Pvt. George John Yetter: The Final Letter
by Rebecca Blackwell Drake
George Yetter's final letter home was written in his native German. Translation to English was difficult since many of his words have no counterpart in English. Civil War records spell Yetter's name as Jetter due to the German pronunciation.
George John Yetter was born on March 18, 1841, in Vollmersweiler, Rheinpfalz, Germany. At the age of twelve, with the rest of his family, he immigrated to America. Yetter's introduction to the American way of life was brief. In 1861, the war erupted and Yetter answered the call to serve his country. With two of his friends, George Jehle and Conrad Scheffer, also German immigrants, he enlisted with Co. H, 20th Illinois Infantry.
On May 8th, 1863, while in camp at Rocky Springs, Mississippi, Pvt. Yetter (spelled Jetter in Civil War records) took the time to pen a letter to his beloved family back home in Illinois. The letter referenced the April 26-29th march through Louisiana - a march that led to Hard Times Landing, then across the river into Mississippi. The letter also mentioned the Battle of Port Gibson fought on May 1, 1863. The regiment then marched inland to a site on the Big Black River known as Hankinson's Ferry. Here they rested for three or four days. On May 7th they broke camp and marched for Rocky Springs. While camped at Rocky Springs, Yetter wrote his final letter home.
"May 8th, 1863, Camp in the Field. Dear Brother-in-Law, I received your letter of the 15th yesterday but couldn't write at once because we were ordered to march, and we didn't return - we merely made a new camp. Now I want to report to you about the march we made. We left our camp on the 26th and the first days we had good weather, then it started to rain so that not a piece of dry clothing was left on us, and at many places we walked in water and in mud up to our bodies. It stopped raining after 2 days and we marched until the first day of this month. Then we fought a battle which lasted two days but it went well for our side. We took a battery which was great fun for us. We ran towards the cannons as if there was no danger. The Rebels ran as if they had no right to be there. That is what we thought when we entered upon the battlefield. And now it is so hot that many suffer from heatstroke - there were three in our company who got heatstroke and I almost became the 4th. But we stopped in time so I could get refreshments.
"We are now in position near the Rangers (river), as they are called, big black rangers (river) and the rebels are on the other side but they don't want to have anything to do with us because they know what is best for them. I think as soon as we want to occupy Vicksburg we shall go into the city with assurance and I don't think that they will be able to deter us because our army which is headed for Vicksburg is very large. I also want to report what happened in cities where the Rebels are. (Literal translation here) It is only 150 dollars coffee cannot be obtained there. I don't know what else to write and close in the hope that my letter will find you as healthy upon arrival as it leaves me. I have written a few lines to Johannes and asked him to send me a few stamps, and in the event that he did not receive my letter please let him know. I greet all of you a thousand times. George Yetter Write soon."
Yetter would not need the stamps he had requested from his family. Four days later, during the Battle of Raymond, he was killed while fighting across the banks of Fourteen Mile Creek.
For quite some time, his family knew nothing of his death. Finally, on June 8th, his friend George Jehle, also of Company H, 20th Illinois, wrote to the family: "Wicksburg (Vicksburg) June 8th, 1863, My friend - I gathered that you have not received notice of the sad fate of your brother. Every day letters arrived for him - but he is no more. On March (actually May) 12th we fought a battle one mile south of Raymond. George was shot through the heart and died immediately………"
Yetter's other friend, Conrad Scheffer, also wrote to his family: "Jackson Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee, June 19th, 1863, Esteemed Sir, Your letter of April 28 arrived correctly at the regiment on May 18 two days after the battle of Champion Hill. As fate would have it, it did not arrive in time for your courageous brother. Since your brother and I were always the best of friends I considered it my duty to open the letter which was given to me by our lieutenant. It was my intention to immediately write to you, but I was prevented from my plan since I was wounded a few days later. It was on May 12th during the battle of Raymond where your brother was killed. He was my ____ and fought on my side, as we had done shoulder to shoulder in so many battles, when we had looked in the face of death. We have lost a faithful comrade and our Fatherland one of its best fighters who fought for the right to freedom. Your unknown friend, Conrad Scheffer."
Conrad Scheffer and George Jehle continued to fight through the Vicksburg Campaign then moved on to Georgia with the rest of the 20th Illinois. During the Atlanta Campaign, the 20th Illinois was all but annihilated. Ira Blanchard, a soldier with the 20th Illinois, wrote his memoirs of the tattered regiment at the close of the war: "When we left Joliet we were a little over 1000 strong, all young and healthy men as ever went to the front. We had received over a thousand recruits; but now we have not an officer who went out with us in 1861, and but few of the original men left." Conrad Scheffer and George Jehle were two of the original soldiers who managed to survive the entire war. George Jehle was discharged on June 13, 1864, while Conrad Scheffer re-enlisted - determined to fight until the bitter end. Neither forgot their dear friend, George John Yetter, who was left behind - buried on the Raymond battlefield.
*During the 2001 re-enactment of the Battle of Raymond, one of the spectators was Martha Ohlson, the great-great-great niece of Pvt. George John Yetter. "I wanted to come and support the battlefield preservation effort and to see where my long-lost uncle died. For those of us who lost relatives during the Battle of Raymond it's like looking into the door of the distant past. I can only wonder what his accomplishments would have been if he had survived the war."
Photograph and letters are copyrighted by Jack and Dee Ohlson and the Yetter family. All rights reserved.
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