Private Peter Heck, Company D.


Peter Heck (1834 - 1900) and Margaret Zeren (1850 - 1933)


        Peter Heck was the son of Johann Heck and Anna Barbara Schaefer. He was born on October 5, 1834, in Alendorf, Prussia, (now part of Germany) and came to America with his parents in 1852. He moved to Minnesota with his parents in 1857 and helped them establish their homestead. He and his brother Henry (ancestor of most of the Hecks from Wisconsin), went back to Paris township, Kenosha County, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1860 and worked as farm laborers. Peter worked on a Mr. P. Frank's farm and Henry worked on the Seymor Datton farm. In 1862 the Civil War had been raging for well over a year and the recruiting was intense. Each state was asked to form more volunteer units. New recruits were paid a bounty of $500 if they would enlist for three years.
        For whatever reason, Peter enlisted on August 21, 1862, with the 26th Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, and was assigned to Company D as a Private. His volunteer enlistment certificate stated he had grey eyes, light hair, fair complexion, height five feet-five inches tall, was twenty three years old and had a stout build. He saw action in some of the most famous and bloodiest battles of the Civil War, notably in the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. This was the best known of all battles and was the high tide of the Confederate effort. General Robert E. Lee was defeated there and the fate of the Confederacy was sealed.
        Peter's regiment was sent west after Gettysburg and was attached to the Army of the Cumberland, encamped around Chattanooga, Tennessee. His regiment took part in the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga. The Union forces charged up the ridge which was heavily fortified by the Confederates. Through a rain of fire and cannon shot they attacked, and in a bloody onslaught, drove the Confederates from the top of the ridge. This spectacular battle earned General Ulysses Grant the command of the entire Union Armies. General Sherman took over the Army in the west and the stage was set for Sherman's famous "March To The Sea" the following Spring. Peter and his regiment were to be part of this much heralded action.
        In the Spring of 1864 Peter's regiment was involved in a series of battles leading up to the Battle of Atlanta, portrayed in the book, "Gone With The Wind." They were Buzzard Roost, Resaca, Cassville, Dallas, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek and Atlanta. After the capture of Atlanta, Peter and the 26th Regiment took part in Sherman's well-known "March To The Sea," which culminated in the capture of Savannah, Georgia.
        The Army turned north from Savannah and the sea. Peter saw action in the battle of Averasboro and Bentonville, North Carolina. On March 19, 1864, the war ended for Peter and his exhausted fellow soldiers.
        The march through Georgia and the Carolinas was a terrible hardship for the soldiers on both sides. Bell Wiley states in an article, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb in the Campaign for Atlanta, "Early in June rain began to fall in North Georgia and for three weeks Rebs and Yanks were soaked almost every day.... When night came, they piled wood poles and brush on the ground to provide a solid base on which to spread their blankets; but when they waked in the morning they often were partially submerged in muddy water." A little later a Hoosier Lieutenant complained, "It has rained torrents every day until the roads were grown frightful. For three days and nights we were wet to the skin, not a dry article of clothing on us, each night our beds were the wet and muddy ground, without even fires, lest we should discover our position to the enemy. I never knew what hardship was before."
        Bell Wiley goes on to state that the men had little opportunity to bathe or change clothes. They were infested with body lice, fleas, or chiggers and ants. One Illinois Yank wrote in June, "I am satisfied of one thing.... if my finger nails don't wear out, there'll be no flesh on my bones by Autumn."
        In February, 1865, after the capture of Savannah, Peter and his comrades marched through the swampy lowlands of the Carolinas, cut by many rivers. In rainy weather the roads were almost impassable, and the streams they had to ford were swollen. Peter's health was affected by these harsh conditions and his body eventually was wracked with rheumatism.
        With the War now over, Peter's regiment marched on to Washington, D.C. According to Henry Elsner, Peter's company commander, "Peter was sent to the regimental hospital after the Battle of Bentonville because of pains in his joints and chest, and stayed at said hospital until our arrival at Washington in June, 1865, where he was discharged. At the time of his discharge, he was broken down in his constitution and also disabled to do any manual labor." Henry Elsner wrote this in an affidavit on behalf of Peter's application for an invalid veteran's pension in 1889.
        President Andrew Johnson ordered the Union Armies to stage a grand review through the heart of Washington, D.C. It took two full days for the estimated 150,000 troops to march past the cheering crowds that lined the parade route. For the tired veterans it was an experience they would never forget. It is entirely possible that Peter and his brother, Henry, had a joyous reunion in Washington, D.C. and looked forward to going home again, this time to stay.
        Peter's regiment was mustered out of the service on June 13, 1865, the day it left Washington, D.C. The men were paid a bounty of twenty-five dollars. They arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 17. The returning heroes marched through town past enthusiastic crowds and proceeded to the Turner Hall where a splendid banquet was prepared for them. Peter received seventy dollars, his last military pay, on June 29.
        Peter did not have to search too far for a bride after his return home. He married Margaret Zeren, his step-sister. The marriage took place in St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Brighton, Wisconsin, on December 26, 1865. The new couple farmed in Brighton Township. Two children, Peter and John, were born to them while in Wisconsin.
        The family moved to Minnesota in 1869 and took a homestead in West Newton Township, in Nicollet County, near St. George. The 1870 Census indicated that Margaret Baron, listed as a domestic servant, was living in the Heck household. Peter and Margaret must have had the means to hire help. They lived there for a number of years and also in New Ulm, Ridgley Township, and Renville County. They were living in the Village of Morgan, in Redwood County, at the time of Peter's death. Peter's rheumatism must have become more painful through the years. He applied for a Veteran's disability pension in 1882. His application stated that, "because of constant exposure during Sherman's march through Georgia he contracted rheumatism, which settled in his chest and caused him great pain in his left chest, and very frequently rendered him incapable to work." Peter's brother-in-law, William Dorn, signed an Affidavit in 1883 in support of Peter's application for a disability pension.
        The family was living in a rented house in Morgan. Peter probably could no longer farm. Their sons, Vincent and Joseph, were still living at home and helped to support their parents. Vincent was a farm laborer and Joseph was a saloon keeper. Peter was still trying to receive a pension as late as 1889, and probably began to receive one shortly after that. He entered the Alexander Hospital in New Ulm, MN in January, 1900, and passed away April 6, 1900. The cause of death was "peritonice tuberculosis." He is buried in the Catholic cemetery in Fairfax, Minnesota.
        Margaret was left with a few household items, no property, and no means of support. She did receive $1,000 from an insurance policy but that was spent on Peter's hospital and doctor bills. She moved to New Ulm and lived in an apartment house where a number of other widows lived. She subsisted on a veteran's widow's pension that paid only eight dollars a month. The pension had been increased to $40 a month by the time of her death. She was a very generous person and tried to help others in need with whatever she could afford. She moved into the "Old Peoples Home" in the Loretto Hospital in New Ulm in May of 1931, and passed away there on February 12, 1933.

The children of Peter Heck and Margaret Zeren were:

John,         born December 25, 1866, Death record not found. Probably died as an infant.
Peter,        born April 19, 1868,          died October 16, 1896.
Philip,       born July 30, 1869,           died July 7, 1945.
Vincent,    born April 13, 1871,          died February 21, 1946.
Joseph,     born September 2, 1874,  died May 26, 1946.
Lucy,        born February 10, 1876,   died February 1, 1895.

Information by: Robert J Heck