Who knows how Pvt. Levi Schlegel lost his identity ring?
The finger ring bearing his name, company and regiment — a Civil War version of a dog tag -- was found near Fredericksburg, a place Schlegel had only passed through on his way home a month after the war ended.
Did he misplace it in camp there? Or discard it — divorcing himself at last from the butchery he witnessed in the closing weeks of the war?
On Tuesday, 148 years after the war ended and 81 years after he died at the age of 91, the ring that married him to the conflict was returned to his family in a modest ceremony at his grave in Reading, Pa., where he had lived.
It was handed over by John Blue, 40, a heavy equipment operator and veteran relic hunter from Manassas, to Ernest Schlegel, 49, a candidate for Reading City Council, who believes he is a distant cousin.
“To know what this person went through and get back here...and to know what he went through in battle . . . it’s an amazing feeling to have this right here in my hand,” Ernest Schlegel said when Blue gave him the ring.
Blue, who was wearing a ball cap and T-shirt bearing the name of White’s Metal Detectors, said, “No matter where you walk, you could be walking on all kinds of history.”
Blue, who grew up in Manassas and learned relic hunting from his father and grandfather, said he found the ring in 2005 with a metal detector but didn’t try in earnest to track down the soldier’s relatives until recently.
He succeeded with the help of a friend, Margaret Binning, who is a genealogist and volunteer at the Manassas Museum. She tracked Levi Schlegel to the Reading Public Library, where Ernest Schlegel is on the board, he said.
Blue said he believes it may be the first time that such a recovered Civil War object has been returned to a soldier’s family.
“It’s a great story for Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania, and the Schlegel family all at the same time,” Ernest Schlegel said. “Because when you read the kinds of battles that this man went through, and he came back and he lived a successful life...it’s amazing, absolutely amazing.”
Schlegel was 21 when he joined his first regiment, the 167th Pennsylvania, in 1862, Ernest Schlegel said. This was a nine-month outfit that disbanded in August, 1863 without seeing too much action.
Schlegel, who was a carpenter by trade, was out of the army for a year. He then signed up again in September 1864 with the 198th Pennsylvania regiment, Company G, recruited in Berks County, Pa., where Reading is located.
Many in the company, like Schlegel, were the descendants of 18th century German immigrants. Some of Schelgel’s comrades were Reuben Reifsnyder, Alfred Seiple, Augustus Shupert, Annes Sicher, and Gideon D. Staudt, according a register at the Web site Pennsylvania Volunteers of the Civil War.
The war at this stage was exceptionally grim. The main Union and Confederate armies were locked in trench warfare around the city of Petersburg, Va. The Confederacy was in its death throes, but its Army of Northern Virginia was still dangerous.
Blue said the identity ring was one of several ways Union soldiers had to make sure their bodies would be identified if they were killed in battle. The soldier’s name, company and regiment were etched on the outside of the ring, which probably was worn, in this case, on a pinky finger.
The ring, which appears to be silver, was likely purchased by Schlegel, Blue said, and served as daily reminder of the prospect of death. Blue found it at a construction site where he was hunting for relics.
Soldiers also could buy identity discs, which looked more like dog tags.
And some, facing especially awful combat, simply wrote their names on pieces of paper that they pinned to their uniforms before battle.
If Schlegel was with his regiment throughout the final months of the war, he was lucky to have survived. The 198th saw a half-dozen savage battles, marched through dreadful weather, and saw comrades who had been stripped of their clothes and had their throats cut by partisans, according to a history of the regiment.
At the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in February 1865, brutal fighting broke out at night.
“The boys sprang upon the foe with the bayonet,” the regimental history states. “The struggle for a short time was hand-to-hand, muskets being clubbed and bayonets freely used.”
The regiment fought in quick succession at Quaker Road, White Oak Ridge, and Five Forks — bloody encounters in the closing days of the war.
It lost Maj. Charles I. Meceuen, captains George W. Mulfrey and Isaac Schroeder, the chaplain’s brother, Lt. Andrew Pomeroy.
“No one can duly portray the horrors of the last hours of Slave-Holding-Powers rule,” the regimental history records. “God’s vengeance was upon them.”
And the outfit was near Appomattox, Va., when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the battered Army of Northern Virginia, on April 9, 1865, essentially ending the war.
“Oh, what happy hearts those blue coats held,” the history states of the regiment’s reaction to the surrender. “A country saved, one and undivided! The seed sown in sorrow and anguish upon so many fields had yielded its golden harvest - victory.”
The regiment then slowly started home, reaching Richmond, and then marching through Fredericksburg on May 9. Probably, it was there that Levi Schlegel, no longer facing oblivion, parted with his ring.
He may just have lost it. But he had seen so many wartime horrors. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. And he had lost 117 comrades in the regiment to combat and disease.
“I just can’t help but wonder if he didn’t actually throw the ring on the ground in disgust,” Ernest Schlegel said. “I don’t know.”
The regiment marched on to Washington, took the train to Philadelphia and was mustered out of service on June 12, 1865.
Levi Schlegel went home to Reading, got married and had 11 children.
He is buried beside his wife, Mary, beneath a twin “pillow”-style tombstone in Reading’s 167-year old Charles Evans cemetery.
An American flag and a Grand Army of the Republic veterans emblem marked the grave Tuesday.
And he might never have missed the tiny ring that has been brought home to his grave.