When local Civil War buffs talk about the role some men played in that conflict, they tend to talk first about Allentown’s Ignatz Gresser.
As every local school child used to know, Gresser, at the battle of Antietam in September of 1862, crawled through a hail of bullets to bring some of his fellow soldiers to safety. One of those he rescued was William Sowden, who in the 1890s became Lehigh County’s congressman. To correct what the community thought of as a long running injustice to Gresser, Sowden saw to it that the Medal of Honor was awarded to him in 1895.
But for a variety of reasons, one being that he was not part of a local regiment, Solomon Jefferson Hottenstein, the Lehigh Valley’s other Civil War Medal of Honor winner, has been overlooked.
This is his story.
Hottenstein, born on May 6, 1844 in North Whitehall Township, was from a longtime Pennsylvania German family whose local roots went back to the 18th century. According to research by the late Richard “Dick” Matthews, a local Civil War historian and former President of the Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pennsylvania, his birthplace was a farm on the Jordan Creek near Kernsville.
In 1847 the family relocated to Sullivan County. Like many local people at the time, they were probably seeking better farm land. As a youngster Solomon worked as a mule boy with his brother, John, on the Lehigh Canal. Their job was to guide the mules that pulled the canal boats and give them a nudge if they got the “slows.”
On February 17, 1862 Hottenstein went to Harrisburg where he joined Company C, 107th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. He listed his birthplace as “White-hall, Lehigh County,” and was 5’7” tall with blue eyes and a dark complexion. He also lied about his age, claiming to be 18 when he was actually 17.
If he was hoping to see fighting, Hottenstein saw plenty. After the war he recalled the battles he had been in for his family who wrote them down. Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg were among them, along with numerous smaller skirmishes and encounters.
Although his enlistment was up in 1864, Hottenstein decided to re-enlist for which he got a bonus of $50 and a 30 day furlough. By that August he was part of the Union Army commanded by General Grant that was trying to take the Confederate capital of Richmond by siege.
On the morning of August 18th the 107th Pennsylvania was ordered to cut a railroad line that ran south from Petersburg- a Confederate stronghold-to North Carolina. Marching over swampy muddy roads toward a tavern known as Yellow House, they were attacked by Confederates.
A two day battle ensued, broken by nightfall. Finally under terrific strain, the 107th broke under the Rebel tide and began to fall back. Along with many others, Hottenstein was taken prisoner. Moved behind rebel lines, they were guarded by the 18th North Carolina.
Hottenstein and his fellow prisoners had heard of the horrors of Confederate prisons and wanted no part of them. Walking among the men, he told them of a bold plan he had devised. In order to distract their captors, the men were to raise a shout, claiming the Union troops had broken through the lines. Then they were to jump the nearest Confederate and take his weapon from him. Hottenstein said the signal would be a shout from him when he seized the Rebels’ color bearer.
Although he never said so, Hottenstein may have noticed that the Confederates were tired enough after a long battle and little food that they might just be taken in. Understandably some of the POWs were skeptical of this plan, which they knew would cost them their lives if it failed. But the fear of prison was apparently stronger.
And it worked. All at once there was a shout from the POW’s. The stunned Confederates were overwhelmed. Hottenstein jumped the color bearer and pulled his revolver from his holster. “Hurry boys, we’ve got ‘em” he shouted. Quickly the former captors were rounded up by the POWs.
Now came the real hard part, getting their prisoners back to the Union lines. Hottenstein admitted later that he was convinced they had little chance. “I have now in my possession a star torn from the (rebel) flag,” he later told his family. “I took it as a souvenir believing we would be captured and perhaps killed before reaching our lines since we were virtually in the midst of the Confederate Army.”
Exactly how Hottenstein and his fellow members of the 107th performed this apparent miracle is unknown. Perhaps it was just the confusion following a battle, but Hottenstein did indeed present his prisoners and the 18th North Carolina’s colors to Union division commander General Samuel W. Crawford. For his heroic action, the War Department raised Hottenstein to the rank of corporal, gave him a 30 day furlough and the Medal of Honor.
Shortly after his heroic action, Hottenstein’s luck ran out. On February 5, 1865 he was wounded in the hip at the battle of Hatcher’s Run. After 30 days in a hospital he was discharged on July 3, 1865 and he was mustered out.
But the Civil War was not over for Hottenstein. He relived it every day. His wounded hip left him in agony, often giving him weeks without sleep. Despite this he married, raised a family of seven children and relocated to Manassas Va. Here he purchased a farm and hired a tenant to farm for him.
Hottenstein’s Civil War ended on May 24, 1896 when he died at age 52, far from the Lehigh Valley.