Sunday, February 22, 2015

Five neat soldier discoveries at the National Archives

A trip to the National Archives in Washington is often like a trip to Las Vegas. You "bet" big, hoping the soldiers' pension files you pull during a two-day stay have an outstanding payoff, perhaps a letter from a soldier documenting his battle experience or a note from father to son about army life in the Deep South. Your time is limited -- the Archives is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week --  so you want to make the most of your stay. In the end, it's often a crap shoot, with some files revealing little to nothing about a soldier's war experience or post-war life. A recent research trip to the massive building not far from the White House yielded lots of great info. Here are five cool things I found:


A private in the 20th Connecticut from Cheshire, Jesse Rice suffered the amputation of his right arm after he was shot at the Battle of Bentonville (N.C.) on March 19, 1865, in the last stages of the war. "His most serious difficulty at the present time," a doctor noted in Rice's pension claim, "consists of a severe form of nervous irritability produced by the condition of the stump of the right arm."


Four days before he was wounded at the siege of Petersburg (Va.) on August 16, 1864, 20-year-old August Freitag wrote a letter in German to his parents in Collinsville, Conn. “One must always pay attention and make sure that the ink jar is not taken out of his hand by a bombshell,” he complained, “because, large or small, the balls are whistling through here day and night.” He died of his wounds on August 26 at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, only nine months after Henry and Rosa Freitag went with their son to Hartford for his enlistment in the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. 


While camped near steamy New Orleans with his 12th Connecticut comrades, 19-year-old Private Howard Hale delighted in writing long letters to his father, who lived 1,500 miles away in Collinsville, Conn., and missed his oldest son desperately. Howard sent $35 home  to his father in this envelope. On April 13, 1863, Hale was mortally wounded in the abdomen at the Battle of Fort Bisland (La.) and died two days later.


On May 2, 1863, Private Michael McMahon, an Irish-born soldier in the 14th Connecticut, was wounded in the left side at the Battle of Chancellorsville (Va.) and hospitalized for 10 months. In an application for a pension, it was also noted that he was shot in the belt plate, resulting in a rupture that apparently plagued him the rest of his life. 


Milo Freeland was a private in the 54th Massachusetts, the famed black regiment whose experience was brilliantly told in the movie "Glory." After the war, he moved with his wife and children from Massachusetts to East Canaan, Conn., where he died of pneumonia in 1883. Believed to be the first black soldier to enlist in the Union army, he was only 43.

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