Answer Man: A Belleville connection to Civil War history

News-DemocratJuly 2, 2013 

Q. I live at 12 Kircher Place near downtown Belleville. A friend told me that my street may be named after Capt. Henry "A." Kircher, who fought for the Union during the Civil War. However, I'm not convinced because I found information that implies the street is named for a Henry "S." Kircher, who was mayor. Are they related? What's the real story?

-- Johnny Kicklighter, of Belleville

A. Although most historians are focusing on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this week, let me tell you the touching and ultimately triumphant Civil War saga of Belleville's own Henry A. Kircher.

Born in 1841 in Cass County, Kircher came to Belleville as a boy when his father, Joseph, teamed with Henry Goedeking to open a hardware store at 21 W. Main St. After his schooling, Henry began learning the machinist's trade when the Civil War broke out.

He spent his first three months with the 9th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He was sent to Cairo to prevent supplies from being sent down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and into rebel hands.

He mustered out on July 26, 1861, reportedly dismayed by political maneuvering within the regiment and friction between German and native-born soldiers. Soon, however, he re-entered the fight, this time joining the 12th Missouri Infantry Volunteers. By the fall of 1863, Kircher, now a captain, found himself in the deep South, heading toward a fateful battle near Ringgold, Ga., on Nov. 27, 1863.

It would be a loss for the Union, but it also would see a heart-wrenching act of selflessness by Kircher. With his 4,100 men, Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne plugged up a mountain pass known as the Ringgold Gap to stall the Union's advance. Cleburne's efforts allowed rebel artillery and supplies to keep moving while the Union suffered major losses.

One of those casualties was Kircher, according to a News-Democrat account in his obituary on May 2, 1908. While leading a Union charge, Kircher was shot in the leg, but continued to command his men as he took refuge behind a tree.

Quickly, Adjutant Fred Kessler, also of Belleville, rode up and ordered Kircher to fall back, but as he did so, Kessler was shot and killed. Braving enemy fire, the wounded Kircher crawled over to the body so he could remove a ring and return it to Kessler's family. As he did so, a rifle ball smashed into Kircher's arm. Then, as he was being carried to safety, a third shot struck him in the hip.

The hip wound was minor, but the other two were so severe, they required amputation in the field hospital. By the time he left the service the following August, Kircher was a 23-year-old man without a right arm and left leg.

He didn't seem to let it slow him down a second. As soon as he returned to Belleville, he ran for circuit court clerk, using a picture of himself standing on his right leg and supporting himself with his left arm, proudly wearing his uniform. He won handily. Later, from 1877-78, he would serve as mayor.

He eventually joined his father's hardware business, which became known as Kircher & Son. Among a long list of accomplishments, he would serve as director (and later president) of Belleville Savings Bank for 36 years, was elected to the Board of Education and served as director of the Belleville Gas and Electric Co.

According to city directories through his lifetime, his stately mansion was at 514 N. Church St. and probably was built sometime about 1870, according to local historian Robert Brunkow. Known as Pine Grove, it likely was the scene of many lavish parties -- such as the intimate bash for 300 he threw in 1892.

"A lawn party was scheduled but bad weather forced the group to Liederkranz Hall," Brunkow told me. "Several days later the guests were invited to the house to view the 600 Japanese lanterns strung above garden paths on 6,000 feet of wire. Kircher also had a lawn bowling alley. It was not called the Gilded Age for nothing."

Kircher died of pneumonia on May 1, 1908, making him 66 or 67. Kircher Place is certainly named for him, although just when remains a bit of a mystery. Brunkow has found an 1884 newspaper reference to a house being built near "the Kircher Place." But the first official listing in the city directory was 1913 with a William Ittner living at 1 Kircher Place and son Theodore Kircher at 7 Kircher Place.

Kircher's uniform was part of the Missouri History Museum's Civil War exhibit last year; you can still see a picture of it and Kircher's 1864 campaign photo at www.civilwarmo.org/gallery. In addition, you can buy "A German in the Yankee Fatherland: The Civil War Letters of Henry A. Kircher" at amazon.com. He had a son Henry B., but there's no Henry S. of note.

Today's trivia

What famous Union general helped save the day at Gettysburg by preventing the South from attacking from the rear on the final day?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Mlb.com lists former Cardinal pitcher Arthur Rhodes as the career leader in holds with 231 from 1999 to 2011.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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