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  • I grew up hearing stories about him, about Martin, from one who had been just like a son to him for twenty-one years, his grandson, my father. Dad grew up in his house. He had the luxury of two father figures in that house, his own father, whom he never thought too very highly of, and his mother’s father, Martin, whose house it actually was, and who Dad revered and wished to be more like. They were the only male figures in a house that also was home to eight of Dad’s sisters, plus his mother, Eulalie, her older sister Margaret, and his Grandmother. That’s a lot of women (11)!

    Dad’s father was a traveling salesman, often away during the weeks, out on the road plying his wares in faraway towns such as Cincinnatti, Cleveland, Scranton, Philadelphia. It was said that he could sell anything, and he did. He was a jovial, good-times Charlie type of character, but one who Dad always felt critical of - always thought he was full of malarky, could never measure up to the character of Dad’s beloved grandfather, Martin. Martin was always around, a quiet, conservative gentleman, who ran his own wallpaper business, nearly up until the day he died at the ripe old age of 92. Dad had nothing but love and admiration for Martin – mostly contempt for his own actual father.

    His father loved him very much, but it seemed that no matter what he did, it was never good enough in Dad’s eyes. They were like oil and water, those two. I can imagine how that must have felt for his father, as I felt the same way for my first twenty-two years , that whatever I did was never good enough in my father’s eyes. Of course, that judgment went both ways – I rebuffed any attempts he made to show caring and understanding towards me. He could never measure up to what I was looking for in a father. He was too”old”, not enough of a “man’s man” for me, too “square”, much, much too conservative. I was into sports and the outdoors, while Dad was into books and the arts, and liked farting around the house (literally, at times), doing home and furniture repair. I couldn’t stand to be around him. Whenever I did get roped into helping him with something he was fiddling around with, his running dialogue, I guess his attempts at connecting with me, if you could call it that, included what he thought was kidding around and funny, but I just took as continual “put-downs” – “That’s your problem, Pete, you think too much”, or, “That’s because you don’t think, Pete!”, or “you’re no damn good, Pete”, or one of my true favorites, “Yeah, ol’ Pete is a promising young man….always making promises!” It’s no wonder I couldn’t stand to be around the man – this was his idea of humor! I hated it.

    He always had a picture of his father and his grandfather on his dresser. His father’s was a headshot, a big, rounded, balding head, while the picture of Martin was a full bodied shot, him standing so prim and proper in a vest, with his watch chain coming out of the vest pocket, looking so wise and solid as he held a pipe in his hand, gleaming eyes looking at the camera.

    His father died less than three weeks before I was born, while Martin died fifteen years before that, yet, through Dad’s many stories of both, I feel like I got to know both men well, and I’ve often felt one or the other’s presence in my life. Whether that’s because of Dad’s stories, or that their spirits were actually around, I’ll never know for sure, but there’s never been a question that I am of their blood. A psychic once told me that there was a spirit, an older man, who had been around me all of my life, looking out for me, like a guardian. Who knows how that stuff works? It turned out that I had many of Dad’s father’s traits, although I never was much of a salesman, myself, hard as I tried to be. I could never take the uncertainty of that profession. I always needed something more solid, more consistent, more structured.
  • As I’ve grown older, I have come to really feel for Martin, not as the conservative old man who helped to raise and shape the views of my own father, but as the young boy who found himself stuck in a war. I, at times, have felt his spirit very strongly, the spirit of that boy, his confusion and frustration. He had been thirteen when the war broke out, and his step-father had formed, outfitted and trained a Zouave company in Pittsburgh, his two older brothers joining up and serving as First and Second Lieutenants of the company, his step-father assuming the role of company Captain. War fever was high, as everyone envisioned a glorious victory to quell the rebellion. It was all so exciting to young Martin, he wanted to join the company, too, to be with his brothers and stepfather. Everyone laughed and said “you’re much too young!” But Martin was a determined young lad. When the company set off across the state of Pennsylvania on a train, to join up with the rest of the Union forces and become Company K of the 61st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, in August, 1861, a thirteen year old boy was stowed away on the train. By the time it reached Harrisburg, Martin was discovered. It was too late to try to send him back, then. He would get his wish. They would have to lie about his age and say that he was 16, not 13, and he was enlisted as a “musician”, a drummer.

    What followed was a true, living hell for Martin. The glamours of war never happened. In a terrible, confusing and frightening battle the following spring, in a swamp in Virginia, his beloved stepfather, Joseph Gerard, would be slain right in front of him, cut down in all of his glory, in a battle in which all of the regimental officers of the 61st were either killed, wounded, or captured by the Rebels. Endless days and months of marching, camping, fighting, waiting would follow, until the worst day of all, when they arrived at Antietam Creek in Maryland on what would go down as the bloodiest day in American history. Just turned 15 by then, Martin and his company would crawl within 15 yards of the enemy, crawling over dead bodies strewn about the field of battle, a ceasefire called to bury the dead, and then the terrible fighting resumed well into the evening. His brother Louis was now Company Captain, and it soon thereafter became quite clear that Martin was having trouble keeping up with the company on its marches. He’d become very ill, suffering from exposure and malnutrition. He was sent off to the hospital in Philadelphia, where he spent several months recuperating. There, he began a campaign to get out of his enlistment. He’d seen enough – been through enough. He wanted to go back to Pittsburgh, and be the boy that he was, not this soldier he’d become. He wanted no more parts of the war. His campaign ended in defeat. He would have to serve out his 3 year enlistment. He left the hospital on a 24 hour pass, and headed home for Pittsburgh. He’d just had enough. He spent several weeks there, seeing his friends, enjoying the comforts of home, before he was compelled to return to Philadelphia to face the music. He had been gone exactly thirty days. When he checked back in, the guard at the gate looked at his pass, and didn’t notice that he was 30 days late, thought he was just returning the next day from his 24 hour pass. Martin, always honest to a fault, pointed out to the guard that he should double-check the dates. He was put into holding. Someone, some stranger, came by and told him to return to his bed in the hospital, and to say nothing to anyone about this. He would never hear another thing about it.
  • Soon, he was returned to his company, just as they were preparing to launch another assault on the town of Fredericksburg. His first day back with the company, one of the first things he had to do was drum another soldier out of the company, a soldier who was being discharged in shame and going to prison – for being 30 days AWOL.

    His company and regiment would lead the charge up Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, the scene of a devestating slaughter the previous December, when the rebel forces had repelled the union attack, pouring cannon and musket fire down on the surging union forces like raining hellfire, killing hundreds of young soldiers, never surrendering the heights. This time, “we threw the rebs off that hill” and pushed them way back. However, the main attraction that day was happening over in Chancellorsville, Virginia, and the confederate forces would eventually “chase us back down the hill and across the Rappahannock River”, from whence they came. Another rebel victory in a seemingly endless stirng of defeats for the Union army. It would turn out to be a pyhhric victory for the confederates, though, as that evening, Robert E. Lee’s most trusted and able general, Stonewall Jackson, would be shot in the shoulder by his own men, mistakenly, and while the wound was not a mortal one, the pneumonia he had contracted was, and he died several days later. This would prove to be a devestating loss for the Rebel army.

    Two months later, they would all meet up again in a little town in Pennsylvania, where the most terrifying and bloody three days in American history would ultimately be one of the decisive moments in history, as it would mark the high point for the confederates. They would never fully recover from their losses there. A week before that battle, while still in Virginia, Martin’s brother and company captain, Louis Hager, suffered a severe ankle injury, and was sent to the hospital. He would be discharged three weeks later. Now, it was only Martin and his brother Gust left in the company. Gust was now the First Lieutenant. They marched ceaselessly for three days to show up at the far right flank of the union line there, and went right into some of the heaviest fighting of the battle, from 2:00 in the afternoon until well after dark, managing to hold the line there despite the continual assault of rebel forces for hours. The following day would be one of the most memorable and decisive moments of the entire war, Pickett’s Charge, in which the rebels swarmed across a vast, open field, intent on throwing the union off the high ground at cemetery ridge, but were simply decimated in that field, to the cries of many union soldiers yelling “Remember Fredericksburg” as they cut them down. This time, the union never surrendered the high ground, as the confederate thrust into Union territory was suddenly and abruptly stopped in that epic battle.

    Martin spent the next day separated from his company, helping out in a field hospital as it deluged on the 4th of July, 1863, the day after the terrible fighting had ceased. He found his company that night, and they marched over the bloody and body-strewn battlefield early the next day, in pursuit of the retreating Rebel Army. “What a sickening sight” was all Martin would note in his diary that day.
  • He would continue on, serving out his entire 3 year enlistment. During the awful Wilderness Battles the following spring, brother Gust would suffer a gunshot wound to the gut, and Martin would save his life, staying at this side, staunching the wound until the surgeon got around to treating his brother, hours later. Gust was sent home, and then it was just Martin left, now a 16 year old, 3 year veteran of war. He would meet Abraham Lincoln during a review of the troops, and served under Grant, who pushed them relentlessly as they fought the confederate army that just hung on and wouldn’t give up for another year.

    He would relish peace for the rest of his life. He didn’t like to talk about the war, much. He did leave his diaries, which are a family treasure, and which his loving grandson would transcribe. He lived long enough to be one of the attendees of the 9 day, 75th anniversary remembrance of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the battlefield was commemmorated and all surviving participants from both sides of the battle were invited to attend, at the government’s expence. Martin invited Dad to be his companion for that historic occasion, but Dad had to decline, as he was scheduled to go off to school to be a Christian Brother. Instead, his cousin, Austin McGrath, would go in his place. I caught up with Austin 12 years ago at my Aunt Fran’s funeral. Austin, then 82 himself, laughed when I asked him what it was like being there with Grandpa Hager and all the old soldiers of the Civil War. “He was an unstoppable force, climbing up all those towers that looked out over the battlefields. My father lectured me about letting him climb those, but I just said ‘Hell, I couldn’t stop him!’” He was determined to go – just like that 13 year old who stowed away on the train.

    When Martin died a year later, at age 92, he was the last known surviving 3-year enlistee of the Civil War. While that may have sounded like a glorious achievement, if you ever asked him, he would tell you the truth – war was hell. The glories of his life were the years of building a business and raising a family. He never much cared to talk about the war. Who could blame him?
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