Sunday, May 24, 2020

'My hart akes for you': Nashville National Cemetery snapshots

More than 16,000 Union soldiers were buried at Nashville National Cemetery.
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Union General George Thomas, commander of the Department of the Cumberland in Kentucky and Tennessee, was blunt when he talked about a location for a proposed national cemetery near Nashville. Put it near the Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks, the Virginia native said, so anyone from the North traveling to the city can see the enormity of the sacrifice to perserve the Union.

In fall 1866, the Nashville Union American reported, "a gang of negroes" began clearing the site Thomas suggested, and by late that year, the grounds were ready for the burial of Federal dead. "Some time will be required to complete this worthy undertaking," the local newspaper noted, "as there are about twenty thousand soldiers buried near this point, and some fifty or sixty per day will probably be average removals."

Railroad tracks bisect Nashville National Cemetery.
George Thomas would be pleased.
In a remarkable effort, the U.S. Quartermaster Department recovered Union remains from battlefields, hospital cemeteries, church graveyards and elsewhere in the region for re-interrment. By early spring 1867, 12,000 Federal dead were buried in the national cemetery -- at "an expense of $1.10 on each body." More than 16,000 Federal soldiers rest today under pearl-white tombstones on the  beautiful, rolling grounds.

If you can ignore the hum of traffic on busy Gallatin Pike, the 64-acre cemetery remains an oasis in what was countryside six miles or so north of downtown Nashville in the 19th century. From the bottom of a hill on the 64-acre grounds, the waves of gravestones seem overwhelming. Almost on cue during my visit, graffiti-scarred CSX cars rumbled by on train tracks that still bisect the cemetery. The Rock of Chickamauga" would be pleased.

Perhaps "Pap" Thomas would be pleased, too, that I paid respects Saturday to three Wisconsin soldiers. Here are snapshots of their lives:

Edward Soper's gravestone in Nashville National Cemetery is in Section J, site 14605.
The death of Edward Soper, a 5-foot-11 private in the 44th Wisconsin with blue eyes and dark hair, was especially heart-rending. In early April 1865, the 25-year-old carpenter from Manitowoc was on night guard duty in Nashville. According to his captain, he "fell over a bank," discharging his weapon into his knee. He died from the wound at Post Hospital (125-bed Cherry Street Baptist Church) in Nashville on April 9 -- the very day Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant, effectively ending the war.

"I called to see him the evening before we left [for Paducah, Ky.]," Captain John W. Moore wrote Soper's widow, Josepheen, "and I found him very bad but had no idea of it resulting so seriously and do asure you that the notice of his deth was very astonishing to me and do asure you that I simpathize with you. My hart akes for you." (See full transcript below.)

Besides Josepheen, Edward left behind two children: Charles, 4, and Flora, almost 5 months.

(National Archives via

Hed quarters, Co. "E." 44th Regt. Wis,. Infantry
Paducah, April 18, 1865

Mrs. Josepheen Soper

Dear Madam:

It is my painful duty to inform you that I have just received the sad intelligence of the deth of your husband Edward Soper. He died on the 9th Inst. Post Hospital Nashville, Tenn. We left him there when we left. He was on gard a few days before and in the night fell over a bank and shot his nee. I called to see him the evening before we left and I found him very bad but had no idea of it resulting so seriously and do asure you that the notice of his deth was very astonishing to me and do asure you that I simpathize with you . My hart ...

(National Archives via
... akes for you. The will of Providence seams hard yet we as Christians should bare it with fortitude and submition. Every infirmation that you may nead herafter I will be very hapy to communicate to you. I now close by Praying that the God of the widow and the orphans may sustain you in your affliction.

I have the honor of subscribing my self yours very respectfully.

J.W. Moore
Capt. Co "E", 44th Regt. Wis. Infantry
Paducah Ky.

Wilhelm Spickermann's gravestone is in Section D, site 3342. I placed a penny, Lincoln side up, atop 
German immigrant Wilhelm Spickerman served in the 15th Wisconsin, a hard-fighting regiment filled with so many Scandanavians that it became known as the "Norwegian Regiment" or "Swedish Regiment." The 35-year-old private from Manitowoc enlisted in November 1861 and toiled for a time as a wagoner, but he apparently was ill so often that he spent more time in the hospital than fighting Johnny Rebs. In December 1862, he became sick and was left behind with the commissary supply train. Months later, he spent time in the camp hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Sadly, Wilhelm wasn't given a furlough when two of his three children died in Wisconsin while he was in the army. (The Spickermanns' lone surviving child, a girl named Minnie, was 2 in 1863.)

Death certificate for Wilhelm Spickermann, who died from 
chronic diarrhea in Hospital No. 15 in Nashville on Nov. 21, 1863. 
(National Archives via | CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Ill again in early November 1863, Spickermann died of chronic diarrhea at Hospital No. 15 in Nashville on Nov. 21, 1863. The 400-bed facility near the notorious Smokey Row, site of the city's infamous brothels, was known as the “Soldier’s Syphilitic Hospital.”

Spickermann's wife, Sophia, filed for a widow's pension, which was approved in 1864. Years later, things got really strange.

In 1878, Widow Spickermann was dropped from the pension rolls because her $8-a-month allotment had gone unclaimed for three years. In October 1892, the 60-year-old applied to restore it. An agent from the U.S. Pension Bureau sought her out for an interview to confirm her "widowhood." The intrepid special investigator was, ah, dubious about her request.

"From the evidence," he wrote, "it appears that claimant resided in Wisconsin till about 1867 when she went to New York City, and took up with a man named William Hoffman, 'kept house,' for him till 1872, when they left together to Stillwater, Minn., taking with them his boy and her girl, that she continued to keep house for Hoffman, and was known only as Mrs. Hoffman, from the time they landed in Stillwater until about 1883, when they left Stillwater and located at West St. Paul, Minn,, where she has kept house for him in an old tumble-down two-story frame tenement house."

Spickerman and Hoffman lived together in a poor section of St. Paul known as the Wagner Block, along the Mississippi River.

"These shanties are occupied by foreigners who are poverty-stricken and of questionable repute morally," the investigator wrote in his report, "and the neighborhood is anything but safe or inviting after dark. It was difficult for me to obtain testimony from these people as they were suspicious."

As for Hoffman, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1868, the agent was especially scathing. He arrived in America with a girl named Mary, "whom he had gotten in a family way," and she deserted him after the child was born. The couple were never married. "He is a libertine," the agent wrote of Hoffman, "and, while he was supporting claimant was running after women of ill-repute."

Hoffman's record for "truth and sobriety" were "bad," added the agent, whose moral outrage oozed from the pages of the widow's pension claim.

Close-up of the gravestone for Wilhem Spickermann.
"When the character of this man, his past life, and his desire for women, are taken in connection with the fact that claimant has slept in the same room with him almost from the time he got rid of his paramour (in 1868) ... and has been supported by him, and allowed herself to be known only as his wife and under his name, without attempting to deny it, it is quite evident that she either is the wife of William Hoffman, or is not rendering that respect to the memory of the deceased husband, Wilhelm Spickermann ..."

Widow Spickermann's claim, the agent concluded, was of "very doubtful merit."

Sophia told a quite different story: When she moved to Stillwater, she made money sewing until her eyes got bad. Then she became the housekeeper for Hoffman, a laborer three or four years her junior whom she first met in New York. When the woman who Spickermann thought was Hoffman's invalid wife died, Sophia moved in with him in St. Paul. "It was while I was keeping house for Hoffman," she wrote "that I dropped my pension. I thought I had a living in my hands and did not want to bother about my pension."  Besides, Hoffman's eldest son, Johnny, believed she was his mother. If she continued to draw the pension, Sophia said, Johnny could find out she was previously married and his feelings might be hurt.

Yikes, this one's a head-spinner.

As for all the talk that she was William Hoffman's wife, well, Spickermann insisted that was just rubbish. They never even slept in the same bed, Sophia claimed in a deposition, adding, "I have never had any sexual intercourse with William Hoffman at any time." Sophia said a miffed Hoffman sometimes even showed her the door, telling her, "I keep you long enough, go, and see how you get along." She said she also took care of Hoffman's teen-aged son, Henry, an aspiring baker, "as if he was my own son." He even called her "Ma."

William Hoffman, too, denied he was married to Spickerman, whom he insisted was merely his housekeeper. "If I marry," he said, "[his son's mother] may put me in state's prison." He said he only supplied Sophia with a place to live and clothes for Minnie. The investigator was highly skeptical. "Unreliable," he wrote next to Hoffman's name in his report.

Hoffman's Wagner Block neighbors offered conflicting stories. Some said he and Sophia lived as man and wife; others weren't so sure. "I don't know her name," one of them said, "but it ain't Hoffman."

Ultimately, the U.S. Pension Bureau rejected her pension request. Years later, the bureaucrats re-examined her claim when she was no longer living with Hoffman. But "a careful review of all the evidence on file," the agency wrote in 1898, "fails to show that injustice was done her."

Oh, Lord, what would Wilhelm think?

George West, who died of disease, rests in Plot E, gravesite 778.
When grievously ill George West got to Hospital No. 19 in Nashville, the 37-year-old soldier was "insensible ... and without a knowledge or consciousness of the fact that he was discharged" from the army, the captain of his company recalled.

A note signed by government undertaker William Cornelius 
regarding the disposition of George West's remains.
(National Archives via
On Feb. 18, 1863,  West -- a 5-foot-6 private with dark hair and black eyes -- died there of erysipelas, an especially ghastly infection that attacked a wound, killing and blackening tissue. The mortality rate was 46 percent. Compounding the 21st Wisconsin private's misery, he also suffered from partial paralysis of lower extremities and chronic diarrhea.

William Cornelius, a local undertaker contracted by the Union Army to bury Federal and Confederate dead, buried West in Grave No. 3567 in the Soldiers' Cemetery in Nashville, near Fort Negley. (My gawd, there could be thousands of more bodies still there.)  After the war, the private's remains were re-buried in Nashville National Cemetery.

West was survived by his wife, Jane, and their two children -- a 1-year-son named Julius Elton and a daughter named Georgia Edith. She was born the day her father died.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Nashville Union and American, Sept. 9, 1866, Dec. 14, 1866.
-- The (Nashville) Tennessean, April 14, 1867.
-- Widows' pension files for Edward Soper, Wilhelm Spickermann and George West, National Archives and Records Service via

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