I became interested in the 29th New York Infantry Regiment about two years ago when in the process of tracing my family roots, I “found” a second cousin, once removed, in the small town of Koerbecke, Germany, not far from where I was born. From her, I learned that my great-granduncle, Antonius Rokus, had emigrated from Germany and that he had settled in New York City, based on two letters he wrote in 1868 and 1870 which the family had saved. A search of the church records in Koerbecke as well as U.S. immigration and Civil War military records then revealed that Antonius was born in 1835, had come to this country in 1860, and had enlisted in Company H of the 29th New York Infantry in February 1862. Therefore, he would have joined the regiment after the Battle of First Bull Run but before it participated in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Ironically, based on documents found in Germany, it is likely that he left Germany in part because he was about to be drafted into the Prussian army as he had just turned twenty-five.
I subsequently obtained his service and pension files from the National Archives and found some details about the hardships Antonius and his regiment endured. He contracted chronic diarrhea due to the very difficult conditions in the field during the regiment’s campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862, causing him to be hospitalized in Strasburg, Virginia, for two weeks in June of that year. In addition, he came down with rheumatism caused by “exposure” while at Fairfax Court House, Virginia, during the winter of 1862-1863. (The 1890 Census records confirm that he was not wounded in action.)
An affidavit in his pension file from one of his comrades states, “In the spring of 1862 we marched through Virginia. In camp near Winchester, we had no tents, had to lie on the bare ground, and had nothing to eat except meat from the cattle which tasted like garlic. This gave most of us diarrhea, and the wet ground gave us rheumatism. We had only half rations for four long months.”
By coincidence, I now live in central Virginia, less than five miles from where the 29th New York Infantry fought at Chancellorsville. Consequently, I have been able to almost literally walk in Antonius’ footsteps and visualize the disastrous Union defeat using National Park Service maps that show the location of his regiment on the battlefield hour-by-hour on that historic day.
PVT Antonius Rokus was honorably discharged on 20 June 1863, when the 29th was mustered out, although he had not completed his two-year enlistment. He married Apolonia Reiss in May 1865, and they had two daughters. The family apparently struggled financially for the rest of his life. They moved several times on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he had a variety of odd jobs–primarily as a porter, and he was unemployed much of the time, allegedly because of the lingering illnesses resulting from his service in the Union Army.
Antonius did not apply for a pension until April 1889. He probably waited until then because he anticipated Congress passing the Pension Act of 1890, which liberalized the circumstances for veterans to claim a pension. Four years, two medical examinations and a host of affidavits to substantiate his service-related illnesses later, his pension of $2 per month was approved in 1893.
Antonius’ pension file also included the details of his tragic death. On Sunday, 24 June 1894, a New York City fishing club chartered the John D. Nicol tugboat for a fishing excursion. A few hours into the outing, a storm suddenly arose while the boat was three miles off the coast of New Jersey, causing it to capsize. Antonius Rokus drowned along with approximately forty other passengers. Most bodies, including his, were never recovered. A subsequent investigation revealed that the tugboat was carrying approximately twice as many passengers as it was authorized to have on board and that the captain was also not licensed to operate the boat outside of the New York harbor. One of the articles in The New York Times, which reported on the tragedy extensively, included a report by Antonius’ son-in-law that Antonius was among the missing fishermen. Two of his friends who were on board and survived also made statements that they had seen Antonius just before the capsizing but not since then. Ironically, Antonius had survived a long ocean voyage on a small sailing ship as well as several Civil War battles only to drown on a fishing trip.
Apolonia filed an application for her widow’s pension soon thereafter and was awarded $8 per month. In her application she stated, “I do not own any real estate, stocks, bonds, or investments. I have no property except some household furniture whose value does not exceed $100. I have no income from any source, and no person is legally bound for my support.” She later moved to Edgewater, New Jersey, to live with her daughter and son-in-law and died there in May 1918.
Finally, Antonius’ pension file contained an affidavit which included the following revelation. “I, Bernard Rokus, a grocer in Brooklyn, say that the soldier Antonius Rokus was my brother and that I have known him all my life. That Antonius was married to Apolonia Rokus. That he died by drowning in the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast on June 24, 1894.” Antonius had obviously convinced another Rokus from Körbecke to come to America, making Bernard the second Rokus to settle in their adopted country.
The challenge now has been to find the descendants of Antonius and Bernard. So far, an executive secretary to the mayor of New York, a butcher, a stockbroker, a bartender, a New York City food inspector, a tinsmith, a tobacco farmer, and a national croquet champion have turned up in the censuses. Antonius and Bernard had a total of eight children–seven daughters and one son. The son had one daughter and one son, and the latter son had no children. Consequently, unless other offspring are found, the Rokus name on these two branches of the family has died out.
But the search goes on…