Friday, July 13, 2012

Stand Here and Die Fighting - Part 3


Excerpt from Gettysburg's Star and Sentinel newspaper, published on October 16, 1888
On October 10, 1888, Captain Francis Irsch returned to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. More than Twenty-five years had passed since Irsch had led 4 companies of the 45th New York into battle along the broad flat plain north of Gettysburg. The survivors of his command who traveled with him that day still revered Irsch for the leadership he had demonstrated at Gettysburg, and throughout his wartime service.

On this fall day Irsch presided over a band of 50 veterans, all in uniform. The survivors quartered at the Eagle Hotel, within a stone's throw of the site of Irsch's surrender. From the hotel that afternoon, Irsch led the veterans in a march that replicated their arrival on July 1st, north on Washington Street and past the grounds of Pennsylvania College, and out to the battle plain north of town.

Irsch presided over the dedication of the 45th's monument, and gave a graphic account of the regiment's role in the battle. The exercises also featured an address and poem written by Christian Boehm, who spoke entirely in German. Reporting one week later, the Star and Sentinel concluded:
The success of the dedication was largely due to the efficient services and good management of Capt. Irsch, who has taken great interest in the monument from its inception.
The granite monument itself stood over 15 feet high with bronze relief elements, including the New York State seal. Irsch's "interest" in the monument - as the Star & Sentinel termed it - remains evident in the monument's detailed inscriptions:
45th N.Y. Infantry.
1st Brig. 3rd Div.
11th Corps.
July 1, 1863.

Left Side
This regiment went into action about 11:30 a.m., July 1st 1863 by deploying four companies as skirmishers under Captain Irsch. About one hundred yards to the rear of this monument, they advanced supported by the other six companies under Lt. Col. Dobke, about five hundred and forty yards under a terrific artillery and sharpshooters fire to a point indicated by marker in front. This regiment also assisted in repelling a charge on the flank of the 1st Corps to the left, capturing many prisoners. Covered retrograde movement into town, fighting through the streets, where Major Koch fell desperately wounded. A portion of the regiment was cut off and took shelter in connecting houses and yards on Chambersburg Street west of the town square, holding the enemy at bay, until about 5:30 p.m. when they surrendered after having destroyed their arms and accoutrements. 

45th New York Monument on Howard Avenue, North of Gettysburg.
Photo by Michael Noirot. Creative Commons.
Right Side
On July 2, the remnant of the regiment was exposed to a heavy artillery fire on Cemetery Hill, and in the evening moved hastily to Culp's Hill and assisted in repulsing an attack on Greene's Brigade 12th Corps (see markers on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hills). On 3rd it was again exposed to artillery and sharpshooters fire, whereupon Sergt. Link, with volunteers, dislodged the enemy's sharpshooters in the edge of town, nearly all the small attacking party being killed or wounded in the effort. The regiment while in the Army of the Potomac participated in the following battles: Cross Keys, Cedar Mountain, Waterloo Bridge, White Sulphur Springs, Gainesville, Groveton, 2d Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and then transferred to the Army of the Cumberland at: Lookout Mountain, Resaca, Kenesaw Mountain, and many other minor engagements.

The regiment carried into action July 1st, 25 officers and about 250 men as officially reported. It lost, killed 11, wounded 35, missing 164, total 210 officers and men. Among the missing many were killed or wounded in the town and not included in the above numbers. Those captured refused offered parole hoping to encumber the enemy, believing that the Union Army would capture the crippled foe, and thereby effect their release. Sadly disappointed, they suffered indescribable misery in Andersonville and other prison pens, neglected, often maltreated and finally believing themselves forgotten and forsaken. Many died martyrs and joined their more fortunate comrades who fell gloriously on this field.  

Along the McClean Farm Lane, the veterans placed a small stone marker to inform intrepid battlefield-goers of the advanced position to which Irsch led his four companies.

Among the many monuments on the battlefield today, the 45th New York's must rank highly in terms of word count, as well as feeling.  Even without the Star & Sentinel report identifying Irsch's role in the development of the memorial- we can readily see his influence in the text. In my opinion, few inscriptions on the field reach the level of eloquence and emotion achieved with the final lines inscribed on the rear side. Perhaps Irsch wrote these lines himself - having experienced first-hand the horrors Confederate prison pens. Perhaps, having commanded a large number of the captured soldiers right up until their surrender, he in some way influenced their decision to reject a parole, and felt lingering guilt for those who suffered and perished in Confederate prisons. We have no way of knowing.

We do know that Irsch had a postwar history filled with highlights and moments of despair. After mustering out the Captain returned to New York City, and resumed his place as a successful merchant and respected member of the German-American community. While his business prospered for some time, his marriage did not, and in 1886 his wife Mary filed for a permanent separation - citing cruelty. Before the lawsuit could be tried, Irsch filed a counter-suit for absolute divorce. He lost, and the court ordered Irsch to pay Mary somewhere between $8 and $15 a month alimony permanently (the newspaper reports disagree on the amount).

On May 27th, 1892, Irsch received a Congressional Medal of Honor for "Gallantry in flanking the enemy and capturing a number of prisoners and in holding a part of the town against heavy odds while the Army was rallying on Cemetery Hill."

Irsch kept up his payments to his estranged wife for some time, but his health took a turn for the worse and doctors ordered him to travel to Europe to recuperate. When he returned, the alimony payments ceased. In the summer of 1902, Irsch owed a total of $3,779.59 to Mary.  She began contempt proceedings, and soon Irsch found himself imprisoned at the Ludlow Street Jail and the subject of newspaper headlines.
The New York World ran this headline on August 5, 1902

The New York World reported the story on August 5: 
In Ludlow Street Jail there is a ruddy-faced, gray-bearded man, neatly dressed and apparently at ease in his surroundings, in whose behalf a plea for liberation was made to Justice Steckler in the Supreme Court yesterday. The man is Francis Irsch.
Irsch declared that though he had once been a well-off commission merchant, he was now a poor man unable to pay the alimony. His lawyer brought forward affidavits attesting to Irsch's character, and to his health problems.  Dr. John Shrady testified that the war hero suffered from chronic bronchitis, heart disease and Bright's disease, and that he was "liable to a total collapse at any time."

Mary's lawyer, Joseph L. Prager, disputed the health claims, and demanded an adjournment. "I don't believe he is in any danger," he asserted. Prager accused Irsch of having another wife living in Florida and argued that he had been sending money to her. He requested and received time to investigate this accusation.
The New York Times, August 14, 1902
I imagine that returning to a prison cell nearly 40 years after his time at Libby Prison severely tested Irsch's resilience. After remaining in prison for a month, on August 14th Justice Steckler freed Irsch, apparently on account of his health. Nothing further appeared in the New York papers. Four years later, on August 19, 1906, Irsch passed away in Tampa, Florida, where he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. He was 66 years old. That fall, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States passed a resolution to mark his passing:
Resolved, That this Commandery places on record its warm appreciation of Captain Irsch's high services as a soldier and his genial qualities as a gentleman, and deeply regrets his decease.

Resolved, That the Commandery extends to the bereaved widow and children its sincere sympathy.

Resolved, That this report be preserved in the minutes and published in the usual manner.
Today, I find many unanswered questions in the life story of Francis Irsch. What did Mary Irsch mean in charging Francis with cruelty? Was the charge true? If so - does this simply reflect a darker side of a character whom we only know today for his battlefield heroics. Or, does it offer us a small glimpse into the casualties of war that went unreported in 1863. Did Irsch's mental pain survive long after his release from Confederate prisons? Unfortunately, we will never know.

No comments:

Post a Comment