On a trip to Providence, R.I., Legionnaire Donald Roeske uncovered quite a surprise as he was browsing the archives at the historical society: his great-grandfather’s name in records of Civil War regiments.
Frederick Roeske, a German immigrant, had remained mostly a mystery to Donald, who knew only his origins and that he landed in Providence.
“That part of history has faded away from me,” he said. However, the historical society was able to offer Donald copies of the records, which gave him a bit more to go on.
According to the records Donald has, Frederick was a furniture maker or varnisher. As we spoke, Donald sat in a gentleman’s chair Frederick made. Though it’s been reupholstered several times during its lifetime, it’s one lasting connection between the ancestor who served his nation a century before Donald did the same. Unsure of the original finish, Donald had the wood stained with a “Black Forest” varnish to honor his German roots.
“It’s kind of a wraparound chair, it fits me just right - from one Roeske to another. Over 100 years later I’m sitting here in this chair that he built.”
From that perch, Donald recalled the little bits of information he has gathered about his great-grandfather over the years.
Frederick had six children, Donald said, although most died early from tuberculosis. One who survived was Cornelia Roeske, who would go on to write children’s books and songs, Donald said. Another was his grandfather, Henry. Frederick had a young wife who immigrated from Germany with him.
Perhaps the most telling item Donald knows about Frederick is this:
“He came to this country, he’d only been here some four years, and President (Abraham) Lincoln asked for volunteers and he put his hand up and said, ‘I wanna go.’”
He joined the Grand Army of the Republic in 1862 when, according to Donald’s research, he joined Company G in the 11th Regiment of the Rhode Island Infantry.
From there, the details about the “handsome-looking guy” with a “big bush of a mustache” can only be sketched in.
The regiment served in Virginia, then-Confederate territory, and was assigned to guard a “convalescent camp” in 1863. Some men worked to fortify the Suffolk during a siege, others worked to destroy area railroads, and a few got caught up in skirmishes. In June 1863, the regiment’s commitment was fulfilled and its men returned to Rhode Island.
Frederick was naturalized in 1867, and in 1889 went to live in a soldiers’ home in Togus, Maine, owing to rheumatism and asthma. He died on April 4, 1905, at the National Soldiers Home in Milwaukee, where he’d been transferred.
“I think he decided most likely he wanted to die with his comrades,” Donald said. “His wife had already died. He outlived most of his children.”
Donald was also able to learn where his great-grandfather had been buried: Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee. He knew he wanted to honor this man who had been lost to history, but it needed a unique decoration - the Grand Army of the Republic flag, which flew with only 34 stars. With help from people in the Legion’s Flag & Emblem area, he purchased the rarity.
In 2013, 150 years after Frederick was discharged, Donald made the pilgrimage to honor his gravesite, along with his wife and son.
His headstone reads: “Fred’K Roeske, CO.G, 11TH R.I.INF.” The Roeskes took photos and Donald placed the flag beside the stone, where it will remain until the cemetery returns it to the Roeskes to be passed down as a reminder of Frederick’s service.
“I’m looking at all the other stones and I see a lot of stones in the background here and none of them have any flags, just my great-grandfather’s,” he said, looking at a photo of the cemetery.
About a century after Frederick served in the Civil War, Donald served in the Navy, on active duty from 1961-1964 in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. He was commander at Post 478 in Somerset, N.J., and is now a member at Post 1776 in Apple Valley, Minn., where he remains an American military history buff.
“I still think of myself as coming from a military family. That’s for sure.”