I often relate the story of George Deichler to students and visitors as an example of both why the Union ultimately prevailed in the Civil War and the steep price some of the survivors paid to ensure the Union was preserved. Men like Deichler were the backbone of the army, indeed they are the backbone of any army. They were, and are, true warriors; tough, good soldiers who inspire the mass of lesser motivated soldiers to follow and do their duty. The Confederate army had as many Deichlers as the Union army did who helped the Confederacy to fight as long and well as it did. But being a warrior carried a cost. Many did not survive the war and for those that did Deichler’s life after the war serves as a reminder that the suffering from war does not end when the guns fall silent.
Deichler was a corporal in Company I, 69th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg. The regiment was positioned on the forward slope of Cemetery Ridge, directly in front of the now famous Copse of Trees, and about fifty yards south of The Angle. The 69th was recruited principally in the city of Philadelphia from the Irish population. Deichler fit neither profile. He was 21 year old machinist from Lancaster, Pennsylvania when he enlisted in the 69th on August 29, 1861, and he was not Irish.
When the 69th deployed on the forward line along Cemetery Ridge, Company I was on the far right flank of the regiment’s line of battle. They had some cover from a low stone wall running across their front which the men improved slightly by dismantling and piling the rails of a wood fence that straddled the wall. During the late afternoon the regiment helped repulse an assault by the Georgia brigade of Gen. Ambrose Wright at a cost of about 20 killed and wounded. Deichler passed through this action safely, but it proved to be only the prelude to the massive Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault on July 3. This time, the 69th found itself in the center of the hardest fighting. A surge of Confederates near the height of the attack caused the companies of the 71st Pennsylvania, protecting the right flank of the 69th, to withdraw. Soon after, Gen. Lewis Armistead led a body of men estimated at between 150 and 300 over the wall. The 69th’s right flank was imperiled and the regiment responded by attempting to refuse its flank by changing front with its right three companies. Executing this movement meant that the men of these companies had to leave their cover and expose themselves. Companies I and A managed to execute the movement and help check the Confederate breakthrough, but not without loss. One of those hit was Deichler, suffering a gunshot wound to his left groin.
Deichler was hospitalized and spent months recovering from the wound. Exactly when he returned to duty with the regiment is not clear, but he was back in time to serve during the 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia. On August 25, 1864 the 69th were part of an operation by the 2nd Corps designed to destroy a significant section of the Weldon Railroad, a critical rail line serving Petersburg, Virginia. The 69th and the other units of their division took up defensive positions around a place called Ream’s Station. Here they were attacked by Confederate forces commanded by Gen. A. P. Hill and badly defeated. 23 men in the 69th were killed, wounded or captured. Deichler was among the wounded. He was hit twice; a shell fragment struck him in the head and a minie ball hit him in the right knee. The kneecap was not shattered so the bullet was likely one that had spent much of its energy, or it might have been a shrapnel ball that was reported as a gunshot wound. Deichler fortunately was not one of the 2,046 Union soldiers listed as missing or captured in the action. He may have performed some notable deed in the action for two days after the battle, while he was in a hospital, he was promoted to sergeant in his company.
Deichler spent nearly six months recovering from his wounds but he was resilient and he returned to the regiment in March 1865. On March 16 he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. Nine days later he accompanied his company in an action southwest of Petersburg, Virginia, near a place called Dabney Mills. The engagement was called the 2nd Battle of Hatcher’s Run and was one of numerous actions that occurred as General U.S. Grant extended the lines of the Union army farther and farther west of Petersburg during the spring. By the standards of the Civil War, the 69th’s losses were light, 3 killed and 11 wounded. Deichler was again numbered with the wounded. This time a Confederate infantryman shot him in the right side, just above the waist, and the bullet exited out his back near the spine. It must have been an extremely painful wound. His company commander, who had likely seen many gunshot wounds, considered Deichler’s wound serious, “as the fluids and other matter was comeing out from the Bowels.” [All quotations are from documents in George P. Deichler pension file, National Archives. A copy of this file is available at the Gettysburg NMP Library]
On April 1, Deichler was admitted to the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was probably here that he posed for the photograph that I discovered in his pension file years ago. Deichler’s iron constitution helped him survive this wound but his soldiering days were at an end. He received a medical discharge on August 10, 1865 and a $17 a month pension and was sent home. There is not a happy ending to Deichler’s story. He moved to Indianapolis sometime after the war and in July 1875 he married Annie E. McDougal, a recent divorcee. Their marriage unraveled over the next six years. In 1888 Deichler told a pension surgeon that he had no sexual desire and had never had children, two issues that may have impacted his relationship with Annie during their marriage. Deichler complained to a pension doctor once of being “nervous” which may indicate that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This, combined with the physical pain from his wounds that Deichler lived with every day, caused their marriage to come apart. Deichler, Annie reported, was “subject to the drink habit and did not contribute to the expenses necessary in their [Annie’s and George’s] support.” On June 4, 1881 Deichler left Annie and returned to live with his father in Lancaster. There was no divorce. In 1882 arrangements were made for Deichler to work for Davis Kitch, who had the contract for lighting the city street lights. He quit several days later “as he was unable to stand the fatigue of walking and the exertion incident to such employment.” In a statement to the pension board Kitch explained that he “does not know of any lighter or easier employment than lighting lamps and he [Deichler] is utterly unfitted for that work.” Deichler was 41 years old.
In 1894 an examining surgeon wrote that Deichler, “seems demented & melancholic,” and that he was a “pale, tremulous man” with a “mind enfeebled.” He was 54. Five years later, in 1899, he died of pneumonia.
That Deichler lived as long as he did is perhaps remarkable. But in a sense he had already sacrificed his life to his country, at Gettysburg, at Ream’s Station, and Hatcher’s Run. We often think of those that gave “the last full measure of devotion” as those who fell in battle, but this is not always the case. Deichler’s sad, tragic life after the war is a reminder that war sometimes exacts the last full measure for years from its survivors, long after the flags are furled and the guns are silent.
D. Scott Hartwig