Meeting a Civil War Soldier

After learning one of my ancestors had been killed during the Civil War, I conducted a research project to find out who he was, what he did, and the circumstances of his death. I was able to piece together quite an account, and what I found astounded me.

As a youngster growing up in Fremont, Ohio, in the '50s and '60s, I developed a passing interest in one of my ancestors, Cpl. Henry Graback (also spelled Greybach and Grabach), when my maternal grandmother told me he had been killed during the Civil War. In later years, I conducted a research project to determine who he was, what he did, and the circumstances of his death. Through the accounts of family and friends, a visit to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, research of battles and records from the National Archives, the lyrical and haunting books of Civil War historian Bruce Catton, and the Internet, I was able to piece together quite an account.

Graback enlisted in the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the summer of 1861, shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run. An 18-year-old laborer from Fremont, he stood 5 foot 3 and had dark hair and eyes. The reasons Henry joined the war are unclear. Perhaps he was answering President Lincoln's call for volunteers following the Union defeat at Manassas. Whatever his motivation, the regiment with which he served was one of Ohio's more illustrious units.

From June of 1861 to June of 1864, the 8th Ohio fought in nearly every major engagement in the eastern theater—Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Gettysburg, where in a forward position along Cemetery Ridge the 8th so thoroughly shot up a Virginia regiment the Rebels completely broke and ran (a rarity for Confederate infantry). All told, the 8th Ohio suffered 132 killed with another 73 soldiers falling to disease.

Graback's luck ran out at the Battle of the Wilderness in northern Virginia in early May 1864. The 8th Ohio had advanced and taken its objective, but was forced to retreat in the face of a Rebel counterattack. At some point Graback was wounded. While family accounts had led me to believe he died during battle, in fact he languished with thousands of other wounded soldiers under horrendous conditions in Fredericksburg, Va., awaiting transport to a hospital in Washington, D.C. National Archives records reveal he died on June 4, 1864, following the amputation of his right arm. His death was probably the result of gangrene. Within days he was buried in Arlington Cemetery. He was 21.

Three weeks later the 8th Ohio Infantry was mustered out of service. Several years ago while in Washington, D.C., I attended a family reunion of sorts. I crossed into Arlington's hallowed grounds through the Ord and Weitzel Gate. Next to the red sandstone wall at the cemetery's northern boundary, in section 27, marker number 864, was Cpl. Henry Graback. We had finally met.

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