Sunday, April 10, 2016

'Best and bravest': Private Erastus Kinsel's ordeal at Antietam

East Woods at Antietam at sunrise: Private Erastus Kinsel may have been wounded near here.
Another view of the replanted East Woods,  where Erastus Kinsel may have been wounded.
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On Sept. 22, 1901, citizens throughout Blair County traveled to a cemetery in rural Antis Township, Pa., for the dedication of a war memorial to honor soldiers who were buried there. After a prayer, the monument was unveiled and patriotic speeches were delivered -- including one by a 125th Pennsylvania veteran, who noted the death by assassin's bullets eight days earlier of President William McKinley, a Civil War veteran himself.

Josiah Hicks: The former Congressman
spoke of  Erastus Kinsel's death
at the unveiling of a memorial in 1901.
Former U.S. congressman Josiah D. Hicks, who served as a private in the regiment, also "carried his hearers into some of the dreadful scenes of that struggle," the local newspaper reported the next day, in reference to the Great Rebellion. Another speaker called the cemetery, where 40 soldiers from Antis Township from all American wars lie buried, "sacred ground."

After a list of local men who had fallen in battle was read, a reverend spoke of "the courage and discipline of a soldier -- of his intelligence" and the need to be "worthy successors and worthy descendants of the heroes who preserved for us this country." A man from nearby Bellwood sang a solo version of  Mr. Volunteer, and the crowd later burst out in unison with a rendition of  America.

The nearly 10-foot memorial made of American marble was the brainchild of a local dentist, John M. Kinsel, who not only paid for it with $150 out of his own pocket but designed it, too. The account in the Altoona (Pa.) Tribune made no mention of any speech given that early fall day by Dr. Kinsel, who, as a 17-year-old 39 years earlier, had enlisted in the 125th Pennsylvania. The veteran may have left all the reminiscing to Hicks, who made special mention during his speech of the Civil War sacrifice of another soldier in the 125th Pennsylvania: Erastus Kinsel, John's father.

Even after the passage of more than four decades, a deep family wound may have been too fresh for the 56-year-old dentist.

On Sept. 17, 1862, John and Erastus fought side-by-side in Company A at Antietam, the 125th Pennsylvania's first battle of the war. The elder Kinsel, 40, suffered numerous bullet wounds -- he was one of more than 200 casualties in the 125th Pennsylvania that awful day -- and lay between the lines in no-man's land until he was carried from the field the next morning by comrades.

Erastus and Christinia Kinsel had six children, according to the 1860 U.S. census. (
John and Erastus Kinsel enlisted in the Union army in early August 1862, a little more than a month after President Lincoln's call for 300,000 volunteers. John was the second-eldest child of Christinia and Erastus Kinsel, a day laborer whose personal estate was valued at a modest $150, according to the 1860 census. The Kinsels had five other children, according to the census-taker: Susan, 16; George, 12; Thomas, 10, James, 8; and Rebecca, 6.

One can only imagine Christinia's anxiety when her eldest son and the husband with whom she had been married for more than 19 years left for Camp Curtin in Harrisburg. There they would briefly be trained in how to fire a weapon, how to march and other finer points of army life before they were sent to serve in the defenses of Washington and then on to join the Army of the Potomac. Because the 125th Pennsylvania was a nine-month regiment, perhaps Christinia held out hope that John and Erastus soon would return.

But the war's outcome was anything but certain that summer.

In June and early July 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia under its new commander, Robert E. Lee, had beaten back the Union army's attempt to take Richmond. In August, Lee's army was preparing to take the war north. In response to the Rebel army's crossing of the Potomac River into Maryland in early September 1862, the 125th Pennsylvania marched from Washington to Frederick, Md., and on to Sharpsburg. Early on the morning of September 17, the Pennsylvania boys were sent into action.

                 125th Pennsylvania entered the West Woods behind the Dunker Church.
The 125th Pennsylvania fought in the East Woods (4), through the infamous Bloody Cornfield at left
 and into the West Woods before it was forced to retreat. The Smoketown Road (1) is at right.
(The Maryland Campaign and The Battle of Antietam, Miles Clayton Huyette, 1915)
West Woods: 125th Pennsylvania suffered most of its casualties here.
       7th Michigan, 125th Pennsylvania and 34th New York fought here in West Woods.

Exactly where and when Kinsel was severely wounded at Antietam is unknown. He may have been shot in the East Woods, where the regiment was heavily engaged. Or more likely it was near the Dunker Church, where the 125th Pennsylvania entered the West Woods before it was smashed by a vicious Rebel counterattack. "On looking around and finding no support in sight," the regiment's colonel wrote of the fighting there, "I was compelled to retire. Had I remained in my position two minutes longer I would have lost my whole command."

In any case, Erastus suffered his first wounds "in the hottest of the fight" when two bullets struck him at nearly the same time -- one in the hip that caused a wound  "at least one inch and half in depth and five inches in length," according to Dr. Andrew P. Calderwood, the family physician, who first examined Kinsel a little more than a month after his wounding. Another bullet crashed into Erastus' right leg, just below the knee, and smashed into his left leg.

Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin gave Kinsel
an "open  furlough" to return home to recover 

from his Antietam wounds.
(Library of Congress)
"At this juncture he fell," Calderwood noted. "Our lines fell back. He loaded his gun for the purpose of shooting a rebel that he observed close by picking off our men. He had turned his face to the advancing Rebels, and while resting upon his elbow and in the act of putting on a cap, [another] ball struck him immediately ... at the left collar bone, passed down underneath the shoulder blade, crossed the vertebrae and was cut out at upper portion of hip bone." A bullet wound through Kinsel's right calf caused the inflammation of nearly his entire leg, the doctor wrote, and nearly caused his death.

Erastus was initially taken to a makeshift field hospital, where his wounds were dressed, before he was transferred to Franklin Hall hospital in Chambersburg, Pa., about 40 miles north. Two weeks after Antietam, he was overcome by bacterial infection in the wound in his right leg, leaving him "completely prostrated." Word of his condition reached Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, who had known Erastus since he was a boy. The governor gave Kinsel an "open furlough" on October 17, one month after Antietam, allowing him to recover at his home in Blair Furnace, Pa., near Altoona.

Transported on a stretcher, Kinsel was "extremely low" when he arrived home, noted Calderwood, who added:
We were compelled to give him the strongest stimulants & tonics for several weeks after his arrival. Owing to his great loss of blood, the severe attack of Erysipelas and great extent of granulating surfaces his aneameia [sic] was extreme. Notwithstanding he was secured every attention, good diet, best tonics and the attendance of a faithful, self-sacrificing companion and my careful attention, the improvement was very slow.
By March 1863, Erastus still suffered from his many wounds. He needed a crutch and/or cane to move about. Pieces of bone worked their way out of his injured left leg. Despite his plight, Kinsel was preparing to visit Gov. Curtin in Harrisburg, but "no one considered him able for the journey," Calderwood noted. An examination by another doctor in late March revealed new health problems -- Kinsel had developed a severe fever, "which developed itself in smallpox" three days later.

"He was quite debilitated," the physician noted, "from the wounds he had received at the battle of Antietam, one of which (in the hip) was still painful." On April 5, 1863, nearly seven months after he was wounded, Kinsel died at his home. For at least two days, Kinsel's remains lay in his house, apparently untouched because of the fear of the spread of smallpox.

"It is sickening, and appears inhuman," the Altoona Tribune reported on April 7, 1863, "when we view the case and think of the situation of his family, and yet we cannot blame those who have never had the disease for not going to inter him, as it would be almost certain contagion, but we think there might be those who have passed through it who would be willing to undertake the task."

Pension file document signed July 31, 1863, by Kinsel's commanding officer, Francis Bell, who 
noted the private  received a furlough to go home to recover from his Antietam wounds. 
(National Archives via
Christinia Kinsel was not entitled to a widow's pension, according to a government bureaucrat.
A special act passed by
Congress in the winter of 1868 approved
a pension for Rebecca Kinsel, Erastus'
youngest daughter. (
In July 1863, Christinia began the slow process of obtaining a widow's pension from the government. The two local doctors who had examined Kinsel before he died strongly supported her claim:

"I firmly believe he would have recovered had it not been for greatly impaired state of the system from loss of blood and exposure on the field," one of them noted.

"I stated in my previous letter, and I will repeat the same again that it was the impoverished or anemic condition of the blood that rendered him an easy victim to small pox," Calderwood said. "These are the facts. Any number of witnesses can be added if required. I have no interest in this matter except that of humanity and to aid in having justice done. My dear sir allow me to assure you that you could not have a more deserving a case."

But the claim initially was rejected. Erastus had died of "small pox, a disease not contracted in the line of duty," a government bureaucrat wrote, "[and]  the widow is not entitled to a pension according to the strict rendition of the law.".

The case dragged on.

In late winter 1868, the plight of the Kinsels came to the attention of Congress, which passed a special act on February 21 finally approving Christinia's claim. Her youngest child, 14-year-old Rebecca, was also approved to receive $8-a-month assistance from the government.

A little more than two weeks later, on March 10, 1868, Christinia Kinsel died. She was buried in Antis Cemetery near her husband -- one of the "best and bravest of men" -- who had been severely wounded at Antietam more than five years earlier. **

(Do you have a photo of Eratus, John or Christinia Kinsel? E-mail me here.)

Erastus Kinsel's marker in Antis Cemetery, near Altoona, Pa. (Find A Grave)
** "best and bravest of men" reference from Dr. Andrew Calderwood affidavit on March 29, 1864, in Kinsel widow's pension file.


--1860 U.S. Federal census

Erastus Kinsel pension file documents (National Archives via
-- 125th Pennsylvania Captain Francis M. Bell affidavit, July 31, 1863
-- Dr. Andrew P. Calderwood affidavit, March 29, 1864
-- Unknown doctor's affidavit, possibly J.M. Mcbey, April 2, 1864
-- Dr. Andrew P. Calderwood affidavit, Unknown date in 1867

--Altoona (Pa.) Journal, Sept. 23, 1901

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