Emerging from their hastily dug trenches, the veterans of the 96th Pennsylvania trudged forward over a muddy, shell-pocked landscape. They were soaked to the skin, a long night of heavy rain drenching them and all of their equipment. Exhaustion from more than a week of nearly constant contact with the enemy had left the 300 men of the regiment in less than pristine condition.
Occupying the front line three miles north of the Virginia hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House, this landscape was the site of a multi-day battle of horrific proportions. As the tired men of the 96th PA moved forward, they were crossing a stretch of battlefield where they had fought three days earlier, on May 10, 1864.
“At one o’clock today we left the woods and halted where we had made the charge and gathered some of our dead, who were swollen and bloated so that they could scarcely be recognized,” wrote Corporal Henry Keiser in his diary on May 13, 1864. Among the dead were two young brothers from Keiser’s hometown of Wiconisco, Pennsylvania – Josiah and Frank Workman. Their journey to a shallow grave near the Confederate earthworks at Spotsylvania Court House is remarkable.
In the growing village of Wiconisco, Pennsylvania, Jacob and Mary Workman were not alone in their poverty. Jacob was employed in the coal mines that skirted the northern edge of town while his wife kept house and gave birth to a string of children. Josiah was the couple’s third child and was likely born in 1844 or 1845. Three years later, Franklin Workman arrived. The family lived with very little, and the children were expected to go to work in the mines at a young age.
Tragedy struck the family in 1857. After a week of illness, Jacob Workman died on August 11, 1857. Mary was left to raise nine children on her own. Around this time, at age 11 or 12, Josiah began work in the coal mines of Wiconisco Township. According to family friends, Josiah brought in about $4 per week in wages home to his mother. Along with the meager wages of an older brother, David, this was the money expected to support of a family of 10. These wages were often subject to highly dubious cuts and subtractions at the whims of the industrialists ruling the region’s mines.
Likely employed either as a breaker boy (sorting coal from slate) or as a mule driver in the mines, Josiah would have been expected to work long hours in highly dangerous working conditions.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, military service presented the 16-year-old Workman with an opportunity, both to serve his country and to gain a steady paycheck. David Workman enlisted first. He enlisted in the town’s militia company, which marched off to war in April 1861 as Company F, 10th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Josiah got his chance to serve when his brother returned from the front in August of that year. Volunteers from the militia unit formed a new company on September 24, 1861 under the command of Captain James N. Douden. To get into the service, Josiah lied about his age; he told Captain Douden that he was 18 and eligible to serve. On September 26, Josiah marched off to Pottsville with about 20 other local volunteers to join the 96th Pennsylvania.
While training for war in the fall and winter of 1861, Private Josiah Workman designated $10 a month of his pay to his mother. Privates in the Union Army received $13 per month in pay, which in the early years of the war often came late.
Very little is known of Workman’s service in the 96th Pennsylvania, other than the occasional mention in the diary of Corporal Henry Keiser. Workman and Keiser were in the same company but came from entirely different social stratas within the Wiconisco community. The diarist’s father, Daniel Keiser, operated Wiconisco’s powder factory, where the explosives needed for the town’s mines were manufactured; Workman came from a laboring class squeaking by on minuscule wages.
While on the Virginia Peninsula in June 1862, Keiser noted that Josiah Workman had fallen ill, but it seems his recovery occurred within the camp of the regiment. It was likely on the Peninsula that Workman saw combat for the first time, yet it was in Maryland in September 1862 where he came face-to-face with the dangers of a Civil War battlefield.
The 96th Pennsylvania were tasked with leading the advance toward a Confederate position above the town of Burkittsville, Maryland on September 14, 1862. In a bloody, but ultimately successful advance, the regiment pushed Confederates from a strategically important ridgeline known as Crampton’s Gap. In doing so, the regiment lost 20 men killed and another 71 wounded, which included young Private Josiah Workman.
During the assault, a Confederate bullet struck Workman across his arm and chest. The wound, Henry Keiser called it a “slight,” put him in a field hospital in Frederick, Maryland until December 22, 1862. On his return to the regiment, he had the duty of informing the regiment that another soldier, W.W. Thompson, had passed away in Frederick’s hospitals from complications related to typhoid fever.
The year 1863 brought more action for the 96th Pennsylvania. Private Workman saw service at Salem Church in May, Gettysburg in July, and at Rappahannock Station in November.
For the Workman family, everything changed in February 1864. The Army of the Potomac began to fear that many of its veteran regiments were going to be mustered out of Federal service if some inducement were not put in place to keep them. The 96th Pennsylvania were going to be mustered out in September 1864 after three years’ service with the Union Army.
Young Franklin, likely as young as 15 years-old, enlisted in Company G claiming to be age 17. Numerous men from the company returned to Wiconisco Township on a furlough in March 1864, including Josiah Workman. He spent thirty days with his family, and when returning to the regiment, brought his younger brother Frank back with him to the regiment’s encampment near Brandy Station, Virginia. Both brothers sent home sizable bounties (essentially enlistment bonuses) to their mother in Wiconisco Township.
Private Frank Workman saw his first combat alongside his brother when the 96th Pennsylvania went into the Wilderness with the rest of the Army of the Potomac on May 5, 1864. Following two days of heavy fighting in thick forests, the Union Army moved southeast to Spotsylvania Court House.
The VI Corps, to which the 96th Pennsylvania was attached, became responsible for holding the center of the Union line at Spotsylvania. Fighting in this new campaign featured both sides utilizing field works and entrenchments, and the Confederates at Spotsylvania were behind strong, earthen defenses known as the “Mule Shoe.”
The Pennsylvanians’ brigade commander, Colonel Emory Upton, took the initiative on May 10, 1864 and planned an assault on the Confederate works that would use the 96th Pennsylvania as one of the front-line units. At 5 o’clock in the evening, the regiment and 11 other units jumped into action and ran across 250 yards of open ground to attack the Confederate “Mule Shoe.”
“Started on the run with cheers,” wrote Corporal Keiser. “ Many a poor fellow fell pierced with rebel bullets before we reached the rifle pits.”
Among those struck down before the regiment reached the rifle pits were Josiah and Frank Workman. “Frank Workman was shot through the breast with a grape shot, and Josiah Workman through the side,” recorded Keiser. The young brothers perished just feet apart.
Keiser briefly described how Company G cared for their comrades’ bodies when they discovered them three days later: “We buried them in one trench, first placing a blanket underneath and one on top, placing a board of a cracker box at the head of each, with name, Company and Regiment.”
And then the regiment moved on with the rest of the Union Army toward new battlefields, leaving the Workman brothers and 30 others behind as “killed in action,” while a further 39 were listed on the rolls as “missing.”
Back in Wiconisco Township, the news from Spotsylvania landed like a thunderbolt. Six soldiers from the communities of Wiconisco and Lykens were killed in the charge at Spotsylvania Court House on May 10, 1864. Numerous others were severely wounded.
The reaction to this news in the Workman home isn’t known, but it must have been a devastating blow. Using the bounty money the brothers had received from the government upon their enlistments in February 1864, Mary Workman had purchased a home in Lykens. She was relying upon their monthly wages from the Army to maintain herself and her family. The death of Josiah and Frank must have sent the family into a tailspin.
Pooling their resources and legal know-how, local businessmen banded together to assist Mary in applying for a dependent’s pension from the United States government in the summer of 1864. Among these dignitaries providing legal aid to Mrs. Workman was Henry Keiser’s father, Daniel.
For the deaths of her two sons in the service of the Union Army, Mary Workman received a meager pension of $8 per month. She didn’t begin receiving the money until May 1868. The pension continued until her death in Wiconisco Township on September 25, 1880. The mother of two fallen Union soldiers was 55.
Following the Civil War, the remains of Josiah and Frank Workman were removed from their shallow battlefield graves and moved to a permanent home in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
Featured Image: The grave of Frank Workman at Fredericksburg National Cemetery