By Walter Fox
I remember as a boy seeing the rusted, cast-iron flag holder with the letters “G.A.R” enclosed in a wreath on a grave in my mother’s family plot. I knew, even then, that someone in her family had served in the Civil War, but I was never really clear about who that person was.
My mother’s aunt confided in me that whoever it was had died of a disease he had contracted from “sleeping in doorways” during the war, but since that didn’t make much sense to me then, I don’t recall pursuing it any further. Besides, our family had moved away from the area and, I suspected, away from some of the heartaches that these headstones represented.
When my mother died, I went through the mountains of papers – important and unimportant – that she had carefully saved. I came across what appeared to be a slightly yellowed legal document of some kind. Opening its triple folds, I could not miss the ornate words “United States of America” engraved at the top of the page. It was her grandmother’s pension certificate, and it stated that this woman, as the widow of a Civil War veteran, was entitled to collect each month the sum of $8 for herself and $2 for each of her three children. Two short documents, attached to the bottom with a straight pin, indicated that the basic allotment had increased to $25 in 1917 and to $30 in 1920.
Suddenly it dawned on me that the man buried under the cast-iron flag holder was my great-grandfather. The certificate gave him, not only a name – Joseph Serwazi – but the rank of private in Company “L” of the 192nd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
My curiosity was aroused. Had he fought at Antietam? Chancellorsville? Gettysburg? I went to the library and found that the 192nd, recruited in Philadelphia, was one of the so-called 100-day regiments composed of volunteers who signed up to serve for three months if the unit was activated by the governor.
The 192nd was called up by Gov. Andrew Curtin in July of 1864 after Confederate raiders had cut rail and telegraph lines between Baltimore and Philadelphia. Sent to a camp near Baltimore, the regiment was soon moved to Fort McHenry where it received orders to proceed to Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie to take up guard duty at a prison camp for Confederate officers.
Within a few days of arriving at this site near Sandusky, Ohio, the regiment was sent to Gallipolis, about 200 miles south on the Ohio River, for guard and patrol duty at a Union Army supply depot. Here, seven companies – among them Company “L” – were separated and sent to Weston, W. Va., where Confederate guerrillas were active. After completing its service, the regiment returned to Philadelphia and was mustered out on Nov. 11.
So, as far as I could determine, my great-grandfather had seen no combat despite logging in nearly 2,000 miles in less than four months’ time. But my interest in this ancestor was now aroused, so I wrote to the National Archives to obtain his military and pension records. Then I called the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia to find out if there was any further information on the 192nd. Much to my surprise, there was: A volunteer named John C. Myers kept a daily journal of the regiment’s service that was published in 1864, and the library had a copy.
An unusually perceptive recruit, Myers recorded the day-to-day tribulations of green troops who learned soldiering on the run: bivouacs in torrential rains and unseasonably cold weather, marches through knee-deep mud, deaths from disease and accidents, and occasional food shortages. En route by rail from Baltimore to Sandusky, the regiment ran out of provisions after leaving Pittsburgh. At every subsequent train stop, Myers noted, men foraged for food by entering all nearby houses and obtaining it by “purchase, begging or stealth.” Still, these were minor privations when compared to the carnage for which the Civil War is justly famous.
Then the envelope from the National Archives arrived. My great-grandfather’s military records consisted of three cards: a muster-in, muster and muster-out roll. They revealed that he was 18 years old when he was mustered in to the regiment on July 12, 1864, that he had been present for all roll calls and that he had been mustered out on Nov. 11, still unpaid from the date of enlistment and owing the government $11.34 for clothing and 43 cents for a wrench and wiper for his musket.
By contrast, the pension records consisted of 20 pages of affidavits and official documents supporting my great grandmother’s claim that she was entitled to a Civil War widow’s pension. The reason? Her husband died in 1884 of tuberculosis that he had contracted during his 100 days of service.
Twenty years after my great-grandfather was discharged from the Union Army, the war reached out and claimed him as a victim – one of those delayed casualties that make the real human costs of such conflicts so difficult to calculate.
Walter Fox is a freelance writer and the author of Writing the News: A Guide for Print Journalists. This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer of May 28, 2012. © 2012 Walter J. Fox Jr. (for reprint permission contact firstname.lastname@example.org)