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Hannah and William, Part 3

(Click here for Part 2)

William left Washington, D.C. during the last days of December in the company of about twenty men. They travelled back to Virginia before heading north. They had to be careful since all pickets had received orders to shoot all deserters and persons who attempted to pass through the lines and would not respond to the challenge of the guards or submit to questioning.


William finally reached his home a month and a half later. He had spent forty-five days hiding by day and traveling by night, living with his sickness, lack of food, and fear. When he returned home, he did not try to hide. After Hannah nursed him back to health, he went about his business. He was a civilian again and he focused on making a living and providing for his family.


However, while William may have forgotten about the army, the army had not forgotten about him or the thousands of others like him. The army wanted them back. On 10 March 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation:


I, Abraham Lincoln, President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do hereby order and command that all soldiers enlisted or drafted in the service of the United States now absent from their regiments without leave shall forthwith return to their respective regiments...


And I do hereby declare and proclaim that all soldiers now absent from their respective regiments without leave who shall, on or before the 1st day of April, 1863, report themselves at any rendezvous designated by the general orders of the War Department No. 58, hereto annexed, may be restored to their respective regiments without punishment, except the forfeiture of pay and allowances during their absence; and all who do not return within the time above specified shall be arrested as deserters and punished as the law provides...


I do therefore call upon all patriotic and faithful citizens to oppose and resist the aforementioned dangerous and treasonable crimes, and to aid in restoring to their regiments all soldiers absent without leave, and to assist in the execution of the act of Congress "for enrolling and calling out the national forces, and for other purposes," and to support the proper authorities in the prosecution and punishment of offenders against said act and in suppressing the insurrection and rebellion.


With this proclamation, President Lincoln encouraged people to become informers on their friends, family and neighbors, as a way of punishing the treasonous offenders.


Meanwhile, William worked on his farm. He renewed his old friendships and never hid the fact that he had left the army without permission. Perhaps his honesty ultimately betrayed him.


Following the above proclamation, a system was put in place to combat the main issue with desertion, namely identifying the individuals. The provost marshal general's office in Washington was the destination for all information related to deserters. All data that it received was reviewed, collated and compiled by a staff of clerks. All pertinent information about deserters was then directed to local provost marshals. Due to their large population, Pennsylvania and New York had multiple special provost marshals who were empowered to arrest all deserters and spies and escort them to the nearest military commander. The local provost marshals began to receive the information about deserters and then would attempt to locate, capture and return him to military command. The marshals could also request additional manpower for local military commanders.


As a large number of desertion reports began to inundate the provost marshal general's office beginning in early April. The clerical staff, which was comprised mostly of incapacitated soldiers, was understaffed, overwhelmed and untrained As a result, the reports they produced were never complete, prompt, or accurate. Amid this confusion, a report on William H. Howe was sent to Captain John J. Freedley, the provost marshal of Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District. Freedley did not have a large staff of assistant marshals and deputies, despite being responsible for a large territory, a great deal of which was called "deserter country."


In the late afternoon on 20 June 1863, David Eisenberry, an assistant special guard from Freedley's office and Michael Wagner, attempted to arrest William at his home in Perkiomenville. The next day, Eisenberry went to the home of Abraham Bertolet, an enrolling officer, but not a regular employee and not on Freedley's payroll. Bertolet lived in the Swamp Creek (New Hanover) area with his wife, Elmira. They had no children. That Sunday, Eisenberry asked Bertolet to accompany him to make an arrest. Bertolet declined however when he heard that the man was William. But his wife encouraged him to go with Eisenberry so Bertolet gave in, following his wife's urging.


The day was dark and stormy with strong gusts of wind. As they were leaving, Bertolet told his hired man to come along and to bring a horse, adding in jest that it could be used to bring his body home if he were shot. The men then went to the home of Michael Wagner to get him to assist again in arresting William. Wagner suggested waiting until dark when they might be able to catch him in bed. So they decided to wait and while they waited, some reports said they spent the time drinking at Wagner's home or a local inn.


Finally satisfied that enough time had passed, they headed for William's home, arriving a little before midnight. It was dark and cloudy. They paused about a hundred yards from the house, dismounting and leaving the horses in the care of Bertolet's hired man. They approached the home with extreme caution, afraid of alerting the occupants. Eisenberry stationed Wagner at the northwest corner of the house and Bertolet at the southeast, ensuring that they could watch both ends and sides of the house. Eisenberry then lit a latern and knocked on the door.


A woman he supposed to be Hannah answered from behind the door and asked who he was. Eisenberry told her that he was "Augustus Bitting" and told her that the provost guard was after them. He said William should come out so they could escape capture.


But Hannah knew Augustus Bitting. "No," she answered through the closed door and responded that he was not the person he claimed to be. Eisenberry then told her his true identity and the purpose of their visit. She told him to go away because one of the children "had fits." Eisenberry said that if William surrendered, the children would not need to be disturbed. Hannah told him William was in the house, but he would not be taken. She was ordered to open the door or they would be forced to break it down. She ran upstairs and blew a horn out the window. It was followed by other horns from neighboring houses. Upon hearing this, the small posse prepared for trouble. They were all well armed. Eisenberry drew his revolver and went around the house, intending to fire a warning shot to frighten her. Hannah told them she had a loaded gun and would shoot.


Before he could fire, a shot came from the window, passing by his head. He moved around to the front of the house again, determined to break down the door. Bertolet came up and joined him, commanding, "Break open the door for I hear him talking, and let's take him out." Eisenberry warned Bertolet to move back or he could get hurt, but Bertolet would not be moved.


Eisenberry shoved the door once or twice, but it stood firm. A shot fired from the window above, passed through the tail of Eisenberry's coat. Another shot followed, allegedly from the same direction. This one struck Bertolet in his chest. "I am shot," he cried out as he clasped his hands over the wound and staggered to the corner of the house. Eisenberry looked up and, from the flash of the muzzle and the light of the lantern, he saw William withdrawing his rifle. He fired several shots at the upstairs window. After about a minute, he saw the rifle emerge again and fired directly at it. He heard Hannah scream, "Bill, are you shot?" After hearing her cry, he went to check on Bertolet and found the man dying. Wagner, at the back of the house, did not see William or anyone else fire. When Eisenberry yelled for him, he came and helped carry Bertolet's body over the fence. Bertolet died as they were attempting to carry him to the side of the road. Eisenberry got a wagon and took the body home, reaching Swamp Creek at about 3 o'clock in the morning.


Hearing the commotion, William Bolton, a neighbor of William and Hannah's opened his bedroom window. Then he saw William running down the road towards his house, shouting "Murder!" Bolton heard him say "For God's sake go and get my children away." William was afraid that his children would be murdered. Bolton went to a nearby house and got the owner to accompany him to William's home. They arrived in time to see Bertolet's body being loaded into the wagon and demanded the reason for all the shooting. Eisenberry ignored the question, instead asking them to help turn the wagon around. The men seemed to be drunk and reeked of alcohol, Bolton thought. He watched as the wagon left William's property. Neither Eisenberry or Wagner attempted to look for William that night.


Conflicting reports circulated around the community. No one was exactly certain of what had transpired that Sunday night, only that Abraham Bertolet was dead and William was on the run.

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