German heritage – so important to York County’s Civil War story
The old castle at Heidelberg, Germany. (Image courtesy of Burschenschaft Teutonia zu Jena).
I am in southwestern Germany this week on business. My employer, P. H. Glatfelter, owns a specialty paper mill tucked in a very scenic river valley (Murgthal) in the Black Forest region a couple of hours north of Switzerland. The River Murg provides the water supply, but much of the pulp we use for our tea bag papers comes from our pulp mill in the Philippines. This is my tenth trip or so to the mill, and I usually stay in Baden-Baden.
The ride down from Frankfurt on Autobahn 5 takes me through the land of my ancestors, the Menges clan of the Heidelberg region. My family left their hometown of Ebersbach on the River Neckar in 1709 and traveled down the Rhine River to Leiden, Holland, where they boarded a ship and sailed to what became upstate New York. After the American Revolution, my 6th great-grandfather moved to the Ohio Country with other soldiers who also received land grants from Congress.
This lovely region, known as the Palatinate, is similar in weather, climate, and scenery to southern Pennsylvania, which is why so many other German refugees made their way to Penn’s Colony, where they were welcomed by the Englishman. Much of the New York Germans scattered westward, but the Pennsylvanians carved out their own niche as “Pennsylvania Deutsch.”
During the Civil War, so many Confederates (mostly English or Scotch-Irish in their ancestral heritage) commented on the Germanic culture of south-central Pennsylvania and central Maryland.
Some of the many Confederate impressions of York County and its Germanic heritage:
Cavalry officer John E. Cooke’s predominant memory was of “the Dutchmen, the ‘fraus,’ the ‘spreading’ (apple butter), the sauer-kraut–the conestogas, the red barns, the guttural voices, the strange faces…
Brigadier General John B. Gordon marveled at the prosperity of the farmland, which was “filled with big red barns, representing in their silent dignity the independence of their owners.”
18-yr-old Lt. F. Halsey Wigfall, Breathed’s Horse Artillery : “You should have seen the Dutch people in York Co. turning out with water and milk and bread and butter and ‘apple butter’ for the ‘ragged rebels.’ I was quite surprised at the tone of feeling in that part of the State. In two or three instances I found people who seemed really glad to see us and at scores of houses they had refreshments at the door for the soldiers.
Unknown infantryman : “Those people make the most delicious bread I ever tasted… such oceans of bread I never laid eyes on before. They supplied us with milk, butter, and cheese in the most extravagant abundance.”
Not totally understanding the tight-knit nature of the multi-generational German community, Captain William Seymour commented that “Most of the barns in this section of Pennsylvania are larger and more firmly built than the dwellings of the farmers; the Dutch lords of the soil invariably bestow more care and attention on their crops and stock than they do on their families.” He of course was wrong, but the imposing bank barns and tidy, well managed farms gave the impression that farming was more much important than family.
While in York, the same officer, Captain Seymour, surveyed the pastoral scene from a hilltop near Pleasureville. It reinforced his admiration for “the Dutch lords of the soil” – “The surrounding country was in a high state of cultivation and from our camp presented a beautiful appearance with its immense fields of golden grain that flashed in the sunlight – dotted here and there with neat little cottages and substantially built barns which were literally bursting with wheat, oats & corn.”
As JEB Stuart’s column wound its way through west-central York County en route to Dover, some of his officers were frustrated by the locals, who could not (or perhaps would not) speak English in response to repeated inquiries as to the local and whereabouts of Yankee militia, and more importantly, the location of Jubal Early’s infantry division.
As a Germanic descendant, I take pride in the heritage of the culture, and I have come to admire the Pennsylvania Dutch and their efficiency and energy in creating the close-knit community whose lives were interrupted by the Confederate invasion.
Guten tag from Baden-Baden.