Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Story of John Augustus Fiegen

John was born somewhere in Prussia in or about the year 1820. We don’t know anything about his parents or siblings. What John didn’t know was that his life would end just 44 years later in a foreign land and under circumstances he could not possibly have imagined.

Whether he came to the USA by himself or with family is unknown but April 3 1845 found 25 year old John standing at the altar of a church with Maria Elizabeth Hoffman in New Trier Township Illinois. Their home was on what is now Illinois Road, Wilmette, and was then called Reinwald Avenue in the Grosse Point area which was incorporated as Gross Point Village in 1874, and annexed by Wilmette in 1924. From various records we know that John was a carpenter and also served as "Constable of the territory of New Trier". Physically he stood 5 feet 6 ¾ inches tall with hazel eyes, dark hair and sandy complexion. Between 1845 and 1862 he and Maria would have 11 children, though 3 died at birth, one at age 5 and another at 10. Of the remaining 6 children only the first-born, Anna Maria would live a long life. Which turned out to be a good thing for me, but we won’t go into that here.

April 12 1861 was the official start of America’s Civil War. Whether for patriotic or other reasons, John apparently enlisted in the Union army soon thereafter, because his service record indicates that he was a veteran when he enlisted in Chicago in March, 1862 as a Private in Company A Twenty-third Illinois Infantry Volunteers. On March 8 1864 in Greenland Virginia John mustered in for a third enlistment. There’s no doubt that he was a veteran and had seen many battles when hostilities began at the second battle of Kernstown Virginia on July 24 1864. John wouldn’t live to fight another battle. His official military record states that he was…"wounded and taken prisoner at Winchester, Va. on July 24, 1864. Not been heard from since." He was 44 years old.

Now, that statement “Not been heard from since”, plus the fact that records from the infamous Andersonville prison contain a similar name have led to some confusion about John’s fate. But the facts are that in 1868 his wife Maria applied for a widow’s pension, and John’s former company commander in a sworn affidavit said that John had died of his wounds and that his fellow prisoners had buried him on the Kernstown battle field on or about July 24, 1864. A second affidavit was submitted by a fellow prisoner who said he had helped to bury John on the battlefield. Maria’s pension was granted…she received $12 per month.

The army does a good job of supplying records. In response to my letter requesting information regarding John I received numerous documents including his service record, the two affidavits mentioned above, Maria’s pension application, and the one I treasure most…a four page letter to his wife written from Winchester Virginia on June 13 1864 just 11 days before his death – probably the last letter he wrote. It’s written in German, and though I’ve tried several times over the years to find someone to translate it have had no luck. I’ll hold on to it in the hope that some future technology will enable me or someone else to hear John’s words to his wife from that battlefield so many years ago.

John Augustus Fiegen was my great-great-great grandfather.



  1. John Fiegen's name is inscribed on the War Memorial in Wilmette outside the Village Hall. You might like to see a photograph of him in an article published in the newspaper, Wilmette Life.

  2. Tom, if you're still out there(!), I can get that letter translated for you, and would love to have a copy for our records here at the Wilmette Historical Museum. Please contact us at