is, in some ways, a ghost story. Not a yarn wound around a mysterious light or unexplained noises. Instead, it is a tale of how three of my ancestors have taken on a new life through the pages of their Civil War military records.
Genealogists like myself love to spackle names and dates into their charts. But it is through weaving together stories about those ancestors, passed down through generations, that a real picture of them begins to emerge.
I couldn’t do that with the Busch family. That door to the past slammed shut when Anton Busch, my great-great-great-grandfather and a devout Lutheran, disowned his daughter Louise for marrying a Catholic. Louise rarely spoke of her childhood in Dubuque County.
My discovery that Anton, at 52, had volunteered for Iowa’s Greybeard regiment during the Civil War renewed my interest in the family’s mysteries. Then I learned Henry, Anton’s oldest son, had joined the fight. As did Anton’s son-in-law, George Friebertsheiser.
It took months of research, mounds of records and reaching out to historians to pry the door open. I found on the other side not a simple story of patriotism, but a dilemma about loyalty to one’s country and family.
Like countless other Iowans, their fate became tied to the battle between the North and South that began 150 years ago. But their story took a different, darker turn.
In less than a week’s time in the spring of 1863, one lay dead, another was seriously wounded, and the third had become a fugitive.
The scrawl on the 1856 ship passenger list was hard to read. But when Anton was asked his destination, his answer was clear — Iowa.
Anton and his wife, Martha, had left Germany to settle in Dubuque. By 1860, Henry was 20 years old and working as a farm laborer. George, who married Anton’s oldest daughter, Henriette, earlier that year, had the same occupation. After war broke out in early 1861, Henry and George volunteered and became two of the roughly 76,000 Iowans who served the Union during the Civil War.
Russell Lee Johnson is the author of “Warriors into Workers,” about Dubuque during the Civil War and after. Johnson said while some scholars believe new Iowans volunteered out of patriotism, his research showed that enlistment in the Union also offered steady employment during a time of economic troubles.
“I think for farm laborers in particular, who were pretty marginal in the economy, the job and steady pay — and hefty bonus for volunteering — would have been extra attractive,” Johnson said.
In late 1861, Henry, George and the other men of the Iowa Ninth Infantry guarded Union railroad lines from Franklin to Rolla, Mo. Early 1862 found them at a key battle at Pea Ridge, Ark., then marching hundreds of miles into the South. By late 1862, Henry and George were on their way to Mississippi.
Iowa officials were looking to boost enlistment. Farmer George W. Kincaid of Muscatine proposed a regiment for men 45 and older, and leaders saw a chance to draw the fathers and grandfathers of soldiers already at the front — and gain younger recruits inspired by their elders.
The 37th Infantry, which became known as the Greybeards, formed in 1862. It was the only group of its kind in the country. Anton volunteered in Dubuque that October. The men trained at Camp Strong near Muscatine and then became guards in Missouri for Union supply trains and Confederate prisoners.
In an article for Civil War Times, Benton McAdams noted the non-combat Greybeards numbered more than 900 at the start. Nearly 600 of them, including Anton, were more than 50 years old. Historians estimate as many as 1,300 sons and grandsons of Greybeards were at the front.
McAdams noted that what the Greybeards lacked in youth, they made up for in spirit. He noted that Allen Sumner, 64, of Knoxville said he “would kill a Rebel with as clear a conscience as I ever killed a wolf.”
But harsh weather and health problems plagued the group. By February 1863, 200 of its members were out due to desertion, discharge or sickness.
McAdams noted some didn’t like taking orders from younger officers. The Greybeards, many of them farmers, protested when they weren’t allowed to keep pigs.
As winter turned to spring in early 1863, Anton and the other Greybeards kept up their guard shifts on the Missouri railroads, at arsenals and the Gratiot Street prison in St. Louis.
Henry and George and the other Iowans in the Ninth — now part of the 15th Corps of the Union’s Army of the Tennessee and under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman — were about to play a role in the attempt to take Vicksburg. Miss.
Terry Winschel, historian for Vicksburg National Military Park, said possession of that city meant control over the Mississippi River — and the chance to cut off Confederate troop and supply routes.
The Union mounted a direct attack on Vicksburg on May 19, but Winschel said the unsuccessful bid was poorly planned.
At the second charge on the morning of May 22, the Union made little headway and fighting was fierce. Gen. John McClernand sent a note to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that his troops had gained ground and suggested another effort be made along the three-mile front.
“Grant doubted the veracity of this note,” Winschel said, but had no way to prove or disprove its contents. “He really had no recourse but to comply with the request.”
Henry and George’s brigade — including the Iowa Fourth, 26th and 30th infantries along with the Ninth — was led by Gen. John Thayer of Nebraska. They were to scale a series of ridges whose final hill was crowned by a barrier cobbled from toppled trees and tangled telegraph wire. “It’s almost impossible to penetrate,” Winschel said.
In “Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi,” author Michael B. Ballard included a diary entry from Iowa Ninth member John W. Niles of Jones County:
“At the bottom of the hill there is a little creek and I am running at such speed the first thing I know one leg is mired in the mud but I manage to draw it out ... quick for the balls are plowing the mud all around me. We climb another hill and run down that. So far we have not lost a man in our company. The third hill is more dangerous still, for we have to run plainly exposed to a line of rifle pits probably a mile long.”
Winschel said few made it to the top.
The living were driven back into the ravine, stranded when Union leaders saw the rush was futile and called off reinforcements. The men laid low, waiting for dark and a chance for rescue.
A bullet had ripped through Henry’s jacket and into his right shoulder, spurting blood into the dirt.
George had been shot in the head, leaving Henriette a war widow at 25.
Winschel estimated 3,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded or missing by the end of May 22. The Iowa Ninth alone saw 18 killed and 60 wounded.
“They only thing they achieved in the afternoon assaults was an ever-lengthening casualty list,” he said.
Unwilling to risk more lives through large-scale attacks, Union leaders began a weeks-long siege in attempt to drive the Confederates from Vicksburg.
The Greybeards were guarding prisoners at the Gratiot Street prison in St. Louis in May 1863. The long months had taken their toll. Some whispered that they were going home, one way or another.
Anton had recently been ill. He had asked for a medical discharge or at least a leave, but neither had been granted. Martha, who was trying to manage at home with the four youngest children, wrote letters urging Anton to come back to Dubuque.
Winschel said word of the disastrous May 22 charge at Vicksburg spread quickly. Reporters traveling with the Union sent dispatches by courier to Memphis, where the outcome radiated out on the telegraph wires.
There’s no way to know when word of Henry’s injury and George’s death could have reached Anton, or what role it might have played in what happened next. But at the agreed-upon time the night of May 27, Anton slipped from his bunk.
By morning roll call, a handful of the Greybeards were gone.
An officer went into the bunkhouse and found the missing men’s quarters deserted.
Anton had gathered his clothes and his few other possessions before he slipped away. He left his government-issued rifle behind.
Henry was admitted to the corps’ hospital in Vicksburg on May 28. The bodies of George and others in the ravine, like the piles of dead all around Vicksburg, had to be quickly laid to rest.
“They would have been buried where they fell,” Winschel said.
Peter D’Onofrio, president of the Society of Civil War Surgeons, said limb amputations were a common attempt to save soldiers from infection and death. But doctors would have been hesitant to extract the bullet in Henry’s shoulder.
“They knew about infection, they just didn’t know what caused it,” said D’Onofrio, who lives in Ohio. “They wouldn’t have opened him up like they would have today.”
The Union conquest of Vicksburg on July 4, coupled with its victory at Gettysburg the day before, was a major turning point in the war. But the Busch family was soon dealt another blow.
Henry died on July 10. His records list no specific cause of death. D’Onofrio said while infection was a likely cause, the bullet may have hit a blood vessel or, if it had pushed deeper into his torso, damaged his lungs.
Henry’s service file noted he died at the Union facility in Vicksburg, but another record indicated he may have been transferred to a Memphis hospital.
Winschel said people tried to mark soldiers’ graves, often with a plank of wood bearing the name and regiment. But many markers faded or had been stolen for firewood by the time Vicksburg officials began digging up remains to be placed in the new military cemetery in 1867.
Roughly 17,000 people are buried in the cemetery. Nearly 13,000 of those graves — including one for George, and possibly one for Henry — are unidentified.
Historians estimate that as many as one in seven Union soldiers deserted during the war — or around 200,000 men. Some went home to help their families; some became discouraged as the war dragged on.
It’s unclear how Anton and the other Greybeards got home, or how long it took him to travel the 300 miles to Dubuque.
But just a few days after Henry died, Anton was arrested and charged with desertion.
Johnson said a provost martial was stationed in Dubuque to oversee the military draft — and arrest deserters if he could.
While many supported the Union, he said, “opposition to the war was pretty strong.” Dennis Mahony, the county sheriff elected in the fall of 1863, was an outspoken opponent of the war.
Anton’s court martial was held Sept. 8 in St. Louis. He called no witnesses on his behalf and didn’t address the panel.
Some of the men noted that Anton’s English was difficult to understand.
Instead, Anton offered a statement through his counsel:
“I have no testimony to offer for my defense ... I had received letters from my wife requesting my presence home to attend to my family affairs, and, having a family of four children, desired greatly to go. My eldest son, who is also in the army, had about that time been wounded at Vicksburg and since died at Memphis, and the distress of my family induced me not to desert but to absent myself without leave ...”
Anton was sentenced to one month in prison. While death was the maximum penalty for desertion, imprisonment was far more common. Winschel said even so, Anton’s sentence was relatively light.
It’s possible officials were somewhat moved by what had happened to the family, he said. “They figured he had suffered enough loss.”
Anton served his sentence at the Union prison in Alton, Ill., just over the river from St. Louis. In an ironic twist, the Greybeards had been assigned to guard duty at Alton.
Anton served his sentence, traded his prisoner garb for a Greybeard uniform, and rejoined his former unit.
The Greybeards continued to serve at Alton until December 1863, when they were called to the Union’s newest prison — on the Mississippi River’s Rock Island between Iowa and Illinois.
The Rock Island prison was hastily constructed to ease overcrowding at other federal sites. The prison camp opened during frigid conditions. While the prisoners’ barracks were ready, the guards’ living quarters and the hospital were not.
The rail cars that came to the camp carried more than Confederate prisoners. Smallpox, dysentery and pneumonia were on board.
“It really wasn’t ready to be a prison camp,” said Kris Leinicke, director for the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. “There was a very high rate of death in the first couple of months that the camp was operational.”
By the spring of 1864, Anton had been weakened by a bout with pneumonia and a hernia. He continued to ask for a discharge.
The surgeon at Rock Island granted Anton’s request on July 4 — Independence Day.
The lingering pain felt by Union veterans and their families can be seen in the list of people drawing pensions as of late 1882. Iowa’s section contains more than 12,000 names.
Service alone, or the emotional distress of a dead loved one, was not enough to receive a pension — applicants had to show financial loss.
Anton applied for a pension in 1864 on the basis that his hernia prevented hard labor and limited his ability to provide for his family. The pension board denied his request, stating that it couldn’t be proved the hernia was aggravated by his service.
Louise, Anton and Martha’s youngest child, was born in January 1869. Anton was 58, and his expanding family may have played a role in his request that year for a pension as Henry’s father.
Before Henry joined the Army, Anton noted, he was putting his wages toward the family’s expenses.
Witnesses vouched for Anton’s claims, also noting that twice during the war they were at the post office when Anton found $20 — worth roughly $500 today — tucked inside Henry’s letters from the front.
This time, Anton’s request was approved. His pension was $8 a month.
Henriette appears to have received a widow’s pension, but nothing in the file tells what happened to her.
The family had finally managed to purchase its own farm in the spring of 1865. Martha died in 1890 and only Anton and Louise remained at home.
Anton’s anger over Louise’s decision in 1892 to marry a Catholic not only cost him his daughter, but it left him alone at the age of 82. Louise, who was my great-great-grandmother, moved to Chickasaw County with her husband.
Online records led me to Anton’s grave in Maynard, where his daughter Katherine had moved after she married.
But the last years of Anton’s life remained a mystery — I’ve searched several sources but have yet to locate a death certificate, will or obituary.
It was his pension file that provided the final clue.
Payments were dropped due to Anton’s death on June 17, 1895 in Oelwein — the community where Anton’s youngest son, August, lived at the time.
My mom and I made the trip to Maynard to see Anton’s grave. We walked the rows for more than a half hour with no success.
Then I saw the graves of two grandsons, who I knew were buried in the next lot. And there it was — a pockmarked column whose etchings had nearly eroded away.
There was a star-shaped Civil War veterans’ marker lying on the concrete slab between the grandson’s graves.
It had to be Anton’s. There was a chance to set things right, if only in one small way.
We pulled away a tuft of grass and planted the tarnished marker next to Anton’s stone.
A rubbing of the marker showed traces of the epitaph chiseled there 115 years ago: Ruhe in Frieden — “rest in peace” in German. It was a fitting benediction, given all the places Anton had been and what he’d seen that finally brought him to this quiet place.
These three names are no longer just words on the family tree. Each carries a story of a time long past and a life forgotten. Until now.
Ruhe in Frieden.