The delicious smell of boiling coffee greeted Sergeant Henry Keiser as he stirred on the warm spring morning of April 9, 1865. As he helped roust the boys of Company H, 95th Pennsylvania Infantry from their makeshift beds, the sound of artillery boomed ominously in the distance. They were a few miles from the Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Court House.
A few miles ahead of the Union Army’s VI Corps, U.S. soldiers were engaging in a final scrum with the once-vaunted, now-depleted Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant sent couriers with dispatches as they haggled from either end of the battlefield over terms for surrender. In the afternoon, a ceasefire began and the two greatest commanders of the American Civil War met in the home of war-profiteer Wilmer McLean. At 4 PM, the unconditional surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia ushered in the final death rattle of the Confederacy.
Sergeant Keiser and the men of the 95th Pennsylvania became aware of the momentous events occurring just up the road at Appomattox when the guns ceased firing and they were told to set up camp that afternoon. “We halted and the talk is that Gen. Lee intends to surrender his army, which seems too good to be true,” Keiser jotted in his war-time diary.
The order to pause was the first lengthy break the men of the 95th Pennsylvania experienced since dawn on April 2, when the unit was among the attacks that broke Confederate lines near Petersburg, Virginia. That assault launched a week-long campaign that looked as if it had put the coup de grace to the Confederate cause.
Over the subsequent days, the 95th Pennsylvania engaged in fierce combat as the rebel army retreated toward Lynchburg. Three days before, Keiser’s company lost its final battle casualties of the conflict. Private Gideon Beard, 21, of Hamburg fell mortally wounded with a gunshot wound in the chest. He was quickly buried by his comrades on the battlefield before the regiment marched off in pursuit of fleeing Confederates.
Now, as the Pennsylvanians eagerly awaited news from Appomattox Court House, they heard the sounds of an officer at full gallop racing toward their camp. He exclaimed that Lee’s army surrendered and the war-time hardships of the 95th Pennsylvania were finally at a close. After a day of celebrating and salutes, Keiser sat down to reflect on the day. His entry is one of the most moving from his war-time journals:
1295. Sunday, April 9, 1865. At five this morning we cooked coffee and started forward at six. We hear very heavy cannonading in our front, the cavalry are still driving the Rebs. The cannonading keeps getting farther away. At 9 a.m. we halted and had orders to cook coffee. At 11 we again started of and marched pretty fast until one this afternoon, when we halted and the talk is that Gen. Lee intends to surrender his army today, which seems too good to be true.
At 2:30 p.m. we were ordered to go into camp, and that the probabilities are that we have fought our last fight. At 4:30 this afternoon an officer on horseback, waving his hat and horse running as if his life depended on his speed, came tearing from the front, yelling the glorious news that Gen. Lee had surrendered the entire Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Grant.
Such cheering, shouting and rejoicing as there was throughout the whole army of the Potomac was never heard or seen in America. The air was literally filled with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens and everything else the boys could throw into the air.
Most of the batteries fired a salute of thirty guns in honor of the glorious victory. Some cried for joy. The Rebel Army has stacked arms about two miles from here at Appomattox Court House. We marched about ten miles today. The day was fine.
In the days following the Confederate surrender, the VI Corps peeled away from Appomattox and spent the rest of the month marching around Virginia, guarding railroads and occupying former Confederate territory. They were near Burke’s Station on April 16 when they received the shocking news of President Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Keiser wrote, without comment, “It is reported that President Lincoln was assassinated in his private box at Ford’s Theatre on the 14th inst.”
The 95th Pennsylvania continued in service with the United States Army until July 1865, when the unit was mustered out of service and the surviving members of Company G returned to Central Pennsylvania. Keiser returned to civilian life in Wiconisco Township.
For 25-year-old Henry Keiser, the Civil War marked his life’s greatest adventure and one which stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Featured Image: Stacked arms photographed near Petersburg, VA on April 3, 1865. (Library of Congress)