Lafayette Swiger
The story continues.
Submitted by: Dennis Kellison

      The story of Lafayette Swiger and his rifle does not end with Arden but rather continues. My name is Dennis Kellison and I too am a distant relative of Lafayette’s. What appeared to be a 150 year- old simple Civil War story has grown into one of life’s great adventures for me. Finding this story and Lafayette’s rifle was like finding a needle in 10,000 haystacks! I had no idea the rifle existed or that anyone other than me cared about a young Union soldier named Lafayette Swiger. Here is my part of the story.

      It is hard to recall now, but sometime in the late 1960’s, my grandmother shared with me a copy of Ira Swiger’s book, “A Genealogical and Biographical History of the Swiger Family in the United States of America” (Swiger, 1915).  At the time it seemed interesting but only at a glance.  The only family member of special interest was on page 30.  On that page was an intriguing picture of a young Union soldier named Lafayette Swiger.  His eyes, at times, appeared to be starring beyond the page as if to invite me to get to know him better. It has taken him 180 years to reach this day, and it has taken me more than fifty years to help him, but here we are.  This is the story of Lafayette Swiger. He lived only a few months more than 20 years…a short life by any standard but still a challenging and interesting story of one young soldier’s journey into war and his tragic ending. (Arden has already provided DOB, parents, etc.)

      Private Lafayette Swiger of the West Virginia 14th, Company A (in the Army of General George Crook, Second Division, Col. Isaac H. Duval, Second Brigade, Colonel Daniel D. Johnson which included the 34th Ohio, 91st , Ohio, 9th, and West Virginia,14th) barely more than twenty years old, fought his last battle Sunday, July 24, 1864, in Kernstown, Va.   Company A records show he was killed July 24, 1864, during the Second Battle of Kernstown. (Ira Swiger’s book states the death was October, 1864, with the location of Winchester. All the facts now confirm July 24, 1864, and the 2nd Battle of Kernstown).


  First, we will begin with the description provided by Ira Swiger and included in Arden’s narrative. (Swiger, 1915).  (This bears repeating to set the stage for the other possible scenarios).

“His company occupied the top of a hill and were fighting from behind a stone wall as the Rebels advanced toward them.  The office of the company seeing that his men were greatly outnumbered and that remaining longer meant total annihilation, ordered a hasty retreat.  Mr. Swiger and two companions, being nearer the stone wall and the deafening sound of musketry, failed to hear the retreating orders and continued firing.  When they happened to glance around, seeing that they were alone, they fully realized the perilousness of their positions; and as the enemy advanced nearer and nearer to the top of the hill, they started running down the other side.  Swiger, who soon fell, was thought first to have been tripped by running briars; but when his companions tried to assist him to his feet, they saw blood oozing from his forehead, which had been pierced by the enemy’s bullet. He was buried in an unknown grave, if buried at all. “


Ira Swiger does not give attribution to the one who repeated this story to him.  However, on page 222 of his book he makes reference to Fabius Hall (West Virginia 12th, Company E), a relative of Lafayette, as having been in the same battle. The 12th in fact was near the location.

      It is possible that Jesse Tyler Sturm (“From a Whirlpool of Death to …to Victory, Civil War Remembrances of Jesse Tyler Sturm, 14th West Virginia Infantry, Company H…) provides a description closely resembling Lafayette’s final hours.

      “After what seemed like a lifetime to us came the order to the colonel to move the regiment back slowly to the stone fence and take position.  The regiment heard the order and started first at quick step, next on double quick and then almost a run….I said to Henry Mynear, this is wrong, I will not run if you won’t.  He replied “Alright.”. We got in several shots at close range and finally got back to the regiments where all the brigade was assembling behind the stone fence.  We would take position behind stone fences and hold the enemy as long as we could and then retreat to another and repeat. We kept this up until dark.”

      Scott Patchan in his book “Shenandoah Summer, The 1864 Valley Campaign” (p.233) provides the most accurate description of the location of Company A that fateful day. “Crook posted Duval to cover the army’s right flank, South west of Winchester on Romney Road.  To carry out the mission, Duval had only Colonel Johnson’s brigade.  Johnson stationed the four regiments 300 yards apart. His own WV 14th anchored the left flank in some low ground northwest of Bowers’ Hill.  A few of Johnson’s men ascended Bowers Hill where they watched their comrades withdraw from Kernstown in confusion”.  

      This places Swiger close to or on Bower’s Hill, not the Pritchard House or Opequon Church as described in previous accounts. Bower’s Hill is over a mile away from these locations and is now the location of Winchester’s water tower, close to the current John Kerr School. So what does all this mean in regard to Lafayette?

      Here is what I believe is likely. Sunday, July 24, 1864, dawned hot and sultry. Breakfast was already cooking over open campfires as the Union soldiers prepared for another inspection.  Ragged fire could be heard from the direction of Kernstown. (Wert, “Civil War Times,” The Old Killing Field Oct. 1984).   Swiger was up early that day, not knowing what was ahead of him in the next few hours.  Neither he nor his companions likely believed they were in for a fierce fight.  The commanders believed there was a small Confederate force in the area not prepared to attack the presumed larger Union force.  Confederate General Early actually had a force of 14,000 plus and Union General Crook’s Army numbered about 10,000.

      Swiger likely attended the religious service (not previously cited, but also in Sturm’s description) provided by the chaplain on the front portico of the mansion that General Duval used as headquarters. (The mansion, known as Willow Lawn on Valley Pike, is now the current location of Malloy Ford Car dealer.)   All equipment and arms were in the front with orders to march at any moment. (Could this have included Lafayette Swiger’s 1862 Enfield rifle? Very possible.)  By 3:00 p.m he was probably in position, northwest of Bower’s Hill, near the intersection of Rt#37 and Rt#50 (Romney Road), likely closer to Bower’s Hill in what is described as a low area in the Valley.  As the Rebels overran the Union’s position, the descriptions suggest he was running, and was shot in the head.  Patchan reports that there were Confederate sharpshooters picking off the Union soldiers in the chaos. Patchan noted that Lt. Col. Shaw of the 34th Ohio, a part of Lafayette’s regiment, was killed by a sharpshooter.  By 4:30 p.m. the Federals were on the run and pushed into Winchester.  Lafayette was likely already dead on the battlefield by this time (p.238). The ultimate irony is that my wife and I lived at the bottom of Bowers Hill for 9 years but did not know this story. We now live no more than a mile from the battle site.

      The August 9, 1864, edition of the Wheeling Intelligencer had a report by Colonel Taggart that Lafayette Swiger, WV 14th, Company A was killed July 24, 1864, at Kernstown along with Henry Nichelson. (A copy of the article is attached since it lists the names of other West Virginians that were from the Harrison/Doddridge area).

The Rifle

      According to Jesse Sturm, the WV 14th was issued the Enfield rifle as its standard weapon (p.3).  Historians and collectors alike agree the Enfield was the weapon of choice and, according to some collectors, the Union went to some lengths to keep the weapon from the Confederates.

          Lafayette’s 1862 Enfield apparently has a long story to tell and I know only part of it. It is my hope to fill in the gaps some day.  Here is what I know or can surmise.  The weapon was likely issued to Lafayette when he mustered into the Army at Wheeling.  Since soldiers did not have dog tags or other means of identifying themselves, they often marked a ring, belt buckle, or engraved their name on their weapon, often carved in the stock of the rifle.  Lafayette chose to have his name, along with Company A, stamped into the brass trigger guard of the rifle.  We can assume he carried the rifle with him through the several battles and had it with him that fateful day, July 24, 1864.  Since he was killed on the battlefield and the Confederates controlled the battle, one can surmise that the rifle was taken by a Confederate soldier.  Obviously, I am presenting many assumptions.

      What we do know is that at some point it ended up in the hands of John Wood, a Civil War collector and attorney in Hopewell, Virginia.  Mr. Wood then sold the rifle to a relic dealer in Ohio named Ralph J. Petrilli.   Some time in 2011 Jerry Helmick of Harrisville, WV, purchased the rifle from the Ohio dealer.  Although Helmick, an ex law enforcement officer, is not a Civil War collector, he does purchase old weapons. His motivation, however, was to return the rifle to West Virginia and its rightful home.  

      Helmick then attempted to find relatives of Lafayette Swiger and made contact with Arden Swiger of Elkins, WV.  Arden is Lafayette’s double first cousin, 2 times removed.  Arden and I are obviously related. My grandmother, Sylvia Swiger, was Arden’s 4th cousin. I am not sure I can accurately state my relationship with Lafayette but I would say I am Lafayette’s double 5th cousin, 2 times removed, but not sure exactly how to describe it.

       Helmick offered to sell the rifle to Arden at his purchase price.  Arden declined but did have his picture taken with the rifle. This story was posted on the Harrison County Genealogical Society page around October of 2011.  In August of 2013, while doing genealogy work, I saw the story. I was able to ultimately contact Arden and he connected me to Jerry Helmick . On September 6, 2013, my wife and I traveled to Harrisville and met with Helmick to examine the rifle.  With our prior research of this type of weapon that included discussions with local experts, we knew what to expect in determining authenticity.  We were convinced.  Helmick was knowledgeable and sincere. It was no doubt Lafayette’s rifle. We immediately purchased the rifle.

          The rifle has been examined by experts at the Kernstown Battlefield, as well as local historians, and they all agree - it is authentic.  The rifle is now displayed proudly in our living room, above the fireplace.  Along side of it is the picture of Lafayette, a picture of the officers of the WV 14th Infantry, and a print of John Paul Strain’s “Kings of Kernstown”.

          There continues to be questions. John Wood is the next step in the trail but he has not responded to my request for information on how he obtained the rifle.

      Another question is: Where is Lafayette buried?  The best guess is in a mass grave in Winchester National Cemetery, which, by the way, does not have a West Virginia Memorial even though dozens if not hundreds of West Virginia veterans are buried there. (I have written Senator Joe Manchin asking for him to look into the matter).   Most Union soldiers killed at 2nd Kernstown are buried there. However, according to Kernstown Museum records of the body count of those killed does not match with the number removed from the battlefield to the National Cemetery. It is possible his body was left in a shallow grave on the field of battle. We will likely never be certain. The area is now a major housing area in Winchester. (As a foot note, Jefferson Swiger, Lafayette’s brother, also served. He died after the war and is buried in Center Point Cemetery in Doddridge County. His grave is marked with a relatively new marker that identifies his service in the Union army).

          So, the story is not over until more questions are answered. We need help. Does anyone have more information about the Swiger’s of Doddridge County? Where did Barnes and Mary Swiger live precisely? Are there school records? Are the Swiger Civil War medals still kept someplace? Does anyone know where Ira Swiger’s original notes and manuscript might be. I hope, in the future, some if not all of these questions, are answered.

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