As the hot Kansas sun rose over the camp of the Ninth Wisconsin Infantry on June 17, 1862, the German immigrants who formed the bulk of the regiment were abuzz with the terrible news of last evening’s events. Rumors ran rife that a soldier in Company F killed himself during the night. And indeed, fifty-one year old Private Ludwig Salzwedel, a German immigrant to La Crosse, Wisconsin and the father of a family of five, had committed suicide that night. His death made for a gruesome scene, which revealed his repeated attempts to take his own life.
Writing in his diary that day, Sergeant Michael Zimmer of Company E of the Ninth penned the sad details of the suicide:
At 3 a.m. someone called Salzwedel from Company F shot himself. He lived in Laeras [La Crosse] Wisconsin and was 51 years old. By all appearances, this was a cold-blooded suicide: as we can only speculate he took his pen-knife and inflicted the first wound on himself, then he took his straight razor. When this was not successful either, he took his bayonet and tried to stab himself in the heart, but he missed. Only then did he take his rifle; he loaded it, took his right shoe and sock off, put the rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger with the right foot. The bullet went right through his head and took some hair with it to the top of the tent. He fell down backwards and with his head on his knapsack still holding the rifle in his arm. The day before he had written a letter back home and a few lines were found in his tent, too, where he remarked that he wanted to put an end to this life and humbug.
Within a month, the details documented in Zimmer’s diary were confirmed in a letter written by an anonymous Ninth Wisconsin soldier to the Daily Wisconsin newspaper in Milwaukee:
On the morning of the 17th of June, a man belonging to Company F named Salzbedel, whose company was absent on a scout, committed suicide by shooting himself through the head with his own musket, after making an unsuccessful attempt to cut his throat with a razor, that proved too dull, however, for the work. The investigation proved that he was subject to fits of mental aberration, thinking too intensely of home and its various enjoyments. He was buried on the same day on the green prairie not far from the clear and swift Spring river.
Between these two accounts, a hazy picture regarding the circumstances of Ludwig Salzwedel’s death emerges. First, most obviously, we know that he committed suicide. His repeated attempts to kill himself, beginning with a pen-knife, followed by a razor, then a bayonet, and finally and successfully with a musket, demonstrate his determination to carry out the act, even after experiencing the pain of his first failed attempts. Second, both accounts indicate that Salzwedel sought to explain his actions to someone. Zimmer’s diary informs us that Ludwig Salzwedel sent a letter home prior to his suicide—although importantly, we do not know if Ludwig informed his wife and children of his suicidal intentions or explained them. He appears, however, to have done so in the note left in his tent—as Zimmer tells us, “he wanted to put an end to this life and humbug.”
We can also guess—though we will never definitely know—why Ludwig Salzwedel took his own life. Ludwig was apparently “thinking too intensely of home and its various enjoyments,” perhaps indicating he suffered from severe homesickness, depression, mental stress, or some other form of mental illness. Perhaps the drudgery of a soldier’s life and the long separation from loved ones proved too much to bear.
Whatever the reasons for Ludwig Salzwedel’s suicide, the above accounts of his death suggest that everyone in the Ninth Wisconsin quickly knew of his death, and they seemed to have accepted his suicide at face-value. Yet in the coming weeks and months back in Wisconsin, a very different narrative of Ludwig Salzwedel’s death would emerge in the courtrooms of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
In the wake of her husband’s death, Caroline Fredericka Salzwedel mourned not only the loss of her husbands of twenty-six years, but also faced the bureaucracy that accompanied it. We often forget that Civil War deaths were inevitably followed by paperwork, which in Caroline’s case would prove voluminous. Ludwig’s death left Caroline with the responsibility of caring for the three Sazlwedel daughters still at home—19 year-old Emilie, 17 year-old Augusta, and 13 year-old Albertina (the Salzwedel's also had two sons who had already left home). Doubtless a daunting prospect, Caroline applied for a widow’s pension from the Federal government, hoping a monthly stipend could alleviate the crisis the Salzwedels faced after Ludwig’s death.
While pensions for widows of Union soldiers were common enough, there were some additional obstacles Caroline faced in submitting her pension and getting in approved. For starters, she had to prove she was Ludwig’s wife. This was not a simple task. Caroline and Ludwig both hailed from Pomerania, a region in Central Europe that rests along the modern German-Polish border and was then a part of Prussia. On September 16, 1835, Reverend Streuben married the couple in Belkow, Pomerania. They seemed to have lived in Germany for some time after their marriage; only later, perhaps in the wake of the failed revolution of 1848, did the Salzwedels immigrate to the United States. Thus, the marriage records of Ludwig and Caroline Salzwedel resided not in Wisconsin, but instead across the ocean in Pomerania.
To certify that her marriage to Ludwig was true and legal, Caroline relied upon a variety of friends and relatives from around the area to testify at the county courthouse over the next nine months. John Bathbe and John Maron (likely Caroline’s father) certified that they had personally witnessed Ludwig and Caroline’s marriage in Belkow in 1835. Andrew Roth and Martin Robart both testified that they had lived with the Salzwedels in recent years and knew the couple to be married. Frederick Hilbert, Andrew Roth, and Louis Affeldt swore they had known the Salzwedels “for five years, having been in constant business and & social relations with them.” The pension records illuminate how friends and family within the German immigrant community in La Crosse stood by Caroline and helped her pension application move forward.
While Caroline proved her marriage to Wisconsin judges and clerks, documentation of her husband’s death in the line of service was also needed. Here, our story takes an interesting turn. The commander of Ludwig’s company was Captain Martin Voegele, who almost certainly would have known about Ludwig’s suicide on June 17th, and who moreover also hailed from La Crosse, Wisconsin; it’s possible that Capt. Voegele knew Ludwig and his family personally. In a pair of documents submitted alongside Caroline’s pension application, Captain Voegele affirmed that Ludwig Salzwedel was a private of Company F and had died “at Camp Baxter Springs, Indian Territory, on the 17th day of June 1862 in consequence of insanity or derangement of the brain contracted in the service of the United States in the line of his duty.” Captain Voegele further elucidated that Private Salzwedel, beginning on May 1, 1862 “and subsequent days, during the march from Fort Scott [Kansas] through the neutral lands to Camp Baxter Springs [Indian Territory], wading through creeks & rivers, during heavy rain storms, sleeping & camping out, & severe exposures, was sick with fever for nearly three weeks on our arrival at Camp Baxter Springs, got wild and crazy & finally he died on the 17th day of June 1862 in camp in consequence of these exposures or fever.”
In both of Capt. Voegele’s statements, he never specifies the actual cause of death—he never states that Private Salzwedel committed suicide. The word “suicide” doesn't appear. Indeed, if presented only with Captain Voegele’s statements, it appears that Private Salzwedel died of fever. The narrative put forward by Captain Voegele indicated that Ludwig endured a long, hard march through the elements, contracted a fever, suffered delirium and “derangement” from the fever, which turned him “wild and crazy” and finally ended his life—the fever ended Private Salzwedel’s life.
Satisfied that Caroline and Ludwig had indeed been legally married, satisfied that they had lived together in Wisconsin with their children, and satisfied that Ludwig Salzwedel had died in the line of duty in the Ninth Wisconsin, the government finally approved Caroline Salzwedel’s pension in early 1865, providing her with eight dollars a month and dating the pension back to June, 1862. Caroline never remarried, and she relied upon this pension until her death in 1891.
The historical record presents us with two competing narratives regarding the death of Ludwig Salzwedel. From the diary of fellow soldier Michael Zimmer and the anonymous soldier letter published in the Daily Wisconsin, we are told that Salzwedel was homesick, unhappy, and committed brutal, determined suicide. Ludwig Salzwedel took his own life on June 17, 1862.
From the pension records of Caroline Salzwedel, however, an alternate narrative emerges. From the statements of Captain Martin Voegele of Company F, Ludwig Salzwedel had faced tough hardships in the weeks prior to his death. The long marches and exposure to wild weather and tough terrain made Ludwig susceptible to fever. For nearly three weeks, according to Captain Voegele, Ludwig battled this fever, but it ultimately made him “wild and crazy” and took his life. Voegele’s statements identify fever as Private Salzwedel’s cause of death of June 17, 1862.
Well, which is it? Suicide? Or fever?
As good historians, we should privilege the accounts of Michael Zimmer and the unidentified Daily Wisconsin correspondent in seeking to understand how Ludwig Salzwedel died. These soldiers’ accounts were provided by men in Ludwig’s regiment in the immediate aftermath of his death. After all, what motive could possibly induce Michael Zimmer to fabricate a suicide in his diary entry on June 17th? The later Daily Wisconsin letter only confirms the veracity of Zimmer’s first-hand account. On the other hand, Captain Voegele’s statements were written weeks, if not months, after Ludwig’s death, and there existed a plethora of motivating reasons for Captain Voegele to play loose with the truth of Ludwig’s death (which we’ll explore momentarily).
Thus, we can say with some likelihood that Ludwig Salzwedel committed suicide. Yet this simple statement unleashes a several new questions:
1. Did Caroline Salzwedel even know her husband committed suicide?
This is an intriguing question. We know that Ludwig wrote a letter home immediately prior to his suicide, but to whom this letter was written and what this letter contained are unknown to us. Perhaps Ludwig explained his actions to his family; perhaps he did not. We cannot know whether Caroline knew from her husband that he planned to kill himself. Likewise, Captain Voegele’s statements—at least those written for Caroline’s pension application—do not reveal that Ludwig committed suicide. It’s possible that Capt. Voegele wrote to Caroline Salzwedel privately regarding Ludwig’s death, but we do not know if this was the case.
The best evidence that Caroline Salzwedel knew her husband committed suicide comes from the letter in the Daily Wisconsin. This letter—which slightly misidentifies Salzwedel as “Salzbedel”—confirms that this man in Company F, 9th Wisconsin Infantry committed suicide. This letter was printed in an established, public newspaper. It’s possible, perhaps probable, that the Daily Wisconsin and its contents would have made its way to Caroline Salzwedel. Indeed, if Caroline had not previously known the circumstances of her husband’s death, we can imagine that finding out via the pages of a newspaper or word of mouth would have been a terrible experience.
Ultimately, while we cannot know for certain whether Caroline knew her husband Ludwig had committed suicide, the public announcement of his death in a Wisconsin newspaper makes it likely that she learned his true fate.
2. If both Caroline Salzwedel and Captain Martin Voegele knew the true circumstances of Ludwig’s suicide, why did they lie (or at best obscure) the truth about Ludwig’s demise?
If we assume that Caroline knew that her husband Ludwig committed suicide, as did Ludwig’s commander Captain Martin Voegele, then why did these two obscure this fact in Caroline’s pension application?
Scholars—including Civil Discourse’s own Katie Thompson—have shown that soldier suicide rarely resulted in pensions for the soldier’s wife and family. With three mouths to feed at home, Caroline needed her husband’s pension. By sidestepping Ludwig’s suicide in her application, Caroline tremendously increased the odds that her pension application would be approved. Caroline may also have wanted to keep the true circumstances of her husband’s death as private as possible. In the 19th century, suicide could bring embarrassment and shame to the families of suicide victims; while we do not know Caroline’s specific thoughts on the matter, public discretion would have been an understandable course.
As for Captain Voegele, he may well have understood the need to skirt around Ludwig’s suicide for pension purposes. He may also have wanted to avoid describing Ludwig’s suicide in a formal document submitted to the court. Voegele might not have known if whether Caroline knew about Ludwig’s suicide and wished to spare her that unhappy knowledge. Since both Ludwig Salzwedel and Martin Voegele hailed from La Crosse, perhaps Captain Voegele even knew Ludwig and family, and his statements were a personal favor to known friends. Whatever his reasons, Voegele’s official statements bolstered Caroline’s pension claim and obscured the true cause of Ludwig’s death.
Ultimately, the unfortunate suicide of Private Ludwig Salzwedel underscores the homesickness, depression, and mental stress faced by many Civil War soldiers. For Salzwedel, perhaps these pressures—and perhaps others unknown to us—motivated him to take his own life. Yet his suicide also illuminates how the families of suicide victims faced a harsh reality. For Caroline Salzwedel, aside from the grief of losing her husband, Ludwig’s suicide—whether she knew about his suicide or not—threatened her ability to receive a widow’s pension. Only Captain Voegele’s sweeping, misleading statements regarding Ludwig’s “derangement” and death due to a “fever” contracted in the course of service gave Caroline’s pension a realistic chance of being approved. It also kept Ludwig’s suicide out of the public record. Likewise, the narrative of Ludwig dying by fever perhaps allowed Caroline and the Salzwedel family to save some face among their friends and community, although the eventual publication of the soldier’s letter in the Daily Wisconsin challenged this narrative. We will never know the exact truth regarding Ludwig Salzwedel’s suicide, what his family knew and when, and why the pension records omitted the true circumstances of his death, but what we do know suggests it proved an unhappy and complicated affair.
Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree. He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. ©
Further Reading and Sources:
*Special thanks to Jerry Austin, the great-great-great grandson of Ludwig Salzwedel. Mr. Austin contacted me after the initial publication of this post and provided a photograph of Ludwig. How powerful it is to finally attach a face to a name! Mr. Austin has likewise done research on the Salzwedel family, available in a collection at the La Crosse [WI] Public Library Archives.
Pension Records. Caroline Fredericka Salzewedel. United States Government. Digitized via Fold3.
Thompson, Katie. "Mental Stress in the Union Army." Civil Discourse Blog. June 1, 2015.
Zimmer, Michael. Michael Zimmer's Diary: Ein deutsches Tagebuch aus dem Amerikanischen Burgerkreig. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang GmbH, 2001.