Private Flohr’s Other Life

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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.

In a letter dated August 1, 1799, Flohr informed his friend Paul Henkel of Winchester of his safe arrival in western Virginia. That letter, one of about twenty in existence, which I received through the courtesy of Klaus Wust, a leading authority on Germans in colonial Virginia, established the final link between Private Flohr and Reverend Flohr. Handwriting experts who compared samples from the Revolutionary War diary and the letters all agree that they are the work of one author. Flohr’s letters reveal the usual problems that a new pastor might encounter, but he seems to have taken them in stride. Martin Kimmerling, he wrote, “played the hypocritical flute” (i.e., was pouting) because nobody had voted for him during the recent elections of church elders and deacons. Then there was young John Koppenhoffer who had gotten two women pregnant: “He does not deny it, but does not want to marry either of them.”

Within a year of his arrival he had baptized eighty-nine children and confirmed fifty-four more. In early 1801 Flohr, though still two years away from being ordained, was serving at least six churches in three counties. In addition, he headed four schools, practiced medicine, and had to involve himself in planning the church where he was later buried.

Further digging in county records revealed that on October 5, 1802, Flohr married a local girl named Elizabeth Holsapple. Six years later he bought forty-seven acres in Wytheville and built a house. Since he and Elizabeth had no children, they adopted Polly Hutzle around 1810; ten years later the infant Elizabeth Kegley joined the family.

On April 30, 1826, four months short of his seventieth birthday, George Daniel Flohr died, deeply mourned by the congregations he had served faithfully for twenty-five years. As a token of respect Lawrence Krone, a local stone carver and member of the German Reformed Church, donated the monument for Flohr’s grave.

 

Even today “Father Flohr,” as he is affectionately called in his adopted town, has not been forgotten. There are plans to turn his home into a historical museum, and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wytheville, with which St. John’s merged in 1924, still owns some of Flohr’s hymnals and recently established a St. John’s room in its parsonage. And every year on St. John’s Day, the third Sunday in August, a special service is held on the grounds of Wytheville’s old church to honor the original St. John’s and its first pastor, the onetime soldier Georg Daniel Flohr.