The Matthews Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Grand Army of the Republic

The G.A.R. was a fraternal organization of veterans of the Union Army who served in the Civil War.  Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member died. At its peak in 1890, it boasted a membership of more than 400,000.  

My great-great-great grandfather, John Koken of Easton, Pennsylvania, was a member of the G.A.R.  He was born in Feb 1839, and entered the service on October 7, 1862 as a private, along with his younger brother Jacob, who was promoted from private to sergeant.  They enlisted for a term of nine months, but ended up serving ten months.  Their end of their term would have occurred as they were heading towards battle in Gettysburg, and their regiment, the PA 153rd, agreed to serve additional time to take part in the battle.

Most of the 153rd’s service in late 1862 and early 1863 was spent guarding Washington, but they also served in the Battle of Chancellorsville.  They were on the farthest side of the right flank, and due to General Hooker’s and Howard’s refusal to accept reconnaissance information that the Confederates were very close, the entire Union army was caught unaware on May 2, 1863.  Stonewall Jackson’s brigade came crashing through the woods as the 153rd was preparing dinner.  The Union soldiers fled (and I would have too), and the Confederates won a major battle.  The 153rd consisted of mostly Pennsylvania Dutch of German origin, who spoke little English, even though their families had been in eastern Pennsylvania since before the Revolution.  Because of the bias against the “funny-speaking” Germans and their disorderly retreat before the enemy, they were derisively called “the Flying Dutchmen.”  

Grandpa Koken and his brother were not wounded at Chancellorsville, and they marched with the rest of the Eleventh Corps to Gettysburg.  On July 1, 1863, the 153rd was again placed at the far right flank on Barlow Knoll and were routed by the Confederate attack.  (Note to self:  if in a battle, do not stand on the right)  They were forced to fall back through the town and regroup on Cemetery Hill.  While this could be viewed as a loss, the 153rd and the rest of the Eleventh Corps did something crucially important:  they bought the Union time to get the rest of the army to Gettsyburg, and they helped to secure the high ground on Cemetery Hill/Ridge.  The high ground at Gettysburg proved to be one of the Union’s greatest advantages for winning the battle.

Sgt. Jacob Koken was not wounded on July 1st, but Grandpa John Koken was.  He sustained a bullet through his right lung, entering his right breast and exiting his middle back.  One of his comrades related the story of finding Grandpa behind the Gettysburg barn that was serving as a hospital (possibly the Spangler farm).  “I found my friend John lying under the shelter of a few boards which had one end laid on a fence.  He was very glad to see me and his case was pitiable enough.  He had been wounded in the chest, and the great profusion of blood had saturated his clothes, pocketbook and all.  There were $60 in bills so covered with blood that they required soaking and washing.  [possibly he had this money from a reenlistment bonus]  I laid them out on the boards with some pieces of garments to dry.  He requested me to send the money home.  He was subsequently removed to a hospital in Newark (NJ).  He lived many years and was employed in railroading.”

Grandpa John did live many years, dying on July 5, 1892.  He was brakeman on the railroad, although his pension file states he never was completely healthy after the war, suffering a lack of stamina and breathing difficulties.  Other comrades of his were surprised he survived, since he suffered a serious wound.  Had he died, I would not be here, as his daughter, Cora Mae, my 2nd great grandmother, was not born until 1870.  

Recently I visited Gettysburg and stood on Barlow Knoll, where Grandpa Koken likely was wounded.  Or he could have been wounded as the rebels chased the Union troops back through town.  I also found his grave, in South Easton, PA.  Perhaps he was not a hero of the war, but he agreed to fight again in Gettysburg, even after the frightening experience in Chancellorsville.  And he survived a serious wound, and was thinking about his new wife back home (they had not even been married a year yet in July 1863).  And he lived for almost thirty years after the war, working and providing for his family.  To me, Grandpa Koken is not a cowardly Flying Dutchman….but a German American who served his country and his family.  Amen to that.

PA 153rd Monument, Gettysburg

John Koken's name on PA Monument, Gettysburg

John Koken's grave, Hays Cemetery, Easton, PA

GAR Monument, Doylestown Cemetery, Doylestown, PA

GAR Marker, New Britain Baptist Cemetery, New Britain, PA

GAR Marker, Quakertown Union Cemetery, Quakertown, PA

GAR marker, Indian Orchard Cemetery, Indian Orchard, PA

GAR symbol, Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA

GAR marker, Indian Orchard Cemetery, Indian Orchard, PA

GAR marker, St. Luke's Evan. Lutheran Cemetery, Ferndale, PA

Typical Civil War Veteran gravestone, provided by federal government

GAR marker, St. James' Cemetery, Chalfont, PA

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