On a recent July morning, with sunshine dappling the fluttering green trees and a summer breeze taking the edge off the already rising humidity, a small group of people walked down Bethlehem’s High Street toward the historic Nisky Hill cemetery. Slipping through the slightly open gate they slowly headed toward a distant space of graves whose distinctly waving small American flags marked it off as special. There, around a 19th century artillery piece are the 60 grave stones of Union Civil War soldiers, members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization that flourished in the 19th century only to pass out of existence when its final members answered the last bugle call in the 20th.
Although far from the only Civil War veterans resting at Nisky Hill, they are particularly interesting in that they form a composite unit. Four are African Americans, part of the U.S. Colored Troops that served in the segregated units at reduced pay in the Union Army. “Colored” had a rather broad definition in other parts of the country. In California, some sources state it included Asian and Hispanic Americans. In this cemetery these Black men rest beside their white comrades. Others, with names like Stoltzenbach, O’Brian and Weiner, represent the hundreds of thousands who, as was said at another Pennsylvania cemetery, “gave their lives that this nation might live.” And not incidentally they helped sweep the curse of chattel slavery from the land, even if regretfully it did not remove the racism at its root. In the 1970s an elderly Black man who began his life as an enslaved person noted to a popular magazine of the day that “everybody says Lincoln freed the slaves, Lincoln don’t free no slaves, Union Army freed the slaves. I know. I was there.”
The group that gathered that day are several generations of the same family. One was Ed Root. A Philadelphia native who lived in Center Valley before he and wife Nancy “downsized” to a place in Allentown, Root had a career in business that began at Eagle Shirt Makers of Quakertown and ended with retirement from the Phillips Van Heusen shirt company. Even before he retired, Root followed his passion: the history of the Civil War. He has served several terms as president of the local Civil War Roundtable of Eastern Pennsylvania and currently remains on its board. Today it meets at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month, excluding July and August, for lecture meetings at the Fogelsville Holiday Inn. More information can be found on their website.
The Roundtable movement began in Chicago in 1941 by Lincoln scholar Ralph Newman. There are hundreds of such organizations throughout the United States and some in other countries. Locally the CWRT chapter began during the 1960s among historians at the Lehigh County Historical Society.
With Ed and his wife that morning are Ed’s daughter, Emily Schenkel, recently elected to the Bethlehem School Board, and her children Nicholas and Lorraine. It was a number of years ago when Nicholas, then age 8, expressed an interest to his grandfather in the Civil War research he was doing. He is currently a student at Northwest Middle School and will be attending Liberty High School. They began in 2016 with a simple task, cleaning up the artillery piece in the cemetery. It was something that gave Nicholas a hands-on experience. Root and other CWRT board members have often led school groups do similar projects at Gettysburg.
It was in the process on cleaning the gun that Root and Nicholas became curious about the men buried there. In several cases time and apparently acid rain had wiped the tombstones of whatever information might have been on them. Root, who has done research at the National Archives in Washington and the Pennsylvania State Archives, knows his way around microfilm machines and found a willing recruit in young Nicholas. “He really got involved in it,” says his grandfather. “It’s always good to have another pair of eyes, especially young eyes. He was able to find some of the things I missed.”
The death dates on the tombstones, where they existed, were the start. From there it was on to the newspaper obituaries. Some information was easy to come by, some was not. “They were not always in the same town or even in the same state,” says Ed. “And many towns had more than one newspaper.” As late as 1900 Allentown had 7 newspapers, some in Pennsylvania German and some in recently standard German. The Pennsylvania State Archives turned out to be the most invaluable source. Their Civil War Veterans card file gave detailed information in some cases.
William H. Stotzenbach, who enrolled with the 46th Pennsylvania Regiment, was enrolled in the army on August 8, 1861 as a sergeant and was discharged as a captain on July 20, 1865. He got a leave home for 10 days in 1862. The research gives his previous occupation as a cordwainer, related to shoemaking, and says he had a gunshot wound in the right hand at an action at Peach Tree Creek, Georgia. The hand was later amputated. He had grey eyes and red hair. But Ed and Nicholas found the information provided was not always so detailed. Some cards merely state enlistment and enrollment dates and age. One of the things that seemed interesting to Root was that often men would sign up for one term of enlistment in a Pa regiment only when that term was done to join another in another state. He notes that some signed up for a regiment as far away as Connecticut or Maine.
The records in general show that most of the men were in their early 20s when they signed up. Some served throughout the war, others apparently only as long as their enlistments, which ran for 3 or 6 months. “Many people,” Root notes, “tend to think that after the Civil War ended soldiers marched off in a victory parade and lived happily ever after. This was far from the case.” In many instances the soldiers came home wounded with only a crutch to support them or walked around with shrapnel in their bodies, when they were able to walk at all. This affected not just them but their wives and children.
Root has found that several of the men died after the war in industrial accidents, particularly those who worked on the railroad.
“There was no OSHA or anything like it,” he notes. Some found success in business, one apparently opening a popular restaurant, but another was involved in a murder trial.
But grandfather and grandson are far from at an end in their research. Earlier this year while doing research at the GAR Museum library in Philadelphia, Root discovered eleven boxes of letters these Civil War soldiers wrote, an invaluable resource. But like with many other things, the museum closed its doors due to COVID-19. Both are committed to resuming the search when it becomes possible.