Corporal Henry Keiser spent the evening of July 10, 1863 on the picket line along the Antietam Creek near Boonsboro, Maryland with his exhausted comrades from the 96th Pennsylvania. As the sun came up the following morning, the 23-year-old native of northern Dauphin County must have been dismayed to know that, despite his lack of sleep, he and his comrades in Company G were continuing their personal chase with Confederate soldiers that they’d kept up since July 5.
In the stressful days after the Battle of Gettysburg, the men and boys of the 96th Pennsylvania were reaching their breaking points. The regiment had been aggressively on the move since they left their lines on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia on June 12, 1863, only stopping when they reached the battlefield at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 2, 1863.
Fortunately, the unit was held in reserve during the horrific Confederate assaults on July 3. The 96th Pennsylvania made it through the Battle of Gettysburg relatively unscathed. They were not spared the horrific sight of the wounded and dead left behind on the battlefield.
As the unit began their march in pursuit of the Confederate army, Corporal Keiser made a stop at a field hospital where Confederate wounded were being treated. He was disgusted by what he saw:
Every barn we passed was converted into a rebel hospital and had the red flag floating over it while we were halting near one (a large barn full of wounded Rebs) I ran over to see how it looked, it was sickening to look at. The barn floor and every place in the barn where a person could be layed was filled with wounded Rebels, and outside the barn on the South Side, I seen a pile of hands, feet, legs, and arms at least two feet high.
Keiser and his comrades kept up the chase of the Confederate army over the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland and to the vicinity of the Antietam battlefield from the year earlier. And this is where Keiser’s own exhaustion got the best of him.
As the 96th Pennsylvania advanced near Funkstown, Maryland on the afternoon of July 11, Company G’s Captain Jacob W. Haas got into a verbal altercation with Private Jacob Nice. As a result, Captain Haas smashed Nice over the head with his sword in full view of the entire company, “knocking him unsensible.”
“This raised my ‘dander’ and I said more than I should have said under the circumstances,” wrote Keiser in his war-time diary. In that moment, Keiser had to know what was coming next. “The consequence was I got a similar blast from the Captain.”
In the struggle, Keiser went for his musket to shoot his captain, but the sword caught him in the head first. Keiser and Nice were left on the ground, bleeding profusely from their heads, as Captain Haas ordered Company G to continue their march. “We both have fearful cuts in our heads and bled like pigs,” Keiser penned in his diary that evening. Assistant Surgeon John Shammo attended to their wounds.
This incident on the road to Funkstown left Keiser disillusioned with his commanding officer. Over the subsequent days, Keiser suffered from brutal headaches as his wound began to heal. His anger at Captain Haas never dissipated.
Haas on the other hand, took the event in stride. In his own war-time diary, the row on July 11, 1863 received only a small description: “Knocked Jake Nice and H Keiser down with my sword for disobedience of orders,” Haas wrote. “Came back after dark and slept for the night.”
Corporal Keiser and Private Nice fully recovered from the wounds received at the hands of their captain and returned to duty with Company G within a week.
The incident, however, shows how high tensions were running within not only the 96th Pennsylvania, but throughout the Union army and the North in general.
Three days later, on July 14, President Abraham Lincoln penned one of his most hostile war-time letters to Major General George Meade for letting Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army escape across the flood-swollen Potomac River.
“He was within your easy grasp,” Lincoln wrote, “and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.” The president never sent the letter, instead sealing the angry note inside his desk in Washington where it was discovered after his assassination in 1865.
Anger in the North boiled over on July 13 as angry residents of New York City poured into the streets and started the bloodiest riot in American history. Made up largely of Irish immigrants protesting the institution of the Federal draft, mobs burned down swaths of New York and lynched African Americans in the streets. It took the arrival of Federal soldiers to quell the rebellion, but only after three days worth of destruction left more than 100 dead, 2,000 injured, and millions of dollars in damage.
Disillusion and exhaustion were everywhere manifest in the summer of 1863. And there was no end in sight.
The diary of Henry Keiser was accessed from the archives of the Gratz Historical Society in Gratz, Pennsylvania. It can also be found in the collections of the United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
The diary of Captain Jacob W. Haas and other papers can be found in the collections of the United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.