Sergeant William H. Burger – A Fighter to the End

Example of a daguerreotype camera in use during the photography years of William H. Burger. (Built in 1839 by La Maison Susse Frères with lens by Charles Chevalier, public domain.)

Example of a daguerreotype camera in use during the photography years of William H. Burger. (Built in 1839 by La Maison Susse Frères with lens by Charles Chevalier, public domain.)

Born sometime around 1840, William H. Burger was a 21-year-old Daguerreian residing in Longswamp Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania at the dawn of the Civil War. Daguerreians were the world’s first photographers, and were engaged in creating daguerreotypes.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs the daguerreotype photographic process was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) and:

spread rapidly around the world after its presentation to the public in Paris in 1839. Exposed in a camera obscura and developed in mercury vapors, each highly polished silvered copper plate is a unique photograph that, when viewed in proper light, exhibits extraordinary detail and three-dimensionality. Although born in Europe, the daguerreotype was extremely popular in the United States — especially in New York City, where in the late 1850s hundreds of daguerreotypists vied for clients. 

One of the art form’s earliest and brightest lights was legendary Civil War and presidential photographer, Matthew Brady, who later improved his photographic techniques by switching to “wet plates” (collodion-on-glass negatives) and paper prints. Also according to the Metropolitan Museum, the most successful of U.S. daguerreotype studios were:

outfitted with colorful velvet tapestry, frescoed ceilings, six-light chandeliers, and, of course, impressive daguerreotype portraits of kings and queens, politicians, and even Native American chiefs … displayed on the walls, dressed up in fine frames. Nevertheless, the medium’s success in America was built upon the patronage of the average worker who desired a simple likeness to keep for himself, or more likely, to send to a loved one as the era’s most enduring pledge of friendship…. Seamstresses, carpenters, actors … goldminers, and even the recently deceased all sat for their official portraits, leaving behind an extremely valuable record of their anonymous, if not invisible, lives.

Civil War Military Service

Camp Curtin (Harpers Weekly, 1861; public domain).

Camp Curtin (Harper’s Weekly, 1861; public domain).

William H. Burger enrolled for Civil War military service at Berks County, Pennsylvania on 21 August 1861. He then officially mustered in for duty at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Dauphin County on 17 September 1861 as a Corporal with Company K, 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

Military records at the time of his muster in described him as being 5’3″ tall with light hair, blue eyes and a light complexion.

* Note: Company K was raised with the intent of being an “all-German company,” which was to be composed entirely of German Americans who had been born and raised in the United States, had become naturalized citizens, or were recent immigrants. The company’s founder, George Junker, was a 26-year-old, proud native of Germany who lived and worked as a tombstone carver in Allentown, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, and had served as a Quartermaster Sergeant with the Allen Infantry at the dawn of the Civil War. Also known as the “Allen Guards,” this group of soldiers was commanded by Captain Thomas Yeager and became the first of the Allentown militia units (and one of the first five Pennsylvania units) to respond to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to defend the nation’s capital following the Fall of Fort Sumter in mid-April 1861. Sergeant Junker and his fellow Allen Infantrymen primarily performed guard duty during their Three Months’ service, according to various historical accounts of the period, and served from 18 April until being honorably discharged on 23 July 1861. Knowing that the war was far from over, many of these men chose to re-up for three-year terms of service, and promptly re-enrolled with the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Summer of 1861.

Following a brief training period in light infantry tactics at Camp Curtin, Corporal William Burger and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians were transported by rail to Washington, D.C. Stationed roughly two miles from the White House beginning 21 September, they pitched their tents at “Camp Kalorama” on the Kalorama Heights near Georgetown.

On 22 September, Henry D. Wharton, a Musician with the regiment’s C Company, penned the following update to his hometown newspaper, the Sunbury American:

After a tedious ride we have, at last, safely arrived at the City of ‘magnificent distances.’ We left Harrisburg on Friday last at 1 o’clock A.M. and reached this camp yesterday (Saturday) at 4 P.M., as tired and worn out a sett [sic] of mortals as can possibly exist. On arriving at Washington we were marched to the ‘Soldiers Retreat,’ a building purposely erected for the benefit of the soldier, where every comfort is extended to him and the wants of the ‘inner man’ supplied.

After partaking of refreshments we were ordered into line and marched, about three miles, to this camp. So tired were the men, that on marching out, some gave out, and had to leave the ranks, but J. Boulton Young, our ‘little Zouave,’ stood it bravely, and acted like a veteran. So small a drummer is scarcely seen in the army, and on the march through Washington he was twice the recipient of three cheers.

We were reviewed by Gen. McClellan yesterday [21 September 1861] without our knowing it. All along the march we noticed a considerable number of officers, both mounted and on foot; the horse of one of the officers was so beautiful that he was noticed by the whole regiment, in fact, so wrapt [sic] up were they in the horse, the rider wasn’t noticed, and the boys were considerably mortified this morning on dis-covering they had missed the sight of, and the neglect of not saluting the soldier next in command to Gen. Scott.

Col. Good, who has command of our regiment, is an excellent men and a splendid soldier. He is a man of very few words, and is continually attending to his duties and the wants of the Regiment.

I am happy to inform you that our young townsman, Mr. William Hendricks, has received the appointment of Sergeant Major to our Regiment. He made his first appearance at guard mounting this morning; he looked well, done up his duties admirably, and, in time, will make an excellent officer. Our Regiment will now be put to hard work; such as drilling and the usual business of camp life, and the boys expect and hope an occasional ‘pop’ at the enemy.

Acclimated somewhat to their new way of life, the soldiers of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry finally became part of the U.S. Army when they were officially mustered into federal service on 24 September.

On 27 September – a rainy day which gave soldiers time to read or write letters home to loved ones, the 47th Pennsylvania was assigned to Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens’ 3rd Brigade, which also included the 33rd, 49th and 79th New York regiments. By that afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvania was on the move again. Ordered to Virginia by Brigadier-General Silas Casey, the Mississippi rifle-armed 47th Pennsylvanians marched behind their regimental band until reaching Camp Lyon, Maryland on the Potomac River’s eastern shore. At 5 p.m., they joined the 46th Pennsylvania in moving double-quick (165 steps per minute using 33-inch steps) across the “Chain Bridge” marked on federal maps, and continued on for roughly another mile before being ordered to make camp.

The next morning, they broke camp and moved again. Marching toward Falls Church, they arrived at Camp Advance around dusk. There, about two miles from the bridge they had crossed a day earlier, they re-pitched their tents in a deep ravine near a new federal fort under construction (Fort Ethan Allen). They had completed a roughly eight-mile trek, were situated fairly close to General W. F. Smith’s headquarters, and were now part of the massive Army of the Potomac. Under Smith’s leadership, their regiment and brigade would help to defend the nation’s capital from the time of their September arrival through late January when the men of the 47th Pennsylvania would be shipped south.

Once again, Company C Musician Henry Wharton recapped the regiment’s activities, noting, via his 29 September letter home to the Sunbury American, that the 47th had changed camps three times in three days:

On Friday last we left Camp Kalorama, and the same night encamped about one mile from the Chain Bridge on the opposite side of the Potomac from Washington. The next morning, Saturday, we were ordered to this Camp [Camp Advance near Fort Ethan Allen, Virginia], one and a half miles from the one we occupied the night previous. I should have mentioned that we halted on a high hill (on our march here) at the Chain Bridge, called Camp Lyon, but were immediately ordered on this side of the river. On the route from Kalorama we were for two hours exposed to the hardest rain I ever experienced. Whew, it was a whopper; but the fellows stood it well – not a murmur – and they waited in their wet clothes until nine o’clock at night for their supper. Our Camp adjoins that of the N.Y. 79th (Highlanders.)….

We had not been in this Camp more than six hours before our boys were supplied with twenty rounds of ball and cartridge, and ordered to march and meet the enemy; they were out all night and got back to Camp at nine o’clock this morning, without having a fight. They are now in their tents taking a snooze preparatory to another march this morning…. I don’t know how long the boys will be gone, but the orders are to cook two days’ rations and take it with them in their haversacks….

There was a nice little affair came off at Lavensville, a few miles from here on Wednesday last; our troops surprised a party of rebels (much larger than our own.) killing ten, took a Major prisoner, and captured a large number of horses, sheep and cattle, besides a large quantity of corn and potatoes, and about ninety six tons of hay. A very nice day’s work. The boys are well, in fact, there is no sickness of any consequence at all in our Regiment….

During this phase of duty, as part of the 3rd Brigade, the 47th Pennsylvanians moved to a site they initially christened “Camp Big Chestnut” for the large chestnut tree located within the confines of their camp. The site would eventually become known to the Keystone Staters as “Camp Griffin,” and was located roughly 10 miles from Washington, D.C.

On 11 October, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers marched in the Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads. In a mid-October letter home, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin (the leader of C Company who would be promoted in 1864 to lead the entire 47th Regiment) reported that companies D, A, C, F and I (the 47th Pennsylvania’s right wing) were ordered to picket duty after the left wing companies (B, E, G, H, and K) had been forced to return to camp by Confederate troops. In his letter of 13 October, Henry Wharton described their duties, as well as their new home:

The location of our camp is fine and the scenery would be splendid if the view was not obstructed by heavy thickets of pine and innumerable chesnut [sic] trees. The country around us is excellent for the Rebel scouts to display their bravery; that is, to lurk in the dense woods and pick off one of our unsuspecting pickets. Last night, however, they (the Rebels) calculated wide of their mark; some of the New York 33d boys were out on picket; some fourteen or fifteen shots were exchanged, when our side succeeded in bringing to the dust, (or rather mud,) an officer and two privates of the enemy’s mounted pickets. The officer was shot by a Lieutenant in Company H [?], of the 33d.

Our own boys have seen hard service since we have been on the ‘sacred soil.’ One day and night on picket, next day working on entrenchments at the Fort, (Ethan Allen.) another on guard, next on march and so on continually, but the hardest was on picket from last Thursday morning ‘till Saturday morning – all the time four miles from camp, and both of the nights the rain poured in torrents, so much so that their clothes were completely saturated with the rain. They stood it nobly – not one complaining; but from the size of their haversacks on their return, it is no wonder that they were satisfied and are so eager to go again tomorrow. I heard one of them say ‘there was such nice cabbage, sweet and Irish potatoes, turnips, &c., out where their duty called them, and then there was a likelihood of a Rebel sheep or young porker advancing over our lines and then he could take them as ‘contraband’ and have them for his own use.’ When they were out they saw about a dozen of the Rebel cavalry and would have had a bout with them, had it not been for…unlucky circumstance – one of the men caught the hammer of his rifle in the strap of his knapsack and caused his gun to fire; the Rebels heard the report and scampered in quick time….

On Friday morning, 22 October 1861, the 47th engaged in a Divisional Review, described by historian Lewis Schmidt as massing “about 10,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and twenty pieces of artillery all in one big open field.” Also around this time, Captain Junker issued his first Special Order to the men of K Company:

I. 15 minutes after breakfast every tent will be cleaned. The commander of each tent will be held responsible for it, and every soldier must obey the orders of the tent commander. If not, said commanders will report such men to the orderly Sgt. who will report them to headquarters.

II. There will be company drills every two hours during the day, including regimental drills with knapsacks. No one will be excused except by order of the regimental surgeon. The hours will be fixed by the commander, and as it is not certain therefore, every man must stay in his quarter, being always ready for duty. The roll will be called each time and anyone in camp found not answering will be punished the first time with extra duty. The second with carrying the 75 lb. weights, increased to 95 lb. The talking in ranks is strictly forbidden. The first offense will be punished with carrying 80 lb. weights increased to 95 lbs. for four hours.

In his letter of 17 November, Henry Wharton revealed still more details about life at Camp Griffin:

This morning our brigade was out for inspection; arms, accoutrements [sic], clothing, knapsacks, etc, all were out through a thorough examination, and if I must say it myself, our company stood best, A No. 1, for cleanliness. We have a new commander to our Brigade, Brigadier General Brannen [sic], of the U.S. Army, and if looks are any criterion, I think he is a strict disciplinarian and one who will be as able to get his men out of danger as he is willing to lead them to battle….

The boys have plenty of work to do, such as piquet [sic] duty, standing guard, wood-chopping, police duty and day drill; but then they have the most substantial food; our rations consist of fresh beef (three times a week) pickled pork, pickled beef, smoked pork, fresh bread, daily, which is baked by our own bakers, the Quartermaster having procured portable ovens for that purpose, potatoes, split peas, beans, occasionally molasses and plenty of good coffee, so you see Uncle Sam supplies us plentifully….

A few nights ago our Company was out on piquet [sic]; it was a terrible night, raining very hard the whole night, and what made it worse, the boys had to stand well to their work and dare not leave to look for shelter. Some of them consider they are well paid for their exposure, as they captured two ancient muskets belonging to Secessia. One of them is of English manufacture, and the other has the Virginia militia mark on it. They are both in a dilapidated condition, but the boys hold them in high estimation as they are trophies from the enemy, and besides they were taken from the house of Mrs. Stewart, sister to the rebel Jackson who assassinated the lamented Ellsworth at Alexandria. The honorable lady, Mrs. Stewart, is now a prisoner at Washington and her house is the headquarters of the command of the piquets [sic]….

Since the success of the secret expedition, we have all kinds of rumors in camp. One is that our Brigade will be sent to the relief of Gen. Sherman, in South Carolina. The boys all desire it and the news in the ‘Press’ is correct, that a large force is to be sent there, I think their wish will be gratified….

Springfield rifle, 1861 model (public domain).

Springfield rifle, 1861 model (public domain).

On 21 November, the 47th participated in a morning divisional headquarters review overseen by Colonel Tilghman Good, followed by brigade and division drills all afternoon. According to Schmidt, “each man was supplied with ten blank cartridges.” Afterward, “Gen. Smith requested Gen. Brannan to inform Col. Good that the 47th was the best regiment in the whole division.” As a reward for the regiment’s impressive performance that day – and in preparation for even bigger adventures yet to come, Brigadier-General Brannan ordered his staff to ensure that brand new Springfield rifles were obtained and distributed to every member of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

1862

Next ordered to move from their Virginia encampment back to Maryland, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers left Camp Griffin at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 January 1862, marching through deep mud with their equipment for three miles in order to reach the railroad station at Falls Church. Sent by rail to Alexandria, they then sailed the Potomac via the steamship City of Richmond to the Washington Arsenal, where they were reequipped before being marched off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, D.C. The next afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians hopped rail cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and headed for Annapolis, Maryland.

U.S. Naval Academy Barracks and temporary hospital, Annapolis, Maryland, c. 1861-1865 (public domain).

U.S. Naval Academy Barracks and temporary hospital, Annapolis, Maryland, c. 1861-1865 (public domain).

Arriving around 10 p.m., they were assigned quarters in barracks at the Naval Academy. They then spent that Friday through Monday (24-27 January 1862) loading their equipment and other supplies onto the steamship Oriental.

By the afternoon of Monday, 27 January, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers had commenced boarding the Oriental. Ferried to the big steamship by smaller steamers, Corporal William Burger and the other enlisted men boarded first, followed by the officers. Then, per the directive of Brigadier-General Brannan, the Oriental steamed away for the Deep South at 4 p.m. The infantrymen were headed for Florida which, despite its secession from the United States, remained strategically important to the Union due to the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

Woodcut depicting the harsh climate at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida during the Civil War. (Public domain, U.S. Library of Congress.)

Woodcut depicting the harsh climate at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida during the Civil War. (Public domain, U.S. Library of Congress.)

Traveling by steamer from Annapolis, Maryland to Key West, Florida in January 1862, Corporal William Burger and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians arrived in Key West, Florida in early February. There, they were assigned to garrison Fort Taylor. During the weekend of Friday, 14 February, the members of the regiment introduced their presence to Key West locals by parading through the streets of the city.

That Sunday, a number of soldiers from the regiment attended to their spiritual needs by sitting in on the services at local churches, where they also met and mingled with residents from the area. During this time, they also felled trees, built new roads, and strengthened the federal installation’s fortifications.

From mid-June through July, the 47th was ordered to Hilton Head, South Carolina where the men made camp before being housed in the Department of the South’s Beaufort District. Picket duties north of the 3rd Brigade’s camp were commonly rotated among the regiments present there at the time, putting soldiers at increased risk from sniper fire.

Captain Junker and his men were among those assigned to picket details on 5 July. According to historian Samuel P. Bates, during this phase of their service, the men of the 47th “received the highest commendation from Generals Hunter and Brannan” for their “attention to duty, discipline and soldierly bearing.”

From 20-31 August 1862, Company K soldiers were assigned again to picket duty, and this time were stationed at “Barnwells” (so labeled by Company C Captain J. P. S. Gobin). Members from other companies within the 47th performed picket duty in areas around Point Royal Ferry.

The Capture of a Bluff, a Town and a Steamer

Illustration of the Union Navy's base of operations, Mayport Mills, circa 1862 (public domain).

Illustration of the Union Navy’s base of operations, Mayport Mills, circa 1862 (public domain).

During a return expedition to Florida beginning 30 September, the 47th Pennsylvania joined with the 1st Connecticut Battery, 7th Connecticut Infantry, and part of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry in assaulting Confederate forces at their heavily protected camp at Saint John’s Bluff (a key Rebel stronghold overlooking the Saint John’s River area). Trekking and skirmishing through roughly 25 miles of dense swampland and forests after disembarking from ships at Mayport Mills on 1 October, the 47th captured artillery and ammunition stores (on 3 October), which had been abandoned by Confederate forces due to the bluff’s bombardment by Union gunboats.

Illustration of the Darlington, a former Confederate steamer turned Union gunboat (public domain).

Illustration of the Darlington, a former Confederate steamer turned Union gunboat (public domain).

Union leaders then ordered gunboats and troops to extend the expedition. As they did, the men of Companies E and K of the 47th were led by Captain Charles Yard, and engaged with Union soldiers from other regiments in the reconnaissance and subsequent capture of Jacksonville, Florida on 5 October 1862.

A day later, sailing up river on board the Union gunboat Darlington (formerly a Confederate steamer) – with protection from the Union gunboat Hale, men from the 47th Pennsylvania’s Companies E and K then traveled 200 miles along the Saint John’s River.

The rebel steamer Governor Milton, captured by the U.S. flotilla in St. John's River, Florida, Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper). Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Project (public domain).

The rebel steamer Governor Milton, captured by the U.S. flotilla in St. John’s River, Florida, Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper). Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Project (public domain).

Another Confederate steamer, the Gov. Milton, was reported to be docked near Hawkinsville, and had been engaged in furnishing troops, ammunition and other supplies to Confederate Army units scattered throughout this region of Florida, including the batteries at Saint John’s Bluff and Yellow Bluff.

Identified as a thorn that needed to be plucked from the Union’s side, the Gov. Milton was seized by the soldiers from the 47th Pennsylvania’s Companies E and K with support from other Union troops. Having sent their subordinates deep into Rebel-held areas, Union Army expedition leaders finally determined that their troops had achieved enough success for the risks taken, and ordered the combined Union Army-Navy team to sail the Gov. Milton back down the Saint John’s River before moving the steamer and other captured ships behind Union lines.

Unfortunately, the luck that had held during their audacious raids ran out for the regiment a few short weeks later.

Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina

Union Army map of the Pocotaligo-Coosawhatchie Expedition, 21-23 October 1862 (public domain).

Union Army map of the Pocotaligo-Coosawhatchie Expedition, 21-23 October 1862 (public domain).

From 21-23 October 1862, under the brigade and regimental commands of Colonel Tilghman Good and Lieutenant Colonel George Warren (“G. W.”) Alexander, the entire 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry joined with other Union regiments in engaging the heavily protected Confederate forces in and around Pocotaligo, South Carolina – including at Frampton’s Plantation and the Pocotaligo Bridge – a key piece of the South’s railroad infrastructure which Union military leaders wanted to see destroyed.

Harried by snipers en route to the Pocotaligo Bridge, Private Fiesel and his fellow 47th Pennsylvanians met resistance from yet another entrenched, heavily fortified Confederate battery which opened fire on the Union troops as they entered an open cotton field.

Those headed toward higher ground at the Frampton Plantation fared no better as they encountered artillery and infantry fire from the surrounding forests.

The challenging environment of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad was illustrated by Harper's Weekly in 1865.

The challenging environment of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad was illustrated by Harper’s Weekly in 1865.

But the Union soldiers would not give in; grappling with the Confederates where they found them, they pursued the Rebels for four miles as the Confederate Army retreated to the bridge.

There, the 47th relieved the 7th Connecticut. Unfortunately, the enemy was just too well armed. After two hours of intense fighting in an attempt to take the ravine and bridge, the 47th was forced by depleted ammunition supplies to withdraw to Mackey’s Point.

Losses for the 47th Pennsylvania were significant. Captain Charles Mickley of G Company died where he fell from a gunshot wound to his head while K Company Private John McConnell was also killed in action. K Company Captain George Junker also fell, mortally wounded by a minie ball fired from a Confederate rifle during the intense fighting near the Frampton Plantation, as did Privates Abraham Landes and Joseph Louis. (All three of these men died the next day while being treated for their wounds at the Union Army’s General Hospital at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Private John Schuchard, who was also mortally wounded at Pocotaligo, died from his injuries at the same hospital on 24 October.)

But Private Gottlieb Fiesel, who had also sustained a head wound during the fighting at the Frampton Plantation, somehow survived both his initial injuries and subsequent surgeries to remove artillery shrapnel and bone fragments from his skull. Sadly, complications ensued while he was hospitalized at Hilton Head, South Carolina, and he died from meningitis on 9 November 1862.

Private Edward Frederick lasted a short while longer, finally succumbing on 16 February 1863 at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, Florida to brain fever, a complication from the personal war he had waged with his battle wounds. He was initially buried at the fort’s parade grounds.

K Company’s Corporals John Bischoff and Manoah J. Carl and Privates Jacob F. Hertzog, Frederick Knell, Samuel Kunfer, Samuel Reinert, John Schimpf, William Schrank, and Paul Strauss were among those wounded in action who rallied. Private Strauss miraculously survived an artillery shell wound to his right shoulder, recuperated, and continued to serve with the regiment. Private Knell was discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability on 9 May 1863.

Private Hertzog, who had been discharged two months earlier on his own Surgeon’s Certificate, on 24 February 1863, had sustained a gunshot wound (“Vulnus Sclopet”) to his right arm; his treatment, like that of other members of K Company was detailed extensively in medical journals during and after his period of service.

The command vacancy created when Captain George Junker fell in battle at Pocotaligo was immediately filled when 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Abbott was advanced to the rank of Captain that same day.

On 23 October, the 47th Pennsylvania returned to Hilton Head, where it served as the funeral Honor Guard for General Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, the commander of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps and Department of the South who had died from yellow fever on 30 October. The Mountains of Mitchel, a part of Mars’ South Pole discovered by Mitchel in 1846 while working as a University of Cincinnati astronomer, and Mitchelville, the first Freedmen’s town created after the Civil War, were both later named for him. Men from the 47th Pennsylvania were given the high honor of firing the salute over his grave.

1863

 Fort Jefferson's moat and wall, circa 1934, Dry Tortugas, Florida (C.E. Peterson, Library of Congress; public domain)

Fort Jefferson’s moat and wall, circa 1934, Dry Tortugas, Florida (C.E. Peterson, Library of Congress; public domain)

Having been ordered back to Key West on 15 November 1862, much of 1863 was spent garrisoning federal installations in Florida as part of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps, Department of the South. The men of K Company joined with Companies D, F, and H in garrisoning Fort Jefferson, the Union’s remote outpost in the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida. Companies A, B, C, E, G, and I continued to guard Key West’s Fort Taylor.

While serving as a 2nd Lieutenant at Fort Jefferson under Lieutenant Colonel George W. Alexander, Company K’s David K. Fetherolf was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant on 2 May 1863; he was then appointed Acting Quartermaster at Fort Jefferson in August 1863, and continued in this role through at least December of that year.

As with their previous assignments, the men soon came to realize that disease would be their constant foe, making it all the more remarkable that, during this phase of service, the majority of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers chose to re-enlist when their three-year service terms were up. Many, who could have returned home with their heads held legitimately high after all they had endured, re-enlisted in order to preserve the Union of their beloved nation.

Corporal William H. Burger was one of those men who re-upped for a second three-year tour of duty. He re-mustered in with Company K of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers on 27 October 1863, and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant that same day.

1864

As the old year waned and the New Year dawned, the holidays were times of both celebration and hardship for members of the 47th Pennsylvania. Stationed far from home, many marked another year away from friends and family with promotions following their re-enlistment at Fort Taylor or Fort Jefferson.

Then, on 25 February 1864, the 47th set off for a phase of service in which the regiment would truly make history. Steaming for New Orleans aboard the Charles Thomas, the men arrived at Algiers, Louisiana on 28 February. Transported next by train to Brashear City and following another steamer ride – this time to Franklin via the Bayou Teche, the 47th joined the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps, becoming the only Pennsylvania regiment 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. Often short on food and water while slogging through an unbearably harsh climate in challenging terrain, the remaining members of the regiment encamped briefly at Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April before continuing on the next day.

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 Area, DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, April 1864. (Source: General Nathaniel Banks’ official Red River Campaign report; public domain.)

Marching until mid-afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians were then rushed into battle ahead of other regiments in the 2nd Division. Sixty members of the 47th were cut down on 8 April during the volley of fire unleashed during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads (Mansfield). The fighting waned only when darkness fell. The exhausted, but 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 who was the 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. A number of men from Company K were killed in action while others, including the regiment’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel G. W. Alexander, and two color-bearers (both from Company C), were also seriously wounded.

Still others from the 47th were captured by Confederate troops, marched roughly 125 miles to Camp Ford, a Confederate Army prison camp near Tyler, Texas, and held there as prisoners of war until they were released during prisoner exchanges on 22 July and in August, September and November.

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 Pennsylvanians fell back to Grand Ecore to resupply and regroup until 22 April. Retreating to Alexandria, they and their fellow Union soldiers next 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 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 facilitated Union gunboat passage (public domain).

On 23 April, the 47th Pennsylvania and its brigade crossed the Cane River via Monett’s Ferry. From April 30 to 10 May, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, the remaining men of Company K and their fellow 47th Pennsylvanians helped to build a dam to enable federal gunboats to more easily traverse the rapids of the Red River.

Beginning 16 May, Captain Charles Abbott and K Company moved with the majority of the 47th from Simmsport across the Atchafalaya to Morganza, Louisiana.

Removed from command amid the controversy over the Union Army’s successes and failures during the expedition, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks was placed on leave by President Abraham Lincoln. Banks subsequently spent much of his time in Washington, D.C. as a Reconstruction advocate for Louisiana.

Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign

Undaunted by their travails in Bayou country, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers continued their fight to preserve the Union during the summer of 1864. After receiving orders on the 4th of July to return to the East Coast, they did so in two stages.

Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I steamed for the Washington, D.C. area beginning 7 July while the men from Companies B, G and K remained behind on detached duty and to await transportation. Led by F Company Captain Henry S. Harte, they finally sailed away at the end of the month aboard the Blackstone, arrived in Virginia on 28 July, and reconnected with the bulk of the regiment at Monocacy, Virginia on 2 August.

Due to the delay, the boys from K Company missed out on a memorable encounter with President Abraham Lincoln, and also missed the fighting at Snicker’s Gap, Virginia.

Attached to the Middle Military Division, Army of the Shenandoah beginning in August, the 47th Pennsylvania engaged in its next major encounter during the Battle of Berryville, Virginia from 3-4 September. Several men were killed or wounded in action during the battle and its aftermath, including Private George Kilmore (alternate spelling “Killmer”), who sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the abdomen on 5 September.

The opening days of September also saw the departure of several 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers who had served honorably, including men from K Company who mustered out on 18 September 1864 upon completion of their respective three-year terms of service. Those members of the 47th who remained on duty were about to engage in their regiment’s greatest moments of valor.

Battles of Opequan and Fisher’s Hill, September 1864

Together with other regiments under the command of Union General Philip H. (“Little Phil”) Sheridan and Brigadier-General William H. Emory, commander of the 19th Corps, the members of Company K and their fellow 47th Pennsylvanians helped to inflict heavy casualties on Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate forces at Opequan (also spelled as “Opequon” and referred to as “Third Winchester”). The battle is still considered by many historians to be one of the most important during Sheridan’s 1864 campaign; the Union’s victory here helped to ensure the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.

Image of the victory of Philip Sheridan’s Union army over Jubal Early’s Confederate forces. Kurz & Allison, circa 1893. Public domain, courtesy of the Library of Congress: LC-DIG-pga-01855 (digital file from original print) LC-USZC4-1753 (color film copy transparency).

Victory of Philip Sheridan’s Union army over Jubal Early’s Confederate forces. Kurz & Allison, circa 1893 (public domain, U.S. Library of Congress).

The 47th Pennsylvania’s march toward destiny at Opequan began at 2 a.m. on 19 September 1864 as the regiment left camp and joined up with others in the Union’s 19th Corps. Advancing slowly from Berryville toward Winchester, the 19th Corps became bogged down for several hours by the massive movement of Union troops and supply wagons, enabling Early’s men to dig in. Finally reaching and fording the Opequan Creek, Sheridan’s men came face to face with Early’s Confederate Army. The fighting, which began in earnest at noon, was long and brutal. The Union’s left flank (6th Corps) took a beating from Confederate artillery stationed on high ground.

Meanwhile, the 47th Pennsylvania and the 19th Corps were directed by General William Emory to attack and pursue Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederate forces. Some success was achieved, but casualties mounted as a Confederate artillery group opened fire on Union troops trying to cross a clearing. When a nearly fatal gap began to open between the 6th and 19th Corps, Sheridan sent in units led by Brigadier-Generals Emory Upton and David A. Russell. Russell, hit twice – once in the chest, was mortally wounded. The 47th Pennsylvania opened its lines long enough to enable the Union cavalry under William Woods Averell and the foot soldiers of General George Crook to charge the Confederates’ left flank.

The 19th Corps, with the 47th in the thick of the fighting, then began pushing the Confederates back. Early’s “grays” retreated in the face of the valor displayed by Sheridan’s “blue jackets.” Leaving 2,500 wounded behind, the Rebels retreated to Fisher’s Hill, eight miles south of Winchester (21-22 September), and then to Waynesboro, following a successful early morning flanking attack by Sheridan’s Union men which outnumbered Early’s three to one. Afterward, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were sent out on skirmishing parties before making camp at Cedar Creek.

On 19 September, the same day as the Battle of Opequan, Privates Samuel Kunfer, William Landis and Christian Weidenbach were promoted to the rank of Corporal. Moving forward, the surviving members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers would continue to distinguish themselves in battle, but they would do so without two more of their respected commanders: Colonel Tilghman H. Good  and Good’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel George Alexander, who mustered out 23-24 September upon the expiration of their respective terms of service. Fortunately, they were replaced with leaders who were equally respected for their front line experience and temperament, including Major John Peter Shindel Gobin, formerly of the 47th’s Company C, who had been promoted up through the regimental staff to the rank of Major (and who would be promoted again on 4 November to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and regimental commanding officer).

Battle of Cedar Creek, October 1864

During the Fall of 1864, General Sheridan began the first of the Union’s true “scorched earth” campaigns, starving the enemy into submission by destroying Virginia’s farming infrastructure. Viewed through today’s lens of history as inhumane, the strategy claimed many innocents – civilians whose lives were cut short by their inability to find food. This same strategy, however, almost certainly contributed to the further turning of the war’s tide in the Union’s favor during the Battle of Cedar Creek on 19 October 1864. Successful throughout most of their engagement with Union forces at Cedar Creek, Early’s Confederate troops began peeling off in ever growing numbers to forage for food, thus enabling the 47th Pennsylvania and others under Sheridan’s command to rally and win the day.

From a military standpoint, it was another impressive, but heartrending encounter. During the morning of 19 October, Early launched a surprise attack directly on Sheridan’s Cedar Creek-encamped forces. Early’s men were able to capture Union weapons while freeing a number of Confederates who had been taken prisoner during previous battles – all while pushing seven Union divisions back. According to Bates:

When the Army of West Virginia, under Crook, was surprised and driven from its works, the Second Brigade, with the Forty-seventh on the right, was thrown into the breach to arrest the retreat…. Scarcely was it in position before the enemy came suddenly upon it, under the cover of fog. The right of the regiment was thrown back until it was almost a semi-circle. The brigade, only fifteen hundred strong, was contending against Gordon’s entire division, and was forced to retire, but, in comparative good order, exposed, as it was, to raking fire. Repeatedly forming, as it was pushed back, and making a stand at every available point, it finally succeeded in checking the enemy’s onset, when General Sheridan suddenly appeared upon the field, who ‘met his crest-fallen, shattered battalions, without a word of reproach, but joyously swinging his cap, shouted to the stragglers, as he rode rapidly past them – “Face the other way, boys! We are going back to our camp! We are going to lick them out of their boots!’”

The Union’s counterattack punched Early’s forces into submission, and the men of the 47th were commended for their heroism by General Stephen Thomas who, in 1892, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his own “distinguished conduct in a desperate hand-to-hand encounter, in which the advance of the enemy was checked” that day. Bates described the 47th’s actions:

When the final grand charge was made, the regiment moved at nearly right angles with the rebel front. The brigade charged gallantly, and the entire line, making a left wheel, came down on his flank, while engaging the Sixth Corps, when he went “whirling up the valley” in confusion. In the pursuit to Fisher’s Hill, the regiment led, and upon its arrival was placed on the skirmish line, where it remained until twelve o’clock noon of the following day. The army was attacked at early dawn…no respite was given to take food until the pursuit was ended.

Once again, casualties for the 47th were high. Sergeant William Pyers, the C Company man who had so gallantly rescued the American flag at Pleasant Hill was cut down and later buried on the battlefield. Privates Lewis Berliner and and Lewis Schneck of K Company were killed in action, as was Private Moses Klotz, who sustained a fatal head wound.

Sergeant William H. Burger of Company K was also grievously wounded. He fought valiantly to survive the artillery shell fragment impact with his head which compressed his brain but, according to The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, “the efforts to repair the vault of the cranium were frustrated by the supervention of inflammatory mischief within the skull.”

FIG. 57. – Depressed fracture of the inner table of the skull from a contusion of the outer table [Sergeant William H. Burger, Company K, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers]. Source: The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, p. 146 (public domain).

 

 

The book goes on to explain his injury and resulting treatment as follows:

Sergeant William H. B______, Co. K, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, aged 24 years, was wounded at the battle of Cedar Creek, October 19th, 1864. He believed that he was struck on the top of the head by a fragment of shell, but the wound had more the appearance of an injury inflicted by a musket ball. His name appears on the casualty lists, with the entry ‘flesh wound of the head – slight.’ He was sent to Newtown, and was thence transferred to Satterlee Hospital at Philadelphia, where he arrived on October 25th. A scalp wound two inches long was found about an inch behind the coronal suture and parallel to it. It extended further to the left than to the right side. The bone was denuded of periosteum over a space an inch long and half an inch wide. The bone appeared to be otherwise uninjured. The pupils were dilated, and the right side of the body was partially paralyzed. The patient complained of no pain; his appetite was good; he had slight diarrhea. It does not appear that his diet was restricted, and no record is made of the measures adopted to combat the symptoms of compression of the brain. On October 27th, he had involuntary fecal ejections, and more stupor, and hemiplegia was complete. He had a slight rigor on this day.

 

FIG. 58. – Exterior view of the same specimen, showing superficial exfoliation [Sergeant William H. Burger, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers]. Source: The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, p. 146.

 

 

On October 28th, he had a severe chill and his ‘appetite began to fail.’ Coma supervened, but the patient lingered a week longer, death taking place on November 5th, 1864. No description of the post mortem examination has been furnished. The skull-cap was sent to the Army Medical Museum. It shows externally (Fig. 58) the effects of a contusion of the outer table of the skull. A line of demarcation includes an elliptical partially necrosed plate with diameters of an inch and a quarter and of three-fourths of an inch. The internal table is fissured, and there are the marks of diseased action along the groove for the longitudinal sinus as far backward as the occipital bone. (Fig. 57.) Acting Assistant Surgeon Henry Mullen contributed the specimen, which is represented in the woodcuts above.

The American Journal of the Medical Sciences also reported on Sergeant William Burger’s wound and treatment:

CASE IV. William H. Burger, sergeant in Co. K, 47th Pa. Vols., was admitted Oct. 25, 1864, from Regimental Hospital, with a transverse scalp wound one and a half inch in length, on the left side of the head, over the frontal bone, near the coronal suture and the junction of the left frontal and parietal bones. The wound, said by the man to be from a piece of shell, was received at Cedar Creek, Virginia, October 19th. The bone was denuded of periosteum the whole length of the wound; no fracture was discovered. The man complained very little; the wound was healthy; there was diarrhoea for several days after admission. The right side became partially paralyzed; the pupils became dilated; on the 27th the man had a slight chill; his feces were discharged involuntarily; the paralysis increased; on the 28th there was a severe chill; he died on 5th November.

At the post-mortem examination, on removing the scalp the portion of bone underneath the wound presented a dull white appearance. The external table was fissured on the left side of the longitudinal sinus; the fissure running across the sinus about a quarter inch, and separating the sagittal suture in its passage. On removing the calvarium a fissure with a depression of the internal table was discovered just to the left of the longitudinal sinus. The vessels of the membranes of the brain were much congested, and some pus was found on the surface of the dura matter. The dura matter itself presented a dark, almost gangrenous appearance. Under the dura matter, immediately beneath the wound, was found a large abscess involving nearly one-half of the left cerebral hemisphere, extending nearly to the left lateral ventricle. The remaining half of the right lateral ventricle was much softened by the infiltration of serum. In the posterior base of the right lateral ventricle was found a small quantity of pus.

Our experience, then, in injuries of the head, and this is true of civil as well as military practice, would lead us to adopt a different course from what we usually find advised by modern surgical writers.

To turn to the book before us, Dr. Hamilton believes that the patient’s chances of recovery are better if left alone than if we proceed to operate (p. 237), and he says that ‘in trephining, sufficient additional injury is often caused to turn the balance in the scale against recovery’ (p. 238).

As the above case studies mention, Sergeant William H. Burger ultimately died from his traumatic brain injury on 5 November 1864 at the Union Army’s Satterlee General Hospital in Philadelphia. He was just 24 years old, and had never married.

Interestingly, the notice of his death which was made in the Army’s death ledger for Union Volunteers by J.H. Hayes, S.USV. contradicts the finding of Acting Assistant Surgeon Henry Mullen that Sergeant Burger’s head wound was caused by a musket ball, stating instead that Burger’s wound was indeed caused by an artillery shell fragment:

This entry for Sergeant William H. Burger in the Union Army's Registers of Deaths of Volunteers documents Sergeant Burger's head wound at the Battle of Cedar Creek and subsequent death on 5 November 1864 (public domain; click twice to enlarge).

This entry for Sergeant William H. Burger in the Union Army’s Registers of Deaths of Volunteers documents Sergeant Burger’s head wound at the Battle of Cedar Creek and subsequent death on 5 November 1864 (public domain; click twice to enlarge).

 

Sergeant William H. Burger was laid to rest in Grave No. 283 of the Soldiers’ Lot at Mount Moriah Cemetery on 7 November 1864. An addition next to his entry in the Mount Moriah Cemetery Burial Ledger appears to indicate that his remains may have been ordered removed and reburied in another (unidentified) cemetery by a relative or funeral home on 10 November, but the handwriting is very difficult to read.

 

Sources:

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

2. Burger, William H., in Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1865. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives.

3. Burger, William H., in Mount Moriah Cemetery Burial Ledgers, in Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1864.

4. Burger, William H., in Philadelphia City Death Records. Philadelphia: City and County of Philadelphia and Philadelphia City Archives, 1864.

5. Case IV [William H. Burger], in Reviews, of A Treatise on Military Surgery and Hygiene by Frank Hastings Hamilton, M.D., late Lieutenant-Colonel, Medical Inspector, in The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Edited by Isaac Hays, M.D., Vol. L. Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1865.

6. Department of Photographs. The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–1860, in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004.

7. Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, U.S. Adjutant General’s Office (Record Group 94). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1864.

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

9. Smart, Charles and Joseph K. Barnes. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1870-1880.

 

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