Over the past nine seasons, while working as an interpretative ranger at both Antietam and Gettysburg, I have met dozens —if not, hundreds—of visitors whose ancestors fought in the Civil War. Usually it is a great-great-great grandfather or great-great-great uncle, but on at least half a dozen occasions, I have had the great pleasure of meeting folks whose grandfathers served in the war. This happened most recently during the Sesquicentennial Anniversary weekend in September 2012 at Antietam when an elderly gentleman inquired of the location of the 9th New York/Hawkins’s Zouaves Monument. He was looking for it because, as he said, he wanted to stand upon the same ground where his grandfather had fought 150 years earlier. Talking further with this gentleman, I discovered that his grandfather was born in 1840 and that he had passed away at the age of 95 in 1935. The soldier’s grandson, who in September 2012 stood before me at the desk at Antietam, told me that he was ten years old when his grandfather died. Curios, I asked if his grandfather had ever discussed the war with him when he was a young child. The man simply shook his head no and said that it was something they just didn’t talk about.
To be able to point out and physically connect a visitor to a particular part of a battlefield where their ancestor—or at least their ancestor’s regiment—served, is a great and satisfying feeling and one that I have had the privilege of doing countless times over the years. Many times the visitor’s face will light up when I circle on a map where their ancestor served; other times, their eyes swell with tears knowing that they would be able to stand where their ancestor fought and where, on some occasions, their ancestor fell. Usually after doing this, I am myself asked if any of my ancestors served in the war. It is a question I have been asked many, many times over the past nine years. And the answer is a simple no. Indeed, as far as I’ve been able to discover, none of my direct ancestors were even in the United States during the 1860s. They were, instead, many thousands of miles away, scattered across Eastern Europe, and another five or six decades would pass even before any of my ancestors finally made the long journey to America.
I, thus, may not have any direct, ancestral ties to the Civil War but there are still many personal connections I can make to the war’s great battlefields. During my years at Antietam, for example, I had a strong connection to the southern end of the battlefield, to the famed Burnside’s Bridge and to the ground where the 9th Corps made the final Union attack on that bloody Wednesday, September 17, 1862. It was there where the 48th Pennsylvania served and where they lost some 60 men. The 48th Pennsylvania was recruited from my hometown, from my native Schuylkill County, in the east-central portion of the Commonwealth. Growing up, studying the Civil War, I focused in on this particular regiment. I studied its service, its experiences, and the soldiers who composed its ranks. I frequently visited their graves. Indeed, in my hometown of Orwigsburg, a small community of just 2,500 or so people, lies buried the remains of Corporal Lewis Focht while only a few miles away, in Cressona, lies the remains of Private George Dentzter. Across Route 61 from Cressona is Schuylkill Haven and there is buried Corporal Daniel Moser while only a few miles further north, in Port Carbon, is the grave Lieutenant William Cullen. All of these soldiers were members of the 48th Pennsylvania, and all gave their lives at Antietam. For me, finding something of a personal connection to Antietam was thus not that difficult. But Gettysburg would be a little bit harder, for the 48th Pennsylvania—and the entire 9th Corps for that matter—was simply not there, not present during the battle. I would thus have to dig just a little deeper to find those personal connections.
Of course, by the time I began working with the NPS at Gettysburg, the place was already very—very—familiar to me. As a young kid, growing up only two hours away, I came to the fields of Gettysburg countless times on family vacations or on simple day-trips, and in 2004, my wife and I moved here, years before my first season began in the Gray and Green at Gettysburg. So, there has always been a connection for me to Gettysburg—but it was a deeper connection I was seeking and, during my first season here, I found it. I found it while developing an interpretative program on the National Cemetery when I came across the name—and the story—of William Beaumont and his brothers.
The story of the Beaumont brothers really struck a chord with me because of its connection to my native Schuylkill County and its connection to my own family’s history. As alluded to previously, it was not until the early 1900s before any of my own ancestors arrived on America’s shores, with the hopes of carving out a new life for themselves and for their families. On both my paternal and maternal sides, it was my great-grandparents who made the journey, settling ultimately in Schuylkill County where my great-grandfathers immediately went to work in the coal mines. It would be an occupation followed by their sons as well, including my maternal grandfather—my mom’s dad—Nicholas Mitsock.
Nick Mitsock was born in Schuylkill County in April 1927 and raised in a coal patch near Minersville. He went to the local schools before service called him away to Europe. He served in Germany during the waning days of World War II, a truck mechanic, or so I have been told. Following his discharge from the army, Nick Mitsock returned to Schuylkill County and once more took up the pick and shovel of the coal miner. He met my grandmother. Soon after they were married and five children followed as a result. Their first—my mom—was born in 1951 and was thus only six years of age when her dad—my grandfather—left home one late May morning in 1957 and never came back. Nick Mitsock was only thirty-years old when he was killed in a mine collapse, leaving my grandmother a widow, my mom fatherless and forcing her to help raise her four young siblings. After several days, his body was recovered and his remains laid to rest in the town of St. Clair.
So, what, then, does this have to do with the Battle of Gettysburg and the story of the Beaumont brothers?
Some eighty or so years before my great-grandparents immigrated to America and found a home in Schuylkill County, a Mr. William Beaumont arrived. Born in England in 1811, William Beaumont immigrated to America, presumably in the late 1820s or early 1830s. He found a home in St. Clair and went immediately to work in the coal mines. He met a young lady named Mary and the couple had six children. Their eldest son, George, was born in 1834. Their second son, William, arrived six years later. In 1842, John was born and their youngest son, Charles, was born two years after John, in 1844. As the boys got older, they followed in their father’s footsteps, finding work in the coal mines near St. Clair. Then the war began, and all four sons made the decision to leave their picks and shovels behind and take up the weapons of a soldier, fighting in defense of their father’s adopted country.
George, William, and John Beaumont volunteered their services first, soon after the outbreak of hostilities, when all three enlisted into the ranks of Company A, 88th Pennsylvania Infantry. As the youngest of the Beaumont boys, Charles was only 17 when the war began and thus could not officially enlist until the following year. He did so, joining up first with the 129th Pennsylvania Infantry in the summer of 1862 and later with the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, seeing considerable service in the war’s Western Theater before returning safely home in 1865.
Having offered their services, it was not long before George, William, and John Beaumont became good soldiers. Fighting side-by-side, the three brothers made it unscathed through the Seven Days’ Battles, 2nd Manassas, and Antietam, where the 88th sustained heavy losses in the infamous Cornfield. By the summer of 1863, they were battle-hardened, experienced soldiers fighting in a well-seasoned, veteran regiment, which, by the onset of the Gettysburg Campaign, had been whittled down to fewer than 300 soldiers remaining in its ranks.
At Gettysburg, the 88th Pennsylvania formed part of General Henry Baxter’s Brigade of General John Robinson’s Second Division, First Corps. The regiment arrived on the field sometime before noon on July 1, 1861 and was initially assigned to a reserve position near the Lutheran Seminary. As a defensive measure, the men, including the Beaumont brothers, immediately began throwing up fence rails, erecting make-shift barricades. But when Robert Rodes’s Confederate division arrived on Oak Hill, further to the north, General Abner Doubleday—who had taken command of the First Corps following the death of John Reynolds—needed troops to meet this new and developing threat. Robinson got the nod and Robinson, in turn, called upon Baxter and sometime after noon, Baxter’s men—the 88th included—raced their way northward along Seminary Ridge, across the railroad cut to Oak Ridge, where they settled into position behind a stone wall. It would not be long before they became heavily engaged. After helping to turn back several Confederate attacks, the soldiers of the 88th Pennsylvania ran low on ammunition and their spot on the front would be taken up by soldiers of Robinson’s Second Brigade under Gabriel Paul. Relentless pressure from Rodes’s Division, however, simply became too much for Robinson’s men to bear and sometimes around 4:00 p.m. orders from Doubleday arrived to retreat. Driven from the field and back through the labyrinthine streets of Gettysburg, Robinson’s men ultimately rallied on Cemetery Hill.
In its action that day, the 88th Pennsylvania lost more than a third of its men, killed, wounded, captured, and missing. Panting, exhausted, George Beaumont made it safely back to Cemetery Hill. As he looked around through the wreckage—through what was left of the 88th—he could not locate his two younger brothers, for both William and John Beaumont were among the regiment’s casualties that bloody Wednesday. At some point during the battle on Oak Ridge, William was shot through the neck, while John was captured in the streets of town. Carried south with the Army of Northern Virginia in the aftermath of the battle, John Beaumont remained in captivity for just three weeks before being exchanged. He would return to the ranks of Company A, 88th PA, but brother William would not be so fortunate. His wound proved mortal, and he passed away on July 13. Later that year, William Beaumont’s remains were interred in the newly-established Soldiers’ National Cemetery, in the Pennsylvania plot, Row B, Grave #73.
It is not known whether William Beaumont’s grave had been dug by the time Lincoln arrived in mid-November to deliver his “few appropriate remarks” but his words, when they heard or read them, surely resonated with brothers George and John, still in the ranks of the 88th PA. Lincoln admonished the people of the nation—including those on the home front and those on the battle front—to rededicate themselves to the great task remaining before them, to see the war through to its conclusion, for there was still hard work ahead. In the winter of 1863-1864, both Beaumont brothers still in the 88th decided to reenlist for another three-year term of service and in a February 1864 letter to the editor of Schuylkill County’s leading newspaper best summarized the reason why when he wrote: “I have been in the service of my country two years and six months, but I am not tired of it. . . .I entered the service when the rebellion first began, and I am determined to see it ended.”
Sadly, John Beaumont would not live to see the end of the war. On June 18, 1864, four months after writing this letter, John was killed in action at Petersburg.
Next year, the war, at last, came to an end. George Beaumont was the only one of the three brothers who served in the 88th Pennsylvania to make it back home. He returned to St. Clair and to his family. He was married by then and may have had at least one child. He also returned to the mines. He sought, as best he could, to return to normal. But tragedy still hovered over the Beaumont brothers and on November 30, 1868—just three-and-a-half years after Appomattox—George Beaumont was at work in the mines when a large lump of coal fell down a 500-foot shaft that George just happened to be standing under. The coal struck George and he was instantly killed. A few days later, George Beaumont’s remains were laid to rest in St. Clair.
Some four score and nine years later, in 1957, my grandfather—Nicholas Mitsock—who like George Beaumont had been killed in a coal mine accident shortly after returning from war, leaving a widow and a young family behind—was also laid to rest, in St. Clair, very near the grave of George Beaumont.
It is important for all of us to find our connections—physical, emotional, or both—to the past and to its places, such as Gettysburg. You can find them if you look hard enough, even if you believe there are none to be found. Many visitors to Gettysburg have a direct, ancestral connection to the battlefields here; many do not. None of my ancestors fought at Gettysburg; indeed, none even served in the war. But there are still strong connections. I am reminded of this every time I walk past the grave of William Beaumont in the Pennsylvania section of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Seeing his name inscribed upon his granite footstone, immediately makes me think his brother George and of my mom’s dad—my grandfather—Nicholas Mitsock whom I never had the privilege of knowing; who, in fact, died long before I was even born.
John Hoptak, Park Ranger