“Fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention.” – Amy Tan
Although those words were penned for a bestselling novel about Chinese immigrant families in San Francisco more than a century after America’s Civil War, they also eloquently sum up the extraordinary twists of fate experienced by a simple laborer-soldier who survived a desperate battle far from home only to lose his life as a result of children at play in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.
Born at Sieger’s Mill in South Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania on 3 October 1844, Griffin Reinert was a son of Reuben Reinert, a brother to Alfred, Frank and Martha Reinert, and a husband to Saran Ann (Smith) Reinert (1847-1936), a daughter of Mountainville resident Reuben Smith. Among his progeny were two daughters, five sons and a number of grandchildren who each went on to make their mark on the world in their own unique ways.
During his own formative years, Griffin Reinert took up the trade of shoemaking, honed it and then, as 1860 waned and 1861 dawned, watched in concern with his family, friends and neighbors as their community’s horizons were darkened by a nation descending into the chaos of dissent and disunion.
At the age of 19, Griffin Reinert joined his fellow Allentonians in fighting to preserve America’s Union by enrolling and mustering in for military service on 21 December 1863 at Norristown, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania as a Private with Co. F, 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Military records at the time described him as being a 21-year-old, 5’ 5 ½“ tall shoemaker with light hair, gray eyes and a fair complexion who was a native of Lehigh County.
* Note: The discrepancies between his real and reported ages could simply have been due to clerical errors since variations on the spelling of his given name and surname also appear in military records and newspaper accounts of his life ( Griff and Griffin vs. Griffith; Reinert vs. Reinhard and Reinhart), or might have been due to Griffin’s decision to inflate his age, a common occurrence with Civil War-era teenagers who lied about their age in order to be accepted into military service.
Joining a unit that had already been bloodied in battle and tested by the hardships of long marches and the ever-present foe of disease, the newly minted Private Griff Reinert connected with his regiment on 28 January 1864. Although he could not have known it at the time, he was about to make history with his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians.
1864 – The Red River Campaign
On 25 February 1864, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers set off for a phase of duty which would forever notch their names in the pages of American history. Steaming from Florida where they had been garrisoning Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas, they headed for New Orleans, Louisiana aboard the Charles Thomas. Arriving at Algiers on 28 February, they were then transported by train to Brashear City.
Following another steamer ride – this time to Franklin via the Bayou Teche, Private Griff Reinert and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians finally reached their intended destination, and met up with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps. In short order, the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry would become the only regiment from the Keystone State to serve in the Red River Campaign spearheaded by Union General Nathaniel P. Banks.
From 14-26 March, the 47th passed through New Iberia, Vermillionville, Opelousas, and Washington while en route to Alexandria and Natchitoches at the top of the L-shaped state. Often short on food and water, the remaining members of the regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day, marching until mid-afternoon.
Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the back-and-forth volley of fire unleashed in the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads (Mansfield). The fighting waned only when darkness fell.
The exhausted, but uninjured collapsed beside the gravely wounded. The sounds of the wounded and dying were terrible, scarring the minds of many who were forced to remain still for fear of sparking another confrontation with the enemy. Finally, after midnight, the surviving Union troops were permitted to withdraw to Pleasant Hill.
Among those felled in that first major battle of the Red River Campaign was Private Griffin Reinert. Shot through the lower jaw less than three months into his military service with the 47th Pennsylvania, his days of combat were already over. His new war was to survive the grievous facial wound he had sustained and the likely medical complications he would experience as military surgeons fought to keep him alive.
Initially treated in the field, Reinert was transferred through the Union Army’s system of military hospitals for advanced care until finally being moved to U.S. Army’s General Hospital in Penn Park at York, Pennsylvania convalesce. Three days after Christmas in 1864, and just over ten months after he had been wounded in action, he was discharged from that hospital on a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability, and transported home to the Lehigh Valley.
Return to Civilian Life
After his honorable discharge from the army hospital in York, Pennsylvania, Griffin Reinert returned home to the Lehigh Valley, where he began to make a home for himself and build a family. Together, he and his wife Sarah welcomed to the world daughter Bessie and sons Benjamin, Edwin, Franklin, Preston, and Wilson Reinert.
By 1873, he and his family had relocated to Allentown, the community he would call home for the remainder of his life. An attendee at reunions by his former regiment – the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers – he was also a member of Company E of the 2nd Regiment, Sons of Veterans (S. of V.).
Like many of his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians who had been wounded in combat during America’s long Civil War, Reinert found that life had its ups and downs – especially where health matters were concerned. Suffering from persistent battle wound-related problems, he tried valiantly to soldier on, continuing to support his family via his job at a local broom and brush works.
Life may have appeared brighter as the new century beckoned – probably never more so than when he and his family moved into one of the new row homes which had opened their doors on Park Street in Allentown in 1891 . But just as it did in 1864, fate intervened, placing Griff Reinert in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1903. On Friday, 18 December, The Allentown Leader carried the shocking news that:
A sad coasting accident occurred Thursday evening at Fifth and Gordon Streets. While Griffin Reinert, an employe [sic] of George M. Bernhard’s brush factory, was on his way home from work he was struck by a large bob-sled when he crossed Fifth Street at Gordon. He was knocked down and rendered unconscious. The sled was in charge of a son of H. E. Ruhe.
The unfortunate man was carried into Albright’s drug store and Dr. Boyer called. Later he was removed to his home at 523 Park Street in the ambulance. Dr. L. D. Christman, the family physician, was then summoned. Upon examination it was found that the man was suffering from concussion of the brain, that his left leg and hip were badly bruised, and that his eyes were badly swollen and discolored.
Everything possible was done to save the man’s life, but he died Friday morning at 8:45 without gaining consciousness. The cause of death was concussion of the brain. Coroner Scheirer was notified and empaneled a jury this afternoon. The inquest will be held this evening at 7:30 at the coroner’s office.
The family is very sadly afflicted and has the sincere sympathy of the entire community. A daughter has been confined to bed by chronic illness for the past 18 months.
Mr. Reinert was a veteran of the Civil War and held a proud record. He was a member of the famous 47th Regiment, having been a private in Company F, of which County Treasurer Wm. H. Bartholomew of Catasauqua was captain. He was shot through the lower jaw in the battle of Sabine Cross Roads, La., April 8, 1864, and suffered from gastric trouble ever since.
Deceased was a son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Reinert and was born at Sieger’s mill in South Whitehall Township, October 3, 1844. He was a resident of Allentown for 30 years. His wife is a daughter of Reuben Smith of Mountainville. His wife, two daughters, Mrs. William Block and Bessie Reinert, and these sons survive: Franklin A., Benjamin H., Preston A., Edwin I. and Wilson R. Reinert, all of Allentown, together with three grandchildren. Three brothers, Alfred and Frank Reinert of Coplay and William Reinert of Northampton and one sister, Mrs. Martha Guth of Orefield, also survive.
He was a member of the Jordan Lutheran Church and of the 47th Regiment Survivors’ Association. The funeral arrangements have not been completed.
A brief death notice printed in that same edition of the newspaper added that Reinert was just 59 years, 2 months and 13 days old at the time of his death. The day after Christmas, the Pennsburg Town and Courier added further details about the accident:
At the juncture of Fifth and Gordon Streets, Allentown, Griffin REINERT, a veteran of the Civil War, met with injuries which resulted in his death several hours later. The hill near there is used by boys in coasting and the crossing is a dangerous one during the coasting season. Shortly after 5.30 o’clock last Thursday evening Mr. REINERT, was on his way home. When he reached the corner there were comparatively few coasters on the hill but when half way across he noticed a big bob sled, occupied by half a dozen youngsters, dashing towards him. According to the boys’ story they attempted to steer the sled to one side and claim that REINERT, becoming confused, turned in the same direction. The big sled struck the man squarely, knocking him off his feet. He fell on the icy street, striking his head on the left side. In an unconscious condition he was carried to his home and a physician summoned, but he never regained consciousness, dying the next morning.
Funeral services were held at 1:30 p.m. at the Reinert family home at 523 Park Street in Allentown on 22 December 1903, and he was then laid to rest with military honors at Allentown’s Greenwood Cemetery:
The funeral of Griffin Reinert, who died on Friday from the effects of injuries received the previous evening in a coasting accident, took place Tuesday afternoon from his late home, No. 523 Park Street. Services were held at the house and interment was made with military honors in Greenwood Cemetery. Rev. R. M. Kern officiated. Many survivors of the 47th Regiment, and Company E, Second Regiment, S. of V. Reserves, attended.
That same evening, during the coroner’s inquest, Dr. Christman revealed autopsy results which showed that Reinert had sustained a wound causing “a hemorrhage of the brain which undoubtedly caused death.”
A decade later, on 1 April 1913, his sister, Martha (Reinert) Guth, lost her long battle with cancer, and passed away at her home near Siegersville in Lehigh County. Previously widowed by Harrison Guth, a former 47th Pennsylvania comrade of her brother’s, she was interred at Allentown’s Jordan Reformed Church Cemetery (now known as the Jordan United Church of Christ Cemetery).
Just over two decades after his sister’s passing, Griffin Reinert’s widow, Sarah Ann (Smith) Reinert, then also followed him in death, and was laid to rest beside him at Allentown’s Greenwood Cemetery in 1936.
1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.
2. Coasting Accident, in Town and Country. Pennsburg: 26 December 1903.
3. Fatal Coasting Accident: Civil War Veteran Struck by Sled and Dies from Injuries Sustained and Griffin S. Reinert, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 18 December 1903 and 21 December 1903.
4. Laid to Rest, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 22 December 1903.
5. Mrs. Martha Guth, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 2 April 1913.
6. Reinert Inquest, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 22 December 1903.
7. Reinhart, Griff, in Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives.
8. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown: Self-published, 1986.