Touching The Past
Captain’s sidearm remains in Warren
“At every battlefield the boys heard the sound of Capt. Alexander’s voice, clear, calm and collected. Then the regiment formed ‘front to rear’ on Co. D at Gettysburg on that hot July morning, and left them on the corner with both angles of the lie of rebels pouring the storm of lead in their faces… what a cheerful sound it was to hear his voice… There’s not a man in the command but what can touch his hat to Capt. Alexander as being a firm friend, an honest man and a brave soldier.”
Capt. William J. Alexander enlisted in the Union army for three years as a first lieutenant on Oct. 1, 1861, right at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Several years ago, he was featured in a multi-week series of stories in the Diversions section that runs each Saturday.
When that series concluded, I assumed that was the end of the story. I had spent weeks getting acquainted with the man and, with any 19th century biography, you know the story ends because the subject dies.
I kept the copy of his diary and drafts of my stories and had filed them away and largely forgot them.
Until my phone rang a couple weeks ago.
It was Alexander’s great-great grandson (who agreed to be interviewed but who I won’t name here). He called on something unrelated. He then told me he had Capt. Alexander’s sidearm.
He asked if I wanted to see it.
I suspect I said “yes” before he finished the question.
He showed me the pistol and a non-army issue long rifle that was in Alexander’s possession.
He said that Alexander gave all of his military accoutrements to his son and that his mother used to bring Alexander’s sword and scabbard into school for show and tell when he was in elementary school.
The collection has been split among multiple family members — he has the sidearm, another has the sword, where the uniform is is unclear.
There was little remarkable about Alexander’s life before the war — he was born in Erie and moved with his family to Youngsville.
By 1840, census records show the family living in Brokenstraw Township and in Youngsville in 1850. The 1860 census identifies Alexander as a merchant in business with his father.
He answered Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin’s call for volunteers and enlisted in 1861 along with a good friend – Colonel George Cobham, who led his regiment — the 111th Pennsylvania.
He was commissioned captain — a moniker that would stick with him for the rest of his life – in 1862 and led his company in such famous battles as Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Atlanta.
He married while still in the service, returned to Warren after the war (mustering out at the rank of lieutenant colonel) and was ultimately elected Register and Recorder for Warren County in 1875, a position he would hold for two non-consecutive terms.
After leaving office, he was heavily involved in business interests across the country and instrumental in the Grand Army of the Republic – one of the leading Civil War veterans organizations – as well as facilitating the GAR Circle at Oakland Cemetery.
He died in 1904 and is buried at Oakland Cemetery, though he left letters and a diary from his Civil War service in a tin box that his family discovered and transcribed.
The sidearm — the barrel, specifically — has been heavily modified, likely after the Civil War.
In its original form, it appears to be an 1858 Remington, a common revolver issued to officers during the Civil War.
Over 230,000 were produced so it’s not a particularly unique weapon.
But the ability to link it back to a specific soldier? And to have it be one I wrote extensively about?
This job has certainly taken me some places I never expected.
Add this to that list.