By J. L. Starkey
…and as they both sink beneath the waves, the frog cries out, “Why did you sting me, Mr. Scorpion? For now we both will drown!“
Scorpion replies, “I can’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
I was finished researching William L. Muehleisen. I meant it this time. No more!
He was jealous, he was hotheaded, and he was violent.
Oh, he had issues and then some. That much was obvious as I researched his two stormy marriages and his two contentious divorces.
Oh, and don’t forget his tendency to abuse alcohol, and his inability to keep a job.
And yet…while he definitely had his faults, he was also remembered as a pioneering gold prospector, proud Civil War veteran, shrewd businessman, and dedicated father.
Who was the real William? Was he truly a violent and jealous man? Was it really in his nature, or was he the victim of the wrong kind of nurturing?
The discovery of William’s obituary led to a shocking answer to the nature-versus-nurture question.
“I goes to fight mit siegel!”
William Muehleisen died at age 89 on 18 January 1933 in Kansas City, Missouri. I expected to find a short obituary that listed his survivors and maybe his current address. What I actually found was a detailed biography that flipped the script on this man’s life .
According to the obituary, William’s father brought his family to the United States so that his sons could avoid the military training required in nineteenth century Germany. As it turned out, William would serve enlist anyway, but for a very different reason than the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 . Instead, he would choose to serve his adopted homeland as a member of Wisconsin’s 26th Volunteer Infantry Regiment .
The 26th Regiment, or “Sigel Regiment,” was created in the summer of 1862 under the authority of Major General Franz Sigel. A Baden, Germany, native, Sigel was popular among German immigrants, who often said, “I goes to fight mit Sigel” as they enlisted to fight for the Union . The phrase was even turned into a popular song in 1863 .
William was just eighteen years old when he enlisted, and he may have done so out of a sense of duty to his new homeland. But he also may have craved the adventure and excitement that the military seemed to offer.
Regardless of his reasons for enlisting, he was almost certainly unprepared for the events that awaited him.
Less than one year after he enlisted, William would join the 26th as they fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. Losses were high, but the men continued fighting in locations such as Mission Ridge, Resaca, and Lookout Mountain .
On 15 June 1864, William was listed as wounded in action after he was injured, presumably near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia . On 29 June, he arrived in Nashville for medical treatment, and at some point after that date he was transferred to Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison.
He would remain a POW for the remainder of the war.
“I tell you, war is hell!”
Libby Prison was second only to Andersonville for its shockingly horrific conditions . Overcrowding was a constant problem since the prison’s commanders “…designated less than a dozen rooms for inmates, sometimes allotting hundreds of prisoners only a handful of cells measuring 40 by 100 feet. ”
Prisoners were not permitted to leave the building and would be shot if they even approached their cell windows. Rations were scarce and often spoiled, and overcrowding led to sickness among the men.
For twenty-year-old William Muehleisen, hell had a new name, and that name was Libby.
Soldiers who survived Libby’s physical hardships faced psychological torture, courtesy of the mind games played by the prison guards. To give prisoners false hope, guards would promise things such as prisoner exchanges on some undetermined future date. On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, they would also hint at horrific atrocities (such as hangings of Union officers) occurring in the prison’s basement, sparking fears and rumors among the prisoners.
The emotional roller coaster took a severe toll on those that survived Libby Prison. Many soldiers returned home only to suffer in silence from what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD .
This was William Muehleisen’s reality. The man who appeared to be so jealous and hotheaded had endured horrors that were simply beyond comprehension.
As I reviewed William’s obituary, I wondered if his life would have been different, had been spared the horrors of Libby. Would he have made a successful marriage with Ella English, or with Julia Cunningham? Would he have kept his job in St. Joseph and stayed close to his family? Would he have abused alcohol? Certainly, those things may have been in his nature. There was always that possibility.
In the future, though, I will think twice before jumping to that type of conclusion about an ancestor, and I will always doubt my initial theory about William’s nature. I no longer think he was the bad guy in those divorce records.
Sadly, William was a product of his times, and he was not alone. In the words of Ron Soodalter:
“We need only read the medical records, or study the letters and journals of distraught families of the veterans, or of the soldiers themselves, to know that…the soldiers of the 1860s underwent the same personal hell, and suffered the same post-traumatic stress disorder, as those who would serve in the wars to come.”– “The Shock of War”
Thank you, William, for teaching me not to judge so quickly. I wish that life had been kinder to you, and to thousands of others who were fighting the same battles.
Rest in peace, Captain Muehleisen.
- “William L. Muehleisen Dead,” Kansas City Times, Kansas City, Missouri, 19 Jan 1933, p. 6, col. 5. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
- “Seven Weeks’ War,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 16 Aug 2018. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Seven-Weeks-War.
- Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. Madison: Democrat Printing Company, 1886. Retrieved from archive.org.
- “Franz Sigel,” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Manassas National Battlefield Park, retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/people/franz-sigel.htm.
- O. N. E. Schnapps. I’m going to fight mit Sigel. A. C. Peters & Bro., Cincinnati, 1863. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200001951/>.
- Franz Sigel. [Between 1860 and 1870] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2018668072/>.
- Quiner, Edward Bentley, 26th Infantry, chapter 34 from E.B. Quiner’s Military History of Wisconsin, p. 755. Chicago: Clarke & Co. Retrieved from Wisconsin Historical Society.
- Quiner, Edward Bentley, Esq., The Military History of Wisconsin, Chapter XXXIV, pp. 746-759. Chicago: Clark & Co., 1866. Retrieved from archive.org.
- Ennis, George O, photographer. The Libby Prison/Geo. O. Ennis, photographer. [Richmond, Va.: published by Selden & Co., no. 836 main street, Richmond, between 1861 and 1865, printed later] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2016649599/>.
- Byrne, Frank L. “Libby Prison: A Study in Emotions.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 24, no. 4, 1958, pp. 430–444. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2954671.
- Cho, Hanna, “Escape from Libby Prison,” Backstory, 28 Sep 2018. Retrieved from https://www.backstoryradio.org/blog/escape-from-libby-prison/.
- Soodalter, Ron, “The Shock of War,” America’s Civil War Magazine, May 2017. Retrieved from https://www.historynet.com/the-shock-of-war.htm.
Even with our ancestors, we need to remember that we don’t know all about the kinds of battles they’ve been through. You were fortunate to find his detailed obituary.
Exactly! I always want to know why things happened the way they did. There is always a reason.
Wow! Great post! I love the nature vs nurture debate and how you got into it and tried to understand him. I can’t even imagine being a 20 year old in a place like Libby!
I don’t know how those soldiers survived…it turned my stomach just reading some of the accounts.
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What a lucky find with the obituary – it could have been so much less. You’ve done some excellent research work and writing in this story. An object lesson on not judging others until you’ve walked in their shoes.
I’m thinking of tracking down his pension file…wonder what that would show? They’re such a fascinating family!
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Pension files can be a wealth of information. I have one that’s more than 200 pages.
I think I’ll give it a try…I’m always looking for details about the family’s health history (several died young of neurological causes).
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A huge portion of that file was about health issues.
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It’s a special day when our ancestors of the past reach out to us with a valuable lesson–helping us do life a little better.
It almost feels like they’re speaking to us sometimes!