Monday, April 3, 2017

Historical Notes on the Blosser Family during the Civil War

The name Blosser was originally spelled Blaser from the german Blaser. Being of Mennonite stock, religiously-principled conscientious objection runs deep in the Blosser family -- as far back as the American revolution.

Peter the Immigrant

The first Blosser in our family line was Peter Blosser ["Peter the Immigrant"]. According to the Geneological History of the Blosser Family as Known in America [1903],

It is handed down to me, by tradition, that [Peter] became singer and jester to some great person or noble-man of that country, but in time of war he escaped and went to France, where he stayed for awhile, but war coming on in France he left that country and came to America August 27th, 1739. In ship “Snow Betsy,” Richard Buden, Commander, sailed from Rotterdam Holland - last from Deal - 190 passengers, and settled in the state of Pennsylvania, at a creek called Cadoris, near Little York in York county, where it is supposed he married and had sons and daughters born unto him. He was also an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church.

In A History of Shenandoah County, Virginia, John Walter Wayland gives an account of Peter Blosser, a Mennonite pastor who was born in Switzerland and arrived in the Shenandoah from Pennsylvania in 1776 during the opening stages of the war:

Just before the Revolution the Baptists began to make inroads on the Mennonites through the preaching of John Koontz, James Ireland, and others. The Mennonites became alarmed and sent for preachers from Pennsylvania. As a result, Peter Blosser, Mennonite minister, arrived in Shenandoah from Pennsylvania in 1776, during the opening stages of the war. He was a man of 60, but very active. He led a drive for [pacifist] 'non-resistance' among the German Quakers. This may have been as effective as keeping men out of the Army as that of Muhlenberg was in making soldiers out of them.

Pursuit of Blosser by an officer named Bender illustrates Blosser's fearlessness. Bender swore he would seize and punish Blosser. The latter to foil him would hide in immediate proximity to Bender, while Bender's men were scouring the country elsewhere for the non-resistant preacher. Discovery of the ruse threw Bender into rage, but Blosser eluded him. This incident is said to be well known as a reliable fact among Blosser's descendants, though it has perhaps not been put into print more than once.

So successful was Blosser's agitation for peaceful resistance to military service -- together with Martin Kaufmann, Baptist preacher convert from the Mennonites -- that "the Shenandoah minute books contain so few officers appointed during the Revolution from the Mennonite sections of the country." [pp. 207-208]

According to the genealogical research of Mark Blosser, another descendant of Peter Blosser,

There is one documented case of Jacob Blosser (1758, son of Peter the Immigrant) who did enlist in the Colonial forces and is registered with the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), he was excommunicated from the MennoniteChurch for his actions.

Peter Blosser II

Peter Blosser, son of Peter ["the Immigrant"], was born in Cadoria Creek, Pennsylvania in 1752. He married Magdalene Bear, and "becoming of age" he and his wife headed to Rockingham County in Virginia (arriving sometime in 1812-1815) and "bought the Harrison, Whitmore and other farms of Rockingham."

A longer account of the purchase and settlement of the farms in Rockingham County by the Blossers is given by S.H. Blosser, according to whom Peter II's motivation for departing for Rockingham County was on account of his father, Peter the 1st, marrying "a cross stepmother" by the name of Miss Knicely, on account of whom his father retired from the ministry and his children were compelled to move out of the house to escape her.

Peter (II) had eight children:

  • Barbara, February 2, 1777. Married David Burkholder.
  • Jacob, April 16, 1778. Married Magdalene Shank. John, June 5, 1780. Married Barbara Kagey. Abraham, April 5, 1782. Died single.
  • Anna, Oct. 27, 1785. Died single.
  • Peter, Feb. 3, 1787, Married Anna Bear.
  • David, Feb. 28, 1789. Died single.
  • Jonas, July 10, 1791. Married Margaret Burkholder.
The latter, says Wayland, "built the Blosser stone mansion, two miles from Harrisburg, VA, which with seven other buildings were burned by Sheridan's order no. 29; but the same walls were used in rebuilding it the next year, and it remains in the family."

Mennonites during the American Civil War

Abraham Blosser’s lengthy “A Historical Sketch of the Early Mennonites in Virginia" is included in the book History of the Mennonites by Daniel Kolb Cassel, in which he gives an account of his experiences during the “war of 1861”:

When the war of 1860 broke out the Mennonites, as the anti-slavery party or society, were in danger of being roughly treat or imposed upon, as this was a war for slavery by the seceded States. But fortunately the Mennonites did not, comparatively speaking, cover much of the seceded territory, and the extreme South knew very little about them, while that of the Friends, or Quaker denomination, was principally in the Northern states. The principal body of the Mennonites within the so-called "Confederate States" was in the Valley of Virginia … Though many of the more rigid war men among the Secessionists angrily denounces these non-resistant anti-slavery societies in the most distressful manner imaginable, yet, strong to say, most of the principal officers among those who knew them personally and their religious teachings, they modest, upright, honest and inoffensive deportment, were inclined to favor them, though some of the unintelligent offices were harshly against them. [p. 134]

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Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War, by James O. Lehman, Steven M. Nolt. Johns Hopkins University Press; First Edition edition (October 8, 2007):

Despite pressure, some Mennonites actually voted against secession or, more often, simply abstained. Jacob Wenger of Greenmount claims he was one of eleven who voted against the secession resolution despite threats of hanging. If Wenger is correct, upwards of half the dissenting voted in Rockingham must have been acquaintances of Wenger, surely many of them Mennonites. Those who refused to vote included Sam Shank, Abraham Shank, Samuel Coffman, Daniel J. Good, John Geil, Jacob Geil, Peter Blosser and David C Brenneman. p. 49] ...

Taking a different tack, Jacob Geil and Abraham Blosser won draft exemptions by becoming civil servants. Gail purchased the postmaster position at the village of Edom for $280, and Abraham Blosser purchased a mail route for $1,000 from a disabled Methodist preacher. But Geil soon gave up his position, and Blosser, when criticized, arranged to take on an additional route and carried mail for nearly four years. [p. 67].

Abraham Blosser: Dodging the Draft

Abraham Blosser, “A Historical Sketch of the Early Mennonites in Virginia"; excerpted from History of the Mennonites by Daniel Kolb Cassel:

About the middle of July, 1861, a call was made by the Confederates for the entire force, i.e., every able bodied man between the age of eighteen and forty five years was called into service … I escaped the aforementioned draft but expected that another would soon follow, and was determined not to be dragged into the army if it could possibly be avoided. I did not want to go into the North and leave my family, consisting of my wife and four small children, in a land of tear. Though I could not stay with them all the time … I immediately began to make preparations to hide in a secluded place in a deep hollow, some distance up in the mountains, about sixteen miles away from home, which distance I could go and come in a night, being brisk of foot. But no one knows what a trying crisis this was for me. … [p. 135]

Living now away from all human beings, I sough the aid and assistance of the Most High with fasting and prayer. I trust the Lord heard me and it seemed a way was open for me. It was in July 1861 that a way to escape military duty was open though a certain lame Methodist preacher, George Stanley … he had applied for and sent in a bid for a certain mail route, and it was awarded to him at $199 pe year, but after carrying it for a short time he found it a task to get for his capacity, and was advised by a friend of his … to sell his route to one of us non-resistants, as an exemption from military duty. This information was brought to me just at the time I came home … [on the same day that I accepted the route from Mr. Stanley] a call was issued for every able-bodied man to be pressed into the Confederate army. The excitement was great, and the news that a crippled preacher had sold his mail route and that a sound man was taking his place, to be exempt from military duty, was raised and spread over the town in a vey short time after the bargain was made, and finding that it aroused public disapprobation. I immediately applied of and got another mail route of the Confederate Government, as a continuation of the route that had been let out to Stanley. … as soon as the indignant public was aware that I had two routes to carry, in place of one by Mr. Stanley (who had a good reputation and the sympathy of the public), which he could barely have carried; all was right and everybody was satisfied and became my friends, being pleased that a poor crippled preacher had gone one thousand dollars. … thus I cried the mail for nearly four years by the help of the Most High, without meeting serious difficulty, not considering the depredations on my premises in usual times of war. [pp. 136-137]

How the Mennonites came to be Exempted from Military Service by the Confederate Congress

… seventy men were captured attempting to cross the mountains into West Virginia under the guidance of Daniel Suters … the party consisted of a number of our Mennonite between and some of the non-resistant Dunkards. They were taken to Richmond as prisoners for attempted desertion. Their time of imprisonment was about six weeks from the time they left home until they reached home again. [Cassell, p. 137]

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"... two of those initially captured, Mennonite Peter Blosser and Dunker David Miller, escaped before the entire group arrived in Richmond. A more dramatic account of the trip to Richmond had the captured men herded into a railroad boxcar and "given the night to decide" whether to join the Confederate Army or "be shot in the morning." The men prayed and sang through the night. in this telling, and "decided that they would not fight" (Joseph Walton Diaries, vol. 13, p. 148. Quaker Collection, Haverford College, PA). Walton herd this story from Pennsylvania Mennonites. [Horst, Mennonites in the Confederacy, a Study of Civil War Pacifism (Herald Press,; Second edition 1969). pp. 50-56.

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Returning to Abraham Blosser’s memoirs (in Cassell's book), the imprisonment of the party of non-resistors gave the Dunkards ("who had no published discipline or confession of faith") an opportunity to appeal to Richmond attorney Algernon S. Gray that they "held the same non-resistant doctrine as we [Mennonites] do in respect to war."

Later, a bill was introduced in the Confederate Congress concerning these non-resistant societies,

“... and it happened that one of the members of the Confederate Congress was the above named lawyer, Algernon S. Gray [from Harrisonburg, VA], who knew all about these defenseless people, and it seemed the Lord guided his tongue in explaining the case satisfactorily to his fellow members of the Confederate Congress. … he showed to them clearly that these people were honest in they way of thinking." [Cassell, p. 139]

Algernon Grey was able to make the case that this people ("frugal, industrious, and generally farmers") were better off retained as "producers of provisions" for the Confederate army. After all, "if you take these non-resistants away from their farms, and force them into the army, they are utterly useless in the militia." The Confederate Congress was ultimately persuaded and "passed an act that the Mennonites, Dunkards, Quakers and Nazarites" should be exempted from military duty by paying five hundred dollars Confederate money into the treasury.

Abraham Blosser goes on to remark that "strange to say, and something that I cannot give an account for, a much greater percentage proportionately of the property belonging to the non-resistants in the Valley of Virginia was desolated by fire [at the hands of Union soldiers under the command of General Sheridan] than that of the secessionists." [Cassell, p. 140]

Plundering and Burning of the Blosser’s Farm, 1864 (and the Pilfering of The Bacon)

In Shenandoah Religion: Outsiders and the Mainstream, 1716-1865, Stephen Longenecker gives an account of how the Blosser farm was among those that fell victim to Union soldiers:

The war's ferocity reached its zenith during Sheridan's mission to take the Valley out of the war. Sheridan's troops routinely burned barns, outbuildings and crops and drove off or killed off farm animals. At the Peter Blosser farm soldiers went through the house, taking anything of value, and Jonas Blosser, Peter's 13 year old son*, watched a Yankee with a drawn pistol in his hand, walking behind his mother and forcing her to reveal where she kept her bacon. Blosser's father salvaged "a few pieces by throwing them out of the garret window into a patch of weeds." Soldiers shot all the hogs, taking the best meat and leaving the rest behind. The chickens and sheep also suffered slaughter. "It was bang bang all day," Jonas recalled. [Longenecker, p. 171]
Examining this closely, I believe the author made an error in identifying Jonas Blosser as “Peter’s 13 year old son”. This would certainly have to be Peter’s grandson and Jonas’ son, also named Jonas (1851-1935) -- insofar as General Sheridan's Valley Campaign in Shenandoah began in 1864, which would place Jonas "Jr." at 13 years of age.

The looting of the Blosser farm by Union soldiers is also referenced in Lee's Endangered Left: The Civil War in Western Virginia, Spring of 1864:

Peter Blosser looked on as foragers looted his garrett and took from his farm a carriage, a mare, two cattle, fourteen hogs, twelve sheep, and 280 pounds of bacon. p. 156

The Burning of the Jonas Family Mansion by Union Soldiers

The Burning: Sheridan's Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley, also gives a detailed account of the burning of the Jonas family mansion, mentioned earlier:

Many squads of cavalrymen who had been burning homes and farms in close proximity to Dayton the day before now hurried down the Warm Springs Turnpike toward the outskirts of Harrisonburg, trying to cover as much territory as possible before dark. ...

One file turned onto the Jonas Blosser farm, just south of where Garber's Church Road entered the Rawley Springs Turnpike from the west. The Blosser family's large limestone home overlooked well-cultivated fields and even better pastureland. The soldiers rode directly to the barn and set it on fire. Their officer went to the house and informed the Blossers that their home would be torched in ten minutes. Some of the cavalrymen helped to carry belongings and furniture away from the structure, yet when the brief grace period had passed, they set a fire in every room and borke out the glass in the windows so there would be a good draft. Their work completed, they remounted and cantered down the road to the next farm.

Just behind the Blosser farm, and nearer to the church, was the Burkholder family farm. The officer who led his band onto this property was tired of destroying homes and had already decided to burn only the barn. When he realized just how close the barn was to the house and considered that the strong breeze that had come up would carry the fire to the othe building, he called the whole thing off. Both structures were spared.

Post-War Property Claims and Compensation

In 1877, after the war was over, the Blossers would make an attempt to be compensated for the property stolen by them by the Union soldiers under the orders of General Sheridan. Records of the petitions to the Committee on War-Claims by Abraham Blosser and Peter Blosser are documented in the Journal of the First Session of the Forty-Fifth Congress of the United States, House of Representatives (October 15, 1877).

From what it appears Jonas Blosser claimed 1,188 in lost property and was reimbursed a paltry 206. However, the author of Mennonites in the Confederacy, a Study of Civil War Pacifism asserts of Peter Blosser that he "had his teams of horses pressed into sevice at different times to haul stores for the Confederacy" in lieu of military service, and was "apparently quite cooperative" (p. 89) -- according to the author, it was on account of such cooperation that they saw fit to deny his claim for postwar compensation.

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Works Referenced