On a recent visit to cemeteries in Lykens, Dauphin County, I made a visit to the grave of a Civil War veteran who I’ve written about quite often over the last eight years. Henry Keiser served in the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania regiments during the Civil War. He kept a remarkable diary documenting almost every day he served in the United States Army. It is an incredible document.
As we walked through the Lykens Union Cemetery after visiting Henry Keiser’s grave, we came upon the grave of Henry’s younger brother George who died of typhoid fever in November 1863 at the age of 17. This sent me back to the diary of Henry Keiser to see how he responded to the news of his brother’s death.
In 1863, Keiser wrote often about the correspondence he kept with his teenage brother at home in Wiconisco Township.
Such an example of this correspondence from March 1863:
- Wednesday, March 18, 1863. Drawed bread this morning. Our regiment was busy today, clearing a drill ground. Received a letter from Brother George and one from Miss Sallie.
- Thursday, March 19, 1863. Drawed crackers this morning. Wrote a letter to Brother George and one to Miss Sallie. It is cold and disagreeable.
When confederate forces invaded Pennsylvania in June 1863, George Keiser (who had just turned 17 on June 6), signed up for a Pennsylvania emergency militia unit to protect his home. He served with Company D, 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia alongside his father, Daniel Keiser. Corporal Henry Keiser, serving with the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and in hot pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s army, learned of his brother and father joining the service in a letter that reached him on June 30, 1863. Henry and his unit were approaching the Pennsylvania state line in Maryland on their way toward Gettysburg.
- Tuesday, June 30, 1863. It rained a little last night. Left camp at 7 o’clock this morning and passé through Gainesville at eight o’clock p.m. and through Westminster, the county seat of Carroll County, Maryland, at one o’clock p.m. Westminster is a beautiful town. We marched until six o’clock when we went into camp for the night near Manchester, having marched eighteen miles. It was cloudy all day and rained occasionally. The citizens all along our line of march seem very pleasant. Received a letter from mother containing stamps and stating that father and Brother George had enlisted for six months in the Pennsylvania State Militia. Also a letter from Lucy.
George Keiser and his father never saw combat with the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. They were, however, directed to Gettysburg in the aftermath of the battle, an environment notorious for its horrors and health risks. The battlefield could be smelled before seen in the days after the fight, where thousands of soldiers were killed in action and lay across the battlefield alongside thousands of dead animals. Medical authorities raced to bury the dead and burn the carcasses of animals in an effort to stave off disease.
It appears possible that George Keiser may have contracted typhoid fever while in the service. Though he was mustered out at the end of July 1863 with his brother, he became ill with a disease that killed in droves during the Civil War. Henry Keiser lost his best friend and coworker at a Lykens newspaper to the disease in February 1862.
The letters from George continued through the summer of 1863.
- Thursday, August 6, 1863. It was very hot this a.m. but was over-clouded this afternoon. Raised our tent and made a good summer bunk today. Received a letter from brother George. Their regiment was discharged, and he, with father, is home again. The brigade was formed, and the President’s Thanksgiving Proclamation was read to us, after which a sermon was delivered. Wrote a letter to brother George.
- Thursday, August 20, 1863. My leg is still very sore. Finished Cousin Lucy’s letter and sent it off. Heard that U. D. Ferree who left us on “French Leave” in July 2, 1863, was at home and that 1st Sergeant F. N. Douden who deserted July 2nd, 1863 while on march to Gettysburg was at Minersville. Received a letter from brother George. Had Dress Parade. Very hot.
The letter Henry Keiser received on August 20, 1863 appears, at least according to the diary, to be the final correspondence he had with his younger brother. The next reference to George Keiser in his brother’s war-time diary came months later and the news was not good.
- Monday, November 9, 1863. Cold and cloudy this morning. Received a letter from father stating that Brother George was very low with typhoid fever. Wrote a letter to father and one to Sister Elizabeth. I walked out and through the old Rebel Camps and was so interested that I got quite a distance from Camp and when I returned to camp I found the troops marching to the right. I followed after and marched about two miles when I caught up with the Regiment just as it was going into camp.
Then, a few days later, Henry Keiser noted in his diary that his friend Joshua Workman had received a letter with news that George Keiser had succumbed to his illness on November 10, 1863.
- Thursday, November 12, 1863. Not so cold last night, one Sergeant and Eight Privates of our company were sent on picket at nine a.m. Run out of tobacco and got a small piece from Elias Stahl, until mine arrives from home. Joshua Workman had a letter from home in which it stated that Brother George had died on the 10th. Day was fine and warm.
On November 14, he received confirmation from his own family that his brother had indeed died on the 10th. This is the final reference to George Keiser in the diary. Henry rarely reflected in his diary, so his matter of fact recording of his brother’s passing is not unusual.
- Saturday, November 14, 1863. One man was detailed out of our company for picket this morning. We were paid for September and October. Received a letter from home stating that poor George had died on the 10th of typhoid fever. Also a letter from Miss Sallie. The day was fine until about 3 o’clock when it became cloudy and rained very heavily about dark.
In visiting the grave of George Keiser and reading about him in his brother’s words, I felt a powerful connection to a young man who bravely volunteered to serve his country and his state in a time of crisis and paid the ultimate price with his life.
Featured Image: The grave of George Keiser in Lykens, Pennsylvania