By: Jaeger Held ’23
In the early afternoon of July 1, 1863, several hundred soldiers of the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry advanced through the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On that summer day, the German–American regiment would suffer heavier losses than on any other day during the American Civil War. Among its members were John Held, a private in Company D, and Joseph Seitz, a private in Company K, the author’s 4th great-uncles.
John Held was born in Prussia in 1839. He and his elder brother Joseph immigrated to the United States and settled in Racine, Wisconsin, by the 1850s. When the American Civil War began he was living in Racine and his occupation was listed as a cooper. On August 19, 1862, during the second year of the war, he enlisted in the Union army for three years’ service around the age of twenty-three. He was described at enlistment as having gray eyes, light hair, a light complexion, standing five feet, five inches in height, and having a slender build.
Joseph Seitz was born on March 2, 1836, in Heiligenzell, located in present-day Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He and several members of his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Wisconsin by the 1850s. Joseph’s younger sister Marianna Seitz met and married Joseph Held of Racine, Wisconsin, the brother of John Held. When the American Civil War began he was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and his occupation was listed as a painter. Milwaukee, along with Cincinnati, Ohio and St. Louis, Missouri, formed what came to be called the “German Triangle” of settlement in the midwestern United States in the mid-19th century. On August 21, 1862, Joseph enlisted in the Union Army for three years’ service at the age of twenty-six. He was described at enlistment as having brown eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion, standing five feet, four and one-half inches in height, and having a medium build. Joseph and John were both mustered in on September 17, 1862, and each was paid a bounty of $25.
The 26th ‘Sigel Regiment,’ also known as the ‘Second German Regiment’ of Wisconsin, named in honor of German-born major general Franz Sigel, was composed almost entirely of men of German birth or German parentage. On the day their regiment was organized in Milwaukee, the bloodiest single-day battle of the war was fought along Antietam Creek in western Maryland. John Held and Joseph Seitz were both listed as being present with their regiment during the fall of 1862. After a brief period of training at Camp Sigel in Milwaukee, the 26th Wisconsin was transported by rail to Washington, D.C., in early October 1862 where it was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, of General Sigel’s largely German 11th Corps, recently attached to the Army of the Potomac, then stationed around Fairfax, Virginia. The 11th Corps was held in reserve during the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December, and John and Joseph were both listed as present that winter as their regiment participated in the infamous Mud March in January. The near brothers-in-law were both listed as present throughout the spring of 1863 as the Army of the Potomac again prepared to fight the Army of Northern Virginia.
In early 1863, Sigel resigned as commander of the 11th Corps, and corps command was given to Major General Oliver O. Howard. The 11th Corps’ 3rd Division, to which the regiment belonged, was commanded by Major General Carl Schurz, a German revolutionary, and the 2nd Brigade was led by Polish-born Colonel Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski. In late April and early May 1863, John, Joseph, and the 26th Wisconsin participated in the Chancellorsville Campaign in Virginia. During the evening of May 2, 1863, as the regiment rested at the edge of a forest known as the Wilderness, Confederate soldiers led by General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson attacked. Jackson’s 28,000 men struck the exposed end of the 11th Corps, the right flank of the Union line. The 26th Wisconsin formed into line of battle and delivered several volleys into the advancing Confederates. After a twenty-minute struggle, the Badger state Germans were forced to retreat. In its first battle, out of 471 engaged, the 26th Wisconsin suffered 204 casualties in killed, wounded, and missing, including their colonel, the fifth-highest losses of any northern regiment on the field. After the Union withdrawal back across the Rappahannock River, John and Joseph were with their regiment as the Army of the Potomac pursued the Confederates northward into Pennsylvania.
On the morning of July 1, 1863, the 26th Wisconsin and the rest of the 11th Corps were encamped around Emmitsburg, Maryland when they received word that Confederate infantry were advancing in force near the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Wisconsin Germans set out on a forced march north towards Gettysburg. After a fatiguing thirteen-mile journey, the regiment arrived in the borough by early afternoon and rested in a peach orchard at the northern edge of town. Krzyżanowski’s brigade eventually received orders to advance across the plains of Gettysburg to reinforce Brigadier General Francis Barlow’s exposed 1st Division of the 11th Corps, positioned on a knoll owned by farmer John Blocher. As the 26th Wisconsin advanced on the right of the brigade, the regiment engaged Georgians of George Doles’ and John B. Gordon’s brigades. The regiment exchanged volleys with the Confederates but was eventually flanked and forced to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. In the savage fighting north of town, the regiment suffered severely, losing their state colors, both remaining field officers, and 210 casualties in killed, wounded, and missing out of 458 men present at Gettysburg. The regiment was positioned on Cemetery Hill during the second and third days of the battle and not engaged. For his actions in the battle, John Held was promoted to the rank of Corporal, dated July 1, 1863.
Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the Sigel Regiment and the remainder of the Army of the Potomac pursued the Army of Northern Virginia back into Virginia. In September 1863, two divisions of the 11th Corps, including the 26th Wisconsin—so reduced in number the regiment was now led by a company officer, Captain Frederick C. Winkler—were transferred by rail to northern Alabama to relieve the Army of the Cumberland then under siege in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Second German regiment was present at the Tennessee battles of Wauhatchie, during the night of October 28-29, 1863, and Missionary Ridge, on November 25, 1863. During a reorganization of the Union armies in the spring of 1864, four divisions of the 11th and 12th Corps were combined to form the new 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. The Sigel Regiment, led by Major Winkler, was assigned to the 20th Corps’ 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division. As part of this command, the 26th Wisconsin participated in the Atlanta Campaign in north Georgia, fighting in many battles including Rocky Face Ridge, Buzzard’s Roost Gap, Resaca, Cassville, Burnt Hickory, Dallas, and New Hope Church in May 1864 and Pine Mountain, Golgotha Church, Lost Mountain, Muddy Creek, Noyes’ Creek, Kolb’s Farm, and Kennesaw Mountain in June. By mid-July, the Union army had advanced to within a few miles of Atlanta. On July 20, 1864, Confederate forces launched a massive frontal assault against Union lines positioned along the southern bank of Peachtree Creek. The Confederates were repulsed, though at a heavy cost. The 26th Wisconsin, led by Lieutenant Colonel Winkler, lost thirteen soldiers killed or mortally wounded in the action and captured the colors of the 33rd Mississippi Infantry. Numbered among the slain was Corporal John Held, who fell, according to his company commander, “in the line of his duty as a soldier by a Rifle Ball fired by the enemy of the U.S. in consequence of which he was killed instantly.” After a six-week siege, Atlanta fell to Union forces on September 2, 1864.
In the fall of 1864, Joseph Seitz was reassigned from the Sigel Regiment and served on detached service in Chattanooga, Tennessee until he rejoined the regiment at war’s end in the spring of 1865. Three of Joseph’s brothers, Fidel, Ferdinand, and Charles, also served in the Union Army. Fidel Seitz enlisted in 1861 and served in Company B, 1st Nebraska Infantry, fighting at the Battles of Fort Donelson, Tennessee on February 15, 1862, and Shiloh, Tennessee on April 7, 1862. He deserted on February 22, 1863, near Arcadia, Missouri. Ferdinand and Charles were drafted in 1864. Charles Seitz served in Company F, 39th Wisconsin Infantry, a unit of ‘Hundred Days Men’ assigned to garrison duty in Memphis, Tennessee, where his regiment defended the city from an attack by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in the Second Battle of Memphis on August 21, 1864. Ferdinand Seitz was drafted into Company B, 18th Wisconsin Infantry, attached to the 93rd Illinois Infantry, and participated in the Savannah Campaign in November and December 1864 and the Carolinas Campaign in early 1865, fighting at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 20-21, 1865. Joseph Seitz mustered out with the remainder of the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry near Washington, D.C., on June 13, 1865. John Held was initially buried on the Peachtree Creek battlefield, before being reinterred in the Marietta National Cemetery in Marietta, Cobb County, Georgia in the fall of 1866. Joseph Seitz returned to Wisconsin and died on April 14, 1913, in Racine, and he is buried in the Holy Family Catholic Cemetery in Caledonia, Racine County, Wisconsin.
During three years of service, the 26th Wisconsin Infantry lost 191 men, including Corporal John Held, killed and mortally wounded, the fourth-highest percentage of any Union regiment. Colonel James Wood, commanding the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 20th Corps, in his official report, said this of the conduct of the 26th Wisconsin in the Battle of Peachtree Creek: “Where all behaved well, it may be regarded as invidious to call attention to individuals, yet it seems to me I cannot discharge my duty in this report without pointing out for especial commendation the conduct of the Twenty-sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry and its brave and able commander. The position of this regiment in the line was such that the brunt of the enemy’s attack fell upon it. The brave, skillful and determined manner in which it met this attack, rolled back the onset, pressed forward in a counter charge and drove back the enemy, could not be excelled by the troops in this or any other army, and is worthy of the highest commendation and praise.”
1st Regiment, Nebraska Infantry. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-battle-units-detail.htm?battleUnitCode=UNE0001RC.
18th Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-battle-units-detail.htm?battleUnitCode=UWI0018RI.
26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. https://www.facebook.com/26thWisconsin/.
26th Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry. National Park Service.https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-battle-units-detail.htm?battleUnitCode=UWI0026RI.
39th Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-battle-units-detail.htm?battleUnitCode=UWI0039RI.
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