Frederick Koehler — The First Red River Campaign Casualty for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry?

First State Color, 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (presented to the regiment by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, 20 September 1861; retired 11 May 1865, public domain).

Possible Alternate Spellings of Given Name: Frederick, Friederich, Friederick, Friedrich. Possible Alternate Spellings of Surname: Koehler, Kohler, Köhler

 

This biographical sketch is a short one because, sadly, 21st-century researchers of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry still know precious little about its subject, including how his first and last names were actually spelled.

What is currently known comes from critically important work done during by Lewis G. Schmidt in researching, writing and self-publishing his 1986 book, A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, and that is that this 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer was one of the earliest casualties sustained by the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the Union’s 1864 Red River Campaign across Louisiana—and may, in reality, have actually been the first.

According to Schmidt “a member of the 47th” penned the following letter excerpts to family and friends back home in Pennsylvania:

From the mouth of the Mississippi to New Orleans on either side of the river, is the prettiest and most level land I ever saw. As far as the eyes can reach it is one vast plain, spotted with mansions, sugar factories and negro huts. Orange groves are neatly arranged on every plantation, and cedar trees are in abundance, the former (peach) being in full blossom, which added a great deal to the beauty of the scene as we passed up the river….

Just as the steamer was rounding, preparatory to our landing … on the beach … at Algiers, a fatal accident happened to a member of Company K. He was sitting in one of the side hatches of the boat, lost his balance and before a boat could get to him, either from the steamer or shore, he was drowned. No one saw him fall, and it was only known by seeing him come up astern of the boat, that a ‘man was overboard’. His cap was found: on the vizier was ‘F.K.’, by which means it was discovered the missing man was Frederick Koehler, a citizen of Lehigh County and a member of Company K, Capt. Abbott.

Knowing the Mississippi to be the ‘Father of Waters’, I was surprised when I found that at no point we passed, near as wide as the Susquehanna, at Sunbury, but then what is lost in width is made up in depth, for I was assured by those posted, that no place in the channel is the water less than 100 feet deep. The river is as crooked as it is deep, and to run up its windings takes one of the most experienced pilots….

Death of Frederick Koehler as reported by Henry Wharton (letter to the Sunbury American, 2 March 1864, published 19 March 1864, public domain; click to enlarge).

Analysis: Although Mr. Schmidt did not identify the name of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantryman who penned this account of Frederick Koehler’s death, researchers for 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers: One Civil War Regiment’s Story have been able to determine that the author of the letter was Henry D. Wharton, a native of Sunbury, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania who initially enrolled as a Musician with the regiment’s C Company, but was quickly called upon to assist his company commander, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin, and other more senior officers within the regiment and its various brigades with the completion of the numerous ledgers and reports they were required to submit to senior Union Army officials. Henry Wharton also became known as a reliable chronicler of the 47th Pennsylvania’s activities thanks to numerous letters he wrote to his hometown newspaper, the Sunbury American.

Researchers have determined that this letter cited by Schmidt was penned by Henry Wharton on 2 March 1864 while the regiment was encamped at Franklin, Louisiana, and was subsequently published in the 19 March 1864 edition of the Sunbury American.

This documentation by Wharton was backed up by a letter penned by Private William Brecht, who served with Frederick Koehler in Company K. Per Schmidt:

Pvt. Brecht of Company K also reported the incident as he wrote on the ‘floor with my knapsack for a desk…. I must tell you that in the moment we landed at Algiers, a young recruit fell in between the ship and the gang plank and even though help was there right away, the current took him with it. Friederick Kohler of another company (K). Some think he wanted to do it because he was so depressed.

In addition to the specifics that Private Brecht provided about Frederick Koehler’s death, including that this soldier may have been suffering from depression—known back then as “Soldiers’ Heart” and today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—this letter excerpt presents a second possible spelling of Koehler’s name, along with this key description of him: “a young recruit,” which signals that he was most likely in his late teens to early twenties, which would mean that he may have been born sometime between 1839 and 1846.

Furthermore, because Company K was formed in 1861 with the intent of it being “an all-German company” that would be staffed, primarily, by immigrants from Germany and German-Americans who had been born in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, researchers currently theorize that Frederick Koehler was either a native of Germany or of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania (or of one of that county’s neighboring towns). And because he was described as a new recruit in the letters of two soldiers who had served with the regiment since its inception, researchers believe that he was most likely serving at the rank of private.

Private Frederick Koehler’s death date, while not specifically defined in any of the letters cited by Schmidt, occurred in late February 1864—since that was when the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were still aboard ship and en route to Algiers, Louisiana, and since Wharton confirmed in his letter that the regiment had disembarked sometime on or before 29 February 1864 (because it “made a forward movement by taking the cars on the U.S. Military railroad for Breashear city [sic]” (now Morgan City, Louisiana).

Unfortunately, Private Koehler’s burial location remains unclear. According to Schmidt:

The remains of Pvt. Koehler have not been identified as being buried at Chalmette National Cemetery and his body may not have been recovered from the sea….

A search of the rosters as recorded in ‘Bates’ fails to identify Frederick Koehler as a member of the regiment, but the young man was referred to as a newly assigned recruit in a letter from Adj. Hangen on March 4, and was never included on any permanent roster. There is some indication in Brecht’s letter, which is translated with difficulty from the German, that Koehler may have been from Luzerne County.

Researchers have recently confirmed that Frederick Koehler’s name was not entered onto regimental muster rolls for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry or on the ledgers of the Registers of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 that are maintained by the Pennsylvania State Archives, and that his name does not appear in Samuel Bates’ rosters for the 47th Pennsylvania which were published in volume one of his 1869 History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5.

Of note, his name also does not appear on Union Army death ledgers (also known as the Registers of Deaths of Volunteer Soldiers), which appears to leave open the possibility that if Private Koehler’s body was not retrieved and buried by the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers or another Union Army regiment, that he may, perhaps, have survived somehow, but was then killed or captured by Confederate troops.

Can You Help? Researchers for this project are continuing to seek information about this soldier. If you are a descendant of this individual and have information about his birth, early life, death, and/or burial, please reach out to us via the email address provided on our “Contact Us” page.

 

Sources:

  1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, vol. 1. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.
  2. Horwitz, Tony. Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD? Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Magazine, January 2015.
  3. Schmidt, Lewis G. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.
  4. Wharton, Henry D. Letters from the Sunbury Guards. Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Sunbury American, 1864.