Meanwhile, back at camp...as I've been following the footsteps of my Great Grandfather, Martin Hager, the man who helped raise my father, who raised me, in this Sesquicentenniel (150th) anniversary of the most profound year of his time in the war (the Civil War, that is), I thought I would check in on what Christmas in camp was like for the boy soldier, then just turned 16 years old, 150 years ago. I consulted his diary, which Dad lovingly transcribed 30 years ago for all of us. Camp was 2 miles from Brandy Station, Virginia, three quarters of a mile from the Hazel River, about 50 miles from where I live, today - just about 20 miles below where I make my weekly food donation pickups each Sunday morning.
Martin had begun the year of 1863 in the Union hospital in Philadelphia, recovering from illness brought on by extreme exposure - to the elements, to extreme death and devestation all around him, going days without rations, eating only whatever could be scavenged from the land they marched past. He'd witnessed his step-father's slaughter right in front of him during the terrible battle at Fair Oaks the previous May, then had crawled within 15 yards of the enemy at Antietam the previous September, where, after a brief truce in fighting to bury the dead strewn across the battlefield, bodies stacked upon bodies, fighting had resumed on the bloodiest day in American history. When he was so sick he could no longer keep up with the company on their marches, his older brother Louis, now captain of Company K in the 61st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, had sent him to the hospital to convalesce and regain his strength for the fight. He'd been 14 years old at the time.
As his health improved in the hospital, he'd begun to get 24 hour passes to go out into town in Philadelphia, where he had developed some friendships, and would go to see shows and plays, which he loved. A veteran of a year and a half of war at that point, he had been petitioning to get an early discharge, to no avail. They needed all the men they could get, as the war looked like it would be going on for quite awhile longer. The Union, despite fighting to a draw at Antietam, was still losing most of the battles and were fighting a war of attrition - they had more men than the South, and they would just have to keep fighting, keep watching the numbers of dead and wounded accumulate, until they still had men standing and the Rebs were completely decimated. But, they needed all the men they could get. No matter that Martin had lied about his age and joined at age 13, when 16 was the minimum required age. Once you're in, you're in. Desertion is punishable by death during time of war.
On one of Martin's 24 hour passes, he just decided to hell with it, boarded a train to Pittsburgh, on the other side of the long state of Pennsylvania, and spent several weeks back home among family and friends he longed to return to, permanently. However, he knew he had to go back, and he finally made his way back across state to the hospital in Philly, back to face the music. I can only imagine how fearful he must have been returning, knowing what fate could await him when he did. He turned himself in at the gate, handing the guard his 24 hour pass, now 30 days overdue. The guard misread the pass, thinking it had been issued for the day before, not the same date a month before. He just waved Martin through, but the young man, honest to a fault, told the guard to double-check the dates on the pass. The guard had no choice but to put him in the hospital's Brig, where Martin spent a long, lonely night, certain that he may never leave that hospital alive. However, a complete stranger, a union officer, came to visit him in his cell. He opened the cell door, and told Martin to return to his bed in the hospital. "Everything is settled. Don't mention this to anyone." He was never reported for being AWOL, would not have to face the firing squad or hanging for his transgression. Within a week, he was returned to his outfit, at their camp in Virginia, preparing to take the fight to the Rebs at Fredericksburg, for a second time. They would fight there, and then play a significant role at Gettysburg, helping to hold the far right flank of the Union line, out beyond Culp's Hill, in a bitter ten hour sustained fight on the second day of that battle. They'd then been dispatched to chase the Rebs back down into Virginia, which they did, and now they were encamped for the winter near Brandy Station.
The following diary entries pick up a week before Christmas, 1863. You'll appreciate Martin's reaction to the activities on the 18th - it must have been most chilling for him to witness, knowing it easily could have been him, but for the kindness of a complete stranger.
Th 17th (of Dec) Commenced raining at daylight. Rained all day.
Fr 18th Fine day. Our Division went out to witness the execution of 2 deserters of the 2nd and 5th Vermont. They were shot. It was a awful hard sight.
S 19th Weather cold. Got letters from G. Lentz with a ledger and one from Mother with Mary's photograph.
Su 20th Very cold. Wrote letters to Mother and G.W. Lentz.
M 21st Weather clear but cold.
T 22nd Weather clear but cold.
W 23rd Snowed last night. Stopped this morn. Very cold today.
T 24th Weather fine. Nothing of interest.
F 25th Weather clear but cold. I eat Christmas Dinner with Gust (older brother). I received 2 novelettes from G.W. Lentz. Pretty the Whole Camp is drunk.
Martin still had another 10 months left on his enlistment. To entice men to reenlist, they were giving them leave to return home for the holidays. Martin stuck it out, did not reenlist, and served out the rest of his 3 year enlistment with honor. He would save his brother Gust's life the following year, in the terrible Battles of the Wilderness, and would be the last one of his family serving, after Gust got discharged with his wound. At the beginning of the war, his stepfather and two brothers were the senior officers of the company that he joined by stowing away on a train, giving them no choice but to let him stay and join the Union army with them. He lived to be the last surviving 3 year enlistee of the Union Army when he finally died at age 92.
I'm certain that he never forgot, in all those years, the kindness of the stranger who, literally, saved his life.
These photos are original Civil War photographs that have been colorized.