The reality of the situation is that this scenario is almost never the case, and most "war hero" stories suffer from significant embellishment, often growing in magnitude as the story is passed down through the generations. You won't get that here - no embellishment, just the truth as I know and learn it. The truth is that most soldiers that go off to war are lucky (and happy) to get home under their own power with most of their limbs and major organs in
One of my favorite sources of genealogical information are Civil War pension application files, particularly if the application is being made by a widow. Depending on how soon after the War the application was filed, there can be a huge wealth of information, as marriages have to be proved and dates of birth of minor children have to be established. The right application file can crush a brick wall and give you leads to research that can move a live generations back in time. Not all application files are this fruitful, but some are, and they almost all contain some parcel of information worth having (although some might not be worth the $75 that NARA currently charges for the file by mail).
One thing I really like that is often found in these files are bits and pieces of correspondence - letters and notes that add some real depth to the people involved in the process, and that is where the tale of two soldiers begins. On my father's side of the family, I have two known, confirmed civil war veterans, Isaac Edward Wentz and William J. Miller, and I have pension files for both soldiers. Today's discussion is about Isaac Wentz. William Miller's story will have to wait for another day
Isaac Edward Wentz is my great x 3 grandfather (through my father's paternal grandmother). He was born in 1831 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania and married Susanna Fickes in 1857. They had four children - John H. (my great x 2 grandfather), Leah, Rebecca, and Elizabeth. He enlisted in Company E of the Pennsylvania Cavalry and mustered in in early 1864. He saw action, and by his own account was taken prisoner in early 1865. A letter to his wife dated May 4, 1865, posted from Raleigh, North Carolina states:
Availing myself of the services of our Chaplin, I hereby inform you that at present I am here in the 1st Division Hospital, 23rd Army Corps, suffering from chronic diarrhea. I came here on the last day of April, and I can not say that I any better yet, though I am able to go about. The weather is very fine & health-inspiring, and I hope by careful attention & medicine soon to recover & return to my ? ?. On the 13th day of April when our cavalry were making a charge on the rebels near Raleigh, I was taken prisoner & I remained in their hands at Greensboro until the 30th of April, when they discharged me, after the surrender of the rebel Gen. Johnston, and sent me down here, where I am now in hospital. The war being now about over, the general impression prevails that we will all soon go home and out of the service. Hoping that you and the children are well, I am ever
Your faithful husband Isaac Wentz
(The images are scans of photocopies and quality-wise, are the best I can do with the materials I have available to me.)
So at the beginning of May, Isaac was laid low with diarrhea, but hopeful that he would be home soon to see his wife and children. This, however, was not to be.
On June 29th, 1865, a Mr. M. H. Hadley posted a short letter to an unidentified "Sir" of Union Township, Bedford County, Pennsylvania from the Sick Soldiers Rest in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Isaac Wentz of 13th Regt. Penn Cavalry Co. E is nearly dead with chronic diarrhea at this "Rest". He was brought here at 3 o'clock this morning. If he has any friend who can attend to him, he had better come here at once. I do not believe he can live a week, perhaps not three days. He says he has a wife and other friends in your township. Can you notify them?
M. H. Hadley
Supt S.S. Rest, Harrisburg
Isaac Edward Wentz died on 29 June 1865, the day the letter was posted, never making it home to see his wife and children.
The Pension Application file is full of great information, lots of proof of relationship, name and date. But those two letters breathe some life into the story, make Isaac a person, not just a collection of facts.
I have a Pension Application file for William Miller and will be tracking down some others (from my mother's side of the family and my wife's ancestors) the next time I make it to DC and can go to NARA. More stories to be told.