Charles W. Austin, my Great Great Grand Uncle, enlisted at Waterford, Michigan on August 16, 1862 at the age of seventeen. In his military records, Charles was described as being 5’7” tall and weighing 145 lbs. And -- just like his younger brother, Abner (my Great Great Grandfather) -- Charles had brown hair, a light complexion, and gray eyes.
Charles was a private in Company A of the Fifth Michigan Cavalry, part of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade under the command of flamboyant, young Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer. Custer's Wolverines comprised the most famous cavalry brigade of the Civil War, which performed a central role in some of the Civil War’s most important battles. It suffered the heaviest casualties of any Union cavalry brigade.
The 5th Michigan Cavalry regimental flag photographed during a trip with my parents to the Detroit Historical Museum in April of 1979.Charles Austin was mustered in on August 26, 1862, and saw action in crucial fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. He was wounded on July 8, 1863 at the Battle of Boonsboro, Maryland when he was struck in the right side by piece of enemy shell. He suffered three broken ribs and the total destruction of his Hunter Case pocket watch, which took the direct hit of the shrapnel. As eyewitnesses to the event would later report, Charles’s pocket watch undoubtedly saved his life. The force of the blow rendered him unconscious and he was carried from the field by his comrades, who leaned him against a large oak tree and revived him. As Charles was awaiting an ambulance, he insisted that his horse be located so that he could ride out with his company, which he did the very next day.
Trevilian Station, Virginia on June 11, 1864, where he was captured by the Confederates.
According to Federal prisoner of war records, Charles W. Austin was confined at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia on June 20, 1864 and sent to Andersonville prison on June 21, 1864. Interestingly, a subsequent muster out roll also indicates specifically that he was a “prisoner at Florence, Ala” at some point in time as well. Additionally, a pension file medical report dated December 3, 1885, relates that Charles “says he was ten months in Florence and Andersonville prisons.”
"Come On You Wolverines" by Don Troiani, depicting George Armstrong Custer leading the charge of his Michigan Cavalry Brigade. (Used with permission.)Charles was paroled by the Confederates at Northeast (N.E.) Ferry, North Carolina on February 26, 1865 and was returned to Federal authorities on March 10, 1865 at Camp Chase, Ohio, at which time he was granted a 30-day furlough. Despite his failing health after ten months as a prisoner of war, Charles took this opportunity to travel home to Michigan. While there, he was admitted to Harper U.S. Army General Hospital in Detroit on April 8, 1865. Army Surgeon W. A. Chandler sent a report to the commanding officer of Camp Chase indicating that Charles would be unable to return to his station for a minimum of 10 days due to illness.
After his health improved, Charles reported back to Camp Chase, Ohio on May 3, 1865 but on May 13, 1865, he was transferred to Tripler General Hospital in Columbus, Ohio as a “convalescent from another hospital.”
After serving three years and nine months, Private Charles W. Austin was honorably discharged at Tripler Hospital on May 25, 1865 at age twenty. He was mustered out on June 22, 1865 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Later, in his pension records, Charles was described as "a good soldier and ready for duty."
After the war, Charles returned to the home of his foster parents, John and Catharine Osmun in Groveland near Waterford, Michigan, where he remained until the fall of 1866. In an 1887 pensioner’s affidavit, Catharine Osmun reported that the strong and able-bodied boy that left for the army had returned home very much disabled from war wounds and prison life. She stated that during the year after his return, he suffered constantly and that she “doctored him” back to health as best she could: “being, as it were, one of my family, he having lived with me since he was seven years old.”
Charles married Laura A. Downing (b. September 17, 1848) of Holly, Michigan on July 4, 1867 at age 22. The couple was married by Reverend J.R. Haskins at Fentonville, Michigan. They had one son, Frederick D., born on October 20, 1868. The family lived in Flint, Michigan for 35 years, where they attended the Court Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Charles was a charter member of the Gov. Crapo Post No. 145 of the Grand Army of the Republic and the National League of Veterans and Sons.
After battling illness for a year, Charles W. Austin passed away on June 1, 1908 at his home on Lapeer Street in Flint, Michigan at the age of 64. Laura died on March 10, 1912.
Fred Austin married Lola E. Austin (maiden name unknown) and the couple had a daughter, Mamy (September 9, 1891 – January 13, 1893), who died in infancy. Fred passed away May 25, 1906 at the age of 37.
Charles W., Laura A., Fred, and Mamy Austin are buried in Avondale Cemetery in Flint, Michigan overlooking the National Guard Armory.
Charles's younger brother, Abner Delos Austin, enlisted at Redford, Michigan on August 2, 1862 at the age of sixteen. He was a private in Company I of the 24th Michigan Infantry, part of the famous Iron Brigade of the West, also known as the Black Hats. The Black Hat Brigade was well known on both sides as being among the Federal army's best fighters and, just like the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, it performed a central role in some of the Civil War’s most important battles. It suffered the heaviest casualties of any infantry brigade -- north or south -- in the Civil War. To read my Great Great Grandfather Abner Delos Austin's story, please click here or use the link bearing his name on the right.
Family legend has it that Charles and Abner Austin, brothers orphaned and separated as small children and who, as teenage boys, fought side-by-side without even knowing it during the bloodiest battle in American history, were never reunited until late in life, when they discovered one another’s names on Civil War pension rolls. While this has never been documented, it is our hope that Charles and Abner were indeed able to find one another before they died. It is ironic to consider that the Civil War, which tore countless American families apart, could be singularly responsible for bringing this particular family back together again.