For years I’ve written about a young soldier from Wiconisco, Pennsylvania named Henry Keiser. I perused, then analyzed his lengthy Civil War diary. In it, Keiser recorded daily happenings in the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania regiments. His words painted a picture of his experiences at war: the horrors of the battlefield, the boredom of camp, the terrors of disease.
After countless hours spent working with the diary, I felt as though I had a connection with this young man from Upper Dauphin County. He was a journalist before the war, apprenticing in the newspaper office of Samuel B. Coles. He joined the Union Army with his friend and coworker John C. Gratz and about 30 other local boys. He recorded the daily exchange of letters with his family and friends and a girlfriend named Sallie.
From the diary and the subsequent newspaper accounts of his later life, I always took Keiser to be a confident, almost cocky, young man. He got into fights with his superior officers while at war, on one occasion he had his head bashed in by a captain’s saber.
I felt his loss when he recorded the death of his friend from typhoid fever in January 1862.
Sunday, January 26, 1862. Corp. John Gratz died at twenty minutes of two this morning. Wrote a letter to S. B. Coles telling him of John’s death.
That loss was to be repeated countless times throughout the war, and even included a brother lost to disease in a Union Army cavalry regiment detailed in Kentucky.
Despite my intimacy with numerous aspects of Keiser’s life during and after the American Civil War, I was missing one incredibly important aspect. I had no photograph from the time period showing the Wiconisco native. The only photographs known to me were taken when Keiser was an old man, a well-respected resident of Lykens in the 1920s and 1930s.
That changed in February 2017. Suddenly, through a Facebook message, I saw myself staring into the eyes of a 23-year-old Corporal Henry Keiser and his new bride Sarah “Sallie” Workman.
A descendant of Keiser shared the photograph with Norm Gasbarro, who operates the Gratz Civil War blog and who I’ve collaborated with for the past five years. You can visit his wonderful site HERE.
The photograph was apparently taken on the occasion of the couple’s wedding on March 9, 1864 at the home of Israel Ream in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The pair were wed while Keiser was home from the Union Army on a 30-day furlough along with several other Wiconisco Township men in the 96th Pennsylvania. Keiser’s diary from the time describes the period in the corporal’s words.
Monday, March 7, 1864. After spending a little more than a week with my relatives and friends and of course enjoying myself very much (as the citizens could not do enough to show their kind feelings toward us) I started for Harrisburg this morning with the intention of bringing Miss Sallie home expecting to get married and have a fine time but…
Wednesday, March 9, 1864. Miss Sallie did not like the idea of making a big show. So at 12:30 p.m. Miss Sallie and I were quietly married at the residence of Mr. Israel Ream, Market St., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, by the Rev. Gause. Mr. Levi Ream as grooms man and Miss Grace Williams as Bridesmaid… After having partaken of a royal dinner we took the 2 o’clock train for Lykens, arriving there at five this evening.
[No entries between March 10 – March 25]
Saturday, March 26, 1864. Have spent a very pleasant day, visiting friends in the country and around town. Today our thirty days are up, altogether too short a time. We will not report in Harrisburg until Monday.
Corporal Henry Keiser returned to the encampment of the 96th Pennsylvania in early April. In the months that followed his marriage, Keiser experienced the bloodiest moments of the Civil War up close. He and the Wiconisco men of Company G, 96th Pennsylvania fought in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania’s Mule Shoe, and in the trenches at Cold Harbor. Many never returned to their Upper Dauphin County homes.
In the summer, Keiser’s regiment was transferred to the Shenandoah Valley theater. In September 1864, the depleted 96th Pennsylvania was subsumed by the neighboring 95th Pennsylvania. Keiser fought the rest of the Civil War with this unit.
Sergeant Henry Keiser returned to Wiconisco in July 1865 as a survivor of America’s bloodiest conflict. He lived to become Williams Valley’s oldest Civil War veteran. He died in 1932 at the age of 92.
You can read more about Keiser and the Civil War experiences of the 96th Pennsylvania HERE.
Featured Image: Henry Keiser and Sallie Workman Keiser on their wedding day in 1864. (Norm Gasbarro)