Blog Brings Connections to the Past and Present: An Update on Capt. Hiram Gibbs, 21st Wisconsin
One of the best things about writing history is that readers sometimes share stories or sources that provide a personal connection to the past.
On January 8, I wrote a post for this blog about Captain Hiram Gibbs, a forty-year-old farmer from Calumet County, Wisconsin, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Perryville. Gibbs was shot in the side while leading a company in the 21st Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.
Perryville was that regiment’s first battle. Deployed in a cornfield between two Union brigades, they were hit with both friendly fire and enemy musketry as the Confederates struck the Federal left flank.
Severely injured, Gibbs’s comrades took him to a field hospital. There, the regiment’s chaplain, O. P. Clinton, wrote Gibbs’s wife, Nancy, about her husband’s condition. Gibbs’s hip was shattered. He died on October 15, a week after the battle. Upon his death, Clinton wrote Nancy that “Our worst fears in regard to your dear husband are realized.”
Although Gibbs was initially buried on the battlefield, his remains were eventually reinterred at Camp Nelson National Cemetery, located about twenty-five miles away.
A few days after publishing the post, I received an email from Mike Pichee, the director of the Calumet County Historical Society in Gibbs’s home county. Mike kindly shared a charcoal drawing of Gibbs in his uniform that is on display in their museum.
Seeing the drawing of Gibbs was certainly moving. While we’re fortunate that the Library of Congress and scores of other repositories like the Calumet County Historical Society have collected images of Civil War soldiers, historians don’t always get to see the faces of their subjects. I’m very appreciative that Mike shared the drawing, which is published here with his permission.
Mike also included a letter that Chaplain Clinton wrote to a local newspaper about Gibbs and Frederick Koelsch, another soldier in the 21st Wisconsin. According to Clinton, Confederate soldiers captured Koelsch at Perryville. Koelsch, however, “escaped from his captors the same night.” Koelsch eventually fell ill and died on March 13, 1863.
Clinton, who wrote the letter on March 27, 1863, was compelled to write about Gibbs and Koelsch because he wanted their sacrifices to be remembered by local citizens.
“Such men must be greatly missed in their county as well as in their homes,” Clinton wrote, “and their names long cherished by the good and patriotic. Their connection with the army was induced by the purest motives and the afflicted country for the good of which they voluntarily periled their lives, falling on the post of duty, owe them a debt of gratitude, and their surviving friends unfailing kindness.”
After attending to the wounded Gibbs and informing Gibbs’s wife about her husband’s demise, it is understandable why Clinton wanted the soldier to be remembered.
Today, thanks to the Calumet County Historical Society, where the drawing of Gibbs is displayed, Gibbs’s sacrifice is commemorated. Hopefully, this blog has played a small part in honoring his life, too.
Writing for this blog connects us to the past AND the present. While we’re fortunate to share the history of the Western Theater, we get something more important in return: interacting with readers like Mike and learning more personal stories about our nation’s past.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books, including “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle,” “The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky,” and “Maney’s Confederate Brigade at the Battle of Perryville.” His latest is “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” which examines Southern honor culture, violence, and vigilantism through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat. He is the former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association. Find him on Twitter @StuartWSanders.