DANVILLE — Doyle Dietz’s interest in the Civil War started with a bang.
As an elementary school student growing up in Riverside, he was playing at a classmate’s house when his friend took down the family’s Civil War-era musket off the family’s mantle and the two decided to take aim with it in the house. Little did they know the gun had been loaded all those years and they ended up blowing a hole in the kitchen door, recounted a laughing Dietz at an Iron Heritage Festival presentation on July 20.
Decades after his childhood mishap, Dietz would find out a similar weapon was responsible for ending the life of his great-great granduncle, Union soldier John Hower.
Dietz’s presentation, “Researching Your Civil War Ancestors,” described his research into identifying his ancestor, how he died and how he was related to the Dietz family. About 30 people crowded into Mill Street’s Premier Studios at 1 p.m. to hear Dietz’s tale, with several standing due to a shortage of seats.
His mother had once said to him in passing how the family had an ancestor who died in the Civil War, said Dietz, a member of Danville High School’s class of 1964 and now a resident of Deer Lake.
As an adult, Dietz began his search for his ancestor, but quickly ran into a problem – he did not know the spelling of “Hower” as he had only heard it spoken. His search through military files didn’t get him very far, so he decided to change tactics.
What he learned is that, when searching for military ancestors, “you don’t worry about military records, you worry about tax records and census records,” which are much better maintained, he told the audience.
His search eventually led him to a tax record, preserved on microfiche, which listed a John Hower, eldest of 13 children, living at 195 Liberty Township. The final piece of evidence for Dietz is that one of Hower’s siblings was listed as Elizabeth Hower, who later became Elizabeth Naus and gave birth to Dietz’s grandfather.
With his ancestor’s identity confirmed, Dietz was able to piece together the rest of his granduncle’s life. At the age of 22, Hower enlisted in Montour County’s Company H, of the Union Army’s 93rd Infantry division.
Hower started his military career in the Peninsula Campaign, under General George McClellan, was in reserve at the battle of Antietam and participated in the battle of Fredericksburg.
Hower was struck down at the Fall of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, when a bullet punctured his head above his left eye. He did not die until April 4. The truce at Appomattox Courthouse, which ended the Civil War, occurred April 9.
While Dietz was unable to definitively locate the final resting place of his ancestor, he believes Hower is one of several soldiers buried in unmarked graves outside Petersburg. The Union and Confederate left he site of the battle in a hurry to make it to Appomatox, said Dietz, and both armies planned to return to claim their dead afterward. However, when they returned the wooden crosses used to mark the graves of the soldiers had all been taken, likely for firewood.
“I’m convinced in my mind he’s one of the unknowns,” he said. “Some of the things he survived…is amazing.”
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