By Josef W. Rokus
The Twenty-ninth Regiment of New York Volunteers, commanded by Col. Adolph von Steinwehr, took its departure yesterday for Washington. The men have been quartered for some time at Elm Park, a spacious place where they had good accommodations and ample verge and scope for drill exercises. (Elm Park was located at 90th Street and Bloomingdale Road, later renamed Broadway, in Manhattan.)
Its seclusion and remoteness from ordinary routes of travel have contributed largely to the fine, healthy appearance and soldierly bearing of the men, who have been able to devote themselves exclusively to the preparatory business of war. The regiment is one of the finest that has yet left our City. From private sources and the State, this regiment has been handsomely equipped and armed. That is how the 22 June 1861 New York Times described the 855 volunteers of the regiment who were on their way to fight for the Union cause in the Civil War. The regiment had recently been organized and mustered into service for a term of two years.
The New York World also reported Col. von Steinwehr’s regiment has been expecting to go for two or three days, but in consequence of a want of sufficient and well made underclothes and shoes, has been delayed. They are to proceed from Washington to Chambersburg, there to drill for four weeks. They have been given muskets for drilling purposes and are promised Enfield rifles at the end of four weeks. They will take with them 150 tents.
The 29th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment was almost exclusively a “German” unit, reflecting the fact that between 1820 and 1860 some 1.3 million German immigrants arrived in America. Many German-Americans were heavily influenced by or had even taken part in the failed 1848 Revolution in Germany.
They were strong supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists’ cause and did not hesitate to take up arms to preserve the Union. Von Steinwehr (his full name and title was Adolph William August Friedrich, Baron von Steinwehr), described by the Times as a “most affable and courteous gentleman,” had been an army officer in the Duchy of Brunswick before coming to America in 1847 and serving with U.S. Army in the Mexican War.
The regiment’s roll was initially comprised solely of New Yorkers, although it later included some volunteers from Philadelphia. The 29th was the sixth regiment of recent German immigrants to be organized in New York. After marching down Broadway, the men crossed the Hudson River and boarded a train to Washington, DC, where they were billeted in the Capitol building, spending the night in the Senate chamber. During the next twenty-four months, the 29th New York participated in several campaigns, including First Bull Run, Shenandoah Valley, Second Bull Run, and Chancellorsville. Although it performed its duties admirably, the regiment unfortunately found itself on the losing side of virtually every engagement with the Confederates.
As a possible result, it is one of the Union units which has been largely forgotten. The regiment has no monument dedicated to it, and no official history exists. The 29th New York, along with the other regiments that comprised XI Corps at the Battle of Chancellorsville, was also caught up in a controversy that would follow the men to their graves and is still a subject of debate among Civil War historians.
Shortly after arriving in Washington, the 29th was assigned to COL Louis Blenker’s brigade, which was made up of several other German regiments.
The brigade was part of BG Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeast Virginia and was stationed in the Washington area to help protect the nation’s capital. Less than a month later, on 16 July 1861, Blenker’s brigade participated in the Union advance toward Manassas, Virginia, and then took part in the first major land battle of the Civil War, the Battle of First Bull Run, on 21 July. Contrary to the expectations of the Northerners, who were confident of an easy win and a quick end to the war, the Confederates handed the Union forces a humiliating defeat. The 29th was initially held in reserve on the road connecting Manassas and Washington.
Later that day, however, the 29th skirmished with Confederate cavalry pursuing the retreating Union army, resulting in two men killed and nine wounded. In addition, thirty-five men were listed as missing in action. About midnight, the unit was ordered to return to Washington and reached Georgetown late the next day after a grueling nineteen hour march.
From 26 July to 13 October 1861, the regiment camped at Roach’s Mill, north of Alexandria, Virginia. It established winter quarters at Hunter’s Chapel, where it arrived on 16 November and was again part of the army assigned to protect Washington. Hunter’s Chapel, formerly a Methodist church, was used as a picket post, blockhouse, commissary and stable before being dismantled for its building materials.
It was located at the present intersection of Glebe Road and Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia. In early April 1862, the 29th New York Infantry, now part of Blenker’s Division, was transferred to Winchester in northwest Virginia and participated in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign under MG John Fremont for the next few weeks. The Shenandoah Valley was important to the Confederates as a source of provisions and as a route for invading the North.
The Confederate army of 17,000 men, brilliantly led by MG Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, won several battles and successfully engaged three Union armies numbering over 60,000 men, preventing them from reinforcing MG George B. McClellan’s offensive against Richmond. The 29th was posted at Winchester, Franklin, Strasburg and Harrisonburg, among other places. It took part in a skirmish near Strasburg on 1 June and in the Battle of Cross Keys on 8 June 1862. The next day the regiment was involved in skirmishes at Harrisonburg and Port Republic.
After Jackson scored decisive victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic, the Union forces were withdrawn, and Jackson joined Lee on the Virginia Peninsula for the Seven Days Battles. The embarrassing Union defeats by a smaller force led to a command shakeup. Disillusioned by the difficulties of controlling multiple forces, President Lincoln created a single new army, the Army of Virginia, under MG John Pope on 26 June 1862.
As part of that reorganization, von Steinwehr assumed command of the 2d Division under MG Franz Sigel’s newly created I Corps, and COL Clemens Soest became the commanding officer of the 29th New York. Most of Sigel’s soldiers were German immigrants, and many spoke little English beyond “I fights mit Sigel,” their proud slogan.
Pope was to operate east of the Shenandoah Valley and challenge Confederate forces there to draw off enough enemy troops from Richmond to enable the Union to capture that city. Consequently, the 29th was stationed at Sperryville, Virginia, from 7 July until 8 August 1862, during which time it was involved in a skirmish at Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan River on 24 July.
During August 1862, the regiment was still part of Pope’s campaign in northern Virginia. By then, McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign had failed, and his army began to redeploy north. GEN Robert E. Lee then seized the initiative and moved to challenge Pope’s Army of Virginia before it could unite with McClellan’s forces. From 23 August through 25 August, the 29th engaged the Confederates at White Sulphur Springs and Waterloo Bridge, Virginia. On 29 August 1862, the first day of the Battle of Second Bull Run, the opposing armies clashed at Groveton. Early in the morning, Pope’s army was widely scattered, with Sigel’s corps and MG John Reynold’s division directly before the enemy. At that time, the 29th New York, the 68th New York, and the 73d Pennsylvania were part of COL Johann Koltes’ 3d Brigade. Koltes’ brigade, along with those of BG Alexander Schimmelfennig and BG Wladimir Krzyzanowski, comprised MG Carl Schurz’s 3d Division of Sigel’s I Corps.
Pope ordered the attack to begin at 0500, and Sigel moved his troops accordingly, with Schimmelfennig’s and Krzyzanowski’s brigades leading the charge. Koltes’ brigade (including the 29th New York) was held in reserve. As the Union troops advanced against the Confederate line, they came under increasingly heavier fire. They pushed the opposing South Carolinians back about half a mile, but then the Union advance began to falter. At about 0800, it became necessary to bring the 29th New York up from the reserves. The 29th quickly formed into line of battle and secured the Union right.
For about two hours, Schurz’s division exchanged fire with the enemy. At around 1100, however, the Union front was shaken when the 12th South Carolina charged the Union center. As the Union regiments that received the brunt of the attack fell back, the 29th New York poured several volleys into the Confederates, checking the pursuit of the enemy. The delay allowed the withdrawing Union forces a few precious minutes to reorganize and meet the enemy’s advance. The 29th fell back a few yards and reformed its lines. Then, joined by supporting artillery fire, it hit the South Carolinians emerging from the woods, forcing them to retreat.
The 29th New York pursued the rebels for a short distance and sealed the breach in the Union line. Schurz then advanced, led by the 29th, and pushed the three South Carolina regiments back to their original positions. As reinforcements began to arrive, Schurz ordered his whole line forward, reaching the Confederate line, which rested on an unfinished railroad embankment. The men of the 29th New York and the 54th New York used the embankment as an emplacement from which to pour fire into the retreating enemy.
A fierce fight ensued as a breach in the Confederate line to the right widened, allowing Schimmelfennig’s 61st Ohio and 74th Pennsylvania to advance over the embankment and through a cornfield. After about half an hour, the two forward Union regiments, finding themselves in an exposed position, were forced to withdraw to the embankment. During this battle, the 29th New York’s commanding officer, COL Soest, was wounded and compelled to leave the field; LTC Louis Hartmann then took command of the regiment.
The 29th, with the rest of Schurz’s division, remained at the embankment until early afternoon. Schurz then requested that his regiments be withdrawn due to their losses, fatigue and lack of ammunition, having been in steady action for several hours. Despite having no food or rest, the men continued to exchange fire with the Confederates until sometime after 1500, when relief finally arrived. Sigel’s I Corps was designated as the army’s reserve the next day and deployed accordingly. At about 0600 on 30 August, Koltes’ brigade was moved to a position southwest of their earlier location at the railway embankment, where the brigade rested until mid-afternoon.
While most of the action on 29 August was taking place to the north, LTG James Longstreet arrived to the west with the rest of the Confederate army. Later on 30 August, after Pope’s final attempt to breach Jackson’s line failed, Longstreet assaulted the Union left and drove it back in disarray. At around 1500, Sigel was ordered to move forward to receive Longstreet’s assault. Schurz’s command, which included Koltes’ brigade and the 29th New York, lined up in reserve. Schimmelfennig’s brigade was to the right of Koltes’ brigade, with Krzyzanowski’s brigade behind them.
Unit after unit of federal troops were gradually overwhelmed by Longstreet’s onslaught. This wave eventually reached McClean’s Ohio Brigade, which then absorbed the brunt of the attack. Around 1700 Koltes’ brigade was directed to move forward to join the 41st New York and advance against the enemy. The 41st arrived first at Chinn Ridge, where they were hotly engaged by a Texas brigade. The 41st then attempted to recover an abandoned Union battery, but concentrated enemy fire forced them to withdraw just before Koltes’ men arrived on the ridge. Krzyzanowski’s brigade, ordered to Koltes’ right, was also turned by the oncoming Confederate forces and forced to retire to a safer position. Koltes’ brigade was now imperiled from the front and the flanks as both the 41st New York and Krzyzanowski’s men gave way.
The Texans exploited this movement to strike against Koltes’ right, also forcing them to fall back. The gravity of the situation was compounded as Koltes’ three regiments, including the 29th New York, found themselves under bombardment by nearby enemy artillery. In response, Koltes rode to the head of the 29th and ordered his brigade to charge the enemy battery. At that moment, as Koltes drew his sword and turned to the enemy, a shell fragment struck him in the head, killing him instantly.
Nevertheless, the brigade charged, only to be stopped by canister and shot. After a brutal half an hour’s action, Koltes’ men withdrew from Chinn Ridge. Their spirited rear guard action, however, kept the enemy at bay, buying precious time for the rest of Pope’s army to realign itself in a more orderly fashion. In the process, almost a third of Koltes’ brigade was lost. That evening, at around 2000, the Union army retreated to fortified positions that protected the approaches to Washington.
Unfortunately, the 29th New York had once again been caught up in a stunning defeat, and it had lost more men in three days of fighting than in any other engagement. Twenty-two enlisted men were killed in action, while ten soldiers later died as a result of their wounds. In total, the regiment had suffered 151 casualties during Pope’s Northern Virginia campaign since mid-August, including ninety-eight men wounded but who recovered, and twenty-one missing. By September 1862, the number of soldiers in the 29th had shrunk to 280, with battle casualties, disease, accidents, and lack of reinforcements having taken their toll. On 12 September, I Corps of the Army of Virginia, which included the 29th, was redesignated as the XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
The regiment was then camped between Fairfax Court House, Virginia, and Chain Bridge on the Potomac. As an aside, some men of the 29th left their names and graffiti sketches, still visible today, on the walls of a farm house, the Blenheim Estate, close to Fairfax Court House after Blenheim was taken over by the XI Corps as a hospital. As the Army of the Potomac marched into Maryland in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 during the Maryland Campaign, XI Corps remained in Northern Virginia to guard the southern approaches to Washington. As a result, XI Corps and the 29th New York were spared the carnage of the Battle of Antietam on 17 September.
On 1 November 1862, the regiment temporarily moved to Centreville before redeploying to Falmouth, Virginia, in December. On 9 December, it moved to support MG Ambrose Burnside during the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, although it, along with the rest of the XI Corps, did not take part in the battle. About a month later, on 20 January 1863, the 29th New York became part of another Union debacle, the infamous “Mud March” in Stafford County, Virginia. Following his disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg, Burnside was desperate to restore his reputation and the morale of his Army of the Potomac. Consequently, he planned a surprise crossing of the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg to attack Lee’s army. The movement began in unseasonably mild weather.
A steady rain saturated the unpaved roads, leaving the men knee-deep in mud. After struggling for two days to move troops, wagons, and artillery pieces, Burnside yielded to complaints from his subordinates and reluctantly ordered his army back to camp. On 26 January, Lincoln replaced Burnside with MG Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The 29th then established its winter quarters until late April 1863 at Stafford Court House. In April 1863, MG Oliver O. Howard replaced Sigel as commanding general of the XI Corps. Howard’s 2d Division was commanded by MG Steinwehr, who had organized the 29th New York two years earlier.
The popular Sigel had asked to be relieved, with some accounts citing failing health. A more likely story was that he was unhappy with the size of the corps assigned to him. The 29th, which then numbered thirty-two officers and 485 enlisted men, was still commanded by COL Hartmann and was part of COL Adolphus Buschbeck’s 1st Brigade. It, in turn, reported to the 2d Division. The evangelical Howard was known as the “Christian Soldier” and took a dim view of his German soldiers’ more liberal social life, especially their drinking and swearing. On 30 April 1863, the 29th New York was ordered to cross the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford. The regiment’s final engagement, the Battle of Chancellorsville, would result in another embarrassing Union defeat.
Three days earlier, Hooker had led his army on a campaign to turn the Confederate left flank by crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers above Fredericksburg, concentrating his forces near Chancellorsville, Virginia. Lee reacted by attacking the Union army at Chancellorsville. Pressed closely by Lee’s advance, Hooker adopted a defensive posture, thus giving Lee the initiative. Lee and Jackson realized that Hooker’s deployment left the XI Corps exposed on its right flank. At great risk, they decided to exploit this opportunity. On the morning of 2 May, “Stonewall” Jackson led his corps on a daylong march against the Union’s right flank. The pivotal flaw in Hooker’s campaign was his failure to recognize Jackson’s flanking movement as an offensive tactic. Instead, he erroneously interpreted it as a retreat. Hooker sent Howard a dispatch that morning warning him that a Confederate column was marching his way and ordered him to take measures to protect his flank.
Howard, however, took only minor precautions against a possible attack from the west. Furthermore, around 1200, MG Daniel Sickles, commanding general of III Corps, asked for and received permission from Hooker to attack the rear guard of Jackson’s “retreating” column south of Chancellorsville. In reality, he was pursuing the rear of Jackson’s attacking column. Consequently, some key Union forces which would be sorely needed to help fight off Jackson’s early evening attack were not available to support XI Corps. Furthermore, the departure of Sickles’ corps left a gaping hole in the Union’s defensive line. XI Corps was then isolated and deployed in a precarious position, with its right flank “up in the air.”
The commanders of the brigades, corps, and even the whole Army of the Potomac, received several reliable warnings about Jackson’s impending attack, but all were ignored. Specifically, the commander of the 55th Ohio, COL John Lee, brought three messages between 1100 and 1600 to MG Charles Devens of the 1st Division warning him of the enemy’s approach. Devens merely dismissed him by answering, “You are worried, sir!” Lee even brought along a farmer who had seen Jackson’s army, but Devens did not want to hear from this witness either. (After the battle, COL Lee was so mortified by his treatment by Devens that he resigned. Lee later became the lieutenant governor of Ohio.) At 1445, MAJ Owen Rice, 153d Pennsylvania, sent the following urgent plea to COL Leopold von Gilsa, commander of Devens’ 1st Brigade: “A large body of the enemy is massing in my front. For God’s sake, make dispositions to receive him!” Afterward, von Gilsa recorded that he personally carried the dispatch to Devens and then to Howard. The latter dismissed him with the airy taunt, “No force could penetrate the outlying thickets.”
When von Gilsa and Rice later tried to give testimony to the congressional committee investigating the defeat, they were not accepted as witnesses. Furthermore, around 1500, MAJ Gustav Schleiter of the 74th Pennsylvania clearly heard the commands of Confederate officers while he was scouting. Schleiter reported his observations to Schurz, who sent him to Howard. Howard informed Schleiter that he should not be concerned. Also, COL William Richardson of the 25th Ohio brought several messages to Devens which confirmed the earlier reports of the enemy massing on the western flank.
Devens snapped back, “I know that Robert E. Lee is retreating.” Devens turned to BG Nathaniel C. McLean, one of his brigade commanders, and said, “I guess that Colonel Richardson is somewhat scared. You had better order him to his regiment.” About this time, Jackson’s lead regiment reached the Orange Turnpike (now Virginia Route 3) and turned east, making final preparations for the surprise attack. COL Charles Friend, Devens’ officer of the day, also reported to his commander that the enemy was forming in mass before XI Corps. Friend repeated his observation to corps headquarters, where he was insulted and warned not to cause panic. Friend rode back to the pickets and came back later with the same report. The response was, “You are a coward. Go back to your regiment! The enemy is in retreat.”
MG Schimmelfennig personally saw some of the Confederate troops two hours before the attack. When he reported his observation to Howard, the latter forbade him to begin a fight and sent him back to his troops. Schimmelfennig’s adjutant also saw the enemy, made a report of his sighting and was rudely rejected. Early in the afternoon, CPT Hubert Dilger, one of Schurz’s artillery officers, rode to the exposed right flank to see for himself what truth there might be to the rumors that the Confederates were massing there. He ran right into the enemy, fled, and was pursued, with bullets flying past his head. He later stumbled into Hooker’s headquarters where he was told by one of Howard’s cavalry majors, “You are crazy. Go back to your battery!” Dilger got back to his cannons just in time to bring them into position as Jackson was starting his attack.
At 1715, Jackson assessed the position of his troops one last time before his assault. Shortly thereafter, the vastly outnumbered men of Howard’s XI Corps received their last, and this time unmistakable, warning. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels which had been startled by the rebel yells streamed into their camp ahead of the Confederate onslaught, just as Howard’s men, with their weapons neatly stacked, were preparing for supper. As Jackson’s divisions crashed into the XI Corps’ western flank, they almost immediately overwhelmed Devens’ 1st Division and caused the unprepared defenders to flee in panic. Each successive unit fell back upon its comrades, turning the retreat into a chaotic rout. Buschbeck’s brigade (including the 29th New York) faced south when the attack began, and Buschbeck initially kept his men in their positions, in the belief that the western assault was only a feint.
When it became clear that the only threat was from the west, Buschbeck quickly ordered his men into an incomplete string of emplacements. The 29th New York was positioned near Wilderness Baptist Church north of the Orange Plank Road, with the 27th and 73d Pennsylvania and 154th New York to the south. They defended their position as best they could until Buschbeck’s line collapsed. The fragmented units from the 2d and 3d Brigades soon gave way, to be followed by the 29th New York, 73d Pennsylvania and most of the 27th Pennsylvania. The 154th New York and some of the 27th Pennsylvania held on a bit longer, being buttressed to the south by the woods, although they were exposed to flanking fire. After a gallant defense, they too were soon forced to yield by the enveloping enemy lines.
Buschbeck halted his brigade twice, faced around to fire, and finally reached the Union positions a mile west of Chancellorsville. According to reports of the battle, few others in XI Corps besides Buschbeck’s men and part of Schurz’s command withdrew in such good order. Only at 2200 were the Union officers able to restore order in their lines and organize an effective defense to the west of Chancellorsville.
Luckily for Hooker, the Confederates were unable to press their attack home as night fell. In addition, Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops in the fading twilight while reconnoitering the Union positions.
Hooker’s response to what had happened on his right flank was to redeploy his army into a protective cordon around Chancellorsville, assuming a defensive posture despite the pleas of many of his corps commanders to attack. Hooker’s inactivity and lack of vigorous response culminated a few days later when he withdrew his army north over the Rappahannock River on 6 May. Losses had been heavy in all units, but especially in Buschbeck’s brigade. The losses in the 29th were one officer and seven men killed, four officers and forty-nine men wounded, and one officer and thirty-eight men missing. The wounded included the regiment’s commanding officer, COL Louis Hartmann.
As the immensity of the Union defeat was realized, accusations began to fly, and a fierce controversy arose as to who was responsible. Much of the onus fell on the shoulders of the German-American troops who bore the brunt of Jackson’s assault. Derisively labeled “Flying Dutchmen,” the Germans were saddled with the responsibility of causing the defeat. Hooker, Howard and others allowed these accusations to pass unchallenged in order to exonerate themselves of any responsibility for the debacle. Two generals, Schurz and Schimmelfennig, were not permitted to publish their own versions of the battle, nor was a formal court of inquiry ever established.
These allegations naturally offended the German-American troops, especially since many had, in fact, stood their ground in the face of an overwhelming Confederate attack. As the allegedly “Dutch” XI Corps was mostly native born, these accusations rankled even more. Of the twenty-seven regiments in the corps, only eleven were so-called “German regiments,” and four more were partially German. However, the American public was hungry for victories and tired of the string of defeats suffered by the Army of the Potomac. Furthermore, the American press reached for the excuse that “the Germans lost the battle” to cover up the defeat and to overcome the North’s sense of humiliation.
Several studies after the war concluded that the Germans at Chancellorsville were clearly made the scapegoats for the Union’s stunning defeat. Wilhelm Kaufmann in his The Germans in the American Civil War concluded, “Military history is full of generals forced into necessary falsehoods, but it would be hard to find a fable more palpably unbelievable than this accusation against the Germans.” Likewise, Augustus C. Hamlin’s exhaustive, three-year investigation of the battle, published in 1896 as The Attack of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, reached the following conclusion: “The investigation clearly proves that the disastrous results of the Battle of Chancellorsville cannot be justly ascribed to the want of vigilance and soldierly conduct on the part of the rank and file of the Eleventh Corps…The investigator fails to find cause for blaming the Germans. On the contrary, he finds much worthy of praise, and that the denunciations against them are extremely unfair and unjust and arose from ignorance, from malice or from prejudice.”
Following Chancellorsville, with the end of their two-year enlistment fast approaching, the men of the 29th returned to their Stafford Court House camp to prepare for their discharge. The unit strength by the end of May 1863 was 436 men. On 2 June 1863, the regiment left camp for New York City, and on 20 June, the 29th New York Infantry Regiment, under COL Hartmann, was honorably discharged, with 449 men being mustered out with their companies.
In the course of its two years of service, one officer and twenty-seven enlisted men of the 29th were killed in action. One other officer and fourteen additional enlisted men died from wounds they received. Twelve officers and 148 enlisted men were wounded but recovered. In addition, one officer and 22 enlisted men died due to disease and other causes. Finally, two officers and 101 enlisted men were listed as missing in action.
There was an unsuccessful attempt to re-organize the 29th New York Infantry for three years of service, but this effort met with little success, and it was discontinued in October 1863. However, many men from the 29th volunteered for subsequent service in the 15th New York Heavy Artillery or a myriad of other units. The fifty-seven men of the 29th who had signed up for three years of service were consolidated into a unit designated the Independent Company, 29th New York Infantry. These men performed provost duty at the headquarters of XI Corps and saw action at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. On 19 April 1864, the surviving members of this company were transferred to the 68th New York Infantry Regiment.
At the mustering out ceremony in New York City, BG von Steinwehr addressed for one last time the regiment he had organized two years earlier.
He said, Officers and soldiers of the Twenty-ninth New York Volunteers: The term of service for which you enlisted has expired, and tomorrow you will leave this command to return to your homes. My best wishes for your future welfare accompany you. May you find the relatives and friends, whom you left two years ago, in health and prosperity. May you meet in your undertakings that success which you have so well earned by your devotion to your adopted country. You were among the first who came forward to sustain this government, and by your untiring zeal, your bravery on the field of battle and your soldierly conduct in your duties, you have won just claims upon the esteem and gratitude of your fellow citizens.
You took part in the First Battle of Bull Run, where your regiment was the last to leave the field, then in the campaign under General Fremont, which terminated with the reverse at Cross Keys, and afterwards in the campaign under General Sigel on the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. This was followed by the Second Battle of Bull Run and, lastly, the sanguinary Battle of Chancellorsvllle, where again you sustained your old fame by stubborn resistance to the overwhelming force of the enemy. It was on this field that you, together with the other regiments of the First Brigade of my division, bravely defended your position, when all around you fled in confusion. History is just and will exempt you from all blame that may attach to others for the disaster of that day. I part from you with deep regret, but let me hope that you will remember me with the same esteem that I ever shall entertain for you.
I became interested in the 29th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment about two years ago when in the process of tracing my family roots, I “found” a second cousin, once removed, in the small town of Koerbecke, Germany, not far from where I was born. From her, I learned that my great-granduncle, Antonius Rokus, had emigrated from Germany and that he had settled in New York City, based on two letters he wrote in 1868 and 1870, which the family had saved. A search of the church records in Koerbecke as well as U.S. immigration and Civil War military records then revealed that Antonius was born in 1835, had come to this country in 1860, and had enlisted in Company H of the 29th New York Infantry in February 1862. Therefore, he would have joined the regiment after the Battle of First Bull Run but before it participated in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Ironically, based on documents found in Germany, it is likely that he left Germany in part because he was about to be drafted into the Prussian army as he had just turned twenty-five.
I subsequently obtained his service and pension files from the National Archives and found some details about the hardships Antonius and his regiment endured. He contracted chronic diarrhea due to the very difficult conditions in the field during the regiment’s campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862, causing him to be hospitalized in Strasburg, Virginia, for two weeks in June of that year. In addition, he came down with rheumatism caused by “exposure” while at Fairfax Court House, Virginia, during the winter of 1862-1863. (The 1890 Census records confirm that he was not wounded in action.)
An affidavit in his pension file from one of his comrades states, “In the spring of 1862 we marched through Virginia. In camp near Winchester, we had no tents, had to lie on the bare ground, and had nothing to eat except meat from the cattle which tasted like garlic. This gave most of us diarrhea, and the wet ground gave us rheumatism. We had only half rations for four long months.”
By coincidence, I now live in central Virginia, less than five miles from where the 29th New York Infantry fought at Chancellorsville. Consequently, I have been able to almost literally walk in Antonius’ footsteps and visualize the disastrous Union defeat using National Park Service maps that show the location of his regiment on the battlefield hour-by-hour on that historic day.
PVT Antonius Rokus was honorably discharged on 20 June 1863, when the 29th was mustered out, although he had not completed his two-year enlistment. He married Apolonia Reiss in May 1865, and they had three daughters. The family apparently struggled financially for the rest of his life. They moved several times on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he had a variety of odd jobs—primarily as a porter, and he was unemployed much of the time, allegedly because of the lingering illnesses resulting from his service in the Union Army.
Antonius did not apply for a pension until April 1889. He probably waited until then because he anticipated Congress passing the Pension Act of 1890, which liberalized the circumstances for veterans to claim a pension. Four years, two medical examinations and a host of affidavits to substantiate his service-related illnesses later, his pension of $2 per month was approved in 1893.
Antonius’ pension file also included the details of his tragic death. On Sunday, 24 June 1894, a New York City fishing club chartered the John D. Nicol tugboat for a fishing excursion. A few hours into the outing, a storm suddenly arose while the boat was three miles off the coast of New Jersey, causing it to capsize. Antonius Rokus drowned along with approximately forty other passengers.
Most bodies, including his, were never recovered. A subsequent investigation revealed that the tugboat was carrying approximately twice as many passengers as it was authorized to have on board and that the captain was also not licensed to operate the boat outside of the New York harbor. One of the articles in the New York Times, which reported on the tragedy extensively, included a report by Antonius’ son-in-law that Antonius was among the missing fishermen. Two of his friends who were on board and survived also made statements that they had seen Antonius just before the capsizing but not since then. Ironically, Antonius had survived a long ocean voyage on a small sailing ship, as well as several Civil War battles, only to drown on a fishing trip.
Apolonia filed an application for her widow’s pension soon thereafter and was awarded $8 per month. In her application she stated, “I do not own any real estate, stocks, bonds, or investments. I have no property except some household furniture whose value does not exceed $100. I have no income from any source, and no person is legally bound for my support.” She later moved to Edgewater, New Jersey, to live with her daughter and son-in-law and died there in May 1918. Finally, Antonius’ pension file contained an affidavit which included the following revelation. “I, Bernard Rokus, a grocer in Brooklyn, say that the soldier Antonius Rokus was my brother and that I have known him all my life.
That Antonius was married to Apolonia Rokus. That he died by drowning in the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast on June 24, 1894.” Antonius had obviously convinced another Rokus from Körbecke to come to America, making Bernard the second Rokus to settle in their adopted country.
The challenge now has been to find the descendants of Antonius and Bernard. So far, an executive secretary to the mayor of New York, a butcher, a stockbroker, a bartender, a New York City food inspector, a tinsmith, a tobacco farmer, and a national croquet champion have turned up in the censuses. Antonius and Bernard had a total of eight children–seven daughters and one son. The son had one daughter and one son, and the latter son had no children. Consequently, unless other offspring are found, the Rokus name on these two branches of the family has died out.
But the search goes on…