- Historic Sites
Private Flohr’s Other Life
The young German fought for American Independence, went home, and returned as a man of peace
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
Georg Daniel Flohr, a butcher’s son, enlisted at nineteen in the Regiment Royal-Deux-Ponts, a German outfit in the service of France, and came to America in 1780 with the Comte de Rochambeau’s army to help the Continentals in their struggle against Great Britain. Readers of this magazine may recall the beautifully illustrated diary Flohr kept of his service, which for a century lay unnoticed in Strasbourg’s main library. For the December 1992 issue I wrote an article, “Private Flohr’s America,” that reproduced some of those superb sketches and his account—the only one known by an enlisted man in Rochambeau’s forces—of his march south from Newport to Yorktown and the signal feat of arms there that cost Britain its American colonies.
The victory won, Private Flohr returned home; discharged by the Royal-Deux-Ponts in 1784, he settled in Strasbourg. “Nothing is known of his later life,” I wrote. That was true at the time, but I am happy to say that thanks to an unusual chain of coincidences, it no longer is.
Among the bright, crisp scenes Flohr drew in his journal was a plan of Williamsburg, Virginia—so accurate, says Ray Betzner, director of public information at the College of William and Mary, that “if you gave this drawing to a present-day tourist he could make his way around town with very little trouble.” In the fall of 1992 the college selected this watercolor for the poster commemorating its tercentenary, which was introduced to the public at a press conference. Among those attending was Richard Miller, a curator at Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.
Miller had recently helped conduct research for an article about the decorated gravestones of Wythe County, Virginia, which had been published in Antiques magazine. He told Carolyn Weekly, director of the Folk Art Center, that during his investigations he had come across the grave of a Reverend Flohr. Dr. Weekly in turn called Martha Hamilton-Phillips, of William and Mary, who, aware of my work on Flohr, passed on the information to me.
Just off Interstate 81 on Route 52, in Wytheville in western Virginia, stand a log house and a white church building surrounded by a cemetery. A historical marker informs the visitor that the church, St. John’s Lutheran, closed since 1924, was built in 1854 on the foundations of a church dating back to around 1800. A plaque in front of the log house reports that it was built around 1807 and was once owned by a Reverend George Daniel Flohr. Slated for destruction, it was rescued and moved to its present site in 1984. In the adjacent cemetery, where the oldest readable stones bear dates of around 1805, one grave is distinguished by inscriptions in Latin, German, and English that identify it as the final resting place of the minister. Reverend Flohr departed this life on April 30, 1826.
But could Rev. George Daniel Flohr and Pvt. Georg Daniel Flohr actually be the same person? And how did the German soldier become the Virginia clergyman? My quest for the answers began with some useful pages from Mary Kegley’s History of Wythe County and soon expanded into state and local archives, county courthouses, parish libraries, and university and church records in Germany, France, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.
I was especially happy to find a volume of Reverend Flohr’s sermons published in 1840 with a biographical preface by the Reverend John T. Tabler of Wythe. According to Tabler, the preacher Flohr had been born in Germany around 1759, but German church records indicate that Private Flohr had been born in August 1756. Regimental records give both 1758 and 1760 as his birthdate; the Wytheville tombstone, August 1762. Such discrepancies in eighteenth-century dates are common enough that these five different birthdays didn’t rule out the possibility that Private Flohr had indeed emigrated to the United States to settle in Wytheville.
We know that Private Flohr was in Strasbourg in June 1788; after that the trail grows cold. The Strasbourg census of August 1789 does not list a Flohr living in the city. Not long after that time, according to Tabler, the future Reverend Flohr was in Paris and studying medicine. In a frustratingly opaque account of the turning point in Flohr’s life, Tabler writes that on January 22, 1793, “the morning of the execution of Louis XVI, the accidental, but awful death of an individual near Mr. F., so operated on his mind as to render him averse to the further prosecution of his medical studies. This change of purpose may no longer create surprise in the reader, when told that a part of the mangled body was cast against Mr. F.”
Perhaps as early as 1793 the traumatized Flohr was back in America. Soon after his arrival he began to study theology under the Reverend William Carpenter, a fellow Revolutionary War veteran, at Hebron Church, the oldest Lutheran pastorate in Virginia. Around 1799 Flohr accepted a call to serve in the New River Valley of western Virginia near Evansham, as Wytheville was then called.