York County soldiers: Pvt. George Berkheimer
George Berkheimer was just one of more than 11,000 men in York County, Pennsylvania, who served in the Union army during the American Civil War. His regiment, the 187 the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, served in the Army of the Potomac during the Siege of Petersburg and later in May 1865 was the honor guard for the remains of President Abraham Lincoln in Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia and as an escort to the funeral cortege.
Berkheimer was born September 30, 1845, in Manchester Township, Pennsylvania, according to researcher Dennis Brandt’s database on-line at the York County Heritage Trust’s website. He was the son of Isaac & Catherine Berkheimer and was one of five brothers. In the 1860 U.S. Census, he is listed as a laborer with a net worth of $150 and living in West Manchester Township.
At the age of 17, he volunteered for what became Company B of the 187th Pennsylvania on January 14, 1864, in downtown York. His papers suggest he told the recruiting officer he was actually 18. His regiment organized in Philadelphia and then entrained for Washington, D.C. before heading to Cold Harbor, Virginia, to join the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. After serving in several battles around Petersburg, Berkheimer and the 187th was transferred to Philadelphia’s Camp Cadwalader to serve as guards and provosts.
George Berkheimer received his honorable discharge and mustered out of the service on August 3, 1865. He returned to York County, where he married a woman named Emma sometime before the 1880 Census. Their “small house” on North Water Street suffered damage in a devastating flood in 1884 (his name appears in a lengthy list of victims).
From F.L. Spangler’s The Inundation of York, Penna.: a graphic description of the great flood comes this passage: “At the southwest corner of Water and Philadelphia streets, stands the railroad watch station, at which the water measured five feet, making the depth on the track somewhat more than four feet. On the northwest corner, is the small house of Frank Ginter, and adjoining it, that of George Berkheimer. A little farther on is the pump to which Ginter clung for life, after attempting the rescue of the Berkheimer family, and near by, the willows to which Mr. and Mrs. Berkheimer clung when they were rescued by brave Cookes.
These willows were on the edge of the main channel, in a depression, where the water had a depth of at least fifteen feet, and into which the current from Water street swept with great violence, right into the main channel. It is only when we stand in this depression and contemplate the depth of the water, the velocity and direction of the current through which Cookes had to pass, and the proximity of the willows to the main channel, that the danger of his exploit becomes apparent, and we realize the noble daring of the man who rescued the Berkheimer family. He told those who warned him, that he is fully conscious of the risk, but he would rescue the Berkheimers, or go down in the attempt.”
George and Emma Berkheimer survived the flood, estimated their net losses at $50, and resumed their lives. He died March 18, 1931, and is buried in York’s Prospect Hill Cemetery.
Dozens of York County soldiers’ letters, diaries, and journal entries are featured in the upcoming book from Scott Mingus and James McClure, Civil War Voices from York County, Pa.: Remembering the Rebellion and the Gettysburg Campaign (Ortanna, Pa.; Colecraft Books, 2011).