This week’s post comes from Intern Jessica who did a little digging into Vanderburgh County’s history in the Civil War.
HEADQUARTERS HARPER’S FERRY, September 13, 1862.
Commanding Maryland Heights:
‘Since I returned to this side, on close inspection I find your position more defensible than it appears when at your station. Covered as it is at all points by the cannon of Camp Hill, you will hold on, and can hold on, until the cows’ tails drop off.’
Colonel Second Infantry, Commanding.
Being an intern at the Vanderburgh County Archives is like embarking on a meandering journey through time. Every day we wade through the written sea of peoples’ officially documented lives. Most of the time one generally knows what will be in this book or that box. Other times, you come across something you were not expecting. A title or description will spark your interest, and before you know it you will be totally immersed, as if the shades of the past are beckoning you to delve deeper.
A book arrived in the office recently that is of great importance to the historical record of Vanderburgh County. The large bound volume is a soldier pension registry from 1890
What is so significant is that the vast majority of the entries are of soldiers who served in the Civil War (1861-1865). There are very few of these volumes in existence. Upon opening it one finds detailed information on the residents of the county who served: their name, regiment, family, and address if they were still living. What makes this so compelling is that it records each soldier’s wounds received during service, and where and when they occurred. Using this information, it is possible to track many Evansville soldiers’ movements throughout the war and construct a general idea of their personal experience of the conflict.
Reading the entries one is simultaneously saddened at the loss of life and limb, and morbidly fascinated and simply ecstatic that something like this exists. I discovered that residents of Evansville served in a number of famous and strategic battles of the war, ranging from the Midwest through the South, including: Shiloh, Fort Donelson, Chickamauga, Perryville, Pittsburgh Landing, Nashville, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Grand Bayou, Atlanta, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania courthouse. The entries record, often graphically, the nature of the injuries each soldier received and whether he perished or survived.
Henry Roettger was one such soldier. His entry states that he volunteered as a private in the 15th Indiana Battery of light artillery. I found myself totally invested in his rather poignant tale when I read along the column and saw the concise note in wounds received: ‘Ribs broke caused by falling cannon and ruptured. Harper’s Ferry Va. 1862.
Now, for some strange reason, I was hooked. I just had to know more. Did he stay in the war after the incident? Could I possibly capture some of the essence of what he would have experienced?
Through further research I found that he was a native of Germany and had only been a resident of Evansville since the mid-1850s. He volunteered in January of 1862 around the age of 30. He became a private in the 15th Indiana Battery of light artillery, mustered in Indianapolis.
This picture is of Union soldiers boarding a train from Evansville. Perhaps Henry is waiting in that crowd somewhere:
He found himself in Harper’s Ferry by September. The cannon fell on him on the 5th of September, before the battle took place. Perhaps it was an accident during the arrangement of gun emplacements. Conceivably he was recovering amidst the chaos of Confederate cannon fire. The report of one Lieutenant Binney illustrates the atmosphere around the 15th Indiana:
‘The cannonading is tremendous since 2 p.m. Colonel Miles still hopes for assistance, but still determined to hold on until his last shell has been fired. Our subsistence short; our long-range ammunition exhausted almost, hardly enough for another day’s defense…The cannonading is now terrific. Colonel Miles expressed a wish that he could be everywhere at the same time.’
It was plausible that Henry had to be treated for a grievous injury while being sufficiently sheltered from the heavy fire upon the Union troops, perhaps in a hospital behind the lines and away from the center of the fighting, and then have to contend with the aftermath. Colonel Miles would be mortally wounded by the end of the battle, and Henry’s regiment would surrender with hundreds of others. It is unclear whether he would have shared the fate of his comrades. Fortunately, they were paroled and he would have traveled all the way back to Indiana where he was discharged in November 1862.
Henry Roettger’s war service lasted less than a year. After leaving the army he married, lived in Missouri and spent his last days in Evansville. He lived to file his own pension claim in 1890 but would be dead 9 years later. He received a veteran’s grave marker and rests in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. The book that I was holding in my hand was the same one that Henry himself had stood before and had related to the official the toll that the war had taken.
Thus by choosing a random name from a book I had found myself pulled into that person’s life more deeply than I had anticipated. Of course this book contains data extremely useful for any student of military history. However, they are not merely static words on a page. The information within, in a incorporeal sense, is a gateway to capturing fleeting glimpses of people otherwise lost to the sight of us all living in the tangible world of the present.