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  • My Great Grandfather, Martin Hager’s Civil War Diary, at least what we had left of it by the time Dad transcribed it in the early 80’s and gave us all copies, begins on December 1st, 1862 – 150 years ago this past week. He was just turned 15 at that point, but had already been involved in the war for nearly a year and a half, since age 13 in August, 1861. He’d stowed away on a train carrying his Step Father, Joseph Gerard’s company across the state of Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. His two older brothers were the First and Second Lieutenants of the company, while his stepfather was the Captain. He had formed the company, but refused to allow Martin to join – until they discovered him on the train, that is. When they discovered 13 year old Martin, he had to lie about his age and say he was 16, and sign a 3 year enlistment. They couldn’t send him back at that point.

    He saw his Step Father killed in the brutal “slaughter in the swamps” Battle of the Seven Pines in May of 1862. He was just 14 then. Brother Louis had then become the Company Captain, while brother Gust became First Lieutenant. It had been a hard year of marching, camping, fighting, and marching some more. At the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862, Martin had crawled with 15 feet of the enemy late in the day-long battle. More men died on that field that he crawled across that day, than on any day, of any war, in American history. He was still just 14.

    He became very ill, and after weeks of exposure, his illness steadily getting worse, Captain Louis Hager, fearing for his baby brother’s life, had him sent to the regimental hospital in West Philadelphia. It was there that Martin first began his letter to his descendants, the Diary that I still read, 150 years later. My son reminded me yesterday that the big Sesquicentenniel reenactment of the First Battle of Fredericksburg was taking place this weekend down there. Martin’s company fought in that one, but Martin missed that battle. He was in the hospital, recovering. It was a terrible defeat for the Union. The Rebels sat up on top of Marye’s Heights and just mowed them down with canon and grapeshot as they tried to take the hill. At that point, it’s hard to say whether the 15 year old could have taken another day of miserable bloodshed.

    He would see enough in the coming year, as he would rejoin the company shortly before the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, which was actually a sideshow for the main attraction over in a town called Chancellorsville. Another terrible defeat for the Union. He would also be there for the carnage in a little Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg, where Louis would be wounded and leave the army several weeks later.

    Martin would continue on, and wind up saving brother Gust’s life a year later during the Battles of the Wilderness, staunching a serious wound until the surgeon could get to him. Gust, too, would leave the company after being wounded, leaving Martin to carry on, the last one left. He served out his 3 year enlistment, and finally got to return home in September, 1864.

    When Martin died 75 years later, in 1939, he was the last surviving 3-year enlistee of the Civil War, as far as anyone could tell. My father grew up in his house, and for his first 21 years, Martin was a second father to him, and was the man who my father most looked up to. Much of what Dad valued in life, the priniciples that he believed in, had been handed down to him by this old man who had once been a young boy in a most terrible time. His labor of love, transcribing Martin’s diary for the rest of us to have, is something I cherish, and will be reading each day, over the next couple of years, marking what he was doing 150 years ago, grateful that he took the time to write this letter to his descendants, and that my father took the time to make it accessible to me.

    (Photo: Clipping from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's Obituary for Martin, which I still have the original of.)
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