October 15, 2011

Better Know a Soldier: Elias H. Witmer

Location: Mountville, PA 17554, USA
79th Pennsylvania Monument at Chickamauga Battlefield
Corp. Elias H. Witmer was presumably mortally wounded around
the time of the incident depicted in the monument. 

Name: Elias H. Witmer (Corporal, Company E)
Birth: March 8, 1835, Mountville, Lancaster County
Occupation: Storekeeper in Mountville according to 1860 Census.  Storekeeper in Millersville until store burned down 1858
Church/Religion: Christian, denomination unknown although he did write two letters for publication in the Church Advocate
Political Beliefs: Republican
Enlistment: October 1, 1861
Death: Missing, presumed dead at Battle of Chickamauga, September 19-20, 1863

Before leaving Lancaster with Col. Hambright's regiment, Corporal Elias H. Witmer arranged to write letters for publication in the Daily Evening Express, Lancaster's only daily newspaper.  The fifty or so letters he wrote approximately every other week over a two-year period beginning in October 1861 describe for a general audience the significant and insignificant events in the life of the regiment.  As a soldier who wielded a semicolon as proficiently as a Springfield musket, Witmer played an important role for anyone in Lancaster interested in the regiment, and we get the sense the letters were eagerly consumed and given weight in Lancaster.

Elias H. Witmer Service Record
From PA Civil War Veterans Card File

Witmer enlisted in Capt. Morris D. Wickersham's company--the "Normal Rifles," later Company E--as part of a contingent of nineteen men from the village of Mountville who joined the regiment in September 1861.  His background isn't fully clear, but his ancestry appears to basically be old Lancaster farm families with his mother's family part of early Lancaster County settler Hans Herr's lineage.  His father, Daniel W. Witmer, ran a mercantile business, and Elias had his own shop by the time of the Civil War.  His educational background is unclear, but his letters testify to a strong education.  Here's a description of his family from the 1903 Biographical Annals of Lancaster County:
In Oct. 1855, Mr. Sneath married Elizabeth Witmer, who was born in Manor township, Lancaster county, daughter of Hon. Daniel W. and Anna (Hershe) Witmer, granddaughter of Daniel and Elizabeth Witmer, of Manor township. Daniel W. Witmer was a prominent farmer of Lancaster county. He served for three terms in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and in his later years was a merchant and drover in Mountville. He married Anna Hershe, daughter of Abraham Hershe, an old resident of Lancaster county, and to them were born the following children: Benjamin A., deceased; Mary, who married David H. Wideler, of Mountville, and is now deceased; Elizabeth, wife of Mr. Sneath; Elias H., who was a soldier of the Civil war, wounded in battle and is now deceased; Abraham, who served as lieutenant in the Civil war and is now deceased: Jacob H., a bank clerk at Mountville, Pa.; Kate, wife of Levi Myers, a tobacco merchant of Lancaster; Harry C., a merchant at Lancaster City; and Sarah, who died young. Daniel W. Witmer, the father, died in 1896, aged eighty-eight years; his wife in 1870, aged sixty years. She was a member of the United Brethren Church, and both are buried in Mountville cemetery.
Detail of West Hempfield Township Map from 1864 Bridgens AtlasD. W. Witmer residence can be seen just north of Mountville.

I intend to post all of Witmer's letters on this site 150 years after the day they were written.  You can view his first letter, an index of all 79th PA soldiers' letters, and all posts tagged "Elias H. Witmer."  The letters provide invaluable insights into the regiment's events, morale, and attempts to form a cohesive identity.  I get the sense they were eagerly consumed in Lancaster and provided a valuable function to anyone at home with connections to a soldier in the 79th Pennsylvania.  One can only wonder of the somewhat awkward social pressures that came with writing a letter from camp on behalf of a couple hundred soldiers, having the letter be published and distributed, and then having all the soldiers reading the letter about their own lives when the Express made its way to camp.  

In 1863, Witmer took a fierce Unionist turn in his letters, castigating anyone he viewed as hindering the war effort.  Witmer even took the opportunity of a furlough in May 1863 to give a Union League speech in Mountville to continue his scorn for "Copperhead" Democrats in person.  We also know of some teamwork in March 1863 between Capt. William McCaskey, his brother J. P. McCaskey (then a principal and activist in Lancaster), and Witmer that resulted in Witmer promising to "give a little thunder" to confront a rumor in his next letter to the Express.  

Back to October 1861, we get a sense of Witmer passion, capabilities as an author, and his reasons for fighting from a speech he gave in Mountville for the presentation of a sword to Lieut. William P. Leonard.  From the October 9, 1861, Daily Evening Express: (alternate link)

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