Private Alpheus Dech – From Soap Boiler to Soldier

Alternate Presentations of Given Name: Alfred, Alpheus. Alternate Spellings of Surname: Dech, Deck

 

Allentown, Pennsylvania (c. 1865, public domain).

Allentown, Pennsylvania (c. 1865, public domain).

Born in Pennsylvania on 13 January 1848, Alpheus Dech was a son of Pennsylvania natives, William E. Dech (1811-1888) and Catharine A. Dech (1816-1892). His given name “Alpheus” was anglicized as “Alfred” on various federal census and military records during his short lifetime.

During the 1850s, Alfred Dech resided in the Borough of Allentown, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania with his parents and siblings: Sabina (age 13), William H. (1841-1926), Elizabeth (age 8), Catharine Marie (1860-1915), Reuben (1846-1923), Irvin (1852-1930), Amelia (born sometime around 1854), and Ida (born sometime around 1856). His father supported the large family on the wages of a Distiller.

By the time he was twelve, Alfred Dech was apprenticed as a Soap Boiler to Lewis Ritter, a 25-year-old Master Soap and Candle Manufacturer in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. He resided at the Ritter family home in Allentown’s Third Ward in 1860, along with Ritter’s 24-year-old wife, Rachel, and their two-month-old son, Howard.

Civil War Military Service

Following the fall of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces in mid-April 1861, Alfred’s older brother, William H. Dech, became one of the area’s earliest responders to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to defend the nation’s capital. Enrolling for military service as a Private with Company I of the 1st Pennsylvania Volunteers on 20 April 1861, he honorably completed his Three Month’s Service in July, and then re-upped for a three-year tour of duty, mustering in at Harrisburg as a Corporal with Company K of the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry on 22 October 1861. Military records at the time described William Dech as a 22-year-old coachmaker from Allentown who was 5’8″ tall with light hair, gray eyes and a light complexion.

Bitten by the same bug which drew his older brother into the war, Alfred Dech enlisted for military service at the age of 16, enrolling as “Alpheus Dech” on 17 June 1863 at Allentown in Lehigh County. He then officially mustered in at Harrisburg in Dauphin County on 19 June 1863 as a Private with Company H of the 27th Pennsylvania Militia.

* Note: Reuben Dech, the younger brother of William H. and Alpheus/Alfred Dech also served with the  27th Pennsylvania Militia during this same period, and is listed in the Civil War Veterans’ Card File as 18-year-old “Reuben Dick.” It is possible that Alpheus and/or Reuben may have overstated their respective ages in order to enlist.

One of the Emergency Militia units authorized by Pennsylvania Andrew Curtin, the 27th Pennsylvania Militia was one of the regiments charged with halting the advance by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s troops into the Keystone State. Once Lee’s men were stopped and the emergency was over, the unit mustered out on 31 July 1863.

Following the honorable completion of this militia service, Private Alfred Dech then re-upped for a three-year tour of duty, re-enrolling and mustering in at Norristown, Montgomery County as a Private with Company G, 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on 19 December 1863.

Military records at the time of this second enlistment described him as being an 18-year-old candler from Allentown who was 5′ 5-3/4″ tall with dark hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion.

He signed on just in time to make history as a serving member of the only regiment from Pennsylvania to fight in the Union General Nathaniel Banks’ 1864 Red River Campaign across Louisiana.

1864

Following a series of steamship and train rides from the East Coast to New Orleans, Louisiana and then to Franklin via the Bayou Teche – Private Alfred Dech and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers finally connected with, and were attached to, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps.

From 14-26 March, the 47th passed through New Iberia, Vermillionville, Opelousas, and Washington while en route to Alexandria and Natchitoches. Often short on food and water, the regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day, marching until mid-afternoon.

Map of the Mansfield-Sabine Cross Roads Area, DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, April 1864. (Source: General Nathaniel Banks’ official report on the Red River Campaign; public domain.)

Mansfield-Sabine Cross Roads, DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, April 1864. (Source: General Nathaniel Banks’ official Red River Campaign report; public domain.)

Rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division, 60 members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the volley of fire unleashed during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads. The fighting waned only when darkness fell. Exhausted, those who were uninjured collapsed beside the gravely wounded. After midnight, the surviving Union troops withdrew to Pleasant Hill.

The next day, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ordered into a critically important defensive position at the far right of the Union lines, their right flank spreading up onto a high bluff. By 3 p.m., after enduring a midday charge by the troops of Confederate General Richard Taylor (a plantation owner and son of Zachary Taylor, former President of the United States), the brutal fighting still showed no signs of ending. Suddenly, just as the 47th was shifting to the left side of the massed Union forces, the men of the 47th Pennsylvania were forced to bolster the 165th New York’s buckling lines by blocking another Confederate assault.

Casualties were severe. Lieutenant Colonel G. W. Alexander was nearly killed, and the regiment’s two color-bearers, both from Company C, were wounded while preventing the American flag from falling into enemy hands. Still others from the 47th were captured, marched 125 miles to Camp Ford, a Confederate Army prison camp near Tyler, Texas, and held there as prisoners of war until released months later during prisoner exchanges. At least two men from the 47th Pennsylvania never made it out of that prison alive; another died later while being treated at a Confederate prison hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Following what some historians have called a rout by Confederates at Pleasant Hill and others have labeled a technical victory for the Union or a draw for both sides, the 47th fell back to Grand Ecore, where the men resupplied and regrouped until 22 April. Retreating further to Alexandria, they and their fellow Union soldiers scored a clear victory against the Confederates at Cane Hill.

Known as "Bailey's Dam" for the Union officer who ordered its construction, Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, this timber dam built by the Union Army on the Red River in Alexandria, Louisiana in May 1864 was designed to facilitate passage of Union gunboats to and from the Mississippi River. Photo: Public domain.

Christened “Bailey’s Dam” for the officer who ordered its construction, Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, this timber dam built by the Union Army on the Red River in Alexandria, Louisiana in May 1864 facilitated Union gunboat passage. Photo: Public domain.

On 23 April, Private Alfred Dech and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians joined other brigade members in crossing the Cane River via Monett’s Ferry. Then, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, members of the regiment helped to build a timber dam from 30 April through 10 May, which enabled federal gunboats to more easily traverse the Red River’s rapids.

Beginning 16 May, the men from G Company moved with most of the 47th Pennsylvania from Simmsport across the Atchafalaya to Morganza, Louisiana before finally reaching New Orleans on 20 June 1864.

U.S. Marine Hospital, New Orleans, Louisiana (c. 1861-1862, U.S. National Library of Medicine, public domain).

U.S. Marine Hospital, New Orleans, Louisiana (c. 1861-1862, U.S. National Library of Medicine, public domain).

Sometime during the Red River Campaign, a number of men from the regiment became ill. Some were claimed by tropical diseases but others, like Private Alfred Dech, were felled by ailments which resulted either from the poor quality of food and water, the harsh climate, or the often unsanitary conditions which plagued military units on the march.

Transported to the Union’s Marine Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana, Private Dech was one of many Union men who received treatment there for chronic diarrhea. Ultimately, that treatment was unsuccessful; he passed away at the Marine Hospital in New Orleans on 3 June 1864. His death was certified by Jacob Bockee, M.D., a surgeon with the 13th Illinois Cavalry, and is confirmed by this entry in the U.S. Army’s Registers of Deaths of U.S. Volunteer Soldiers:

Death of Private Alfred Dech, Co. G, 47th PA Volunteers, 3 June 1864, New Orleans, Louisiana (Registers of Deaths of U.S. Volunteer Soldiers, public domain).

Death of Private Alfred Dech, Company G, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, 3 June 1864, New Orleans, Louisiana (Registers of Deaths of U.S. Volunteer Soldiers, public domain; click twice to enlarge).

Final Resting Place

He was laid to rest in Grave No. 4028 of the Chalmette National Cemetery in Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Private Alfred Dech, Company G, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, June 1864 Interment at Chalmette National Cemetery, Louisiana (Chalmette National Cemetery Burial Ledger, public domain).

Private Alfred Dech, Company G, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, June 1864 Interment at Chalmette National Cemetery, Louisiana (Chalmette National Cemetery Burial Ledger, public domain).

 

A Family Moves on and Moves West

Private Alfred Dech’s  sister, Catharine Marie (“Kate”) Dech, married Llewellyn Wanner, a resident of Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania in Allentown on 30 August 1866. They settled initially in Reading. That same year, Private Alfred Dech’s brother and fellow Civil War soldier, William H. Dech, moved west. Arriving in Nebraska, he bought farmland in Saunders County. According to historian Charles Persky:

The first settler upon the site of the present Town of Ithaca was William Dech. He located on the northwest corner of section 20 in April, 1866, having just served in the Rebellion. His trip to this country was in search of health, following a physical breakdown resulting from a wound received in battle…. Mr. Dech’s first home in Saunders County was part dugout and part log, the timber being cut from along the banks of the river at Ashland. This was the first home on the Wahoo Creek above Thomson Bissell’s place…. Next came William Dech, Sr., Elijah Dech, and William E. Dech. Fred Talcott from New York State located farther in the country from the Dech settlement and was the one to name the Town of Ithaca in honor of his home town, Ithaca, New York. The first postmaster in Ithaca was Elijah Dech and his daughter, Martha, taught the first school in a house which W. H. Dech had constructed on section 20.

Addison E. Sheldon, the head of the Nebraska State Historical Society from 1917-1943, documented that an area in Saunders County known as “Indian Mound” was “part of the farm of W. H. Dech, in the edge of the Village of Ithaca,” adding:

This is a remarkable spot, geographically and historically. A tongue of land lies between the valleys of Wahoo Creek and Silver Creek. Here the tongue rises into an elevation of 200 feet which commands a distinct view of a large part of Saunders County.

For twenty or thirty miles in all directions the eye sweeps over the smooth valleys and low, folding prairies which lie between. No other hill in the state affords a more striking survey of so much rich and beautiful Nebraska landscape. The prairies of central Saunders County do not rise into high divides as in other counties. All the streams flow from the Platte to the Platte, making the hypothenuse [sic] of a triangle whose other two sides are the Platte River…. The entire region is thus one valley and all of it is seen from Indian Mound.

Across the road 300 yards away on a lower hill is Indian Mound Cemetery where the white successors of the Indian are laid to rest. Between the two is the beautiful home of Bill Dech, one of the best known of Nebraska’s anti-monopoly agitators….

Mr. Dech is now [in 1915] seventy-two years old, has lived in Saunders County since 1866, has talked more grangerism, greenbackism, farmers’ alliance and populism than any other man I know, and is still at it with as much energy and nervous enthusiasm as when he was first elected to the Nebraska Legislature in the early ’70s and woke the echoes of the old sainted red sandstone state capitol with his vibrant Pennsylvania Dutch voice.

By 1870, William Dech, Sr. and Catharine A. Dech, the parents of Private Alfred Dech and his brother William H. Dech, had also settled in Saunders County, as had other Dech children, including: Reuben (age 24), Irvin (age 18), and and Ida (age 14). These latter three Dechs resided on and worked their parents’ farm in Ithaca. Another sibling, Amelia, had found work as a waitress at a hotel in Saunders County, and had taken up residence there.

Sometime after the Dech family relocated to Nebraska, they erected a cenotaph in memory of Private Alfred Dech at what is now the Indian Mound Cemetery in Ithaca.

Back home in Pennsylvania, Kate (Dech) Wanner and her husband, Llewellyn, were nurturing their growing family, which now included daughters Katie Laneta Wanner (1867-1915) and Lulona Wanner (1870-1948). By this time, Llewellyn Wanner was a successful practicing attorney in Reading. A son, Ralph, was born sometime around 1871.

By 1876, Kate Wanner and her family had moved to Goshen in Elkhart County, Indiana, where daughter Gertrude Bower Wanner (1876-1911) was born on 29 February of that year.

* Note: Katie Wanner went on to marry Joseph Henry Lesh in Goshen, Elkhart County, Indiana on 8 February 1893; Lulona Wanner married Edward Herreth sometime around 1901; and Gertrude Wanner married Milo Maxfield Hascall on 20 December 1907.

By 1880 in Nebraska, only Reuben Dech was still living at home in Nebraska with the Dech family parents. He was employed as a laborer while his father continued to farm the Dech’s land – now situated in Wahoo, Saunders County. In 1882, his brother, William H. Dech was elected to the Nebraska State Senate.

But before the decade was done, the Dech family’s patriarch and matriach were gone. William and Catharine Dech passed away on 14 May 1888 and 21 December 1889, respectively, and were laid to rest at the Indian Mound Cemetery in Ithaca, Nebraska. Of Catharine Dech’s passing, The Allentown Democrat wrote on 15 January 1890:

DEATH OF MRS. WILLIAM DECH IN NEBRASKA. – Mrs. Catharine A. Dech, widow of the late William Dech, died at Wahoo, Nebraska, Dec. 21st, aged 74 years. The family moved from this city to Nebraska in 1866. Mr. Dech was at one time Steward of the Lehigh county poor house.

Before that year was out, William H. Dech had further solidified his reputation in the political arena. The 17 December 1890 edition of The Allentown Democrat trumpeted the news, A Former Allentown Boy Elected Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska, while the 16 August 1896 edition of The Chicago Daily Tribune called him “the father of Populism in Nebraska”:

…. Mr. William Dech, the father of Populism in Nebraska, and heretofore one of the strongest men in the party, today made public an interview in the Call to the effect that he would not support Bryan or Holcomb, who was nominated last week for Governor in Nebraska. Dech has a large following, and will work for the third ticket if one is nominated at Indianapolis….

Meanwhile, during his latter years, Reuben Dech worked the farm of his older brother, William H. Dech, whose 1900 household included William Dech’s wife, Mary (Dougherty) Dech (1848-1931), an Iowa native whom he had married in 1869, and their Nebraska-born children: Harry (1873-1922), Robert (born in May 1876), Holmes Hall (1880-1937), and Cleon (1886-1965).

On 26 November, 1915 Kate (Dech) Wanner passed away at her home in Goshen, Indiana. Of William H. Dech that same year, Addison Sheldon wrote:

Mr. Dech has lived and fought through three eras of social and political movement in Nebraska life and is a well storied granary of reminiscence and information on Nebraska political history. To the frightened conservatives during the social revolution of 1890 he typified the anarchist; to the mortgaged farmer of the same period he represented the torch of industrial liberty; to his friends always he has been a literary and social philosopher.

By 1920, the Dech household in Wahoo included brothers William and Reuben, William’s wife, Mary, and their son, Harry. Reuben Dech, who had lived to see the dawn and progress of a new century, slipped away in 1923. He was laid to rest at the Indian Mound Cemetery where his parents had been interred several decades earlier.

William H. Dech followed him in death just three years later, passing away in 1926. He, too, was interred at the Indian Mound Cemetery in Ithaca, Nebraska, as were his wife, Mary, and their sons, Harry and Cleon.

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.

2. Dech, Alfred, in Burial Ledgers, The National Cemetery Administration, Departments of Defense, Army (Office of the Quartermaster General) and Veterans Affairs. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (ARC ID: 5928352, Record Groups 15 add 92), 1864.

3. Dech/Deck/Dick (Alpheus/Alfred, Reuben and William H.), in Civil War Veterans’ Card File. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives.

4. Dech, Alfred, in Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, in Records of the U.S. Adjutant General’s Office. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

5. Dech, Alfred, in U.S. Cemetery Interment Control and Headstone Application Forms, U.S. Quartermaster General. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1864.

6. Dech, Catharine and William Dech, in Death of Mrs. William Dech, in Nebraska, in The Allentown Democrat. Allentown: 15  January 1890.

7. Kate M. Dech and Lewellyn Wanner, in St. John’s United Church of Christ Marriage Records, in Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

8. Mrs. Llewellyn Wanner, in Brief News Notes, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 1 December 1915.

9. William Dech and Family, in Past and Present Saunders County, Nebraska: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Charles Persky, Supervising Editor, 1915.

10. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown: Self-published, 1986.

11. U.S. Census. Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1920.

12. William Dech, in A Former Allentown Boy Elected Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska, in The Allentown Democrat. Allentown: 17 December 1890.

13 William Dech, in Lehigh Countian Elected to the Nebraska State Senate, in The Allentown Democrat. Allentown: 22 November 1882.

14. William Dech, in The Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago: 16 August 1896.