John Held and Joseph Seitz: Soldiers of the 26th Wisconsin Infantry

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.

Corporal John Held, Co. D, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, 1862 portrait, image courtesy Terrence Held.
 

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.

Private Joseph Seitz, Co. K, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, postwar portrait, image courtesy Terrence Held.

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.

Recruitment poster in German for the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, image courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society.

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.

26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry 1862 national colors, image courtesy Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

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.

Corporal John Held’s military headstone, Marietta National Cemetery, Georgia, image courtesy Helen Gaskill.

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.

26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry 1864 state colors, image courtesy Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

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.”

Sources:

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.

Bartsch, August. “Letter to the family of Corporal John Held from Captain August Bartsch, Company D, 26th Wisconsin Infantry, October 10, 1864.” Held Family Tree. Ancestry.com. https://www.ancestry.com/mediaui-viewer/collection/1030/tree/65399329/person/48148725537/media/5623717e-1d36-4371-87f3-90d3402a5bf8?_phsrc=KrZ838&usePUBJs=true.

Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers who Served in Organizations from the State of Wisconsin. The National Archives.

Gettysburg Stone Sentinels, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment monument. https://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/union-monuments/wisconsin/26th-wisconsin/.

Germans in the Midwest. National Museum of American History – Smithsonian Institution. https://americanhistory.si.edu/many-voices-exhibition/peopling-expanding-nation-1776%E2%80%931900/pushed-and-pulled-european-immigration-0.

Held Family Tree. Ancestry.com. https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/65399329/family/familyview.

John Held (1839-1864). Findagrave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3950710/john-held.

Joseph Seitz (1836-1913). Findagrave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7112143/joseph-seitz.

Pula, James S. (1998). The Sigel Regiment: A History of the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865. Savas Publishing Co.

U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865. Ancestry.com.https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=1555&h=3701107&ssrc=pt&tid=65399329&pid=48148725537&usePUB=true.

U.S., Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, Wisconsin. Ancestry.com.https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=2123&h=377934&ssrc=pt&tid=65399329&pid=48148725537&usePUB=true.

Perspectives on Our Past: The Killed at Gettysburg Stories of Franz Benda and Augustus van Horne Ellis

By Ryan Bilger ’19

Once again, I have spent the semester working on the Civil War Institute’s Killed at Gettysburg project. This project continues to be one with which I feel a strong connection, as I have always taken an interest in the stories of Gettysburg’s fallen. As such, I am glad to have had the opportunity to work on it again.

As before, I have focused on two soldiers in my research this spring, one an enlisted soldier in the ranks and one a regimental commander. The latter, Colonel Augustus van Horne Ellis of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry, has a life-sized statue of him on the battlefield, while the former, Private Franz Benda, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, remains obscure. Both of them, though, lived fascinating lives, and each of their deaths reverberated far beyond the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania. Through text narratives and interactive story maps, I sincerely hope that both of their stories can be told to broader audiences who can thus gain a greater appreciation for these men who heroically gave their lives for the cause of the Union.

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Company H, 26th Wisconsin Infantry. These men would have been among Franz Benda’s comrades. Photo courtesy Oshkosh Public Museum.

Writing about these two soldiers has been extremely valuable for me in that it has encouraged me to think about different perspectives. For example, Franz Benda immigrated to the United States from his birthplace in Bohemia at a young age. He and his parents built a new life for themselves as farmers in Wisconsin, and the young man appeared well on his way to achieving a piece of the American dream. Everything changed in 1862 when he joined a regiment that made up part of the ethnically-diverse Eleventh Corps. The unit’s failures at Chancellorsville brought down heavy nativist criticism against Franz Benda and his comrades, making them feel as though they did not belong as fighters for the Union.

His story also ended in a heartbreaking fashion, as after his death at Gettysburg, his parents lost their farmland and died in poverty. While I knew the stories of the Eleventh Corps before this project, I had never taken the time to deeply consider what it must have been like for a young man like Franz Benda to experience that sort of pain and shame, much of which was undeserved. To consider his family’s tragic loss of both the human life of their son and the way of life they had made together. Benda’s story provides a powerful example of how soldiers could reach such psychological lows in the Civil War, and how the friends and relatives of those who died often lost so much more than their loved ones. As such, I feel proud to have developed a concise narrative of his life and legacy so that more people can learn about these themes as I did.

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A statue of Colonel Augustus van Horne Ellis atop his regiment’s monument gazes out over the field where he gave his life for the Union. Photo by the author.

The story of Augustus van Horne Ellis has raised other valuable questions in the course of my research. For example, what qualities of a man and a leader could inspire those he commanded to include a statue of him atop their monument decades after his death? Ellis’s story is one of leadership and loss delicately intertwined. He clearly had the sort of strong personality to win over the hearts and minds of his fellow soldiers, as they elected him captain in his first term of duty. Ellis led his men well at First Bull Run but also had to grapple with the heartbreaking loss of his brother at that battle. He became known as a strong disciplinarian and a good recruiter, leading to his becoming colonel of the 124th New York, a regiment he played an instrumental role in raising and with which he forged a strong bond. Ellis died near Devil’s Den leading his men in a valiant but ultimately brutal charge, sealing his place in their memories as a brave commander to the last. Yet, his young wife of just four years had to deal with the loss of her husband in a profoundly emotional way that changed the course of her life. These twin narratives intersected throughout the short life of Augustus van Horne Ellis in different ways, raising issues of what it meant to lead men in the Civil War and what it meant to lose loved ones as well. Just as Franz Benda’s story creates certain important questions in the mind of the reader, Ellis’s does too, and I am happy to be able to bring the New Yorker’s story to the public.

The stories of the past continue to hold relevant connections to the lives of the present, and the Killed at Gettysburg project this semester has been valuable to me in this way. Considering the perspectives of others, whether that of a young, poor immigrant private or of a colonel born and bred in the nation’s largest city, remains extremely important today, in addition to the specific details of their lives and legacies. Working on the Killed at Gettysburg project has once again been highly enjoyable for me, and I hope that through it more people can ponder the lessons of the past and how we can apply them to our presents and our futures.


Sources

Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.

McAfee, Michael. “The Sons of Friends and Neighbors: Orange County’s 56th and 124th Regiments of New York Volunteer Infantry.” The Hudson River Valley Review 22, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 1-9. http://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/review/pdfs/hrvr_22pt1_mcaffee.pdf.

Military, Compiled Service Records. Civil War. Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations. Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1890–1912. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Pula, James S. The Sigel Regiment: A History of the Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865. Campbell, CA: Savas, 1998.

Weygant, Charles H. History of the One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth Regiment N.Y.S.V. New York: Journal Printing House, 1877.