Following an ancestor's battlefield tracks

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. — At the mention of Gettysburg, Jeff Stocker fidgets in his chair.

Stocker, wearing a necktie adorned with the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, turns and tilts his head slightly toward the ceiling. A smile emerges from his gray goatee.

Gettysburg looks different, he says. It smells different.

“Oh my God, Gettysburg is ethereal,” Stocker says from behind the desk of his Allentown, Pa., law office. “To be in the field at Gettysburg … it gives me chills just talking about it.”

The rolling farmland, just 10 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, is where Stocker’s great-grandfather put his arms around a wounded Union captain and dragged him from onrushing rebels.

It’s where Stocker retraced the footsteps of both armies on summer days with his father, who wondered aloud what their Civil War ancestor looked like. It’s where Stocker was Monday to mark the 150th anniversary of the three-day battle.

And it’s the inspiration for part of Stocker’s latest book, “We Fought Desperate,” an in-depth account of eastern Pennsylvania’s 153rd Volunteer Regiment, the band of novice soldiers, mostly from Northampton County, that his great-grandfather joined.

Over the last seven years, he’s relived Gettysburg through the letters, diaries and pension files of hundreds of men — many of whom never made it home.

The title, “We Fought Desperate,” is a quote from a soldier describing Chancellorsville, fought in Virginia two months before Gettysburg and the other major battle where the 153rd fired volleys at the rebels.

This week thousands are gathering at Gettysburg for the anniversary, but Donald Stocker will not be with them. He died last summer at 93. Stocker placed a manuscript of “We Fought Desperate” in his coffin.

Stocker knows that if his father were alive, he’d be on the old battlefield this week, walking in the footsteps of his ancestor.

“The dots on the map are people,” said Stocker, of Center Valley, a town an hour north of Philadelphia. “I hope you realize that this is a real-life person with a real-life family. Chances are, just like you.”

One of those dots on the map is Heinrich Feirich, a 40-year-old Prussian immigrant and shoemaker.

Feirich’s wife was pregnant, but that didn’t stop him from volunteering for a nine-month enlistment with the 153rd Pennsylvania in September 1862. Only four months into his enlistment, Pvt. Feirich began suffering from deafness and was reassigned as a servant for Capt. George Young. Feirich did his company’s washing and assisted Young.

By late June 1863, Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee were invading the North. As Lee’s army plundered the countryside, the 153rd marched 10 miles over four hours on the morning of July 1 and came to a grassy hilltop on the northeast corner of Gettysburg’s battlefield. Positioned too far from the rest of the 11th Corps, the regiment got hit hard by Confederate troops who charged out of a thicket of trees.

Capt. Young, shot in the face, was among more than 250 from the regiment to be wounded, killed or captured.

Feirich, trying to save Young from being captured, began dragging him from the battlefield. He stopped when Young ordered him to save himself and run, Stocker’s research found. Young was captured and survived the war.

Feirich completed his nine-month tour of duty and enlisted in the 51st Pennsylvania. He deserted in April 1864 and was captured, spending two weeks in prison. Desperate for bodies, the Union Army added him back to its ranks.

Feirich was shot in the left knee, an injury that plagued him for the rest of his life. After the war, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and died in 1894.

One of Feirich’s daughters, Emma, born in 1877, married Albert Stocker. In February 1919, she gave birth to the last of her 14 children: Donald Stocker, Jeff Stocker’s father.

After fighting in World War II, Donald Stocker married and started his own family. From the time Jeff was old enough to walk, his dad took him to Gettysburg.

As they walked the battlefield, Donald Stocker would talk about Feirich. “I wonder where Feirich was,” Stocker would say to his son. “I wish I had a photo of Feirich.”

Jeff Stocker inherited his father’s love of reading about the Civil War and World War II. He is especially drawn to primary sources, such as copies of Civil War soldiers’ handwritten journals and diaries. He’s collected about 1,000 manuscripts and donates a copy of each one to Gettysburg’s library.

In 1990, when he was donating a manuscript from the 4th Alabama regiment, Scott Hartwig, a Gettysburg historian, made a suggestion.

“Why don’t you try to publish it?” he asked.

Stocker edited the manuscript and the University of Tennessee Press published “From Huntsville to Appomattox, Robert T. Coles’ History of the 4th Alabama.” Then with Ed Root, he co-wrote “Isn’t This Glorious,” which traces the steps of the 15th, 19th and 20th Massachusetts regiments, which all fought at Gettysburg.

By the time “Isn’t This Glorious” was published in 2006, Donald Stocker was in his mid-80s. He was still visiting Gettysburg, retracing the steps of Pickett’s charge, and Jeff Stocker thought his father would get a kick out of reading about Heinrich Feirich and the 153rd.

“I figured if I’m going to do this, I want to know as much about every single person as I can,” Jeff said. “All 993 people.”

He pored over newspaper obituaries at the Easton Public Library, made trips to the National Archives in Washington to examine pension records and read every diary, newspaper account and letter that he could find. The research, including a knee-high stack of 993 census records, is stuffed into file folders in Stocker’s office, where he’s maintained his day job as a personal injury attorney.

“My wife doesn’t want any of this at home,” he says of the stacks of paper records.

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