Perkasie’s Civil War heroes at Gettysburg

Lost in the remembrances over the July 4th weekend was another event that defines our freedoms today – the anniversary of the epic battle at Gettysburg. Several founders of the Perkasie’s Grand Army of the Republic (or G.A.R.) post were probably on that battlefield, and there is one brief eyewitness account from them.

The confrontation at Gettysburg concluded on July 4, 1863 when General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Army of Northern Virginia from town. During fighting from July 1 to July 3, combined casualties were estimated at over 45,000, with nearly 8,000 deaths of Union and Confederate soldiers. It was the deadliest battle of the Civil War and effectively ended the chances of a Confederate victory in the Civil War.

The Wheatfield at Gettysburg, 1903.

The G.A.R. was the fraternal organization of Civil War Union Army veterans who met regularly after the war. The local G.A.R. post was formed on the Sunday before Decoration Day in 1894 in a meeting at St. Stephen’s Reformed Church in Perkasie. The post was named for Washington J. Dengler, a captured Union soldier who died at the notorious Andersonville prison camp. The G.A.R. organized Decoration Day or Memorial Day ceremonies in Perkasie until the early 1920s when the American Legion took over that community role.

By 1929, only four local G.A.R. members were living when Perkasie celebrated its 50th anniversary. Here is a brief look at three veterans listed on the G.A.R.’s founding list that had connections to Gettysburg.

Henry Gentner grave

Gentner’s tombstone, Sellersville Cemetery. (Photo: Linn Lisher, July 3, 2020)

Henry Gentner served in the 26th Pennsylvania Infantry from September 29, 1862 until May 30, 1864, where he transferred to the 99th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry. Gentner’s service involved Gettysburg, where he was one of three men to survive the battle in his company, according to his 1908 obituary in the Perkasie Central News. Led by Major Robert Bodine of Doylestown, the 26th sustained heavy losses, with 213 casualties among the 365 soldiers on the battle line on Emmitsburg Road. “The regiment I have the honor to command 26th Penna. Volunteers …has seen hard service for more than two years, ” Bodine later said, “but all acknowledge this to be the most desperate fight of the war.” Gentner served in the major 1864 and 1865 battles in Virginia, and he was once saved when a musket ball was stopped by a Bible he carried inside his jacket. After the war, Gentner was a cigar maker for more than 40 years in the Perkasie area.

John Schwartz, the Dengler Post’s long-time leader, was at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 at The Wheatfield and saw his regiment’s leader, General Samuel Zook, mortally wounded on the battlefield. More than 20,000 soldiers fought at the site on July 2 and 30 percent became casualties.

John Schwartz

State Rep. John Schwartz

In Gilbert Frederick’s 1895 history of the 57th New York Infantry, he quotes Schwartz’s description of what happened as General Zook approached the battlefield. Schwartz had written a letter in August 1864 to John Commoss, a fellow soldier who had been discharged due to a disability. ‘The General was struck in the abdomen, some say with a piece of shell, but I was with him all the time after he was wounded until he died.” Schwartz wrote that a musket ball felled General Zook. “When struck he was on his horse at the front of the brigade.” In an oral history from Schwartz’s family given to the Perkasie Park camp-meeting in 1982, his children recalled Schwartz telling the story of how Schwartz, the regiment’s clerk, caught General Zook as he fell off his horse.

The 57th New York Infantry was also positioned to the far left of Pickett’s Charge on July 3 and witnessed the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” as 12,500 Confederate soldiers unsuccessfully challenged the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge.

Schwartz had moved to Harrisburg to live with his son by 1929. His regiment saw action in six other major battles over three years, including Antietam, Chancellorsville, and the Battle of the Wilderness. Schwartz later became one of modern Perkasie’s founders, a state representative, and a postmaster.

Christian Schoeneberger, South Perkasie Evangelical Cemetery

Schoenberger’s tombstone, South Perkasie Evangelical Cemetery. (Photo: Linn Lisher, July 3, 2020)

The third founding G.A.R. members who may have been at Gettysburg was Christian Schoeneberger, who served as a private in the 153rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers from October 1862 to July 1863. The 153rd came from Northampton County and it was scheduled to disband in late June 1863. However, when the 153rd heard that Lee’s army threatened Pennsylvania, it marched to Gettysburg, where the 153rd fought bravely with many casualties at Barlow Knoll and Cemetery Hill.

Schoeneberger may not have been at Gettysburg; he had been wounded and captured at Chancellorsville in early May 1863 and sent to Libby prison in Richmond. But the regiment’s records show Schoeneberger mustered out with his company on July 24, 1863. At the time, the Union and Confederate forces often paroled captured soldiers, a policy that started to end in late May 1863 after Confederate forces refused to treat black Union army prisoners in the same way as white prisoners. Schoeneberger was later affiliated with the Evangelical Church in Perkasie and he is buried at its cemetery in South Perkasie.

On the same day that Schoeneberger and the 153rd Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers ended their service, Confederate forces captured Washington J. Dengler from the Oley valley, who was serving in the 5th U.S. Artillery in Battery M; his older brother, John G. Denger, was in the same unit. Washington J. Dengler eventually died from dysentery at the notorious Confederate prison Andersonville in May 1864.

At the G.A.R.’s founding ceremony at St. Stephen’s Reformed Church in Perkasie, his youngest brother James G. Dengler, the pastor of St. Stephen’s, gave the sermon. The Rev. Dengler was too young to enlist in the Civil War. The group of 23 veterans then ate dinner (what we call lunch today) at the American House and went to the two graveyards in Bridgetown to decorate the graves of their fellow veterans.

Today, not many people know about the G.A.R. and the work it did to provide benefits for its members. Bucks County records show that John Schwartz, possibly acting on the behalf of the G.A.R., paid for the burial of at least 12 indigent war veterans.