Saving Private Grundtisch

Medic’s friend John Neely,a Civil War buff and Vietnam vet,relates the tale of Jacob Grundtish.

While with a group touring Gettysburg,I mentioned that a relative had been wounded during the battle.  When asked questions about him,I realized that I knew next to nothing: his surname,his country of birth the year his family immigrated and the year he died.  “Why,” asked a companion, “don’t you try to find out more about him?”

My on-line search yielded some new facts,plus opportunities to infer what his war was like.  I found his obituary first. Here are excerpts:

JACOB GRUNDTISCH

Died Sunday [December 29, 1929]

“Mr. Grundtisch was born near Berlin, Germany,September 13, 1838 and was the last [surviving] of a family of eleven children. He came to this country with his parents and had spent almost his entire life in Wyandot county. He was married on September 25,1867,to Eva Burkhardt,who preceded her husband in death thirty eight years ago. Twelve children were born to this union,nine of whom survive.

“Mr. Grundtisch was a veteran of the civil war,one of the few remaining in Wyandot county. He enlisted in Co. K, 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, August 15,1862, for three years service. His regiment was in the second battle of Bull Run August 30,1862,and the battle of Chancellorsville May 2, 1863. In the battle of Gettysburg,which began July 1, 1863,and continued until July 3,1863,Mr. Grundtisch was wounded during the final day’s fighting. He was transferred to the 125th company,2d Battalion,Veterans Reserve corps,December 18,1863. For a number of years he was a member of the local G.A.R. post.”

By July 1,1862, the Civil War had progressed fairly well in the west and in areas accessible by sea.  However,the Peninsular Campaign aimed at Richmond had failed dramatically as the new Confederate commander,Lee,pushed back a numerically superior Federal force in the Seven Days battles.

That day Lincoln asked governors to raise 300000 new volunteers, “chiefly of infantry.”  Each state was given a quota.

Wyandot County with 16,000 residents in 1860 was predominantly rural.  One can imagine patriotic recruiting rallies in the county seat of Upper Sandusky (population 1,600).  In 2000 Wyandot County was 46% German.

The states met their quotas.  Many who volunteered in late summer of 1862 were formed into new regiments, trained together and fought together.  Others enabled the Army to provide badly-needed replacements for depleted veteran units.  Jacob was sent to the pre-existing 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a replacement.

The 55th OVI was first deployed in western (soon to be West) Virginia in January 1862.  It experienced no significant combat until,as part of Schenk’s Brigade, it crossed into Virginia proper.  In May through August it fought at McDowell,Cross Keys, Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas.  Each battle involved larger forces and was bloodier than the last. The first three were against Stonewall Jackson;the last against Lee. All were tactical and/or strategic defeats for the Union force but in all cases the Northerners fought well and retired in more of less good order.

FRANZ SIGELBy the time of Second Manassas the 55th OVI was part of Franz Sigel’s I Corps of Pope’s Army of Virginia.  After the battle,the corps moved into the Washington defenses and was re-designated as the XI Corps.  It consisted of three divisions and six brigades;each brigade included four or five infantry regiments.  A regiment like the 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry had a nominal strength of more than 600 but fielded fewer troops in actual battles. Half of the roughly 27 regiments in XI Corps were purely German.  The remainder,including the 55th,represented the population mix of the areas from which they were drawn.

Jacob’s trail went cold for me until I discovered that the Army knew him as Jacob Gruntich.  Had he been assigned to an all-German unit,they probably would have spelled his name correctly.

Jacob an untested soldier of German birth,was assigned to the veteran,mostly non-German, 55th OVI.  The veterans he joined knew they could stand and fight well but must have been demoralized by the string of Northern defeats. Jacob would have plenty of time to become accustomed to the life of the infantry before major combat.

The 55th did not participate in the Battle of Antietam in September, about when Jacob would have joined them.  They moved from Washington to General Burnside’s Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia before the Battle of Fredericksburg in December but were not committed to that battle.  They did participate in the infamous Mud March in January 1863. During his first eight or so months of service,Jacob would have been involved in training, guard duty,occasional skirmish lines, reconnaissance patrols and minor raids.  But mostly he went through an unpleasant winter in camp in northern Virginia,where by far the greatest risk was death by disease.

This would change when the muddy roads firmed up and the spring assault by the Army of the Potomac began in early May — at Chancellorsville. By virtue of its relative inaction (and limited casualties),the 55th probably fielded about 500 men.  The XI Corps constituted the far right General Hooker’s south-facing line.  The Second Brigade of the First Division,including the 55th, was second in line from the right flank. Their division commander,General Devens,and corps commander,General Howard,refused to believe evidence that the Confederates were preparing to attack the corps’s position from the west and refused to allow repositioning to meet such an attack.

McLaws  Map fo ChancellorsvilleWhat followed was the most famous successful infantry assault of the entire war.  Once Stonewall Jackson’s entire corps (more than twice the size of a Union corps) struck the Army of the Potomac’s right flank,the 55th had only minutes to shift from facing south to facing west — not easy to accomplish while maintaining the cohesion of its ten companies.  To its front and west,perhaps one hundred yards ahead,its flanking sister regiment would have formed the same sort of line. One moment that line was there in fairly good order but the next it was gone,swallowed by tens of thousands of running, screaming Rebels,the 55th had one or two minutes to stand and fight. A regimental history states that they got off two or three volleys.  In shooting they had to take into account the large body of fleeing Union soldiers,first between them and the Rebel front line and then crashing through their own line in panic. At the same time, they knew that the attacking line was much longer than theirs and outflanked them on both sides.  After firing its volleys the 55th broke and ran.

It is reported that their regimental commander,Colonel Lee,was instrumental in organizing resistance to slow the attack.  That implies that some unit coherence was maintained during the retreat, a difficult achievement.  A list of K Company soldiers includes a fair number captured at Chancellorsville as well as some wounded or killed. Private Gruntich was not a casualty. Of course,without specific evidence,we do not know for sure that Jacob was at Chancellorsville. He very probably was.

The battle continued for three more days,with the XI Corps moved to a largely uncontested position on the opposite flank.

Rightly or wrongly,the collapse of the XI Corps at Chancellorsville was blamed first and foremost upon poor performance by its all-German regiments.  We can speculate that soldiers in the 55th felt they had been let down in combat and that they were subjected to unfair guilt by association.  What did this mean for German-American soldiers in the 55th?  Were they blamed or distrusted by the soldiers with whom they shared tents and trenches?

And Jacob? Before he enlisted at the age of 23 he likely lived only with his parents and his many,mostly-younger siblings. His English was probably limited when he joined the 55th. By the time of Chancellorsville,was he fully conversant in English and fully integrated with his fellow soldiers?  Or was there a process of self-segregation within the regiment resulting in his continued reliance principally upon German?

Adolph von SteinwehrWhen the XI Corps arrived at Gettysburg two months later,it had the poorest reputation among the seven Union corps that participated. The 55th changed brigades and divisions.  At Gettysburg, it was in Smith’s Second Brigade of von Steinwehr’s Second Division. It arrived with 365 personnel,including Private Jacob Gruntich.

The XI Corps was the second to arrive at the battlefield,in the early afternoon of the first day.  The I Corps was fully engaged,outnumbered,and conducting a good fighting retreat to the west and northwest.  Howard sent his First and Third Divisions through the town and into the fields to the north,where Ewell’s II Confederate Corps was approaching.  Howard left his Second Division behind as the corps reserve and for good measure had them fortify Cemetery Hill,south of town: a very good artillery platform and and strong defensive position.

Howard’s two forward divisions arrived piecemeal because the narrow streets slowed and disorganized his marching columns.  Ewell’s Corps arrived more quickly,in ordered line of battle and in far greater numbers. For these reasons and because there were no natural defenses,Howard’s First and Third Divisions were at a disadvantage.  As at Chancellorsville,some all-German units failed to stand and fight as well and as long as expected.  The XI Corps’s performance was generally disastrous.

The routed soldiers struggled through the town and toward Cemetery Hill. In the meantime battered I Corps units that had been pushed off the last ridge line to the west streamed into the town toward the same objective.

This was the situation when Howard sent half his reserve,Coster’s First Brigade of von Steinwehr’s Second Division, north through the town and into battle.  This brigade of fewer than 1,000 was outnumbered and outclassed and had no chance.  In effect Howard sacrificed 61% of the brigade in order to slow the rebel advance by 30 minutes. It is possible that this action enabled thousands of I and XI Corps refugees to evade capture and make it through the town and into the strong defensive position Howard had chosen. Even being slowed down,Ewell’s Confederates captured many Union troops in the town.

Smith’s Second Brigade,in which Jacob served, was the only one of Howard’s six that remained in reserve — that had not been committed to battle and severely handled.  Smith deployed three of his regiments,including the 55th,to the west,at the base of Cemetery Hill and the fourth to the east.  These served as the flanks of his west,north and east-facing salient. Units battered by the recent fighting filled in between the flanks or were placed in reserve higher up the hill. The 55th and the other fresh regiments were stretched very thin and could not have repulsed a serious attack without artillery support and infantry reinforcements.

The 55th was centered exactly at the intersection of Taneytown Road and Emmittsburg Road and the troops were deployed along the two roads.  We can assume that they dug trenches and used anything they could find to make unimpressive but still potentially effective breastworks.  Dirt shoveled from trenches,fences,wood piles and corncribs likely provided some of the raw materials for their defenses.  It is even possible that a tombstone or two,uprooted by the artillery’s maneuvering,made their way to the 55th’s breastworks.

The 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment spent the remainder of July 1 and all of July 2 and 3 in this one location. During the first afternoon and evening some companies may have been sent the short distance to the southern edge of the town to help protect I and XI Corps refugees from pursuing Confederates. Once the first day’s fighting was over and the Confederates had occupied the entire town, there was certainly sniping back and forth,with the 55th, the northernmost regiment on the west side of Cemetery Hill,in prime position to give and receive long-range sniper fire. For three days everyone tried to stay low.

The artillery park on Cemetery Hill was the key to the entire Federal defensive position.  There were three consequences for Jacob. First, there would be sporadic cannon fire in and out at all hours. Enemy artillery rounds from any direction could have missed by just a bit and landed right on the 55th.  And who knew when a crazed, wounded horse might drag a burning caisson,ready to explode,into the middle of the infantry.  Second, there was the knowledge that a Confederate infantry assault could come at any time. Finally was the possibility that the regiment could be pulled from its defenses to support a sister unit under attack or to participate in an attack or counterattack.

The 55th, facing both southwest and northwest,had a broad expense of fields,lanes,fences,occasional buildings,plus slight ridges and and vales to its front.  Skirmishers were deployed nearly halfway to the Confederate positions on Seminary Ridge and in the town.  Their jobs were to get a closer look at the opposing positions,to detect troop movements,to take prisoners and to prevent enemy skirmishers from doing the same.  On July 2,an unusually heavy battle among skirmishers broke out. By the time it was done the 55th had lost 12 soldiers captured and Private Charles Stacey of Company D had fought in such a remarkable manner that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor — the only such award for the 55th in the entire war.

At dark on July 2 Jubal Early’s Confederate division assaulted Cemetery Hill from the northeast. Several battered XIGen. Jubal Early was a proponent of the Lost Cause movement, a regional American literary movement seeking to reconcile the traditionalist white society of the antebellum South that they admire, to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War. It forms an important minority viewpoint among the ways to commemorate the war. Corps regiments were in an analogous position to that of the 55th: in Brickyard Lane at the eastern base of Cemetery Hill.  The attackers broke through in at least two places and the battle proceeded in chaos,with the second, upper line of defense holding but with some units in the lane surrounded for a period.  At least two regiments that backed up the 55th were pulled out and sent across the hill to help repel the assault.

While this was going on and in the dark,Rodes’s Division of Ewell’s Corps filed out of town to the southwest. The force,20 times the size of the 55th, stood half a mile away ready to attack Cemetery Hill from the northwest. Jacob and his fellows must have had a good idea of what faced them.  Then General Rodes,who had found that it took far longer than expected to move through the town and then form a line of battle and who saw that Early’s attack on the other side was petering out, called off the attack.  The 55th was spared what could have been the most overwhelming attack of the entire battle.

When not on sentry duty later that night,Jacob probably slept lightly.  The comparatively quiet morning of the third day,with the two armies holding their places, except at Culp’s Hill, must have filled all involved with unease or excitement or both.

In the afternoon came the heaviest and most concentrated artillery bombardment of the entire war with 250 Confederate pieces aiming first at the center of the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge and second at the concentration of Union guns on Cemetery Hill.  After the cannonade,the Confederate infantry units of Pickett,Pettigrew and Trimble began their doomed assault.  Brockenbrough’s Brigade’s line of march would have brought it within 300 yards of the southern end of the 55th’s position.  After Brockenbrough’s unit abandoned the assault,the 11th Mississippi Regiment became the Confederate left flank and came within 500 yards of the 55th.

One map of the assault shows an XI Corps skirmish line within 200 yards of the northern flank of the attack. It must be that at least some skirmishers joined in firing into the flank of the Rebel assault.

The 55th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was one of a few regiments that went through all three days of the Battle of Gettysburg without being directly engaged in any of the brutal infantry-on-infantry assaults that characterized the battle. Yet,in spite of being on the fringe,it lost 10% of its 365 men killed or wounded plus another 3% captured.

I do not know how Jacob Gruntich was wounded or how or where he was treated.  His hospitalization and convalescence required five and a half months. He may have had a home leave. It appears that he was not fit enough to return to the infantry but not sufficiently disabled to be discharged.

On December 18, 1863 the 125th Company,2nd Battalion, Veteran Reserve Corps was created including Jacob and probably other soldiers who had recovered from wounds or disease.  Veteran Reserve Corps units performed less rigorous and dangerous duties than the infantrymen in the 55th OVI.  Jacob’s company and three others later merged as soldiers completed their two or three years of service.  The resulting company was mustered out in November 1865.  It is likely that Jacob was discharged at the end of his three years of service the previous August.

The only reference I can find is that the 125th Company was at some time assigned to Camp Nelson,Kentucky. When Nelson served as a supply depot,General Grant recommended closing the camp because of its location.  General Sherman decided to keep it open as a training center for colored troops.  It could have been but was not in the path of one of the few Confederate forays or raids into Kentucky. There is now a national cemetery on the site.

Jacob’s war experience was representative of that of many of his fellows: months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror and a service-ending wound in his second major battle — a wound most likely from a stray bullet or a shell aimed at nearby artillery.  Far less typical was the soldier who moved from battle to battle to battle the way an historical account  does.

Was Jacob a hero? Most infantryman go through an entire war without ever being in position to perform with a sortVeterans of both sides gather under their respective colors in July 1913 during the Great Reunion, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Photo Credit: Library of Congress of heroism that sets them apart. Many who act heroically don’t survive;in the Civil War the US appears not to have given posthumous medals for heroic acts.  Finally, in some cases, there were no soldiers who were in a position to observe and pay attention to what a fellow soldier did,who themselves survived and and who could serve as witnesses after the fact.  Jacob’s story deserves telling and he and his family deserve a sense of pride.

Jacob Grundtisch was the uncle or great uncle of my grandmother,Harriett “Hattie” Grundish. My mother was 20 when he died.  I am sure that she knew of him but I do not know whether they ever met.

This story is built from a single page of family history plus information available on line.  The next step should be to put it into the hands of Jacob’s direct descendants.  They may have documents and oral history that can flesh out details and correct errors in this narrative.

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The author,John Neely, is a great,great,(great?) nephew of Jacob Grundtisch. He served as a combat infantryman in Vietnam with Tiger Force (101st Airborne where he was wounded 105 years to the month after Jacob.  His experiences contribute to his speculation about what Jacob did and saw. To his knowledge Jacob is his only ancestor to serve in combat.