One hundred years ago this month, my great-great grandfather, Augustus Heinrich Heisey, died unexpectedly at his vacation home in Atlantic City, N.J., at the age of 79. Affectionately named “Gus” by all who knew him, he had battled the flu and then pneumonia that winter, but by the time he arrived at his beach house, his health had greatly improved. Despite his perceived return to wellness, on February 13, 1922, Gus died suddenly, leaving his family in shock.
This year also marks 50 years of when I started studying the Civil War, as I first visited Gettysburg as Tropical Storm Agnes was pouring feet of rain on the sacred soil in 1972. It was a special day, and what I remember most about it was climbing upon the wet rocks with my father on Little Round Top, totally enthralled with the story of the attack and defense of this 673-foot rocky eminence on the battle’s second day. So enthralled by this unique landscape that has boulders the size of box trucks, I soon began reading everything I could about this hallowed place and the Civil War. Ever since that June day, Little Round Top (known as Sugarloaf Mountain in 1863) has had a special place in my heart. I have visited Gettysburg some 20,000 times now since June 1972, and never do I not make a visit without stopping by this entrancing mount, no matter the hour.
Never had I heard or been told of my great-great grandfather’s story until August 25, 2019, when I attended a small family gathering at my aunt’s retirement home in Lancaster. It was a typical sultry late summer evening, when my older cousin mentioned my unbeknownst-to-me Grandpa Gus.
“You know, he fought in the Civil War and then went on to be a very successful American businessman in the 20th Century.”
“I never knew this,” I said, puzzled, intrigued and ready to fire questions. “What regiment did he serve in? Where did he fight?”
Soon my aunt put in front of me a small mail order catalog from the 1950s. On page seven of the catalog, there was a short biography of Grandpa Gus that caught most of my attention.
I began reading about Grandpa Gus’ life, which was only briefly touched on. He was born on August 25, 1842, in Hanover, Germany, and immigrated to America with his father, mother and several older brothers and sisters. His father’s name was also Augustus and his mother was Johanna Gottfried, and they settled in the Pittsburgh area. His father worked in the cattle raising business while his brothers worked in various glass factories that were prevalent in the heavy industrial areas around Pittsburgh. His father was killed when young Gus was only six, after a cattle sale netted the family a huge sum of money, but also attracted the eyes of thieves who were after the loot. Johanna Heisey soon returned to Germany to seek financial support for her family, but died of cholera while there. Barely able to speak English, young Gus was an orphan, dependent upon his siblings.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Grandpa Gus was only 17. When 18 in 1862, he volunteered for the 155th Pennsylvania Regiment – a three-year regiment enlistment that featured a variety of ethnic groups in its makeup. There were Irish and German as well as Polish immigrants eager to fight for their new country rather than toil in the horrible work conditions of steel mills and coal mines. More importantly, these immigrants felt a “loyal uprising” to defend their new country and no community answered President Abraham Lincoln’s second call for volunteers in August 1862 more fervently than the German-American populations of Western Pennsylvania.
That determined commitment to the Union, the abolition of slavery and democratic government ran marrow-deep in the industrial sector of Pittsburgh and its environs. Much of that fervor was fostered by clergy of the local parishes. Father Denis Kearney, vice rector of Pittsburgh’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, contracted with a Philadelphia company to install a 175-foot Union flag atop the church spire of the Cathedral, which was the highest and most visible edifice in the city. Bishop Michael Domenec, a native of Spain, was appalled at the South’s blatant rebellion against the Union and their subversive tactic of stealing steel, arms and the seizing of U.S. government ships, locomotives and gunpowder during the Buchanan administration, all prior to the South’s firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. To those parishioners who defended the Union, Bishop Domenec told them in a homily two weeks after the war began that April to look up at the Cathedral’s beautiful dome. “Heaven,” he said, “would be theirs” if they join the cause to fight the Rebels.
While Grandpa Gus was not Catholic, rather Lutheran most likely, he nonetheless had many Catholic friends who joined the Union cause with him as the 155th PA was mustered into service in late summer 1862. Before leaving for the front, the new 1,100-man regiment was given an American flag by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin as they hurried off to join the Army of the Potomac, which was heavily engaged in the Maryland Antietam Campaign. Grandpa Gus was in Company C, the regiment’s color guard, which was the portion of a battle line that always took the heaviest fire.
As part of the Fifth Corps, the 155th did not see action at the war’s bloodiest day at Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, as it was held in reserve. One of the great what-ifs of the entire Civil War is why Union General George B. McClellan fought this epic, war-defining battle without committing his largest corps. It’s a bewildering fact still today and remains a mystery that is lost in the fog of war.
Three months later, however, the 155th received their baptism of fire at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862. There on the open plains below Maryre’s Heights, the 155th was ordered into a futile charge as the sun was setting upon this field of death. Attacking a stone wall that traversed the crest of this hill, the 155th was decimated by musket and cannon fire from Confederates dug in behind the wall. In a matter of minutes, the 155th lost nearly half of its numbers and the unit’s gifted flag was riddled with bullet holes and standard post shattered by the intense fire aimed at the color guard.
The 155th spent the frigid early morning of December 14 pinned down in front of the wall, unable to move for fear of being shot in the back. Grandpa Gus spent that night frozen to the ground, using corpses of his friends to shield him from sharpshooter balls zinging just inches above him.
My great-great grandfather miraculously endured hell on earth that sorrowful December 14, which is also my birthday 101 years later, and it is not lost on me how much my ancestor gave to preserving this country. This past December 14, I spent the night sleeping upon the very ground Grandpa Gus did after his first grisly fight of the war. So overcome with respect and esteem for his service to our divided country, I did not sleep a wink there in the December dark.
Many more bloody days were to come in the war for the 155th. Grandpa Gus arrived in
Gettysburg after a 125-mile forced march from Virginia to arrive on Little Round Top just in time to help save the Union flank from the assault by Confederate General James Longstreet’s First Corps. The 5th Texas directly attacked the 155th up those rocky slopes that had intrigued me so earnestly when I was an eight-year-old in 1972. I had no clue my ancestor had fought there on that ground I was falling in love with that day. He was wounded in the arm there amidst the boulders but survived to be promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to eventually Captain by late 1864.
As soon as I read on that August night at my aunt’s that my great-great grandfather has fought at Gettysburg, I excused myself somewhat rudely in Lancaster and hopped in the car – destination Little Round Top. I got there as the sun was setting and sat there upon the boulder where Company C fought and he was most likely wounded nearby, and there in the darkness I was overcome by the irony of the whole story. Eager to learn more about this man I had not known at all about some three hours prior, I was, too, dumbfounded that my family had never told me about him though my interest in the Civil War has been anything but casual. For 50 years, every day truthfully, I have read something about the Civil War, yet never something so important as this new found riddle.
He fought again in the Wilderness in Central Virginia in May 1864 and was wounded a second time; this time in the leg, but survived as he was nursed back to health in Fredericksburg where his baptism to battle had occurred 18 months prior. Just five weeks later in June, he led a desperate charge outside Petersburg, Virginia, where the regiment had another bloody day to rival any other. Helping to lead a charge upon the hastily thrown-up Confederate breastworks, Grandpa Gus, with sword held high and his best friend Captain S.A. McKee by his side, led the charge with flag bearer Thomas Marlin in the thick of the hail of bullets. Soon McKee was mortally wounded and Marlin severely disabled by a shell fragment, and yet Grandpa Gus charged on, and the 155th PA was the last regiment to obey the fallback orders by General Gouverneur Kimble Warren.
So impressed was General Warren that Captain Heisey received his second brevet for bravery that day, as many of his friends lay wounded in the sweltering heat. The war soon settled into a 10-month long siege in the environs of Petersburg not broken until Union General Ulysses S. Grant finally forced the Confederates to retreat west to Appomattox, where the war ended on Palm Sunday, 1865. Captain Gus was there next to Wilmer McLean’s House as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant. The remarkable war experience for Captain Gus was over when he helped collect and stack the captured Rebel muskets and rolled up the Confederate battle flags used as taunting symbols meant to show open rebellion to the Federal government. Captain Gus had a profound allegiance to his adopted country he had sworn to defend and protect – three years of hard fighting and friends dying by the hundreds cemented his disdain for rebels taking up arms against the country.
When the 155th and its Fifth Corps struck their colors for the last time, their insignia all through the war was the Maltese Cross, which dates back to St. John of Jerusalem in the 10th century and is now associated with the Knights of Malta – whose patroness is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Knights continue their philanthropic humanitarian work today and continue its millennia-long defense of the Catholic faith worldwide.
Of the nearly 1,100 men who volunteered for the 155th PA in 1862, less than 145 survived the war. Given the unit’s heavy combat experiences, their casualty rates are one the most lethal of any Union regiment in the war. The Battle of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Wilderness rank in the top-five of battle casualties in the Civil War. Arguably the worst fight the 155th endured was at the Battle of the Wilderness where, when you stand on the preserved piece of sacred soil today, you immediately see how vulnerable the unit’s right flank was. Every chance he got, Captain Heisey returned to Civil War battlefields to visit the ground where so many gave the last full measure of devotion. He also attended regiment reunions in Pittsburgh throughout his lifetime.
By 1867, just two years removed from Appomattox, Gus Heisey worked in the glass business before becoming a shipping clerk for Ripley and Company in Pittsburgh. When Ripley began producing glass products, Gus was a natural fit, and he soon married Susan, in 1874, the daughter of the firm’s chief operating officer, George Duncan.
In 1895, Gus moved to Newark, Ohio, where he soon opened his own glass factory and began making intricate glass products, and the business was a huge success. The factory employed hundreds of locals, and he guided the business through several turbulent recessions and international trade wars that threatened the growth of the company. There was only ever one glass factory for the company, that in the northwest part of Ohio, and it closed operations in 1957. He often gave his employees annual gifts and money bonuses when the business turned healthy profits.
It was said that nearly every household in the middle of the 20th Century owned at least one piece of Heisey glass and the family run-business opened the glass factory to visitors who came from all over the world to see the process that was unique to Heisey glass. Today, a museum stands where the factory once did.
Pick up a piece of the hardy blown glass with intricate design patterns and look on the bottom, and there if you see a small “H” inside a small diamond, it confirms it is Heisey Glass made by hand in a small factory not so far from Pittsburgh. But, this glass forged by fire is an even better reminder of the incredible sacrifice the 155th endured during three years of harrowing battle on our nation’s most hallowed fields. There, we too can visit and experience the resolve of Pennsylvanians who saw that flag atop St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1862 and took to heart the loyal call to defend this country no matter the sacrifice, taking up arms against those who were hell bent on overthrowing the government 160 years ago in our Civil War.
One of the best regimental histories of the entire Civil War is entitled: Under the Maltese Cross, published in 1910 by Charles McKenna and the 155th Pennsylvania Regimental Association. Long out of print except for rare original first editions, the book was reprinted in 2018 by Forgotten Books, and the book is a gem if you have any interest into reading further about the regiment’s harrowing war experience. The account of Pittsburgh’s determined, loyal Catholic faithful is well chronicled in this hefty, 817-page volume.
Frank Augustin O’Reilly’s The Fredericksburg Campaign: The Winter War on the Rappahannock (2003) describes the 155th’s assault on the stone wall and night of horrors into December 14 in heartfelt prose that is captivating. It is one of the best battle books I have ever read, and so is Gordon Rhea’s The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864 (1994), which is another excellent treatise of the Union Army of the Potomac’s harrowing fight against General Lee in 1864. His photo aided book: In the Footsteps of Grant and Lee (2006) remains a classic as well. Nobody comes close to knowing the 1864 Overland Campaign as deeply and thoroughly as this Charleston, S.C., based attorney.
A real gold nugget of a book is Rebel Private: Front and Rear (1908) by William Fletcher, who penned a war memoir who fought for the 5th Texas, and he details in great style the attack on Grandpa Gus’ 155th PA at Little Round Top. Only eight copies of the original first edition survive; just after publishing the book, his house burned down in Galveston, Texas, and he was only able to rescue those several copies from the raging fire that also seriously burned him. Many reprints flood the market these days, making it an easy find to purchase and read with delight. His account of his company sergeant having his toe shot off in front of the 155th makes you wonder if Gus Heisey might have fired that big toe hit.
So much ink has been spilled about Gettysburg that singling out volumes can be dangerous. But, Harry Pfanz’s: Gettysburg – The Second Day (1997) and Edwin Coddington’s: The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (1968) are my favorites also. July 2 at Little Round Top, Gettysburg, remains one of the climatic days in the war. When my son, Aaron, was an adventurous elementary school student, we would visit Gettysburg almost every week to explore, climb and scale all rocks possible there at old Sugarloaf Mountain and Devil’s Den, never knowing this is where his great-great-great grandfather fought so heroically and just barely survived to pass on his heroic bloodline.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness