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Heroes in the War for Our Independence

When Patrick Henry with his stirring words: "Give me liberty or give me death!" raised the battle cry, great excitement spread through all the colonies. Interest in trade, crops, hunting or fishing was no more! The shops of the workmen and the offices of the merchants were deserted. Only in the sooty workshops of the armourers and gun-makers sounded the hammers, ground the files and whirled the whet-stones untiringly. The whole country, one in its glowing passion for liberty, prepared for war.

Among the most enthusiastic patriots were the Germans. Everywhere the young men responded to the call of Congress for volunteers. The spirit of that response may be judged by the example given by  Pennsylvania. On June 14, 1775, Congress ordered that province to furnish six companies of sharpshooters. Instead, Pennsylvania provided nine, four of which were entirely German and were commanded by German officers.  Several divisions of these, commanded by Colonel Nagel and Colonel Daudel, immediately marched to Boston to join Washington's army. The first to arrive were sharpshooters of Berks County, splendid fellows,  every one of whom would have been welcomed by King Frederick the Great into his famous body-guard of giants. These sun-burnt backwoodsmen, dressed in deer skin or homespun hunting suits, and wearing fur caps, armed with  rifles, tomahawks and hunting knives, created a great sensation everywhere. On the breast of each, written in large letters, appeared their watchword: "Liberty or Death!"

Similar squads of German  sharpshooters made the long march from Virginia to Massachusetts with Daniel Morgan. When Washington espied them from a distance, he galloped up to them, and when they reported: "Sharp shooters from the right bank  of the Potomac!" he jumped from his horse to greet them. Tears of joy streamed over his face upon beholding these splendid men, who had tramped six hundred miles to come to his assistance.

During the  siege of Boston these German sharpshooters rendered invaluable service. Carrying bored rifles, which at that time were made only by German gunsmiths of Pennsylvania, they surpassed all other Americans in marksmanship.  Aiming especially at the Officers, they caused such havoc among the British regiments, that one of the members of the Parliament cried: "Those Americans know more of our army than we dream of. They shut it up,  besiege it, destroy and crush it. Wherever our officers show their noses, they are swept away by American rifles."

The splendid work, done by these German marksmen, induced Congress on May 25, 1776, to  call for the formation of an entirely German battalion, whose eight companies should be made up half of Pennsylvanians, and half of Marylanders. The Germans of Pennsylvania, however, not content with doing their share,  provided in a few weeks five complete companies. This battalion distinguished itself at Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, and in the border fights at the headwaters of the Susquehannah and Potomac Rivers.

Unfortunately we have no certain knowledge of the participation of the Germans of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York and the New England colonies, as almost all muster-rolls and  other documents relating to the Revolutionary War were lost in a fire, which in 1800 destroyed the War Department at Washington. But it' is a well-known fact, that the Germans were very numerous in all regiments  furnished by these colonies.

The fact that Washington's body-guard was made up exclusively of Germans from Berks and Lancaster Counties, Pa., furnishes the best proof of their entire trustworthiness and  reliability. 150 strong, they were commanded by Major Bartholomaeus von Heer, a former Prussian officer. Jacob Meytinger served as colonel, and Philipp Struebing and Johann Nutter as  lieutenants. This body-guard accompanied Washington throughout all the seven years of the war, guarding him faithfully.


In the spring of 1777 the British made a supreme  effort to separate the Northern colonies from those in the South, in order to defeat the American armies more easily. At this time the American forces held positions on the Hudson, near West Point. To crush them, the  British planned a simultaneous attack from three different points. General Burgoyne, with 8000 men, was to swoop down from the North. From the South a strong fleet under General Howe was to go up the Hudson River. From  the West Lieutenant-Colonel St. Leger, with 1700 regulars and 1000 Indians, was to clear the Mohawk Valley, and then unite at Albany with Howe and Burgoyne for concerted action. This was decidedly the most critical time  of the entire war.

It was through the Palatines of the Mohawk Valley, that the scheme of the British was defeated. As soon as these Germans were informed by some friendly Oneida Indians, that St. Leger with  his forces had invaded the upper part of the valley, they entrusted the protection of their houses and families to the aged men and the women, and marched, 800 strong, under command of Nicolas Herchheimer toward  Fort Stanwix, which was already besieged by the enemy. The fort, situated at the headwaters of the Mohawk River, had to be relieved and the enemy driven back, to prevent his joining Burgoyne.

Unfortunately  the approach of the Palatines was discovered by the Indian scouts of the British. They hurriedly prepared an ambuscade by placing a strong body of sharpshooters and several hundred Indians in a densely wooded ravine,  through which the advancing Palatines must pass. As soon as the unsuspecting Germans entered this, they were met by a terrific volley, accompanied by the gruesome war cry of the redskins, who broke forth from the  underbrush, and with hideous yells fell upon the surprised Palatines. But these, old Indian fighters, stood their ground bravely. Repelling the onslaught they stormed a hill, where, taking advantage of whatever  opportunity offered for defense, they formed into squads. Herchheimer was one of the first to be wounded. A bullet smashed his left leg below the knee and killed his horse. But not for an instant did this hero lose his  presence of mind. He directed his men to carry him to a slight elevation where he could overlook the battle. Seated upon his saddle and propped against a large beech tree, he calmly lighted his pipe and continued to  give his orders. He thus animated his men to such bravery, that they resisted every charge of the enemy with dauntless courage.

The conflict increased in fury. The bulk of the British consisted of  "Johnson's Greens, " many of whom had been former neighbors and acquaintances of the Palatines, but who had at the outbreak of the revolution fled to Canada. Here they joined the army in hope to take revenge  on those, who had compelled them to leave their homes. The Palatines recalled what they had for many years suffered from Tory arrogance and treachery. And so the two opposing parties were imbued with such bitter  feeling, that they literally longed to get at each other's throats. The passion of the men, who met here in battle, turned the pretty valley into a hellish slaughter pen. While the British were burning with a mad thirst  for revenge, the Palatines fought with firm resolve to save their homes and families. The third party consisted of wild Indians, raging with the lust to kill and destroy.

For hours and hours the fierce  struggle went on. German vigor and energy stood against Indian cunning and ability. So bitter became the strife, that even death itself could not separate the fighters. Men were found locked in each other's arms, a  knife in each breast, or with throats cut, in deadly embrace, the tenacity of which bespoke their infernal passion.

In the heat of conflict no one had noticed the coming of a thunderstorm, which suddenly  broke forth with terrific violence. The heavy downpour of the rain, the howling of the wind, the blinding lightning and the crash of thunder made the fighters stop for a while. But as soon as the fury of the elements  had passed, the grim struggle began anew.

The pause, however, had been of advantage to the Palatines. Herchheimer had noticed that the redskins always watched the tree, from behind which a Palatine was  ready to shoot. As soon as he had fired, Indians immediately leaped forward in order to tomahawk the man before he could reload his gun. Herchheimer defeated this game by posting behind eachtree two men, one of whom  stood ready as soon as the other shot. If now an Indian exposed himself by jumping forward, he was killed by the other marksman. By these tactics the Indians suffered so heavily that they lost all courage and fled. When  at the same time from the direction of Fort Stanwix the roar of cannon was heard, the British soldiers, fearing an attack in the rear, also retreated in haste, leaving the battlefield to the jubilant Palatines. Arriving  at their camping ground before Fort Stanwix, they found that the American garrison had made a sortie and had captured five standards, several guns and twenty wagon-loads of provisions. Over the five flags an improvised  American banner, which had been made out of a white shirt, a blue blanket and a woman's red petticoat, floated in triumph.

The losses the Palatines had suffered in the battle were, however, so severe, that  they were unable to follow up their victory. All the men of certain families had been wiped out. Among the 240 killed were four Wollhoevers, five Bellingers, five Fuchs and nine of the Schell family. Almost all of the  survivors were wounded. So Fiske in his "History of American Revolution" was justified in calling the battle of Oriskany the most obstinate and murderous encounter of the revolution."

When  the Germans with their dead and wounded comrades returned to their villages, heartrending lamentations were heard everywhere. But the men had no time for mourning, as Fort Stanwix was not yet relieved. And so the  Palatines, reinforced by a body of regulars, who had arrived in the meantime, once more marched forth against the British. Thelatter, however, were seized by a panic. Leaving tents and ammunition behind, they hurried  back to Canada. Thus their junction with the army of Burgoyne was frustrated.

Released from this danger, the Palatines and Americans could now throw their combined forces against Burgoyne, who had entered  the upper valley of the Hudson River and stood at Saratoga. Here, however, he was surrounded and so hard pressed by the Americans, that he was compelled to surrender with his whole army on October 8, 1777.

 Through these events the British campaign became a complete failure. Washington himself acknowledged the great services of the Palatines by stating that Herchheimer and his men had turned the darkest hour to one of  brightest prospects.

But alas! Herchheimer himself did not live to hear his appreciation. Ten days after the battle of Oriskany his shattered leg had to be amputated. It was done by an incompetent surgeon  in such unskillful manner, that the hero bled to death. His end was that of a philosopher. Feeling his life ebbing away, he sat in his bed, cheerful as ever, smoking his pipe. Toward evening he called for a Bible and  read to his family the 38th Psalm. Gradually his voice grew weaker until it died away altogether.

Two beautiful obelisks, one erected over Herchheimer's grave and one on the field of battle, keep alive the  memory of the heroes of Oriskany for future generations.


In front of the City Hall in Philadelphia stands a monument erected to the memory of Peter Muehlenberg, a  Lutheran minister, the same who in 1775 acted as chairman in that memorable mass-meeting at Woodstock, Virginia, which adopted such forceful protests against British oppression.

When the war clouds began to  gather, this minister, not satisfied with a written protest, informed the members of his community of his intention to resign - and that he would preach but once more. This news attracted crowds of hearers from near and  far, as Muehlenberg was one of the most popular ministers of Virginia, In his forceful sermon he spoke of the duties citizens owe to their country. In closing he said: "There is a time for preaching and praying.  But there is also a time of fighting. Now this time has come!"

In the same moment he threw off his clerical garment and stood in the pulpit in the uniform of a colonel of the Continental army. Hailed  by enthusiastic outbursts of his community, he slowly descended from the pulpit. Outside, drums began to rattle. Martial trumpets called the men to the struggle for freedom. Before the sun had set, several hundred  sturdy Germans had enlisted as recruits, resolved to follow their minister to war.

In former years Muehlenberg had been officer in a British regiment. As he was acquainted with active service, he was  entrusted with the command of a regiment, made up entirely of Germans. It fought with great honor in South Carolina as well as in the North. Later on, Muehlenberg was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general. As such  he distinguished himself in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. During the siege of Yorktown he held the most important positions, captured the strongest redoute of the enemy and became so very  instrumental in the fall of the fortress. For his excellent services he was rewarded with the title of major general. George Washington counted him among his confidential friends.

Having given due credit to  the noble services of that soldier, it is not more than just, to also remember the gallant Major General Johann von Kalb, a native of Bavaria. Having participated in the Seven Years' War, he came to America in 1777 with  Lafayette. Appointed as major general, he operated in New Jersey, Maryland and South Carolina and was regarded as one of the most experienced, calculating and cautious officers of the whole army. After having served  most honorably for three years, he gave, as the inscription on his monument in front of the military academy in Annapolis, MD, states, "a last noble demonstration of his devotion for the sake of liberty and the  cause of America in the battle of Camden, where he, leading his soldiers, inspired them by his example to deeds of highest bravery." Riddled with bullets, he fell; but when an officer came to assist him, he said:  "This is nothing. I am dying the death I have longed for. I am dying for a country fighting for justice and for liberty!" The noble man expired on August 19th, 1780.

We cannot take space, in the  present volume, to do justice to all other German heroes of our Revolutionary War. There was George Gerhard von der Wieden, a Hanoveranian, who appears in American histories under the name of Weedon. In many battles he  fought with such distinction and bravery, that he was made a brigadier general. We must remember also Colonel Kichlein, a Pennsylvanian, who, after the battle of Long island, covered with his company Washington's  retreat. Of him and his gallant soldiers an historian said: "Long Island was the Termopylae of our War for Independence, and the German Pennsylvanians were its Spartans."

Furthermore there was  Leonhard Helm, the brave defender of Fort St. Vincennes; also Alexander Gillon, son of a Hessian merchant in Charleston, S. C. In May, 1777, this daring man fitted out a vessel, with which he captured three British  cruisers. In 1782 he brought together a squadron and annexed the Bahama Islands.

It is not more than just to remember also Michael Hillegas, a merchant of Philadelphia, who as treasurer of Congress filled  the most difficult and trying position the struggling nation had to offer. Without adequate means to replenish the funds of the Treasury, the Government was constantly in financial embarrassments, which the British  successfully increased by flooding the country with enormous quantities of counterfeits of the paper money issued by the American Government. Hillegas, loaded down with care, nevertheless served the country faithfully  for fourteen years, from 1775 till 1789, when, at his request, he was relieved of his burden.

Evidences of highest patriotism were given also by many other non-combatant Germans. When Washington's soldiers  were starving, nine Germans donated $100,000 - a very large sum in those days - to buy provisions. Also the Moravians, Mennonites and Tunker gave everything they were able to spare. And when in Philadelphia the motion,  to collect money to purchase arms, was negatively debated, Christopher Ludwig, a German baker, arose and thus cut short the flow of rhetoric: "Mr. President, I am only a poor gingerbread baker, but write me down  for two hundred pounds." This same patriot, an example of unselfishness and honesty, served as superintendent of bakers for a number of years.


 German women also distinguished themselves for true patriotism and bravery. In Philadelphia Mrs. Margarete Greider, whose maiden name was Arkularius, devoted not only 1500 guinees to the cause of liberty, but for  several months provided the American soldiers with bread, refusing to accept compensation for it.

Every American knows the story of Molly Pitcher, who got that name because she used to supply the  fighting soldiers with water brought in a large pitcher. Born on October 13th, 1754, in New Jersey, she was of Paletine ancestry, her maiden name being Marie Ludwig. Her husband, John Hays, was a gunner. When at the  battle of Monmouth he was wounded and no other man was available for serving the cannon, Molly Pitcher took his place and helped, during the most critical moments, in loading and firing with such dexterity, that  Washington, after the battle, appointed her to the rank and pay of sergeant.

Another heroine was Elisabeth Zane, the handsome and vivacious daughter of Colonel Zane (Zahn), a Pennsylvania German, the  founder of Wheeling, WV. At the site of the present city, not far from Zane's log house, a fort had been erected, which in 1782 was attacked by a band of 40 British soldiers and 186 Indians. The defenders of the fort  held out bravely, but their number decreased from 42 to 12. Besides, the situation became critical, as the supply of powder was running dangerously low. There was a full keg of powder hidden in Zane's log house, but to  get it, a distance of about sixty yards must be traversed, which was covered by the guns of the enemy. When volunteers were called, to procure the Powder, Elisabeth Zane stepped forward, insisting she be sent, as no man  in the fort could be spared, while a girl would not be missed. Refusing to listen to any objection, she slipped out of the gate, as though there were no redskins in the whole world. The Indians, not knowing the reason  of her stroll, let her pass without interfering. Not till the young heroine reappeared, carrying the keg under a tablecloth, did the Indians realize the meaning of the girl's mission and at once opened a brisk fire on  her. But the girl sped with the fleetness of a fawn and reached the fort in safety amid a shower of bullets, several of which passed through her clothes. By this daring act the little garrison was enabled to hold out,  until relief arrived.

We cannot close this chapter without mentioning also the brave Johann Christian Schell and his wife. These two Palatines with their six sons occupied a lonely log house three miles northeast of the present city of Herkimer, in the Mohawk Valley. In August 1781 Schell, while at work with his family in the field, was attacked by 16 Tories and 48 Indians, who succeeded in capturing two of the younger sons, while Schell, together with his wife and the four elder sons were able to reach the house. Here they were besieged for the rest of the day, but defended their home so successfully, that the enemy did not dare to come near. In the dusk of the evening, however, the Indians crept up toward the house to force an entrance. The captain of the raiding party, McDonald, succeeded in reaching the door, which he attempted to pry open with a lever. But he was shot in the leg and sank to the ground. Quick as lightning Schell unbolted the door anddragged the wounded man into the house, thus saving the house from being set fire to, for the leader of the attacking party within, would likewise perish in the flames.

While the enemies held council, what next to do, the brave Palatine and his family prepared for the next assault. Getting their rifles ready, they began to sing the famous battle hymn of the Reformation,  "A mighty fortress is our God." Just when they had finished the verse

"Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär',
Und wollt' uns gar verschlingen,
So fürchten wir uns nicht so sehr,
Es muss uns doch gelingen!"

the marauders jumped up to the walls of the house and pushed their guns through the loop holes, to drive the men inside from their positions.

Seeing the danger, Mrs. Schell seized an axe, and  beat the gun-barrels that they bent and became useless. At the same time Schell and his boys delivered somany effective shots, that the enemy soon withdrew for good, having suffered a loss of eleven killed and twelve  wounded seriously.

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