“The Death of A Hero”: Lieutenant Wilhelm Roth at Gettysburg

74th Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg. Photo by author.

On July 1, 1863, Lieutenant Wilhelm Roth must have had déjà vu. Nearly two months earlier, a Confederate flank attack swept his regiment and the entire Union Eleventh Corps from the field, forcing Roth and his men to flee. Now, he found himself in a similar position at Gettysburg—caught up in the Eleventh Corps retreat after a crushing Confederate flank attack.

Born in Hessen, Germany in 1835, Wilhelm Roth emigrated to the United States sometime before the Civil War. He settled in Pennsylvania where, according to his pension records, he became a merchant and likely anglicized his name to “William”. [1] When the war broke out, he enlisted in the 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers, a regiment consisting of German American immigrants from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. After leaving for war, Roth frequently wrote home to his brother Charles to describe army life. “If I could eat everything, I would have no need for money,” Roth wrote to his brother. “The greasy meat soups (of fresh beef) and all the meat are bad for my health. So, I must purchase such foods, as are more to my liking.”[2]

As the seventy-fourth fought through the battles of Cross Keys, Freeman’s Ford, and Second Manassas, Roth quickly rose from the rank of commissary sergeant to second lieutenant.[3] At Chancellorsville, Lieutenant Roth and his men defended the Union army’s right against General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s infamous flank attack. “In one moment the first divisions [of the Eleventh Corps] were forced back and dispersed,” wrote a member of the 74th Pennsylvania. “Everyone scattered apart in a wild rout.”[4] Although the seventy-fourth joined other Yankee regiments in mounting a meager resistance, Northern newspapers passed blame of the defeat at Chancellorsville to the “Flying Dutchmen” of the Eleventh Corps. “Without waiting for a single volley from the rebels this corps disgracefully abandoned their position behind their breastworks and commenced coming, panic stricken, down the road towards headquarters,” a Union soldier crowed in the Daily Post.[5]

The stampede of the Union Eleventh at Chancellorsville. From Harper’s pictorial history of the Civil War (Chicago, Ill/ McDonnell Bros., 1868) Part 2, p. 494. (Artists Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, Library of Congress)

Thus, the 74th Pennsylvania marched north in June 1863 with the hope that their performance in the next battle would clear their name. On the morning of July 1, the regiment broke camp in Emmitsburg, Maryland and began their trek toward Gettysburg. As they crossed the Mason-Dixon line, Roth and his men could hear the distant rattle of musketry and echoing thuds of artillery.[6] The Pennsylvanians marched at the double quick through town and onto the battlefield, where they deployed on flat land north of Gettysburg along with the rest of the Eleventh Corps. Here, Roth and his men intercepted the Confederates along the Carlisle Road. The Pennsylvanians stood firm, but a renewed attack late in the afternoon forced the entire corps to withdraw from the field once again. With their position compromised, the men of the seventy-fourth dashed back through town to their rallying point on Cemetery Hill.

After cutting through the campus of Pennsylvania College, Lieutenant Roth made his way down Washington Street to a stone bridge that spanned Stevens Run. There, he found a group of his men reluctant to cross it. The bridge stood so high that it made a tantalizing target for Confederate infantry, already occupying the houses in the northern part of town. Word passed through the ranks of the seventy-fourth not to cross the bridge but rather to trudge through the mire of Stevens Run. As Roth approached his men, he allegedly “scorned” the thought of any Rebel hitting him and marched across the bridge. The lieutenant made it about halfway across when two bullets pierced his chest and head, and he fell lifeless into the mud below.[7]

A map of the fighting around Barlow’s Knoll. The 74th Pennsylvania can be seen deployed to the west of the Carlisle Road. American Battlefield Trust.

The following day, Roth’s comrades in the 74th Pennsylvania defeated a Confederate attack on Cemetery Hill and redeemed their honor. However, the lieutenant’s body was never recovered. He most likely lies in the unknown section of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on Cemetery Hill—ironically, the place he sought before he was killed.[8]

In August, Captain John Zeh took a moment to write Charles Roth to inform him of his brother’s death. Charles had written to Zeh on July 23, inquiring about Wilhelm’s fate after the recent campaign. “It is my sad duty, to confirm […] the death of your beloved brother,” the letter began. “In him we have lost a patriotic and daring soldier as well as a much beloved comrade.” Zeh proudly declared Roth’s gallant service on the battlefield (with no mention of the bridge incident), writing that “he died the death of a hero.” The captain concluded the by laconically proclaiming that Roth’s effects could not be sent home and were instead sold to other members of the regiment. Then, he added the postscript: “W. Roth is indebted to me 21 dollars and 50 cents which I have loaned him.”[9]

While Roth’s remains lay in an unmarked grave, his story has survived through his letters and the recollections of his comrades. His death represents countless other individuals that died unromantically on the battlefield, while next of kin received a vague testament to their relative’s gallantry and little solace for their sacrifice.


[1] E.J. Conley to Mrs. Karl Roth, December 15, 1936, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Box 100, Folder 15, Civil War Document Collection, Carlisle, PA.

[2] Wilhelm Roth to Charles Roth, October 15, 1861, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Box 100, Folder 15, Civil War Document Collection, Carlisle, PA.

[3] Richard Sauers, Advance the Colors: Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags, (Pennsylvania: Capitol Preservation Committee, 1987), 201.

[4] Martin Seel to Georg Seel, May 10, 1863, Martin Seel Papers, Folder 24, MSS365, Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, PA.

[5] Daily Post, May 18, 1863, Newspapers.com (accessed, January 12, 2023).

[6] Louis Fischer, “A Pioneer Remembers Gettysburg,” National Tribune, December 12, 1869, reprinted in Gettysburg Magazine, (January 2015), 52.

[7] Fischer, “A Pioneer Remembers Gettysburg,” 53; Capt. John Zeh to Charles Roth, August 5, 1863, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Box 100, Folder 15, Civil War Document Collection, Carlisle, PA.

[8] Lt. Col. John T. Harris to Mrs. Karl Roth, December 9, 1936, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Box 100, Folder 15, Civil War Document Collection, Carlisle, PA.

[9] Capt. John Zeh to Charles Roth, August 5, 1863, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

2 Responses to “The Death of A Hero”: Lieutenant Wilhelm Roth at Gettysburg

  1. Interesting article. Sadly it turned out to be a John Sedgwick type of ending, except no recovery of his body.

  2. You’d think he’d have seen wounded soldiers on the bridge or the blood thereof and listened to the others.
    His last words were, they couldn’t hit a barrel of hefeweizen from this distance, but apparently two of them could.
    But truly, many a lad’s last breaths were drawn due to bravado and the perceived mirage of invincibility. A red badge of arrogance. I recall a story of a Vicksburg Union soldier who was bored with staying in his trench and stood up, daring to be shot at, somehow thinking he was impervious to bullets, which proved false, and in his last moments he expressed much sincere sad regret to his gathered comrades. I look at that young dead Antietam battlefield boy, photographed by Gardner with his exposed ribs and his guts shot out, and the final look on his face one of horror. He saw the elephant. It’s a sad thing to find out how uninvincible you are.

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