On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the December Artifact of the Month is a framed collection of Civil War era items. These items pertain to Henry Heltzel, a Union soldier, who settled in Table Grove after the war. Although it may seem the frame holds a random assortment of papers and medals, these items, when the details are filled in, tell us the story of one soldier’s participation in the bloodiest war ever fought in this country. This artifact tells the tale of a man who was present at one of the Union’s most humiliating defeats of the war, and at one of its most decisive victories.
Heltzel’s great-grandson, Merle Brown, also of Table Grove, donated the framed collection in 2013 because he wanted the artifacts associated with his great-grandfathers’ military career to be shared with others in west central Illinois.
Henry Heltzel was not originally from Illinois. He was born Henry Clay Heltzel on February 11, 1843 in York County, Pennsylvania and died March 11, 1909 in Table Grove, Fulton County. His wife was Barbara Wise Heltzel and she was born January 11, 1849 in Manchester, Carroll County, Maryland and died April 6, 1923. They are buried together at the Summum Cemetery, near Astoria.
This collection tells us who Henry Heltzel was, where he came from and what he did in the war. Sometime after the end of the war and his discharge, Henry Heltzel moved to the Table Grove area and lived there the rest of his life. He raised his family there –his children, and his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren, all who have lived in the Table Grove area ever since.
Once they settled down in Table Grove, Henry and Barbara had five children, the oldest being Henry L., who had six children. Henry’s second child, Leona Maude (1897-1990), married Herbert Clifford Brown (1896-1985). Leona and Herbert had four children, the youngest named Merle. It was Merle’s mother, Leona Maude (Heltzel) Brown, who carefully kept her grandfather’s Civil War items. Merle Brown, discovered the artifacts decided to donate them to the museum.
Brown explained how he discovered the Civil War artifacts. “It happened after my sister’s death. She had been living in my parent’s house and when I came to clean out the house, I found the items.” Carefully tucked into an envelope, stowed away in a desk drawer, Brown’s mother had stored them away as keepsakes. For some reason, Brown’s mother had never mentioned the papers or medals, and for Merle it was a complete surprise when he found them. Having an interest in military history, Brown appreciated the significance of the artifacts, and decided to place them together under framed glass for protection.
There are nine artifacts in the frame including two discharge papers for Henry Heltzel. One document is dated December 31, 1863 and the other is dated September 2, 1865. The two discharge papers tell us many details about Henry Heltzel. The papers note that he was a private of Captain T.D. Yost’s Company, 26th Ind. Battery Ohio Light Infantry Volunteers. He enrolled September 1, 1861, to serve three years and was discharged December 31, 1863 in order to enlistment as a Veteran Volunteer. It is noted Henry Heltzel was nineteen years of age, he was five feet, eight inches high, had dark complexion, grey eyes, brown hair, and his occupation was farmer.
The dates on the first discharge paper for Heltzel are noteworthy. Heltzel signed up September 1861 (Fort Sumter was fired on in April 1861) and he enrolled for 3 years. When the war first began, the North thought the war would be won quickly, and so the normal procedure was to enlist soldiers for three years, which at the time seemed like plenty of time to complete the war. No one thought the war would last as long as it did. However, by late 1863, with the war still raging, it became clear that most of the men who had joined up sometime in 1861 were going to head home three years later, when their enlistment was completed. With the country still engaged in the war, the US government could not afford to have soldiers return home. In order to maintain a fighting force, the government came up with an incentive plan to keep soldiers from returning to civilian life.
The government offered soldiers who reenlisted before his time was up, a generous bounty payment, a 30-day furlough and the designation of veteran volunteer. Most soldiers jumped at the chance to receive a bounty amounting to three or more years pay and go home for a visit for the first time in over two years. The incentive plan was successful in keeping Union forces strong until the end of the war in 1865.
So the reenlistment incentive explains the dates on the second discharge paper for Heltzel. The second paper tells us that as a private Heltzel was enrolled on January 1, 1864 to serve three years—his first discharge paper notes that he was discharged on Decemer 31, 1863 – so he enrolled again in the Army one day after he was discharged, i.e. he was discharged and immediately re-enlisted. Written at the top of the second discharge paper, in faded purple ink, is the word Veteran. This paper notes that Heltzel is signing up with the designation of Veteran Volunteer. Presumably, for doing this, Heltzel got his 30-day furlough, a bounty and got to go home. The discharge paper indicates he reenlisted with the same unit, the 26th Ind. Battery Ohio Light Infantry Volunteers, until he was finally discharged from service.
The two most significant actions Heltzel faced were at Harpers Ferry and at Vicksburg. In the fall of 1862, Heltzel’s unit was at the strategic railroad location of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Laid under siege for three days and battered by artillery, the entire Union garrison, including Heltzel’s unit, surrendered to Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate forces on September 15 1862. Harpers Ferry has the distinction of being the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War. It was estimated that 12,000 prisoners were captured – it was a humiliating defeat.
The Union prisoners of war from the Harpers Ferry defeat were involved in a prisoner exchange arrangement. On January 12, 1863, the prisoners were exchanged and Heltzel resumed fighting. The next major action Heltzel’s unit participated in was General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, where they laid siege to Vicksburg, Mississippi, from May 18 through July 4, 1863. The Confederates surrendered at Vicksburg on July 4, and this was a significant and decisive victory, a turning point for the war.
One can only imagine how sweet the victory was after the siege at Vicksburg for the Union soldiers who had endured the humiliating defeat at the siege of Harpers Ferry. Having been at Harpers Ferry and at Vicksburg, we can suppose that Heltzel would have savored the win. It was in Vicksburg on January 1, 1864, that many in Heltzel’s unit reenlisted and received a 30-day furlough to return to their homes in Ohio.
The 26th Independent Battery did not participate in any other major battles for the rest of the war. They were ordered home and mustered out of service on September 2, 1865 in Columbus, Ohio. That is the date noted on Heltzel’s discharge paper. During the 26th Battery’s term of service, the organization had no men killed on the battlefield and 22 soldiers died from disease or accidents.
As a member of the 26th Ohio Independent Battery, Heltzel was a member of a cannon crew. The basic organizational unit of artillery was called a battery and was made up of six cannon with approximately 70-100 men commanded by a Captain. The battery was a complex organized group of men, horses, equipment and dangerous amounts of ammunition. Civil War era cannon were muzzleloaders and required a crew of eight men to aim, load, and fire the weapon. It is not known the specific position Heltzel held in the cannon crew, but as a member of the battery, he played an important role in providing firepower to support the infantry.
The other six items framed under glass all refer to Heltzel’s life after the war, as a veteran. The most impressive veteran item is Heltzel’s G.A.R. ladder badge. These seven linked brass pieces, each piece detailing Heltzel’s unit: 26 – OHIO – INDEPENDENT – BATTERY- 32 – OHIO – VOL. INF. Ladder badges were customizable; a veteran could get the specific pieces to identify precisely in what unit they had served.
Heltzel would have worn this ladder badge as a proud member of the G.A.R. –the Grand Army of the Republic. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization for Civil War veterans. Founded in Decatur, Illinois in1866, one year after the end of the Civil War, it was dissolved in 1956, when its last member died. Its peak membership, at more than 490,000 nationwide, was in 1890. First formed for camaraderie, the organization grew, becoming powerful and politically influential. The GAR founded soldiers’ homes, was active in relief work and in pension legislation. Because the federal government did not issue any service medals for being in the Civil War, the GAR issued their own medals to veterans. GAR members attended meetings at their local GAR post, marched in parades and participated in community events, just as veteran organizations do now.
Displayed along with Heltzel’s ladder badge is a GAR hatpin. It is a gilt laurel wreath surrounding the letters GAR in silver (now tarnished). Members of the GAR attended meetings in a uniform similar to the Union military uniform –navy blue suit coat with brass buttons and a modified hat. Heltzel would have pinned this GAR pin to the front of his hat.
In the frame are some other GAR items: a GAR medal showing that Heltzel went as a representative to Decatur and attended a “GAR encampment” which is what they called conventions. There are also pages from a GAR booklet of the installation of GAR Officers of Table Grove, dated January 13, 1894, which lists Henry Heltzel. There is also a photocopy of a photograph showing Heltzel with other Table Grove veterans. The fact that Heltzel kept these GAR artifacts indicates that he was a veteran who was proud of his service and never forgot it.
We may never know exactly what Henry Heltzel lived through during the Civil War, but these items on display at the museum help to give us a glimpse of a local man’s personal Civil War history.
From and essay by Heather Munro