Born in Germany, they Marched for the Union

“Great Grandpa Klem was a ‘48er,” Dad explained as we kicked up a swirl of dust driving down a gravel road called, ‘Cork Hollow.’ “He is buried here with some of his sons.” With my feet not even touching the floor of the ’62 Impala, I bounced on the bench seat alongside my Dad back around 1969, as we drove to St. Patrick’s Cemetery in the Mississippi River town of Brownsville, Minnesota. I didn’t know what a “48er” was—and didn’t much care—Dad was taking me to see the grave of one of Klem’s son who had fought in the Civil War. It wasn’t the last time that I would hear the “48er” term that day, though.

St. Patrick Cemetery near Brownsville, Minnesota, is dotted with the graves of "48ers" and refugees of the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852. They were some of the first permanent European residents of southeastern Minnesota

St. Patrick Cemetery near Brownsville, Minnesota, is dotted with the graves of “48ers” and refugees of the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852. They were some of the first permanent European residents of southeastern Minnesota

Walking the long bluff-side cemetery, we finally found the graves of the Grafs…Klemantz, the father, and Bernhardt, a son.  The latter served in Company F of the 2nd Minnesota along with his brother-in-law, Jakob Leitzer. He was buried there too.

Since I was a boy, Bernhardt Graf's tombstone has been replaced with this more modern representation. The family did remember his service in the 2nd Minnesota when they had it engraved.Since I was a boy, Bernhardt Graf's tombstone has been replaced with this more modern representation. The family did remember his service in the 2nd Minnesota when they had it engraved.

Since I was a boy, Bernhardt Graf’s tombstone has been replaced with this more modern representation. The family did remember his service in the 2nd Minnesota when they had it engraved.

Great-Great-Uncle Jakob Leitzer (later anglicized as "Jacob Leiser") served with his brother-in-law, Bernhardt Graf, in Co. F, 2nd Minnesota Infantry.

Great-Great-Uncle Jakob Leitzer (later anglicized as “Jacob Leiser”) served with his brother-in-law, Bernhardt Graf, in Co. F, 2nd Minnesota Infantry.

Dad patiently waited while I made a “rubbing” of the Bernhardt and Jakob’s tombstones. Though my great, great-grandfather, Klemantz (“Klem”) had a sizeable stone nearby, I was not interested—he wasn’t a veteran.

After we climbed back into the four-door Impala (that the family called the “Goose”), we wound down another gravel road into one of the valleys extending up from the Mississippi River until we met the “Crooked Creek.” I knew this creek well.  I had fished there all my life.  My Dad fished there all of his life, too. We both knew that when we saw the creek, the little town of Freeburg was just around the corner.

Moreso than Brownsville, we Grafs considered Freeburg our home territory. “Right there near the bridge,” Dad would explain each time we rolled into the tiny town, “stood your great-grandfather’s mill.” He often added, “He was a 48er too,” but that was lost on me and my brothers. We were more interested in running down to the creek to play.

Before Dad died a couple of years ago, we were talking about the family’s stores, Freeburg, Crooked Creek, and Great Grandpa J.M Graf’s mill (there has been a “J.M” in every generation of Grafs as far back as I can tell. Dad was John Milton. I missed it by a middle name—I am John Francis. My older brother, Joseph Michael, is my generation’s “J.M. Graf”). One of the things on which Dad commented as we reminisced, “My great grandpa and your great grandpa were 48ers. The whole wham-damn family were 48ers (that was Dad’s way of speaking).” I had to investigate.

Wars of Confederation

I knew that “48er” referred to the immigration explosion to the United States from Europe. What I didn’t know, however, was the impetus for hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes and travel across the ocean to the United States.

A couple of years of European History in college didn’t teach me as much as a Wikipedia entry:

“The revolutions of 1848–49 in the German states, the opening phase of which was also called the March Revolution (Märzrevolution), were part of the Revolutions of 1848 that broke out in many European countries. They were a series of loosely coordinated protests and rebellions in the states of the German Confederation, including the Austrian Empire. The revolutions, which stressed pan-Germanism, demonstrated popular discontent with the traditional, largely autocratic political structure of the thirty-nine independent states of the Confederation that inherited the German territory of the former Holy Roman Empire. They demonstrated the popular desire for the Zollverein movement (a coalition of German states formed to manage tariffs and economic policies within their territories).

The middle-class elements were committed to liberal principles, while the working class sought radical improvements to their working and living conditions. As the middle class and working class components of the Revolution split, the conservative aristocracy defeated it. Liberals were forced into exile to escape political persecution, where they became known as “Forty-Eighters.” Many immigrated to the United States, settling from Wisconsin to Texas.”

There it was, in black and white: “Forty-Eighters,” the same reference my Dad had used in relation to our family’s ancestors. I had known from oral tradition, Klem had been a professor. It would appear he would have fit into that middle-class element who “were committed to liberal principals.” My great-great-grandfather and all of his children who came to the United States in 1848 were “refugees.”

Lucky for me, the United States of 1848 was looking for people to fill the land. On January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter originally from New Jersey, found flakes of gold in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, California. At the time, Marshall was working to build a water-powered sawmill owned by John Sutter. This set off a rush of people and businesses to cross the country or sail around South America to claim their own piece of the riches. A few days later on February 2, Manifest Destiny achieved another large bite of western lands with the signing of the Treaty of Hidago Guadalupe, ending the Mexican-American War. The west was open for settlement, and the United States welcomed immigrants to fill the void.

My family never made it that far West. They settled first along the Ohio River in Floyd Knobs, Indiana. Klemantz’s wife had become quite ill. A couple of years after establishing their first home in the United States, the Graf family buried their wife and mother, along with a little sister and daughter on the hills overlooking the Ohio. Once again, they boarded a ship, this time bound for the Mississippi where it would turn north and head for Minnesota Territory. The large, motherless immigrant family finally stepped off the boat at “Wild Cat Landing” in Brownsville, Minnesota. Klemantz, the father of eight children ranging from toddlers to young adult men, established himself as a farmer. His oldest son made a living for himself in the blacksmithing trade. The other boys eventually made the meandering trek to Crooked Creek where one of the youngest of the family, Joseph Martin, began working in the mill that he would eventually purchase.

Josef Karl Graf's tombstone commemorating his service in the 23rd Illinois Infantry.

Josef Karl Graf’s tombstone commemorating his service in the 23rd Illinois Infantry.

All of the family continued to speak German, though the younger picked up their new homeland’s language. When the Civil broke out, two of the brother, Bernhardt (“Ben”) and Josef Karl (now spelled, “Joseph Charles”) took up the blue suit of the Union, the former serving in the 2nd Minnesota Infantry and the latter in the 23rd Illinois Infantry. They were joined by at least two of their brothers-in-law who served in Minnesota regiments.

After the war, this immigrant family remained in the corner of Minnesota where they had landed before it had even become a state.  It was to those cemeteries in those small communities that Dad used to drive to look at the tombstones.

I wondered if Great-Great Grandpa Klemantz recognized the irony after he left Germany to avoid the Wars of Confederation and persecution, only to settle in the United States where his sons would feel it was their patriotic duty to serve in the War to Preserve the Union. But, when I studied the rosters of the 2nd Minnesota and the 23rd Illinois Infantry Regiments, it became obvious, they were not alone…the Regiments, like so many of the regiments that served for both the Union and the Confederacy, were densely populated with the names of immigrant soldiers—men who fled their homelands, only to commit their lives to their adopted nations.

Preserve the memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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