JOHN WAGNER & RICHARD WAGNER Union Army | WILLIAM CARPER United States Army |CHRISTOPHER F. CARPER Unites States Air Force
(As related by William Carper)
When Bill and Mary Carper of Ocean Pines were interviewed for this story, we engaged in an easy going conversation that ranged from early 19th century Prussian immigration through the Civil War, the Indian Wars and on to military service in South Korea and beyond. It was quite a conversation!
In 1857 Richard Wagner was born in Baltimore to immigrant German parents. At that time Baltimore was home to a large number of German immigrants who spoke and conducted business in their native tongue. Richard’s father, John, had emigrated years earlier from Prussia and was a man of musical talent, a gift he passed along to his son.
As did most German immigrants during the Civil War, John Wagner enlisted in the Union Army. He was responsible for band music and accompanied the Army as it moved against the forces of the southern Confederacy. During the last months of the war, Richard joined his father in the Army displaying the musical talent that was his family’s heritage. Young boys in military service were not unusual with enlistment allowed at age 12. Richard was even younger: he was 8 in 1865. Although it cannot be said with certainty, there must have been some stretching of the truth and a couple of eye winks involved in getting young Richard into uniform.
The armies of both sides were full of young boys who had either gone to war with family members, or who were orphans who could always find work as fife and drummer boys. We are not certain why Richard followed his father, nor why the father allowed his young son to join the Army. Although no details are documented, we do know that, at the command of General Grant, Richard was presented with a sword for his service before the enemy. There have been recorded cases of Union drummer boys taking up arms when pressed by circumstance, but this cannot be said with any certainty about Richard.
John Wagner was in Washington, D.C. at the end of the Civil War. It is reported that as a musician he was responsible for leading the music that was part of the play, “Our American Cousin”, which was presented on the evening President Abraham Lincoln was killed. When Lincoln’s body was taken from the Capitol Rotunda to the funeral train, among the mournful music played was a march composed by the Prussian immigrant, John Wagner. Following their time in the Army, John and Richard returned to Baltimore.
Just shy of his twelfth birthday, Richard decided again to go into the Army. He was assigned to an outpost in the Dakota Territory named Fort Rice. The fort was one of a series of installations erected by the United States government to confront the American Indian tribes living in the area. Indians such as Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull struggled against these forts and the military incursion into their lands, but in the end to no avail. Fort Rice had been established in 1864, and was erected to accommodate four companies of soldiers including officer and company barracks, a hospital, guardhouse, library, commissary, stables and two blockhouses. The water was supplied by a wagon traveling back and forth to the nearby Missouri River. The frontier outpost suffered temperature extremes up to 110 degrees in the summer and 40 degrees below zero in the winter. It was not easy duty for young Richard.
Not much is available in the family history concerning Richard’s time in the Dakota Territory except for the tales of how the young lad made friends with the Indians. There came a time, however, when the Sioux attacked Fort Rice. As the battle progressed, it fell on the shoulders of young Richard to operate a Gatling machine gun against the warriors, many of whom were his friends. It was not long after that action that Richard completed his Army service and returned to civilian life in Washington, DC.
After his return, he married, and had six children. He supported his family with his music and developed his own orchestra playing in the theaters of Washington and Baltimore. Among Richard’s friends was John Philip Sousa, a man synonymous with American March music. His amazing life came to an end in 1940 at the age of 83.
Bill Carper knew his great-grandfather during the last years of Richard’s life. By this time, Richard had broken his hip and was confined to bed in the small house on Capital Hill, Washington, D.C. where he had played music on Sundays as crowds gathered below the opened windows.
Following a short break, my conversation with the Carper’s continued and they discussed their son, Christopher F. Carper. As a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, he is currently assigned as the Operations Officer of the 306th Operations Support Squadron, United States Air Force Academy in Boulder, Colorado. Chris was graduated in 1989 from the Academy with his Bachelor of Science in General Engineering.
Chris had been a natural leader from his youth which was spent in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He and his pals enjoyed playing army for endless hours in the woods. He was the one who
took command and, even in group photos, he was the officer, the natural leader. This gift and attitude followed Chris into high school where he was the quarterback of the football team. His intelligence and physical size, six foot four, at age 17, propelled the young man into a military career. He was recommended for service in the U.S. Navy, but his height worked against him in his dream to secure a position as a fighter pilot. Chris then interviewed with the Air Force Academy and was accepted there. At the academy he also played football. After his sophomore year he decided to drop the sport to concentrate on his engineering degree.
Chris has accumulated over 5,300 hours of flying time since the beginning of his flight career. There have been long missions away from home and missions that included four combat operations during Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, Allied Force, and Enduring Freedom. He was part of the invasion of Afghanistan after the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York including covert operations flying the C-17 onto desert runways at night. His service has brought awards and ribbons: the Bronze Star, the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Cluster, an Air Medal, with an Oak Leaf Cluster for valor, Aerial Achievement Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
Chris has been blessed in many ways. He has a wife and two sons. They live in the beautiful mountainous state of Colorado.
As our conversation about Chris ended, I asked Bill about his own military service. As most gentlemen, he was quite self-effacing about his own time in the military. Bill was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956, and, after six months of training in the United States, he was shipped off to Korea where he was assigned as a wheel and track mechanic in the motor pool of an armored regiment stationed just outside Seoul.
Bill’s memories of his service are reminiscent of the antics witnessed on the television show M*A*S*H. He is not bothered by the fact that his two years of service got him no promotions or G.I. benefits after he returned home. He was newly married when he arrived in Korea. He admitted the duty was “quite lonely” for a married man. Mary said she wrote Bill every day. Letters are one of the most important things a soldier can receive. Mary provided the love and support that held them together. Although she has no brick or pavers in her honor at the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines, it was her sacrifice and devotion that sustained Bill through the seclusion and deprivations he endured for 18 months in Korea. All he said, “…it was quite lonely.”
Bill’s service was much more valuable than our conversation would lead one to believe. No glory, no ribbons and no promotions, but a sacrifice that can only be measured in what did not happen because Bill and thousands of other Americans defended our country in Korea.
Military service can and does come to many people as witnessed in the words and traditions of just this one family.
~J. LEE HARLOWE