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Some days, working on the Shapell Roster Project is difficult. The lives of Civil War soldiers were very often short and tragic. Reading accounts of young men cut down in their prime, or left with permanent, grave disabilities, all day long can be emotionally draining. So sometimes, we separate ourselves from our subjects. We remind ourselves that these men died a long time ago, and we look at their stories like one would a character on a television show; digging for facts with a morbid, detached fascination. On the difficult days, it is the armor necessary to get through the research.
I spent a long time with 1st Lieutenant Ferdinand Linz, after he was added to the database from a short newspaper article one of my fellow researchers stumbled upon. He was an odd omission from Simon Wolf’s roster, because Wolf in fact represented Linz’s widow for her pension claim.
The chief witness for the prosecution at the trial of John Kessler, the private in question, was Sergeant Bernhard Zimmerman. Zimmerman was Linz’s bunkmate, and the first officer to arrive at the scene of the argument. He described the incident as follows:
“It was about 1 o’clock in the morning when I was aroused by an alarm in our Co. I heard loud talking and knew the voice of Private Kessler[,] the prisoner. Lt. Linz slept the same time in one tent with me. As soon as I heard the noise I got up and outside the tent to see what it was about. I heard Kessler cursing, swearing and quarreling with a Private of Co. K whose name is Conrad Finger. I ordered both to go to their tents and keep quiet which Kessler refused to do. I had no shoes on at the time and I went back to put on my shoes. Lt. Linz just raised up at that time and asked me what the noise was about. I told him it was only a quarrel between Kessler and Finger and that I wanted to put on my shoes to go out and settle it[,] but he went out before I did. I followed him right afterwards. When I came out I saw the prisoner having a rifle in his hand with fixed bayonet. He ha[d] long been talking at the same time with Conrad Finger. Lt. Linz got out his watch and said ‘Kessler it is near 2 o’clock. Everybody ought to be quiet at this time. You ought to be in your tent long ago.’ [Kessler] said that he couldn’t get in any tent- his comrades did not want him there. Lt. Linz said that if he behaved himself he could get in a tent well enough. The prisoner said ‘I don’t want to go in no tent: you haven’t got no sentries here and I want to be sentry.’ Lt. Linz told him that he did not want a sentry. After this Finger commenced to talk with the prisoner again[,] then the prisoner moved up towards Finger and told him to get out his rifle and he would fight him. Finger said he would not fight him with a rifle[,] but if he laid down his rifle he would fight him with his fists. Then I ordered the prisoner to put down his piece[,] where at he moved up towards me. I though he wanted to stab me. I said “Kessler[!] What are you doing? Do you charge bayonet against your Sergt.?’ He said ‘No I won’t do it. I respect you and you are the best man in the Co.’ I told him if he respected me he should go in a tent or in a barrack near that place which was empty[,] which he also refused to do. Then Lt. Linz told him again ‘Kessler lay down your piece[,] if you don’t I [will] have you tied and sent to the Guard House.’ He did not obey. Lt. Linz called me and Corporal Wolf. Then Private Kessler[,] who was at this time about seven paces in front of Lt. Linz[,] jumped forward and run the bayonet in his (Linz) right breast[,] saying at the same time ‘then I have to defend myself.’ Lieut. Linz groaned 3 or 4 times and fell down on the ground. I ran at once to Lt. Linz who held both hands tight together on his breast. I took his hands off and seeing little blood ran back towards Kessler[,] who was held by three men[,] and took the Rifle from his hands. Then I turned round to Lt. Linz[,] who lying on the ground at that time[,] looked at him and ran for a Doctor[,] but I soon found out that I could find no Doctor around that place and returned. After which I found Lt. Linz lying in his tent motionless. I sat alongside of him and found him but one minute afterwards dead.”
Linz became known around the research table as my “murder vic,” and I gobbled up any information I could find relating to him and his murderer. A crazy anecdote about a poor man killed in his pajamas, or a cautionary tale about giving the mentally unstable bayonets.
Then, last week, we took our field trip to the Washington Hebrew Cemetery, and I stumbled across the grave of 1st Lieutenant Ferdinand Linz. And all of the sorrow and pity I had buried down for Linz came rushing to the surface. Just how unnecessary and tragic was Linz’s death was even acknowledged by his gravestone, which notes that he was “Murdered by a Private in the same company.” All he did was roll out of bed and try to break up an argument in the middle of the night. It seems unfathomable that this would be Linz’s last act.
It is so crucial for us not to lose sight that the men of the Roster are not merely entries in a database, or soap operas for us to follow. Sitting next to the grave of Ferdinand Linz, it became crushingly clear how little time has passed since these soldiers lived, fought, and sacrificed. At the end of our visit, I returned to his grave to place several stones atop his headstone- a sign of respect and remembrance in the Jewish faith. And I thanked him for reminding me of the most important aspect of our project: keeping the memory of these soldiers alive and honoring their contributions to our society.