John Henry Plank - A Seattle Veteran Remembers Shiloh
On a tiny, one hundred square foot plot on the south end of Seattle’s Beacon HiIl, an old man carefully tended eighty-six chickens, a handful of fruit trees and a vegetable garden. He lost his sight some years prior and relied on the help of his wife of 53 years to get by. Over the years of their marriage, the couple lived in a number of states, but at this point in their lives, they felt Seattle was a most wonderful place to be. They readily declared it “finest place in the land.” Despite his expressions of being “supremely satisfied” with life in Seattle, the aged and blind man, John Henry Plank, was still vulnerable to feelings of loneliness at times. He expressed this publicly on April 6, 1921.
John and Sarah Plank in Seattle
As the citizens of Seattle remembered the United States’ entry into the First World War, Plank, then 80 years of age, had thoughts not of the Great War, but of his own service in the Civil War some 60 years earlier. He and his wife had both served during the conflict. John was a veteran of Company A, 14th Illinois Infantry and his wife Sarah worked as a nurse. On that spring day, Plank spoke of his desire to spend time with his fellow veterans of the Civil War, which were quite numerous in Seattle, but with whom he rarely spent time with. He said, “I wish some Civil War comrades would come around and see me. On account of my blindness I can’t get around much myself.” In particular, he wished to be visited by someone from his old regiment.
He had much to remember about his years in the Fourteenth, but that Wednesday in April was also the 59th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh. The memory of his experiences at that engagement were foremost in his mind, and he recalled the day with a clarity that belied the six decades that had since passed. As he spoke his recollections of Shiloh, in his mind, he once again became the sturdy young man who had endured the bitter campaigns of the war.
John Plank in wartime and late in life in Seattle
The men of the Fourteenth, like so many Union troops that day, had not seen battle before. As the Confederate attack began that morning, they were moved towards the fighting from their position near Pittsburg Landing. “We were laughing and joking,” Plank reminisced. The jovial mood did not last long as they soon began to encounter ambulances, moving rearward loaded with wounded. One of these wounded soldiers caught the immediate attention of the Illinois men. His right leg had been “blown away” below the knee. As they passed him, he called out, “Look here boys, what they done for me - give ‘em hell!” Plank remembered that he “wasn’t laughing then” and that his “hair felt as if it were pushing my hat off my head.” They pushed ahead toward the fighting.
Plank continued to recall the day, describing the regiment’s initial position behind a “six gun battery of Rodman steel guns” and explaining that they were ordered to lie prone as the artillery kept up their fire. While in this reserve position, Confederate fire passed mostly high and over their heads, “cutting leaves off the trees so that they fell on us like rain.” Not all the bullets passed over harmlessly.
A “burning rag” blew back through the prone men from the battery fire in front and was picked up by Company A’s Lieutenant Charles Opitz to light his pipe with. Just as he was in the process of setting it to the pipe bowl, Plank recalled that “a bullet hit him in the nose and passed through his head.” Remarkably, Opitz survived. A roster of wounded at St. Louis a week later simply described his injury as “Ball through head. Severe.”
Lt. Charles Opitz listed among Shiloh wounded
Plank himself did not escape Confederate fire. Just after he witnessed the bullet pass through Opitz’s head, he “felt something hit me in the left breast.” He initially feared the wound was mortal, but upon investigation found that the ball had barely broken the skin, “its force having been spent passing through my heavy clothes.” He later discovered the bullet in the bottom of his clothing. Plank survived the rest of the fight at Shiloh without further injury.
In 1863, Plank contracted measles and described the ordeal of “being compelled to lie on the ground with only a single blanket,” as he suffered the effects of the disease. During this time his right eye became infected and caused him to lose vision in it. He remained in the regiment and mustered out of service June 24, 1864. Incredibly, Lieutenant Opitz survived the bullet through his head and resigned from the army in March 1863. He later worked as a railroad and post office clerk and lived 23 more years until his death in Illinois in 1886.
In the decades that followed the war John Henry Plank and his wife Sarah are recorded as living in Illinois, Missouri among the many states they noted having lived in. Farming and general labor are listed as his occupations. In the early 1900’s they relocated to Seattle where they resided for the remainder of their lives. In 1909 he lost the sight in his left eye, leaving him completely blind. John Plank passed away in Seattle in 1924. Sarah Plank lived one more year, and died in 1925. Both are buried, side by side, in Seattle’s Lake View cemetery.
Gravesite of John Henry Plank and his wife Sarah in Seattle's historic Lake View cemetery
Guest contributor Richard Heisler is the founder of Civil War Seattle, a public history project dedicated to the study and sharing of the histories of Seattle's thousands of Civil War veterans, covering both their wartime experiences and their time in Seattle in the decades following the conflict,