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150 Years Ago, Civil War Battle Took Heavy Toll on Oak Creek Men

Two Oak Creek Township soldiers were killed and seven others wounded at the Battle of Stones River, which happened on Dec. 31, 1862.

Editor’s note: This story was part of a five-part series that ran on Oak Creek Patch in January 2012. Because Dec. 31 is the 150th anniversary of the landmark battle at Stones River, Tenn., Patch is running this part of the series again, with some new material. Writer Tom Mueller is a book author and an Oak Creek resident for 34 years.

This New Year’s Eve is a landmark anniversary in the history of Oak Creek.

The first soldiers from Oak Creek Township to die in the Civil War were lost 150 years ago this week – on Dec. 31, 1862, in the Battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro in central Tennessee. Two were killed and seven wounded, one of whom died a few months later.

That was 25 percent of the three dozen Oak Creek men in Company K of the 24th Wisconsin; their battle zone of thousands of troops came to be known as the Slaughter Pen.

Pvt. Henry Pfaff was killed. So was Pvt. August Gage. Cpl. Frederick Fowle was wounded, discharged because of those wounds in March, and died at home two months after that.

Pvt. August Wrase was wounded. Pvt. Matthew Stevens, wounded. Pvt. Peter Hohner, wounded. Pvt. Horace Baldwin, wounded. Cpl. Edward Day, wounded. Pvt. John Gitter, wounded.

The death of Pfaff from artillery fire is described in “The 24th Wisconsin Infantry in the Civil War,” a 2003 book by William J.K. Beaudot. The book says he was 23.

“Just as a soldier in Company K arose, ‘a shell came crashing toward us striking a man about 20 (paces) from me in the forehead, taking the top of his head completely off & scattering his brains in all directions.’” That account was from a lieutenant named Greene. The book also quotes Edwin Parsons, lieutenant of Company K who later became its captain, as saying the shot also “scattered the dirt and stones over me so that I thought at first I was struck.”

Nancy Dzidzan, a retired teacher, used census and genealogical records to research soldiers from Oak Creek Township – which today is Oak Creek and South Milwaukee – as a volunteer project for the archives of the Oak Creek Historical Society.

Dzidzan found that Gage was born about 1819, so he was 43 when killed at Stones River, which is quite old for a soldier. He was a wagon-maker in Oak Creek, something that would have been in great demand in the Union Army as it transported huge amounts of supplies and armaments on many fronts in many states.

Gage and Pfaff are buried on their battlefield, in the Stones River National Cemetery, according to its searchable database. Pfaff’s grave is N-5409 but the database does not have a grave number for Gage. Thousands of soldiers in Civil War battles are buried as unknowns because metal dogtags were not yet invented. There was no real identification system unless the soldier did it himself, or unless his friends pinned identification on a body.

The cemetery has more than 6,000 Union graves from Stones River and other nearby battles. About 1,300 from the other side are buried in the Confederate Circle at the Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesboro.

The most seriously wounded man from Oak Creek at Stones River was Frederick Fowle, 19, who died of those injuries on May 21, 1863, back in Wisconsin.

Fowle is buried in the cemetery of First Congregational United Church of Christ on North Chicago Avenue in South Milwaukee, near the entrance to Grant Park. He has an updated government tombstone because so many stones from that era eroded badly over the decades and half-centuries.

Dzidzan found records in the South Milwaukee Historical Society that said his original tombstone bore this inscription: “We hold thy memory dear and blest our thoughts at thee. Thy life was nobly given for God and liberty.”

Those are stirring words, but there was nothing romantic about it: In addition to the total of 3,000 Union and Confederate dead, many of the wounded lay on the battlefield for days before help arrived. About one-third of the men in the battle were killed or wounded, according to a history by the National Park Service.

The battle came six days after Christmas, when Cpl. Edward Day of Oak Creek had written a letter home (this letter in the archives of the South Milwaukee Historical Society) that said:

We have got a new brigade general and I suppose he wants us to drill as well as other brigades. His name is Sill, and you may see accounts of Sills Brigade.

The order is that we have 3 days cooked rations in our haversacks ready to march in the morning. Probably we move farther south and more than likely shall stand a good chance of getting into a fight as there is no doubt but what the enemy are in force not a great ways from us.

Day would be wounded and taken prisoner. He was referring to Brig. Gen. Joshua Sill, brigade commander for the 24th Wisconsin and three other regiments. The general was killed in action, and a staff member, Lt. John Mitchell of Milwaukee, reported in Beaudot’s book:

“I came across the brigade adjutant; he had just seen the general’s horse galloping to the rear (with no one in the saddle). In our search for Sill we almost stumbled over his prostrate body,” Mitchell said. “A bullet had penetrated his brain; he had tumbled from his horse without even a friendly arm to ease his fall. He lay unconscious and alone, bubbling out his last breaths through the blood that thickly flowed over his fair face and silky beard. … This scene and its dread surroundings horrified me with war.”

Fort Sill, Okla., is named for the general.

In addition to Sill, the other two brigade commanders were killed or mortally wounded in the Slaughter Pen area at Stones River. All three served under Brig. Gen. Philip Sheridan in the 3rd Division of the Army of the Cumberland.

Although the worst day was Dec. 31, the Stones River fighting lasted until Jan. 3, 1863, when the Confederates under Gen. Braxton Bragg retreated. This battle was only three months after the carnage at Antietam in Maryland and days after a shocking and bloody Union loss at Fredericksburg, Va.

On New Year’s Day, the very day after all this carnage began at Stones River, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had been planning his action to free slaves for months, and in September 1862 had said it would come Jan. 1.

So the deaths of the Oak Creek men and the 3,000 other Union and Confederate dead plus the total of nearly 16,000 wounded at Stones River make a particularly striking juxtaposition in history.

What was the goal of the war? Ending the rebellion. What was the moral reason for the war? Slavery, although historians always discuss a wide range of deep economic and social differences between North and South. In fact, there are many caveats to the proclamation itself, such as freeing slaves only in the South, not in slave-holding border states.

The Emancipation proclaimed that slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” and Lincoln ended his executive order by saying: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” He would utter equally stirring words 11 months later at Gettysburg, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

That all was two years before Lincoln’s fight for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, portrayed in the current movie “Lincoln.” The amendment says: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Besides Frederick Fowle, three of the Oak Creek men at Stones River were so seriously wounded that they were discharged – called “mustered out” in that era – from the military. Wrase was discharged March 28, 1863, three months after the battle, followed three days later by Stevens, whose rank is not listed in the Wisconsin roster of volunteers. Hohner was discharged July 14, 1863, because of disability.

The other Oak Creek who were wounded at Stones River remained in the regiment and fought in more battles, in two cases being wounded again. Here are their listings in the roster:

  • Horace Baldwin recovered to a degree and was in later action, but was transferred on Nov. 1, 1863, to the Veteran Reserve Corps, which was a place for partially disabled and infirm soldiers to perform light duty. He remained there for the rest of the war and was mustered out July 13, 1865, three months after Appomattox.
  • Edward Day, who wrote the letter that was quoted a few paragraphs ago, was wounded again at Franklin, Tenn., in 1864 and made it to the end of the war and was mustered out June 10, 1865.
  • John Gitter, whose name also is given as Gutter in the Wisconsin roster, was wounded again at Adairsville, Ga., on May 17, 1864, but he also made it to mustering-out on the same date as Day.

The other parts of the Patch series on Oak Creek in the Civil War, along with Tom Mueller’s 2011 Patch series about the men on Oak Creek’s American Legion and VFW posts, will be included in his book about the Ultimate Sacrifice and veterans, coming out this summer. The book also will interview various veterans with Oak Creek ties.

Mueller holds two positions in Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War – he is the Wisconsin department graves registration officer, along with being junior vice commander of the Milwaukee unit of the group, C.K. Pier Badger Camp # 1.

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