Al Sieber, a desperate charge at Gettysburg, and Geronimo

The records tell us more than 175,000 men fought at Gettysburg from July 1 to July 3, 1863.  And of course, we have, from that list of participants, thousands upon thousands of stories that are woven into the larger fabric of history.  We walk the grounds of Gettysburg today and can recall epic deeds, usually speaking of the divisions, brigades, and regiments… of course the generals.  Perhaps more often than at other battlefields, because of the prominence in the recollections of the survivors, we are able to speak of individuals.

One of those epic deeds, on a day filled with such, occurred in the afternoon phase of battle on July 2.  For many, I need only offer this photo as a preface for one of those stories:

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For those requiring a reminder of the incident, I offer the text of the nearby interpretive marker:

“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant – death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of a regiment to gain a few minutes’ time…”
Lieut. William Lochren, U.S.A.
1st Minnesota Infantry

Late on the afternoon of July 2, after the collapse of the Union line at the Peach Orchard, Confederate infantry in front of you threatened to pour through a gap in the Union line here. When Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the Union Second Corps, rode up to assess the situation, only one regiment was at hand to stop the Confederate tide – the 1st Minnesota.

“My God, are these all the men we have here?” Hancock asked. It was, but they would have to do. “Charge those lines!” shouted Hancock, and immediately the lone regiment swept down the slope “double quick.” With levelled bayonets, the Minnesotans crashed into Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s Alabamians who outnumbered them 4-to-1.

The charge broke the Confedereate ranks and stalled the Southerners long enough for Union reinforcements, but at a terrific cost. According to a regimental officer, of the 262 Minnesotans in the charge, only 47 escaped death or injury.

An action worthy of memorialization.  An act that has been recounted by many over the years.

But allow me to focus on but one of the 215 casualties among the 1st Minnesota that day. You probably know of this person better by way of Robert Duvall’s excellent portrayal in the movie “Geronimo: An American Legend.”

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Albert Sieber was born in Baden, Germany in 1843.  Following the death of his father, the family immigrated to America, first settling around Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  They later relocated to Minnesota.  Under-age at the start of the Civil War, Sieber would enlist in March 1862, as “Albert Sebers” in Company B, 1st Minnesota. He first saw action during the Peninsula Campaign.

A year later, Sieber was in that formation of “all the men we have here” that Hancock had to throw into the teeth of the Confederate assault on July 2, 1863.  As with so many of his comrades, Sieber lay wounded at the close of the action, on the field.

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In Al Sieber: Chief of Scouts, Dan Thrapp relates Sieber received two wounds that day – a skull fracture from a shell fragment and a terrible wound to the right leg, with ball entering the ankle and exiting near the knee. So severe the wounds, Sieber would not return to the regiment.  After almost half a year in hospitals, Sieber transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps and served on prison guard details.  He made corporal before discharged at the end of the war.

After the war, Sieber sought a fresh start in the west.  He made a living as a prospector and rancher, along with other adventures, appearing in California, Nevada, and Arizona (territory at that time) through the later half of the 1860s.  And by 1870 he’d earned a reputation as a tracker, leading to employment by General George Crook as not just a scout, but Chief of Scouts.

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I’m fond of this photo of Sieber mainly because of the dress.  On a standard portrait stage of the era, we see Sieber half slouched and looking more at leisure than attention.

We have another photo of him seated in front of a team of Apache Scouts:

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You’d be hard pressed to find more direct, serious gazes than on those faces.

Through the campaigns against the Apache, Sieber served as a Chief of Scouts. The role not only intertwined the Seiber story with fellow Civil War veteran Crook, but also with the likes of Charles Gatewood and Geronimo.  As we well know, thanks to Hollywood, he was a major player in the action that brought Geronimo into custody in 1886.

However, Hollywood’s version of events is far from the actual reality.  Sieber was alive and in the field at the time of Geronimo’s surrender.  No, Sieber didn’t pass away “catching a little sleep” in a Mexican cantina. Rather he continued to work in the Arizona territory as a scout.  An nor was Geronimo’s surrender the end of troubles with Apache… as but a year later Sieber was wounded while chasing the renegade Apache Kid.

The turn of the century found Sieber still working in Arizona, mostly prospecting.  On February 19, 1907 he was managing a work team of Apaches clearing a road in conjunction with the construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River.  Blasting left a large boulder precariously perched over the work area.  Sieber insisted the workers leave the area before the bolder fell.  But, slowed by bad leg, Sieber was not fast enough to escape the rock slide.  He was killed by the boulder.

It is said, that Al Sieber was “gunshot and arrow shot 28 times.”  For clarity, I do not know if that popularly quoted figure includes his two wounds at Gettysburg.  And I am left to wonder if it was the musket ball, that traveled from ankle to knee, at Gettysburg which gave him the limp, slowing his movement in 1907.

Regardless, I would submit the story of Al Sieber for consideration on this day – 153 years from the final day of the battle of Gettysburg.  Once again, we see the long shadow cast by the Civil War upon our history.

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