Meet Henry Keiser – A Soldier Who Kept A Diary For Nearly Every Day of the Civil War

When the “war horse” danced through the streets of Lykens, Pennsylvania in the fall of 1861, men and boys from all walks of life lined up to join the Union cause.1 Miners, laborers, merchants, and schoolboys all came together to be mustered into Federal service by their company captain, James N. Douden. An infantry regiment, the 96th Pennsylvania, was organizing in the anthracite capital of Pottsville, in neighboring Schuylkill County. The men who gathered at the Union Hotel on the “Square” at Lykens to sign up were destined to become Company G, a stalwart company in one of the Civil War’s crack fighting units.

Among them were two friends, 21-year old Henry Keiser and his young 19-year old colleague John C. Gratz. Both had just been mustered into the service as corporals as they prepared to leave for Pottsville. Bound to the same Lykens newspaperman before the war, Samuel Coles, the two had become confidants during their time as printing apprentices in the office of the local newspaper.2 Keiser and Gratz, along with the rest of the company, took the day-long wagon and train journey to Pottsville to meet up with the rest of the regiment. Corporal Keiser entered the day’s happenings in his diary:

Day 2.  Wednesday, September 25, 1861.  At seven this morning we left Lykens for Pottsville in two teams.  We drank at every hotel on our route in “Uncle Sam’s” credit, and all got pretty jolly.  I sprained my ankle jumping over a fence while going through Williams Valley.  We passed through Tremont and arrived at Pottsville at 4 o’clock this afternoon.  Each of us drawed (sic) a blanket from the Regimental Quarter-Master Sergeant Jonathan A. Schweers.3 

Keiser’s second entry in his wartime journal proved to be one of amusement and fun. He probably had little inkling, as few possibly could have, that the war ripping apart the country would drag on for four long years. His daily diary entries about life in the Union army have become an invaluable resource for those researching the war and the citizen-soldiers who fought and died in it, including Keiser’s friend John Gratz.

A recently revealed photograph of Henry Keiser and Sallie Workman from 1864.

Henry George Keiser was born in northern Dauphin County in October 1840. His mother, Elizabeth Hoffman, descended from one of the oldest families in this region of Pennsylvania. Daniel Keiser, Henry’s father, situated himself in this rapidly developing region to start a number of businesses.

Henry, the eldest of eight children, grew up bouncing between Dauphin and Centre counties, as his father moved the family around to accommodate his ownership in multiple tanneries. Ultimately in 1850, Daniel moved his family back into the northern Dauphin community of Wiconisco. Here the mines of the Short Mountain and Lykens Valley coal companies were quickly becoming a prosperous business. Blasting powder, a necessity in an industry such as anthracite coal mining, became the elder Keiser’s specialty, ensuring economic stability for his young family. A hotel which the Keiser family also operated in Wiconisco Township helped to boost the family’s finances as well as their social standing. Keiser spent his primary and teenage years as a student in the public schools of Wiconisco Township, while simultaneously laboring for his father when school was not in session.

In 1857, just as the Northern economy began suffering from an economic downturn, Henry began an apprenticeship in the office of the Farmer’s and Miners’ Journal, the sole newspaper publication in the Upper End. For three years service, housing, and $40, Keiser was bound to the printing business, first under Daniel Hoffman but later under Samuel B. Coles.4

When Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 brought about a sectional crisis between North and South resulting in secession, the militia system in Pennsylvania came to life. Integral to American military affairs since the Revolution, civilian militias scattered across the country made up the backbone of the country’s armed forces. As the crisis grew in the fall of 1860, Keiser and others in Wiconisco joined up with the Washington Rifle Company. The local militia, led by Captain James Douden, drilled every weekend on the newly created training ground on the eastern outskirts of Lykens. When the secession crisis came to blows in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, the Washington Rifles were drafted into the service of the 10th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment as Company F. Keiser and 60 others served in the unit for 90 days, seeing little action.5

Following the disastrous summer of 1861, the recruiters again came to Lykens. That is when Douden’s new company, the men who would join up with the 96th Pennsylvania in Pottsville, began to take shape.

Henry Keiser, the newly minted printer, took to the pen during these early days of the war and kept his journal faithfully for the next four years. From September 1861 until July 1865, Keiser kept an almost daily tabulation of his and his regiment’s movements. His diary, recopied by hand in 1912, has landed in numerous manuscript depositories, historical societies, and private collections throughout Pennsylvania. It lends a Keiser’s voice to hundreds of books published about the Civil War, revealing the personal feelings of a young man from Dauphin County. He could not have realized in 1861 that his daily writings from the war years would ring down through the ages to color our understanding of the Civil War.

The 96th Pennsylvania in 1862. (National Archives)

Henry Keiser died on March 15, 1933 and is buried in a cemetery above his hometown of Lykens.

A local newspaper, in describing Keiser’s elaborate military funeral, perfectly summarized Keiser’ importance to his community and to the study of the Civil War:

The last member of an illustrious generation has gone. His life was a perfect example of industry and idealism, and he will be remembered by both young and old, as this most befitting tribute to his memory genuinely confirms. 

Featured Image: Henry Keiser in his later years (Gratz Civil War)

1. Miller, Charles H. Lykens, Twenty Years Ago. (Lykens, PA: Register Press, 1876.) 

2. Keiser obituary,
3. Henry Keiser Diary, September 25, 1861. 
4. Egle, William Henry. Commemorative Biographical Encylcopedia of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. (Harrisburg: J.M. Runk and Co., 1896.) 1176. 
5. Oramel Barrett. “Lykens Items,” Daily Patriot & Union (Harrisburg), December 1, 1860;  Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers: 1861-65; Volume I. (Harrisburg: State Printer, 1870.) 96-98. 

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