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One Came Back: A Civil War Saga

By Joseph Grafius


One often hears stories of brothers joining the armed forces together, and the time of the Civil War was no exception.  Daniel (1835) and Ellis (1838) Herlacher were the sons of Michael and Susanna Herlacher, for whom there were some variations in the spelling of their last name, including Horlacher and Harlacher.

The Herlacher boys grew up in Montoursville, PA, during the 1850's. The nation at the time was struggling with the turmoil brought about by states' rights and the slavery issue. Abraham Lincoln was elected to the United States presidency in 1860, which did not please either the North or the South. The southern states decided to secede from the Union, sparking the Civil War in April, 1861.

Most thought the rebellion would be quashed in a few months. Everyone was wrong. Month after month, battle after battle, the war continued. Thousands of men from the North and South were killed or wounded. More men thus had to be recruited to fill the gaps in both armies.

Daniel and Ellis were willing to join the cause and enlisted at Muncy with the 131st Regiment, Company H, in the fall of 1862. They were attached to the Vth Corps, which was heading to Fredericksburg, Virginia. The march to Fredericksburg was an effort to be more aggressive since the conflict had already dragged on for a year and a half. By this time, it was December of 1862. Battles were usually fought in fair weather so time was of the essence before winter really set in.

To reach Fredericksburg, the Union had to build pontoon bridges to span the Rappahannock River. Once completed, as the Union soldiers advanced, the Rebels retreated out of town and moved to higher ground, a location referred to as Marye's Heights. The Confederates had built a stone wall fortification and just before the wall was a sunken road for horse and cart travel.

General Burnside, the new commander of the Union Army, was wanting to make a name for himself. Burnside's plan was to bombard the hill with cannon fire and then make an assault to dislodge the rebels.  On December 13 at noon, the first wave of troops marched up the hill. Halfway up, they were met with heavy musket and cannon fire. A third of the troops were mowed down. The Union barrage had little effect on the Confederates' position.

Orders were given for the next division to charge the hill. They too were struck down. Three more attempts were made by other regiments, the action lasting until 5:00 pm. In the last assault, the 131st was called into action. By this time, the hill was covered with the dead and wounded. Daniel and Ellis must have been scared to death, having already seen what had taken place before them and this being their first battle. 

While the brothers were stepping over their comrades' bodies and slipping on the blood-soaked ground, they too were fired upon. Within a short time, Ellis was struck by a musket ball and mortally wounded. Daniel had no chance to save him and had to leave Ellis behind, along with three thousand other dead or dying soldiers.

During the evening and into the next day, both sides could hear the moans and cries of the wounded. Everyone was afraid to show himself on open ground, so all stayed put, leaving the injured men to suffer alone. Finally, according to legend, one Confederate soldier bravely asked permission to take water to the dying men. He then climbed over the wall, going from one man to another, providing care and some comfort. No one tried to shoot him. By his kindness, Sergeant Richard Kirkland earned the title of The Angel of Marye's Heights. The following day, the Union Army retreated after realizing the battle could not be won. Fredericksburg proved to be one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War, with over 12,000 casualties on the Union side alone.

Daniel Herlacher journeyed back to Montoursville when his enlistment was completed. After the war ended, his one daughter, Florence, married Van Grafius - my great-grandfather - of Jordan Avenue, Montoursville. Daniel resided at 416 Mulberry Street in the borough until 1910, when he died at the age of seventy-five. Ellis's widow resided at 314 Washington Street. Daniel is buried in the Montoursville Cemetery, across from the American Legion Post #104 on Broad Street. A small monument was erected in Edgewood Cemetery (Sand Hill) for Ellis, the younger brother whose body was never recovered from Marye's Heights. Community groups decorate both graves to honor them on Memorial Day.


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       Copyright 2016 by T.M. Grafius, Sr.       Return to the top of the page.