By Gordon Thorsby
The Enlistment Reports at the National Archives say more if studied closely.
A letter "H" scrawled with a series of four swirls. With fresh ink on the tip came a sharp downstroke for the beginning of the letter “F” swerved across the paper and it was capped by a stylistic slash. They were the cursive letters of first and last names but they recorded the men who were weapons that two armies used to clash for four years.
Jacob Laux, age twenty-eight was born in Landau, Bavaria, Germany in 1825. He probably emigrated from the old country in the violence of late 1840’s Germany. When he enlisted in 1853 at thirty-three by a Maj. George Thomas at West Point, New York his English was broken. The list described his eyes as hazel, hair brown, skin sallow, and his height above average for the time. Jacob was assigned to the Second Dragoons in 1853 and rode with young officers like J.EB. Stuart, George Thomas and others. When he re-enlisted in 1858, he was sworn in by a Lieutenant John Gibbon, the writing a sharp, staccato style not artistic or romantic.
Jacob Laux was just one name in long lists of other men. They were faceless names of men who came from various towns from Maine to California. Many came from different countries including. Tipperary, Ireland, Bradford, England, and Putnam, and one of the federation provinces that made up Germany. Upon entering America and with no means, the emigrants saw the army was a viable alternative. These men were of value and the inscription of their names meant a recording for posterity. To reproduce similar quality today requires a skilled calligrapher. These men carried the flag over the parapets or ran from the field. They led men by example to defend an indefensible piece of ground and lost their lives in the effort.
Space to the right of their statistics provided for outcomes of what happened to the soldiers. Some had normal notes like discharged at expiration of service, discharged because of an acquired disability and unable to perform the needed duties. Other notes were more ominous. One soldier’s note was “dropped from the rolls.” The orderly was tired from recording a man absent from roll call. The soldier deserted, apprehended and disciplined, and then deserted again. One died of disease at the Brigade Hospital in Alexandria, VA. Another was discharged by special order of Maj. Gen Geo. B. McClellan (the orderly was possibly geeked to record this entry.) There was the record of the name of Michael Lenahan, the M full of swirls and curves, in A Company, Second Infantry, a thirty-year old from Roscommon, Ireland. Next to his statistics was “executed January,1862” with significant amounts of notation too illegible to read.
Unfortunately, there were the notes difficult to record. An all too brief stated coldly, “killed at Bull Run 7/21/61.” Nothing more. Was the soldier no longer of any more value than four words or was the orderly pained too much by this required entry especially if he knew the soldier, a comrade?
For all of the effort of the orderlies who recorded these soldiers, they left us able to glimpse at an inventory of lives who fought for reasons that we don't know, who survived to go on or died in the struggle. The proof was the recording of the letters in their name.
Note: Jacob Laux’s assignment in the Dragoons transitioned into a position in Griffin’s West Point Battery. He was discharged two weeks before Fredericksburg. There is no further information. He was a carpenter before two terms in the U.S. Army so maybe returned to the skill.
Photo above Library of Congress.
U.S. National Archives, Writing Enlistments of Soldiers in Federal Regiments 1798-1914.