An Immigrant's Story Company H, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Photo Courtesy Oshkosh Public Museum.
Franz Benda was born on August 18, 1844 near Prague, in the modern-day Czech Republic. Unfortunately, little is known about his early life, including when or why he immigrated to the United States. He came across the Atlantic with his family, so perhaps they were seeking a fresh start, or an escape from the decaying Habsburg Empire. Whatever the reasons may have been, by 1862 Franz Benda was eighteen years old. He worked as a farmer and lived with his family near Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a county seat town along the shores of Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee. Clearly, some sort of patriotic spirit, desire for the steady wages of the army, or childhood-based motivation to serve his country in its time of need guided the actions of the young Benda, as just three days after his eighteenth birthday, on August 21, 1862, he enlisted to serve for three years in the newly-formed 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. He became a part of the regiment’s Company F, nicknamed the Lake Shore Rifles, and was officially mustered in as a private in Milwaukee on September 17, while the bloodiest day in American history unfolded nearly six hundred miles away at Antietam.
The 26th Wisconsin was one of the regiments specifically recruited in German-based communities by the well-known German-born general Franz Sigel, and this ethnic identity came to largely define the unit. Approximately one in every ten men who served the Union during the war had been born in Germany, making the regiment part of a larger fraternity of German soldiers. Views on the capabilities of these soldiers varied, with some respecting their fighting accomplishments and others viciously attacking them when they failed, based on ethnic tensions and a general suspicion of foreigners as “the other.” Command of the regiment went to Colonel Wilhelm Jacobs, a Milwaukee banker, and the men of the 26th referred to themselves as the “Sigel Regiment” or “Unser Deutsches Regiment” (Our German Regiment). Benda would have been a bit of an outsider in this unit as a Czech immigrant, but he seems to have adapted nonetheless. The regiment soon headed east, eager to begin its fight for the Union.
Benda and the 26th Wisconsin departed the Midwest in early October 1862, joining the Union Army of the Potomac near Washington. To the men’s delight, they were assigned to the Eleventh Corps, which was commanded at that time by Franz Sigel himself. They also liked their brigade leader, a Polish political exile named Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski, who contributed further to the Corps’s ethnic diversity. Franz Benda drilled with the men of his new brigade and participated in some brief campaigns around Thoroughfare Gap in his first months in the army. The 26th Wisconsin did not engage at Fredericksburg, avoiding the disastrous slaughter that took place there. However, Benda surely heard of the terrible bloodshed of Fredericksburg and Antietam from other men in the army, and he may well have felt apprehensive about what he had signed himself up for. The 26th Wisconsin’s first major battle proved every bit as horrible as those that had come before it.
In the spring of 1863, Union Major General Joseph Hooker planned to maneuver around Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army and create a path to Richmond, but he stopped his advance in the face of Confederate opposition around Chancellorsville, Virginia. On May 2, 1863, the Eleventh Corps made up the exposed right flank of the Army of the Potomac, resting along the Orange Turnpike. Confederate troops had been observed on the march in the vicinity, but Hooker and the corps’ new commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, believed that Lee was retreating. Benda’s division commander, Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz, felt less secure, and tried in vain to convince his superiors to fortify their position. When they refused, he took matters into his own hands. Schurz ordered two of Krzyzanowski’s regiments, including the 26th Wisconsin, to move north of the turnpike and face west, perpendicular to the rest of the corps. Schurz’s foresight proved prescient, as shortly after 5:00 p.m. the woods in front of the Wisconsin men erupted with the sound of gunfire. The Confederates had not been retreating; Stonewall Jackson had instead pulled off a masterful flanking march, and now his men slammed into the totally unprepared Eleventh Corps. Many of the men of the 26th Wisconsin, perhaps including Franz Benda, had settled down to cook their evening meals when the regiment’s skirmishers came sprinting back to warn their comrades. The Badgers were now the far-right flank of the Union army, with no way to defend against the swarms of yelling Confederates streaming towards them. Bullets whizzed and snapped through the trees, and men fell dead and wounded at every turn. There was nothing left for Benda to do; like the other men of the unit who were still standing, he ran for his life. Colonel Jacobs reluctantly ordered a retreat, all the while bemoaning the fate of “Mein Schönes Regiment (My beautiful regiment)!” Some of the 26th’s survivors joined a patchwork defensive line put together by the Eleventh Corps brigade commander Colonel Adolf Buschbeck, but this line could only buy precious time, and the Union right flank collapsed. The Wisconsin men finally gathered near Hooker’s headquarters that evening. Battered, broken, confused, and upset about all they had seen that day, Benda and the rest of the Eleventh Corps guarded the army’s left flank the next day before Hooker ordered a withdrawal. Franz Benda had finally “seen the elephant,” and he surely felt horrified by the carnage and bloodshed that he saw. Adam Muenzenberger, a private in Company C of the 26th, captured these sentiments in writing when the regiment returned to its old camp after the battle, musing:
One-third of the tents in the camp were empty. And why? Because those who had occupied them were no more. Where are they? Dead! In the hospitals. Captured by the rebels. That is the worst thing that could happen to a regiment that was once so excellent.
Franz Benda’s first major engagement had turned into an unmitigated disaster.
The fallout from the nightmare of Chancellorsville extended far beyond the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. As the Northern public sought answers for what had happened, many trained their sights on the men of the Eleventh Corps. The German identity that had made the 26th Wisconsin so proud now became a weapon against them. The New York Times blamed the cowardice of German soldiers for the defeat, saying they ran away too quickly from the field of battle. Stories circulated alleging that the Eleventh Corps had broken and fled from prepared defensive positions, and the inability of Germans to fight became an accepted trope in many circles. Other units in the Army of the Potomac, even ones within the Eleventh Corps itself, savaged the German soldiers, mocking their early war slogan of “I fights mit Sigel!” with the rejoinder “I fights mit Sigel and runs mit Schurz.” Schurz himself reacted furiously, believing that he and his men were taking undue blame for the mistakes of Hooker and Howard, even calling for a Congressional investigation into the debacle. Franz Benda, though not a German himself, was likely lumped in with his comrades in this criticism. He probably reacted with the same mixture of depression and anger that many of the men of the regiment and corps would have felt. Now, as Lee’s army marched north and the Union men pursued them, the 26th Wisconsin had a chip on its shoulder and a renewed sense of motivation for the fight to come.
A Fatal Wounding View of the town of Gettysburg from near the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Wikimedia Commons.
Franz Benda and the 26th Wisconsin arrived at Gettysburg around 12:30 p.m. on the afternoon of July 1, 1863 in an exhausted state. They had awoken that morning at 7:00 a.m. and been on the road by 8:00, pounding out a thirteen-mile forced march from Emmitsburg to the battlefield in four-and-a-half hours. They moved quickly through the town before finally stopping to rest in the fields just north of Gettysburg. That afternoon, Benda, along with the rest of Krzyzanowski’s brigade, took up a position in the fields north of town as a reserve for the advanced position of Francis Barlow’s division. While the men of the XI Corps may have been anxious to prove themselves worthy as fighters and redeem their masculine honor, once again their leadership let them down. Barlow made a poor choice in his positioning by establishing his line far in advance of the rest of the Corps and leaving his right flank exposed, just like at Chancellorsville. The division commander never explained his decision, but perhaps he believed that the relative high ground of Blocher’s Knoll made for a better defensive position. Whatever Barlow’s reasoning was, he soon had Confederates converging on his division from both his front and his side. The 26th Wisconsin would now be called upon to come to the aid of their comrades.
At around 3:45 p.m. on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Franz Benda and the 26th Wisconsin marched forward to try to stem the advancing Confederate tide. The Wisconsin men advanced on the right of Krzyzanowski’s brigade, with their flank open to a potential Confederate assault. A brigade of Georgians, fresh off their defeat of Barlow’s division, stood directly in front of them, and while the Union men repulsed one of its regiments, the others quickly turned to face the Federals. Shortly thereafter, Benda and his comrades’ worst nightmare reappeared, just as it had at Chancellorsville. More Confederates arrived and slammed into their exposed right flank. The bullets flew thick and fast as the 26th Wisconsin found itself amid a withering crossfire. One of these projectiles crashed into Franz Benda’s leg, shattering his hip and femur as it tore through his flesh. The young farmer fell to the ground, immobilized and out of the fight. His fellow Wisconsin men could not hold out against these impossible circumstances; as at Chancellorsville, they turned and ran while the Georgians rolled up Krzyzanowski’s line, not stopping until they reached the Union rallying point at Cemetery Hill. Wounded and abandoned on the battlefield, Franz Benda now faced a highly uncertain future. He may have wondered whether he would live or die or thought about his family in Wisconsin during the next two days as he laid out under the unforgiving July sun, listening to the sounds of battle south of town. He may have tried to glean all he could from those crashing noises, desperately attempting to ascertain whether the Union would prove victorious and whether or not he had been struck down in vain. His surviving comrades may also have speculated as to if he was even still alive. As fate would have it, Gettysburg would prove to be the final battle for the young Czech-American soldier.
The Hospital and Beyond Wounded soldiers at the Camp Letterman hospital facility. Wikimedia Commons.
At some point after the Union’s ultimate victory at Gettysburg on July 3, Franz Benda found his way to an army hospital for the men of his Eleventh Corps, possibly the George Spangler farm south of the town. A surgeon removed the bullet from his leg, though exactly what other treatment he received there is unknown. Nonetheless, the young soldier would have been subject to the horrific sights and sounds of Civil War field hospitals, including blood-covered surgeons, piles of severed limbs, and the cries and screams of the wounded and the dying. Any romantic images of war that had lingered in his brain would surely have dissipated as he observed the pure pain and despair that gripped these men and clawed away at their masculine dignity. On August 6, Benda transferred to Camp Letterman, the massive Union hospital conglomeration located northeast of Gettysburg. By this time, his condition had gotten progressively worse. The doctor assigned to treat him later wrote that at the time of his transfer, Benda was “fast sinking from diarrhea and hectic fever.” The bullet that wounded the young soldier had given him a compound fracture of the femur, with the bone broken at the top, near the thigh. Several rounds of treatment, including the uses of tonics, stimulants, and anodynes, failed to improve his health.
One can only imagine what Benda’s final weeks must have been like. How aware was he that he was dying? What might he have thought about as he lay in a hospital bed hundreds of miles away from his new home in America? Who might he have spoken with, and who might have worked to give him comfort as he expired? Members of the United States Sanitary Commission and the United States Christian Commission performed incredible work at Camp Letterman to comfort wounded soldiers as they recovered or died, including distributing food and clothing, writing letters to family members or friends, and preserving the identities of the dead. Perhaps workers from these organizations gave aid to the young man from Wisconsin, by giving him warm food or writing a letter home with final words for his loved ones. Ultimately, Franz Benda died on August 28, 1863, just ten days after his nineteenth birthday and a year and a week after he signed up to become a soldier. The doctor in attendance recorded that pure exhaustion had finally ended his life.
The death of Franz Benda had repercussions that stretched far beyond his bed at Camp Letterman. The loss of their son brought ruin and disaster to his parents, Joseph and Maria Benda. After their immigration to the United States, Joseph had purchased forty acres of land near the small town of Kossuth, in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, on which the family lived and farmed in the years before the war. Franz evidently did most of the labor to support his parents, who were at least in their sixties by 1861. While away in the army, he sent the majority of his pay home for their benefit, and they also received five dollars per month of “state aid” from the government of Wisconsin in his absence. His death, then, eliminated any source of income for Joseph and Maria, as they were unable to work the land themselves. The Czech immigrants lost almost everything in the following years, as their 1873 applications for a pension include statements affirming that they lived only on a half-lot in the city of Manitowoc. The process of acquiring the pension proved challenging and comprehensive, as the government even requested a copy of Franz Benda’s certificate of baptism from the church near Prague where the ceremony had taken place. On October 21, 1873, more than a decade after their son’s death at Gettysburg, a pension of eight dollars a month was granted to Maria Benda; however, even this meager income would not last long. Maria died on June 26, 1878, leaving Joseph, whose health was in shambles due to various disabilities, to go through the claims process once again. The record is murkier as to whether he received it, but Joseph Benda lived at least another eighteen years after the death of his wife and thirty-three years after his son’s killing, as he appears in United States immigrant naturalization records as late as 1896. Throughout this time, he surely felt great pain when thinking about all he had lost. The Benda family had seemed well on their way to living out the American dream, working their way up to self-sufficiency after starting from scratch in a new world. On August 28, 1863, it all came crashing down with his son’s death, and after 1878 he must have felt very much alone, with no family and no farm left to him. Joseph Benda became a stranger in a strange land as a result of Franz Benda’s death at Camp Letterman, a truly tragic ending to a once-promising immigrant story.
By the time Franz Benda passed away, efforts were well under way to create the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. He was likely originally buried in the burial ground for soldiers who died at Camp Letterman before being exhumed and reinterred in the new cemetery. The young Czech’s remains now rest at the left end of the second row of soldiers in the Wisconsin section, together with several other dead of the 26th and other regiments from the Badger State. Overall, out of 516 men who went into battle on July 1, 1863, the 26th Wisconsin lost 46 men killed, 134 wounded, and 37 missing or captured, a staggering 42% casualty rate. Survivors of the regiment returned to the battlefield 25 years later, in 1888, to dedicate their unit’s monument, a granite obelisk standing over fourteen feet tall. The memorial towers over that ground on which so many Wisconsin men gave their lives for the cause of the Union. Like so many other immigrants to the United States, Franz Benda made the ultimate sacrifice for his adopted home nation on the rolling fields of Gettysburg.
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National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Soundex Index to Naturalization Petitions for the United States District and Circuit Courts, Northern District of Illinois and Immigration and Naturalization Service District 9, 1840-1950 (M1285); Microfilm Serial: M1285; Microfilm Roll: 18.
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Narrative and map by Ryan Bilger, Gettysburg College