“Always willing to bear his part of the danger and hardship of his fellow soldiers”: A Story from Winchester National Cemetery

This year, Emerging Civil War is helping to support Wreaths Across America at Winchester National Cemetery through a fundraiser. We are only one week away from an evening virtual program about the cemetery. To whet your appetite for history and showcase the work ECW editors have done preparing for this program, today we are sharing a story from the cemetery. While the story of William Guenther of the 116th New York Infantry will not be repeated during the talk, it is an example of what the program will be like on October 5.

Born in Germany, William stood 5 foot 10 inches tall, with a sandy complexion and brown hair and eyes.[1] He married Mary Bechtold, another German immigrant from the Electorate of Hesse, on March 1, 1859 in Buffalo’s Evangelical Lutheran St. John’s Church. Their daughter Anna was born April 13, 1862, and just a few months later William left for the army.[2] On August 4 of that year, the 25-year-old enlisted in Company G for three years’ service and received the first $25 of his promised $100 bounty.[3] He was with the regiment through a number of campaigns, most notably Port Hudson, before the unit was reassigned to the Shenandoah Valley in time for the fall 1864 campaigns.

A map of the battle of Fisher’s Hill.

Following their defeat at the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley withdrew to Fisher’s Hill. Long known as the “Gibraltar of the Valley,” many believed that this ridge’s defensive works could stop any attack. Following probing attacks on September 21, including the seizure of key ground, US troops from the Army of West Virginia (or 8th Corps) crept along the slopes of Little North Mountain to outflank the Confederate positions. They crashed through Confederate cavalry directly into startled infantry. Soon after, the rest of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, which included the 116th New York in the 19th Corps, joined in the attack and broke Early’s line. Now, the southern section of the Shenandoah Valley was wide open to the US forces.

Sadly, William did not live to see the fruits of his labor, as he was killed at Fisher’s Hill. As Mary gathered paperwork on their marriage and William’s service to apply for a pension in October, agents reached out to his comrades. One officer, writing from Cedar Creek a week after yet another major battle, recounted:

he was killed at Fisher’s Hill Va by a bullet through the head while charging with his Co[mpany] and Reg[iment] on the Rebel works Sept 22d 1864[.] he was a good soldier, faithful in the discharge of his duties always willing to bear his part of the danger and hardship of his fellow soldiers[.] the country lost a good soldier in him and the Company a cheerfull comrade[.]

This pension request was approved at the standard rate of $8 a month, and when Mary remarried to Ludwig Wuest (or Wist) in October 1866, the payment transferred to Mary and William’s minor daughter Anna until 1878 when she turned 16.[4]

The 114th New York’s monument at Winchester National Cemetery. Photo by Sarah Kay Bierle.

Following the war, William Guenther’s body was retrieved from Fisher’s Hill and reinterred at Winchester National Cemetery. While the 116th New York does not have a monument there, just a few yards from Guenther’s headstone is the regimental monument to the 114th New York Infantry, who served in the same brigade as the 116th and was side-by-side with them in the Shenandoah Valley. At the 1898 dedication of the 116th New York’s monument, as speeches echoed over graves of New Yorkers who fought side by side, a daughter of a veteran, who was a resident of Buffalo like Guenther, read a poem that declared:

Those dear comrades who have journeyed on a little space before,

Are here to-day with us, perchance; ah! brothers, when we wore

The blue, we were together; why not now as then the same?

For death is life in truer mould; ‘tis but another name. …

There’s a hush still o’er the hill-tops; gentle peace is ev’ry-where;

Bare your heads, my comrades; Nature’s benediction, like a prayer,

Comes through the autumn shadows, and the leaves on all the trees

Are list’ning to the stories of the plaintive autumn breeze.[5]

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Winchester National Cemetery, stories of those buried there, or monuments placed in the cemetery, you won’t want to miss the full program. To make a donation to Emerging Civil War’s fundraiser for Wreaths Across America and attend the virtual history program, please visit: https://bit.ly/ECW2022Wreaths


 

[1] New York State Archives; Albany, New York; Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts of New York State Volunteers, United States Sharpshooters, and United States Colored Troops [ca. 1861-1900]; Box #: 140-141.

[2] Civil War “Widow’s Pension,” Guenther, William (WC92891).

[3] Roster of the 116th New York State Volunteers, http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/MusterRolls/Infantry/116thInf_NYSV_MusterRoll.pdf.

[4] Civil War “Widow’s Pension,” Guenther, William (WC92891).

[5] Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Annual Reunion of the 114th New York Regimental Association and Dedicatory Services at Winchester, VA, October 19, 1898 (Washington D.C., The Cornwall Print, 1899).

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