A photograph of wounded soldiers camped under a tree.

The Henkel Family in the Shenandoah: Military Medicine

By James Labosier ~

Read the first post in this series: “The Henkel Family in the Shenandoah: Medical Heritage.”

War takes hold of everyday life and consumes it, leaving only scraps and crumbs in the void. The Henkel correspondence during the war personified chaos. What had once been regular letters sent between Caspar and his father, his friends, and out of town siblings dissolved into news seeping through the cracks of an avalanche of disorder. Caspar wrote when he could from whatever shore the tide of war had thrown him, never knowing how soon his thoughts reached home. The broken postal service often relied on a patchwork of traveling families and friends. Until his father’s untimely death in early 1863, Caspar kept him informed as much on medical matters as on military status. The war brought family and neighbors closer together. Friends and distant relatives in the army, who had barely if ever written to Caspar, now appeared as correspondents concerned about each other’s survival. Caspar’s brothers and sisters wrote from home feeling the same uncertainty that prevailed on the battlefield.

The Coming Storm

A color photograph of an open grassy field with a bare deciduous tree and a civil war field artillery piece.
New Market Battlefield, ca. 2010

The coming of the Civil War was no surprise to the Henkels or New Market. Repeated fears of slave uprisings presaged the coming war. In January 1857 and January 1859, New Market citizens armed themselves and conducted night watches in town. They had heard rumors that slave revolts throughout the state had been planned and were imminent, though nothing occurred.

In 1860 the Henkels and their friends expected civil war, and when Lincoln was elected in November they felt it was inevitable. Even though slaves were held in Shenandoah County, the Henkels themselves chose not to own slaves. They did, however, usually make an annual contract with a local slaveowner for a woman to work as a domestic servant in their home. Upon the inheritance of a deceased relative’s slaves in 1856, Samuel declined acceptance of any, not wanting “to bring a curse” upon himself.

Though they didn’t participate in slave ownership, the Henkels did not specifically condemn the practice and that was at the root of their animosity towards the north. The main issue to them was the principle of an outside body or force seeking to impose its will upon them, which was intolerable and which they would engage in open conflict to prevent. This, rather than a rationale about the propriety of slavery, justified their opposition.

A Soldier’s Life

The Henkel men, their friends, and their relatives took up arms in the southern cause shortly after Virginia seceded in April 1861. Caspar’s cousin Elijah “Lige” Coiner joined Captain Patrick’s Augusta company which occupied Harper’s Ferry at the end of April. Berryman Z. Price, David F. Kagey, Benjamin F. Graves, and cousin Polybius Henkel all joined W.H. Rice’s 8th Star Artillery, which was formed in New Market. This unit served under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the Army of Northern Virginia. Graves was killed in battle at Greenbriar River on October 3, 1861. Polybius died of disease in February 1862.

A photograph of wounded men in a rough camp under a tree.
Wounded men at Fredericksburg, Va.
National Library of Medicine #101405803

Caspar joined the 2nd Regiment, 7th Brigade of the Virginia Militia as an assistant surgeon in July 1861. He spent the bulk of his service in the 37th regiment of the Virginia Volunteers in the 3rd Brigade under General Jackson, then under Joseph Johnston and Richard Ewell after Jackson’s death. Shultz Miller also served as assistant surgeon, with the 20th Virginia Volunteers during 1862 and the 25th Virginia Volunteers during 1863. Both were kept away from home for the duration of the war, which added to the hardships in New Market.

Like many soldiers during the war, Caspar and Shultz were dependent upon their families to provide them with clothing, much of their basic equipment, and extra food. This burden was cheerfully accepted by the Henkel family. Susan Henkel and her daughters devoted much of their time to making pants, socks, coats, gloves, and caps for Caspar and Shultz. Postal service was very uncertain during most of the war and usually letters and supplies were sent together to soldiers in the field by way of friends or relatives or strangers who passed through New Market and were headed to the field of war.

A reproduction of a photograph of a Civil War ambulance drill showing wounded carried on stretchers and loaded on a horse drawn covered cart.
Ambulance Drill
National Library of Medicine #101435361

The war tended to draw parts of Caspar’s extended family closer together. Concerned cousins regularly wrote to him, anxious about his welfare and letting him know how the war was affecting them and their families. Fannie Coiner, a cousin in Augusta County, had two brothers in the army and was close in age to Caspar. In Winchester cousins Fannie, Lib, and Beck Wolfe also had a brother in the army. The Miller sisters, his cousins Laura, Margaretta, and Mary Ellen, corresponded with Caspar from Winchester. He stayed with the Millers on many occasions when the army was encamped or marching nearby. Unfortunately at some point before the Library’s acquisition of the Henkel Family Papers, the segment of correspondence coinciding with the battle of New Market in 1864 was removed, leaving no first hand accounts of the battle in this collection.

The Homefront

The Henkel farm and medical practice were stretched beyond the point of endurance by the war. Most predictably, the farm lacked sufficient labor. Practically every able-bodied man was fighting. Samuel fought the Confederate government for years to retain the assistance of his son-in-law Gideon Koiner. Both he and Rebecca spent most of the war with the Henkels in New Market. Caspar’s younger brother Abram, who was 17 at the war’s outbreak, was the only other reliable help. Harvests were partial and crops often went unplanted.

In addition to the farm taking up his time, Samuel was also overworked by a lack of physicians in New Market. In addition to Caspar and Shultz’s absence, Dr. Jacob Neff died in 1862 and Dr. Rice was chronically ill with asthma. Dr. Sommers had long since left New Market. This left Samuel and Solon on constant call for all the town’s ailments. Then, of course, wounded soldiers either returned home injured, straggled down the valley after a battle, or populated the military hospital at nearby Mt. Jackson. Young Abram and his sisters assisted in treating the wounded, but there was no relief for Samuel. After a couple of years of heroic labor, he contracted pneumonia and died on March 8, 1863.

First-hand experience with the war was unavoidable in New Market. The entire valley was almost constantly either occupied or in the path of an advancing army. Citizens were routinely victimized by troops, both Union and Confederate, that stole fruit, vegetables, horses, and livestock and occasionally lingered to harass and loot. In mid-June 1862 the Henkels were visited by some surly German-speaking Union soldiers who were on their way north to rejoin Gen. John C. Frémont’s retreat from the battle of Cross Keys, Virginia. They broke into some homes, including Solon’s, ransacking the furnishings and stealing anything that they thought had value. Aside from property loss, though, no one was injured.

Certainly the most significant part New Market played in the war was as site of a battle on May 15, 1864. Throughout a morning and afternoon of driving rain, Generals John Imboden and John Breckenridge of the Confederacy defeated a larger Union force commanded by General Fritz Sigel.

A map showing topography and troop movements in New Market VA.
Map of the Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864
Courtesy Library of Congress


The Henkel family and New Market survived the war but with permanent disabilities. Ravaged farming and agriculture continued though now on a smaller scale. Families and businesses had lost essential manpower. Once thriving in agriculture, livestock, printing, and medicine, the Henkel family emerged from the war intact but trimmed down.

Read the first installment, “The Henkel Family in the Shenandoah: Medical Heritage.” Stay tuned to learn about the Caspar Henkel’s life as a physician in the New Market Virginia.

About the Collection

The Henkel Family Papers collection (MS C 291; 1.5 linear feet) consists of 828 letters and is largely the product of Caspar C. Henkel’s (1835–1908) life. Items dating before 1850 were written by ancestors of both Caspar and his wife, Margaretta. The bulk of the correspondence, however, is directly related to Caspar and Margaretta. Caspar retained letters written to him while he was away at medical school and in the field during the Civil War. Upon returning home from these extended absences, he apparently also collected several letters he himself had written to New Market. He also kept letters written to him from his two brothers during their medical training and afterwards when they lived and practiced away from New Market. Letters written to Margaretta from her sisters during the late 1860s and early 1870s are also included.

James Labosier is Associate Curator for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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