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Casualties in the American Civil War were enormous on both sides of the four-year conflict. Reuben Kemmerer (also spelled Kemerer), of Company I, 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, suffered wounds to his right hand during the Second Battle of Deep Bottom in August 1864. He was one of approximately 2,900 Union soldiers wounded in the engagement which took place in Henrico County, Virginia, August 14-20, 1864, as part of the Petersburg Campaign. Kemmerer’s injury occurred during the Union 10th Corps’ frontal attack on Confederate troops near Fussell’s Mill on August 16. He was removed from the front, given basic medical treatment in a field hospital, and then sent by train to recover at Mower U.S. Army General Hospital (now Chestnut Hill Hospital) in Philadelphia. Named in honor of early army surgeon Thomas Mower, the hospital was established in 1863 specifically for the care of wounded Civil War soldiers.

Kemmerer’s military career began when he mustered into service as a 27-year-old private, on February 23, 1862, at the Carbon County seat of Mauch Chunk, renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953. A native of the county, he joined the 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, which was placed in the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac. Described as being 5’ 7”, with blue eyes, dark hair and a light complexion, this carpenter by trade took to martial life and reenlisted in the 81st Pennsylvania as a veteran volunteer on February 26, 1864, in Philadelphia, for which he received a $100 bounty. As a member of the 81st regiment, he saw action at the siege of Yorktown and the battles of Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Deep Bottom – to name but a few.

A letter written by Kemmerer to Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin – hailed by soldiers and their families as “The Soldier’s Friend” because of his beneficence to them on the battlefield and on the home front – is contained in Record Group 19.29, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, General Correspondence, at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Written while he was hospitalized, and dated May 21 1865, he requested discharge from military service due to the battle wound he sustained on his right hand. No longer possessing his right thumb, and having been denied permission to return to his regiment by hospital staff, Kemmerer believed he was unfit for continued service. To illustrate his point he included a tracing of his right hand that clearly documents the loss of his thumb.

Kemmerer was discharged five weeks later on June 29, 1865. He filed a military invalid pension claim in 1866 and was granted six dollars monthly for the loss of his thumb. He returned to Carbon County and began working as a farmer. He died on June 20, 1906, in the Middle Coal Field Poor District Almshouse, commonly called the Rockport Almshouse, at Laurytown, also in Carbon County. Kemmerer was buried in the Grand Army of the Potomac section of the Lehighton Cemetery.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 2010.