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A Civil War Heirloom, Ancestry.com, and the Importance of Tracing Our Family's Historical Roots

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tags: Civil War, family history, ancestry



James Ottavio Castagnera holds a JD and a PhD (American Studies) from Case Western Reserve University.  For 23 years he was the associate provost & legal counsel for academic affairs at Rider University.  Today he is president of K&C HR Enterprises, a freelance writing, training and consulting company in Philadelphia (PA).  

 

My grandfather, Leo “Butch” Armbruster, was a railroad engineer and a man of exceptional frugality.  Famously in our family circle, when feeding an infant grandchild, he would eat whatever was left in the Gerber jar when we were full.  The shanty behind his house bulged with corroded pipes and faucets, old eyeglasses and tobacco tins brimming with bits of hardware, and the sleds and ice skates of his now-grown children.

 

The real treasures were in his attic.  As the grandson who lived closest, who spent the most time with him, and who he knew loved history, I was favorably positioned to get occasional glimpses of, and sometimes to handle, those treasures.  And on one very special day in the mid 1960s, when I was a high school senior, I got to call his best treasure my own.

 

The treasure is a Spencer repeating rifle.  Known as the “Seven-Shot Wonder”, this invention of one Charles Spencer was the world’s first military, brass-cartridge, repeating rifle.  The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, and the Burnside Rifle Company under license, together manufactured more than 200,000 of these “Wonders” between 1860 and 1869.  Mine is engraved, “Spencer Repeating Rifle Co., Boston, Mass., Pat’d  March 6, 1860.”

 

Boasting a 30-inch barrel, the Spencer was accurate to 500 yards.  Seven 13mm (approximately half-inch in diameter) cartridges were loaded into a spring-energized tube that slid into the breach (stock). The Wonder could spray the enemy with up to 20 rounds per minute in the hands of a well-trained Union soldier.  This involved levering a cartridge into the chamber, while simultaneously dropping the spent brass to the ground, then pulling back the hammer, aiming and firing. This was not much effort per shot when compared to the gymnastics needed to load shot and powder into a musket, put more powder onto the pan, and get off a (less accurate) lead ball.

 

In an excellent example of bureaucratic bone-headedness, the U.S. Department of War’s Ordinance Department delayed putting the Spencer into the field, because of fear that soldiers would waste too much ammunition.  You needed more mules and wagons to move all that ammunition. And you could buy several trusty Springfield muskets for the price of just one Spencer. Consequently, not until the Battle of Gettysburg did the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves demonstrate the withering worth of the Wonder. (1)

 

The Spencer’s performance at Gettysburg caught the attention of President Lincoln, who gave Charles a chance to demonstrate his invention against the best musketeers.(2)  After that, the rest, as we say, was history. The Confederates were not only outnumbered; they were pathetically outgunned.

 

Time passed

In the fall of 1965, I went off to college.  To my lasting shame, I pretty much lost touch with my grandparents.  My Spencer gathered dust in my old room at home, while I majored in fraternity at Franklin & Marshall College.  My “Pappy” passed away at 86 during my college years.  The remaining treasures in his attic got divided up among his kids.  In 1969, joining the Coast Guard after graduation to steer clear of Vietnam, I moved away from home for good.

 

The Wonder went with me, first to Cleveland, Ohio, and later to Austin, Texas, where I taught business law after getting my doctorate and law degree. Sometimes it got displayed, sometimes shoved into a closet.  All I knew of its original owner from Pappy was that his name was Aaron Henry and he hailed from the Scotch-Irish side of my grandfather’s family.  Pap’s mother’s maiden name was Morrison.  Pappy claimed Aaron was his uncle, which made him my great, great uncle.  The old veteran had retired to the Armbruster family farm.  Having been wounded in the knee, he remained in Pappy’s memory as a geezer who limped around the property until he finally passed away.

 

When my wife and I --- the family prodigals --- finally moved back to Pennsylvania in the 1980s, I made a few desultory attempts to track old Aaron down.   Pennsylvania’s Civil War military records weren’t known for their ease of access. Caught up in raising a family and pursuing a law practice, I wasn’t known for my persistence in such matters as genealogy.  

 

Enter Ancestry.com

 

As one ages, ancestry, like an old friend long taken for granted, often gains in importance.  My retirement from Rider University in June 2019 was coincident with my son’s Christmas gift --- a six-month subscription to Ancestry.com --- going “live.”  He was wise enough to know that with more time on my hands, this gift would be appreciated.

 

Thanks to the vast archival resources Ancestry has pulled into its tent, I was able to find seven “Aaron Henry” entries in the annals of Pennsylvania regimental records.  From there, it wasn’t hard to narrow the quest down to my great, great uncle. Born in Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe, my hometown) on November 12, 1837, he was baptized a couple of weeks later in the town’s First Presbyterian Church.  By 1850, 13-year-old Aaron was living with his mother, her second husband Alexander Craig, and a trio of half sisters.  

 

Aaron it seems never left Mauch Chunk, until at 23 he volunteered for a three-month enlistment with the Pennsylvania Sixth Regiment on April 22, 1861.  Note that the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the first battle of the Civil War, occurred on April 12th and 13th.  Young Aaron wasted no time in joining up.

 

In fact, Dr. Gregory J.W. Urwin, an esteemed military historian and Civil War reenactor on the faculty of Temple University, tells me, “You can consider Henry one of the most ardent of Pennsylvania’s patriots by his rushing off to fight as soon as war broke out.”(3)


The Battle of Bristoe Station

According to Ancestry.com, Uncle Aaron received a musket ball he carried in his knee for the rest of his life on October 14th of the war’s third year.  Presumably, it was either more efficient or less dangerous to leave the ball in situ than to risk removing it and losing the lower leg in the process.

 

Urwin noted, “If he was wounded at Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863, that means he then joined a regiment raised to serve for three years.  The fact that he wanted to see the war through to its conclusion also says something about his character.”

 

The prelude to the Battle of Bristoe Station was the nadir of the Union army’s fortunes, a trough of incompetence from which the Yankees only began their painful climb at Gettysburg.

 

The depth of Uncle Aaron’s patriotism, as Dr. Urwin surmised, is punctuated by the fact that, during the winter and spring of 1863, the Army of the Potomac was enduring some 200 desertions a day.  On New Year’s Day, encamped on the northern banks of the frozen Rappahannock River, the troops hadn’t been paid for six months. Living conditions were deplorable, facilitating the spread of vermin and disease.(4) No wonder men lit out for home!

 

Worse was to come in the first half of 1863.  Following a desultory foray in the enemy’s general direction that ended in a spring-mud debacle, General Ambrose Burnside ---the previous year’s loser at Fredericksburg--- was replaced by Joseph Hooker.  Apparently a better quartermaster than tactician, Hooker cleaned up the camps, saw his army fed and paid, then marched them off to a crushing defeat at Chancellorsville.

 

While Hooker’s incompetence and timidity cost the Army of the Potomac some 17,000 men, Lee’s brilliant win cost the Confederacy more than 13,000.(5)  In a war of attrition, the Union could absorb the loss so much easier than the Confederacy, even allowing for the desertions and the Copperhead agitation that was stirring northern and especially mid-western anti-war sentiment. 

 

Unable to sustain a war of attrition, Lee led his army north into Pennsylvania.  In the first days of July, he met George Gordon Meade, Hooker’s successor, at Gettysburg.  The three-day engagement is often called the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” Lee would never have the initiative again.  Still, nearly two more years of war lay ahead. 

 

In the grand sweep of all the war that still remained--- an ordeal extending from Lincoln’s July 4,1863 battlefield address to April 1865 at Appomattox --- the Battle of Bristoe Station is a mere burp of a battle.  The October 14, 1863 encounter produced only 380 Yankee casualties and 1,360 Rebel dead and wounded.(6)  The facts are straightforward.  After Gettysburg, Meade and Lee played a chess game in northern Virginia.  In early October, Lee stole a march on the less agile Meade, forcing the Army of the Potomac to fall back from its southern-most advance to protect its flanks.

 

Major General Gouveneur K. Warren’s II Corps had been stung by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry at Auburn (VA) on the 13th.  Warren was faced with pushing Stuart aside, while maintaining an orderly retreat from the Rebel corps commanded by Richard Ewell. He chose Bristoe Station, a stop on the Orange and Alexander Railroad line, to face the music.

 

Lt. General A.P. Hill’s Confederate III Corps reached Bristoe on the 14th. Warren deployed his troops behind a railroad embankment.  From that hidden vantage, he ambushed Hill’s troops as they rushed to catch up with the Yankee rear guard.  The encounter was a Union win.  But with Ewell’s Confederate troops advancing on his left, Warren had to rejoin the general retreat.(7)

 

Aftermath

 

Warren got a promotion out of the encounter.  He is remembered to the present day, at least by Civil War buffs, and is the subject of a relatively recent biography.  His official photograph survives.

 

First Sergeant Aaron Henry of the 81st Pennsylvania Regiment went home to Mauch Chunk. According to Ancrestry.com, he married Sarah Johnson on January 10, 1867.  She died less than a year later, apparently in childbirth.  The daughter, Jennie Henry, survived and lived until 1937. 

 

In 1870, Uncle Aaron took up blacksmithing in his hometown.  He remained single until 1884, when at 47 he married the 34-year-old Amelia Hahn with whom he had a son, Garfield.  They lived for awhile in Franklin Township, a Carbon County hamlet.  Exactly when he moved to the Armbruster farm is unclear.  In 1901, aged 64, Uncle Aaron decamped to a veterans’ home in Hampton, Virginia.  Nine or maybe ten years later, he returned once again to Carbon County, where the disabled vet died on January 10, 1912.

 

Unlike General Warren, Sergeant Henry left behind no portrait.  I don’t even know which knee bore the musket ball.  He was one of three million Americans who fought in the War Between the States, 600,000 of whom died.(8)  Thanks to intrepid photographers with their bulky and primitive equipment, a tiny fraction of these soldiers were captured on glass plates.  For all I know, Uncle Aaron is somewhere among those unidentified fighters.

 

That he brought home his rifle was probably not so unusual.  My father’s generation returned from World War II with all sorts of memorabilia.  As kids, my brother and I played with a disarmed Japanese mortar shell, among sundry other authentic souvenirs.  My Uncle Albert had his .45 pistol.  Pappy told me the Spencer had been used for deer hunting as recently as the 1930s and it still seems to be in good working order.

 

So what?

 

So… now, at last --- more than a half century after my grandfather gave me his best treasure, I know the broad details of the life and labors of the man who carried it into battle.  What does that matter?

 

The reason I think it matters… the reason I have written about it… is the disruptive moment in which each of us, and our nation, find ourselves. Not since Uncle Aaron answered the call in April of 1861 has the nation been so starkly divided. Not since then have we heard each side shout across the divide that the “others” aren’t worthy of life itself. If we are going to raise our eyes from the abyss, gaze across it and acknowledge our fellow Americans, I believe we must first look to ourselves.  What are our personal stories that teach us that the American democracy is greater than our transient differences?  For me it’s knowing that nearly 160 years ago, my great great uncle rallied to the Union cause.  The “Wonder” on my shelf reminds me daily of my own roots.  

 

I am convinced that Churchill could not have faced the existential threat of the Third Reich and rallied his nation had he lacked his appreciation of British history and the place of his family tree in that history.

 

“If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

 

That sentence illustrates for me how he masterfully combined the sweep of a collective historical experience with the immediate challenge facing each individual Britain, requiring each man and woman to look inside themselves.

 

I believe each of us is well advised to tear ourselves away from the ephemeral distractions of the social media and presidential tweets and TV’s talking heads, and take a little time to recall those ancestors who contributed to making each of us an American.  No matter if, as with me, one can look back a century or two, or if one must look to the history of another nation that drove a decision to emigrate to the U.S. 

 

As with my successful search for Uncle Aaron, a retracing of the tap root of what made each of us an American can be a profound reminder of why we must put our democratic republic ahead of transient sectarian differences and deal with tomorrow’s existential challenges as, collectively, the American constitutional democracy.

 

(1) Philip Leigh, Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies (Yardley PA: Westholme Publishing 2015) at 25-36.

(2) John Walter, The Rifle Story (London: Greenhill Books 2006) at 69.

(3) Gregory J.W. Urwin, “Re: Union Pennsylvania Volunteers,” Message to James Ottavio Castagnera, August 8, 2019, via gmail.com

(4) Geoffrey C. Ward, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1990) at 184.

(5) bid. at 210.

(6) David M. Jordan, Happiness Is Not My Companion: The Life of General G.K. Warren (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2001) at 108.

(7) Ibid. at 110.

(8) Ward, op. cit., at xix.


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