At the mention of Gettysburg, Jeff Stocker fidgets in his chair.
Stocker, wearing a gold necktie adorned with the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, turns to his left and tilts his head slightly toward the ceiling. A smile emerges from his gray goatee.
Gettysburg looks different, he says. It smells different.
"Oh my God, Gettysburg is ethereal," Stocker exclaims from behind the desk of his Allentown law office. "To be in the field at Gettysburg … it gives me chills just talking about it."
The rolling Adams County farmland, just 10 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, is where Stocker's great-grandfather wrapped his arms around a wounded Union captain and dragged him from onrushing Rebels.
It's where Stocker retraced the footsteps of both armies on summer days with his father, who wondered aloud what their Civil War ancestor looked like.
And it's the inspiration for part of Stocker's latest book — an in-depth account of Pennsylvania's 153rd Volunteer Regiment, the band of novice soldiers mostly from Northampton County that his great-grandfather joined.
Gettysburg gave Stocker a cherished father-son bond through a beloved battlefield. For the battle's 150th anniversary, which begins July 1, Stocker is giving the Lehigh Valley the story of its ancestors who fought there with the 153rd Pennsylvania infantry.
"We Fought Desperate," which will be released this year, includes a full roster, complete with as many details as Stocker could find about each of the regiment's 993 soldiers.
Over the last seven years, he's traveled back in time, reliving Gettysburg through the letters, diaries and pension files of more than 500 local men who were there — many of whom never made it home.
"The dots on the map are people," said Stocker, of Center Valley. "I hope you realize that this is a real-life person with a real-life family. Chances are, just like you."
A servant in the fight
One of those dots on the map is Heinrich Feirich, a 40-year-old shoemaker from Moore Township.
Feirich's wife was pregnant, but that didn't stop him from volunteering for a nine-month enlistment with the 153rd Pennsylvania in September 1862.
A Prussian immigrant who had yet to become a naturalized American citizen, he was one of 54 men in the 153rd who left behind a pregnant wife or girlfriend.
Only four months into his enlistment, Pvt. Feirich began suffering from deafness in both ears and was reassigned as a servant for Capt. George Young, also of Moore. Feirich did his company's washing and assisted Young.
By late June 1863, Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee were invading the North. A decisive win could give the Rebels the momentum needed to threaten Washington, D.C., and possibly force peace talks.
As Lee's army plundered the Pennsylvania countryside, the 153rd marched 10 miles over four hours on the morning of July 1 and came to a grassy hilltop on the northeast corner of Gettysburg's battlefield.
Positioned too far from the rest of the 11th Corps, the regiment got hit hard by Confederate troops who charged out of a nearby thicket of trees.
Capt. Young, shot in the face, was among more than 250 from the 153rd wounded, killed or captured as the Confederates trounced the weary regiment.
Feirich, trying to save Young from being captured, began dragging him from the battlefield. He stopped when Young ordered him to save himself and run, Stocker's research found. Young was captured and survived the war.
After the 153rd's nine-month tour of duty, Feirich enlisted in the 51st Pennsylvania. He deserted in April 1864, was captured and spent two weeks in prison. Desperate for bodies, the Union Army added him back to its ranks.
Feirich was eventually shot in the left knee, an injury that plagued him for the rest of his life. He was later shot again, this time in the left arm. After the war, he made Cementon his home and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He died in 1894.
One of Feirich's daughters, Emma, born in 1877, married Albert Stocker, a descendant of the founders of Stockertown. In February 1919, she gave birth to the last of her 14 children: Donald Stocker, Jeff's father.
After fighting in World War II, Donald Stocker got married and started his own family. From the time Jeff was old enough to walk, his dad was taking him to Gettysburg.
"My sister, growing up, hated going to Gettysburg," Jeff said. "She wanted to go to Dorney Park for every time they would take me to Gettysburg. And then it was too much because we would always be at Gettysburg."
As they walked the battlefield, Donald Stocker would talk about Feirich. He knew his grandfather fought at Gettysburg, but the man was a mystery beyond that.
"I wonder where Feirich was," Stocker would say to his son. "I wish I had a photo of Feirich."
The rigor of research
Jeff Stocker inherited his father's love for reading about the Civil War and World War II. Every time he finished a book, he would give it to his dad, who would eagerly begin reading it.
The younger Stocker is especially drawn to primary sources, like copies of Civil War soldiers' handwritten journals and diaries. He's collected about 1,000 of these manuscripts and donates a copy of each one to Gettysburg's library.
In 1990, when he was donating a manuscript from the 4th Alabama regiment, Scott Hartwig, a Gettysburg historian, made a suggestion.
"Why don't you try to publish it?" he asked.
Stocker edited the manuscript and the University of Tennessee Press published it as "From Huntsville to Appomattox, Robert T. Coles' History of the 4th Alabama." Then, he co-authored "Isn't This Glorious" with Ed Root, of Coopersburg.
The second book, published in 2006, traces the steps of the 15th, 19th and 20th Massachusetts regiments, which all fought at Gettysburg. It won the 2007 Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award for most outstanding work on the Battle of Gettysburg.
By the time "Isn't This Glorious" was released, Donald Stocker was in his mid 80s. He was still visiting Gettysburg, retracing the steps of Pickett's Charge, and Jeff thought he would get a kick out of reading about Heinrich Feirich and the 153rd.
"I figured if I'm going to do this, I want to know as much about every single person as I can," Jeff said. "All 993 people."
He pored over newspaper obituaries at the Easton Public Library, made trips to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to examine pension records and read every diary, newspaper account and letter that he could find.
The visits to the National Archives were intense. Stocker, along with his wife and friends like Root, would work from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. without stopping. Not even for lunch.
"He gets so immersed in the research," Root said. "Once you're in the research room, Jeff, he's all business."
If Stocker's going to write something, it has to be original, Root said. The files contain everything from letters sent home to photos of injuries.
To receive a pension, soldiers had to show that they suffered injuries in the war. Family members of dead soldiers needed to prove they were dependent on their deceased relative for money.
"It's kind of like a Forrest Gump moment with a box of chocolates," Root said. "You never know what you're going to find in those records."
With the help of his wife, Root and friends, Stocker took notes from 777 pension records, some of them 4 inches thick. He shared the most interesting anecdotes with his dad, whose health now was failing.
The research, including a knee-high stack of 993 census records, is stuffed into file folders in Stocker's office, where he's maintained his day job as a personal injury attorney.
"My wife doesn't want any of this at home," he says of the stacks of paper records.
After seven years of research and five years of writing, the book is almost complete. It's about 386,000 words with 75 photos and nine maps. Stocker is self-publishing because he doesn't want someone telling him what to cut.
The title, "We Fought Desperate," is a quote from a soldier describing Chancellorsville, fought in Virginia two months before Gettysburg and the other major battle where the 153rd fired volleys at the Rebels.
The text includes stories like those of "Feldy" and "Chunky" Knecht, brothers who were both shot at Gettysburg, and Terrence Reiley, whose wife left Bethlehem to spend years searching Gettysburg for her missing husband.
Reiley had enlisted "to maintain the independence of the greatest country on the face of the earth," according to Stocker's research.
Ann Reiley eventually accepted what Stocker explains matter of factly: "People weren't missing. They were dead."
'At Gettysburg forever'
In eight days, Jeff Stocker will be at Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary with his wife and a group of friends.
It's not the first time he will be there to commemorate the battle's anniversary and probably won't be the last. But the 150th will be special.
"I was at the 125. Chances of being at 175? Probably none," he said. "200? Not happening. So yeah, this is great."
Hartwig, now the supervisory historian of the battlefield, said Stocker "feels" the hallowed ground where nearly 6,700 men died because he knows the men who fought there so well.
"There's people who use the battlefield as a vehicle for them to make a name for themselves," Hartwig said. "Jeff has always been one of those people whose focus on the battlefield is for all the right reasons."
Donald Stocker won't be at the 150th. He died last summer at 93. Jeff placed a manuscript of "We Fought Desperate" in his coffin.
Before he died, Jeff told him everything he'd learned about Feirich. He knows if his father would have lived, he'd be on the field at Gettysburg next Monday, walking in the footsteps of his ancestor.
"He would have been at Gettysburg forever," Jeff said. "He was just like me."
Jeff never had children. Every summer, he takes his two nieces to Gettysburg. They go to the Pennsylvania monument and pose for a photograph while pointing to Feirich's name.
It's the closest the family has come to having a photo of their ancestor.