The Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is the final resting place for over 7,000 veterans and their family members who have served the United States over the past 152 years. From the Devils Den to the jungles of Guadalcanal, and from the Argonne to the Tet Offensive, the story of the men and women buried in the National Cemetery is also the story of the triumphs and tragedies, the sacrifices and losses of the past century and a half of American history. Today we begin a new series called “These Honored Dead” which will highlight but a few of those who stand eternal vigil on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Young Charlie Speisberger was “a good boy” and very “affectionately attached to his parents,” or so remembered a Mr. Joseph Hubacheck and a Mr. Anthony Knobel of Rochester, New York, when in early 1868 they testified in support of Theresia Speisberger’s application for a pension. By then, Charlie, Theresia’s youngest son, had been dead for nearly five years and his remains buried well over three hundred miles away from home, in a Soldiers’ National Cemetery, on a prominent hilltop just south of a town called Gettysburg. His life had ended there, near Gettysburg, late on a Thursday afternoon—July 2, 1863—a little less than two miles south of where his remains were later buried, atop the rocky southwestern slope of a piece of high ground owned by a Mr. Ethan Hanaway and known locally then as Sugar Loaf Mountain but which is much more widely known today as Little Round Top. It was there where Speisberger had fallen, struck down and killed fighting under the flag of the United States and in defense of his adopted land.
He was born eighteen-and-a-half years earlier, at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, December 29, 1844, and well over 4,000 miles away, in Moosham, Upper Austria, the third child and youngest son born to John and Theresia Speisberger. John Speisberger, Charles’s father, was a native of Hausruck, Austria, who had served for fifteen years as a soldier in the 59th Line Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, of the Imperial Austrian National Guard, before being honorably discharged in 1841. Just two years before his discharge, on August 5, 1839, in the village of Geschwandt, the then twenty-eight-year-old John Speisberger had married Theresia Holzinger Schafbanker, who was ten years his senior, a widow whose husband had died in 1838, and who had five young children: Francis (age 14), John (age 13), Matthias (age 11), Theresia (age 8), and Elizabeth (age 1). Theresia Speisberger would give birth to three more children over the next five years: Antonia, born in 1841, Juliana, born in 1843, and Charles, born in late 1844.
Following his discharge from the Austrian army, John Speisberger seems to have had trouble finding steady work to support his large and growing family and thus in April 1852, seeking greater opportunity, he sought and secured permission to emigrate to the United States of America. The Speisberger family arrived three months later, in July 1852, through the port of New York and ultimately settled in the town of Gates—named in honor of Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates—and just outside the growing city of Rochester. Over the next ten years, the older children—Charles’s step-siblings and his sisters—grew to adulthood, got married, and started families of their own, leaving young Charles alone at home with his now rather aged mother—who turned sixty years old in 1861—and his father. John Speisberger had purchased a lot in Gates and there the family lived in a modest house, valued at $800, with just humble furnishings. John Speisberger was able to find employment, though much of it was irregular, working as a general laborer for number of nearby farms. Things became much tougher and economically tighter for the Speisberger family, though, when just a few years after their arrival in Gates, John Speisberger was seriously injured in a work place accident, his right arm broken by a cornstalk cutter. It would prove to be a permanent injury, which made it increasingly more difficult for him to support his family, especially as he got older. This forced young Charles to grow up rather quickly and find work to help support his elderly mother and now infirm, disabled father.
In 1856, at the age of twelve, Charles Speisberger went to work for a Mr. Christian Vogel, who owned a grocery store on Trout Street in Rochester. He initially earned $1.25 a day but it wasn’t long before this hardworking young lad got a raise, to $1.50 per week. Sometimes he would be paid in cash; other times he would be paid in groceries. Charles worked in Vogel’s grocery store for nearly two years before going to work for another grocery store on Main Street in Rochester, owned by a Nathan Stern, who paid Charles $2.00 per week and who sometimes would prepare dinners for him and his family. Charles left the employ of Nathan Stern in 1860 when the now nearly sixteen-year-old went to work at Vincent Auman’s clothing store on Trout Street, where he earned $5.00/week. He would work there for just over a year before finding new employment in Parker Morley’s gas fitting and plumbing business where he worked as a machinist.
Young Charlie Speisberger was forced to grow up at a very young age; he was smart, industrious, hard-working, and entirely devoted to his family. He went to work at the age of twelve and all of the money he would go on to earn over the next few years, whether at the grocery stores, or at Auman’s clothing store, or at Morley’s gas fitting business, he would give to his mother and father. By the summer of 1862, however—just ten years after the Speisberger family had arrived in the country—the United States was well in the throes of its darkest trial, facing its greatest challenge, as it went to war with itself. The conflict had begun the previous year but Charles, still only sixteen, was much too young to enlist just then. By the summer of 1862, though, he was near enough to the age of eighteen to enlist and on August 26 he volunteered his services, to fight for his adopted land while at the same time continuing to support his family. The bounty payment Charles received upon enlisting, he would turn right over to his mom and dad and they would use that $150.00 to make improvements upon their house, “for blinds, a rain water cistern, and other repairings.” Charles also promised to send $10 of his $13 per month pay back home.
Charles Speisberger was mustered into Federal service on September 13, 1862, as a private in Company D, 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment recruited largely from Rochester and its surrounding environs. He was listed at having stood 5’8” in height, with a light complexion, gray eyes, and light hair. Speisberger’s regiment was headed by a fiery warrior, twenty-five-year-old Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, who had graduated ranked first from the West Point Class of June 1861. The two had much in common. Like Speisberger, Patrick O’Rorke was born overseas and was brought to the United States very early in his life. The O’Rorke family settled in Rochester and when his father died in the mid-1850s, young Patrick—just like young Charles Speisberger whose father had been injured—was forced to go to work to help support his family. But then O’Rorke, who was just seven years older than Speisberger, would receive an appointment to the United States Military Academy which allowed him to seek a new career and a calling in the army. The two, however, would ultimately share the very same fate—the same destiny—less than one year later, fighting for the preservation of the United States and all that it promised atop Little Round Top south of Gettysburg.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, the 140th New York—nicknamed the “Rochester Race Horses”—formed part of Brigadier General Stephen Weed’s Third Brigade in General Romeyn Ayres’s Second Division, Fifth Army Corps. The regiment had been under fire before, but were relatively lightly engaged at the Battles of Fredericksburg and again at Chancellorsville, where it sustained 21 casualties. It would be at Gettysburg, on the late afternoon of July 2, where it would receive its first major baptism by fire and participate in its first major clash of arms. It was sometime around 3:30 p.m. when urgent orders arrived for the Fifth Corps to move south from its reserve position near Powers Hill and toward the endangered Union left, held by the army’s Third Corps, which was just about to come under a major attack. Meanwhile, as the Fifth Corps began to move out to the support of Sickles’s Third Corps, the army’s chief engineer, Gouverneur Warren, discovered that the critical high ground of Little Round Top had been left undefended. With Confederate soldiers from Alabama and Texas already stepping off to the attack off to the south and west, threatening to turn the Union left and gain control of the rocky hilltop, Warren desperately sought out any soldiers who could hold and secure the crucial ground. It thus became a race; a race ultimately won by the Union and the Army of the Potomac when Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade, marching at the forefront of the Fifth Corps, swept up the eastern side of Little Round Top and established a hasty line of battle on its southern slope. Just a few minutes later, Vincent’s men came under assault from the Texans and Alabamians who emerged from the trees below and began the ascent up to steep, boulder covered slopes.
As Vincent’s line first came under attack, Warren—who later claimed that he was unaware entirely of the presence of Vincent’s 1,300-man brigade—continued to eagerly seek out units to hold position. Lieutenant Charles Hazlett’s battery arrived soon on the scene. After helping to place Hazlett’s guns, Warren raced down the northern side of Little Round Top, looking for more men. There he just happened to encounter Colonel Patrick O’Rorke, on horseback and at the head of his 140th New York Infantry. The two had known one another quite well and although O’Rorke told Warren that he was awaiting orders from his superior Weed, still, the young Irish American colonel could detect the desperation in Warren’s pleas and agreed to take his regiment to the rocky hilltop. Together Warren and O’Rorke led the 526 men of the 140th New York Infantry up to the summit. Somewhere behind these two officers, a young, eighteen-year-old Charles Speisberger marched ahead, with steady step, closer to the roar and tumult of the escalating battle. One cannot help but wonder what was going through Charles’s mind as he raced through the trees and neared the summit. Were there any thoughts about the innocent days of his childhood spent in Austria? Was he, perhaps, thinking about his days working at the grocery and clothing stores in Rochester? Most likely, if he did have the time to reminiscence as the danger continued to grow near, he thought about his father John—who eleven years earlier had sought out a new life and new opportunity for his family in the United States—and about his mother Theresia. What was she doing at that very moment, on that very same Thursday afternoon, three hundred miles away to the north, in Gates, New York, while he, her youngest son, now followed Warren and O’Rorke to the summit of Ethan Hanaway’s hilltop south of this place called Gettysburg? Of course, we can never know what, if anything, was racing through the young man’s mind. Perhaps it was just the hope and the prayer that he come out of this fight alive; that his life be spared to once more see his family.
But this was not to be. With O’Rorke leading the way, the 140th arrived on Little Round Top just in time to throw back a desperate Confederate assault directed against Vincent’s right flank, held by the 16th Michigan Infantry. As the regiment first entered the fray, O’Rorke was struck down, shot through the neck and killed. And at some point, too—we don’t know precisely when—was Private Charles Speisberger.
O’Rorke, Speisberger, and the soldiers of the 140th New York had helped to reverse the tide and secure the hillside for the Union, but it came at a high price. Twenty-six of its soldiers were killed, eighty-nine more wounded, and eighteen were listed as missing. And while the remains of Colonel O’Rorke were later taken back home for burial in Rochester, New York, those of Private Speisberger would remain in Gettysburg, buried by Samuel Weaver’s team of laborers in the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery that was soon after the battle established on Cemetery Hill. And there, they continue to rest, among the thousands of other “honored dead” who gave their lives at Gettysburg so that their nation might live.
Ranger John Hoptak, Gettysburg National Military Park
*All information on Charles Speisberger, his family, and his ancestry from the Pension Application File of Theresia Speissberger (File #WC108221) held at the National Archives. Theresia Speisberger would be granted a pension of $8.00/month commencing in February 1868.