Illumination a personal memorial

Man discovers ancestor buried at Antietam

Man discovers ancestor buried at Antietam

December 04, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

SHARPSBURG - Whenever Peter Dessauer goes to Antietam National Battlefield or another Civil War battlefield he wears the photo of his ancestor Uriel P. Olin in a plastic envelope around his neck.

Olin, a distant ancestor on Dessauer's mother's side of the family, was a Union soldier who died from a wound to his bowels during early morning fighting at the Cornfield, part of the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.

The Battle of Antietam is considered the bloodiest single day of battle in American history. Civil War historians believe more than 23,000 soldiers died, were wounded or went missing in connection with the battle.

On Saturday, almost 1,400 volunteers will light 23,110 luminarias across the battlefield in remembrance of those soldiers - a stark and moving site that approximately 2,500 carloads of people visit every year as they drive through the park.


When Dessauer saw the illumination in the late 1990s, he didn't yet know that one of those lights represented a family member. It wasn't until 2002 that a discussion with his mother about a family diary and some inquiries she had made revealed Uriel P. Olin was an ancestor who was mortally wounded at Antietam and buried at Antietam National Cemetery. Olin was the brother or cousin of Dessauer's maternal great-great-grandmother.

Now the illumination is a more personal memorial for Dessauer, 59, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"I think the illumination is a stupendous ceremony and a great tradition," he said.

Dessauer also had an ancestor on his father's side die at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Capt. Franz Dessauer was aide-de-camp to Union Gen. Oliver Howard and was shot and killed in May 1863.

Dessauer said he gave the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., a copy of Olin's photo because the museum appeals to people who have learned about those killed during the war to share what they know about how they died.

Dessauer came to the Tri-State area in 1992 when he took a job as historical architect at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. When he discovered his ancestral tie to nearby Antietam, he had a great resource at his workplace. Dennis Frye, a Civil War historian, is his boss.

With the family diary and help from Frye and other historians, Dessauer was able to track down information about Olin.

The first Olin came to the U.S. in 1678 from Wales, Dessauer said. Over the generations, the family moved to the Midwest. Uriah P. Olin, as he is referred to in the family diary, was a print setter and ardent abolitionist from La Crosse, Wis., who joined the Union Army at the age of 21.

While his tombstone at Antietam National Cemetery lists him as a corporal, a family photo showing Olin refers to him as a sergeant.

As a member of Company B of the 2nd Wisconsin Regiment - one of the regiments that earned the nickname "the Iron Brigade" - Dessauer assumes Olin fought at the Battle of Second Manassas (also known as the Second Battle of Bull Run) and the Battle of South Mountain before fighting at the Battle of Antietam. Dessauer theorizes that with all of the casualties at Manassas, Olin was probably promoted to sergeant following that battle.

Lance Herdegen, former president of the Milwaukee Civil War Round Table, found a reference to Olin's wound in an account by Private William Harries of the 2nd Wisconsin that had been published in the Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph on Nov. 8, 1885:

"Sometime in the afternoon I was taken from the stone house to a small frame house still farther to the rear, where all the wounded of my company were collected together. I was placed on a blanket with Sergeant Uriel P. Olin, who died sometime during the night. He was left by my side until morning when he was taken out and buried. The wound he received through the bowels gave him great pain early in the evening, but for an hour or more before the final dissolution he made no complaint and died without a struggle."

"It's just another example about how grisly death was at the Civil War. Most people did not die outright from a gun wound," Dessauer said.

If you go ...

WHAT: 20th annual Antietam National Battlefield Memorial Illumination

WHEN: 6 p.m. to midnight, Saturday, Dec. 6. Rain date is Saturday, Dec. 13.

WHERE: Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg. Vehicles begin the tour at the battlefield entrance on Md. 34 east of Sharpsburg. The tour exits onto Md. 65 north of Sharpsburg.

COST: Free; donations accepted at the entrance.

MORE: The line at the entrance is very long - a mile or two miles is typical - and the wait can exceed an hour. Drivers are asked to use their parking lights only on the tour and drive through slowly without stopping. The tour is about five miles long.

If there is inclement weather, call 301-432-5124 to find out if the illumination has been postponed.

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