John Schmitt, 1834 Damflos, Germany – 1891 Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Biography of a Pioneering Immigrant and Civil War Patriot
by Liane Sebastian
Patriotism comes from a passion to improve. John Schmitt was born into very difficult circumstances in a small mountain village near Trier, 1834 Germany. Part of a large, close-knit family, he was the fifth son of ten children. Little is yet known about his many siblings. But the German Revolution dates and events were simultaneous with their young lives.
Inspired by the works of Karl Marx, successful examples of democracies in other countries, and with great disgust for the current oppressive government, thousands of young revolutionaries joined the cause. Centered in southwest Germany, the Schmitt family was in the middle of the turmoil. John’s uncle fled the country in 1840 to save his teenage sons from being drafted into the Prussian Army. So, it can be assumed that, without the death information, John’s older siblings may have been involved in the conflict—as Prussian conscripts, as protestors, or in harm’s way. In any case, if they had a future in the community, it would be recorded. Only one of his older brothers had a recorded death of 1846. Of the other eight, siblings, the fate of one more is known: John’s younger brother immigrated to Chicago, where most of the Schmitt family immigrants had settled.
Some of John’s documents at the Historical Societies say he left Germany from Darmstadt. It could be written to mean the region, or it could be due to the city of Darmstadt as the center of the violence when the revolution failed. John would have been a teenager watching the fate of his older relations. He was not drafted at age 16, but apprenticed for three years as a cooper. Young, gauging his options, and dreaming about big plans, it is likely that he was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.
Germany in the 1840s was difficult throughout the region. Conditions in his home, the mountain town of Züsch, strategically located on an ancient Roman road, were not good. The ironworking industry that employed his ancestors for 200 years had cooled its furnaces and closed its doors. His father may have worked Züscher-Hammer, as he came from a line of blacksmiths as recorded back to the middle ages. John’s prospects in the Rhineland either did not look good, or he was in danger, or both.
Leaving Germany to immigrate in those days took several years of saving, clearing all debts, selling possessions, and getting permission from the government. John’s uncle, who settled his family of five near Chicago, sent letters back to Germany that made the new world sound like it had streets paved with gold—albeit requiring hard work and perseverance.
John left Germany in a hurry, as it was not common for young men to immigrate alone. He may have been a draft-dodger, like his cousins. But he was several years past the age of conscription into the Prussian Army, maybe servicing the Army through his cooper apprenticeship? The most logical conclusion is that he was a protestor. When entering the United States, his immigration papers declared opposition to totalitarianism, as he “denounced Louis III, Grand Duke of Hesse Darmstadt.” The 20-year old unmarried, educated and skilled, after an arduous ocean/land journey, set foot in 1854 Milwaukee.
Quickly working as a cooper in the Best Brewery (which became Pabst), John didn’t waste any time getting married and settling down. He was successful at the brewery, working there for almost ten years when he enlisted in the Union Army and marched off to the Civil War. It must have been very hard to leave his young wife and three small children to be dispatched into protecting the freedoms of his new country! If he had been in the revolution when younger, confronting threats to freedom inspired his action. Witnessing (or participating in) the defeat of democracy in Germany, he stepped up again to defend his beliefs.
The 4th Wisconsin Volunteer website profiles the significance of Company L and Company H in the 4th Wisconsin Calvary. This graphic shows two antique maps of the battle locations, essential understanding for students of the Civil War.
Most of John’s service in the Union Army Cavalry saw active combat. His regiment was instrumental in famously pivotal battles. Even just reading their schedule is exhausting! Most significantly, they fought at the Siege of Vicksburg, which was a turning point in the war. And he spent two weeks on the front at the battle of Port Hudson. These victories gave the Union forces complete control of the Mississippi River, and contributed to Union victory.
Sadly, John was wounded at the end of these battles, spent months in a Texas hospital, and contracted the life-long disability of rheumatism. Corporals and Sergeants in the Civil War are rarely sited for heroism. The generals get all the glory. But for those in the trenches, their sacrifice and bravery is almost unimaginable. We may not know of John’s specific activity, as speaking about it later was not his custom, but he earned great respect for his fortitude and sacrifice.
John’s injuries prevented him from continuing his work as a cooper. So he used his legendary charm to become a salesman for brewery clients. He continued his activities in the Turnverein, became involved in educational crusades, and deepened his Masonic commitments. Although he suffered with waves of illness, the ambitious John eventually opened his own wine and liquor business, contributed as School Commissioner, served as Turner Society treasurer, led the local Maccabees, and fulfilled his Masonic principles.
But his personal resume was not as glowing. After returning home for only a few years, he had to cope with the early death of his wife, Louisa, in 1871. By that time, the couple had five children. Again, the charismatic and hard-working man did not waste time. He married quickly, and thus remedied his domestic circumstances.
However, his second marriage did not turn out well, though it produced three sons in five years. Certainly a household of ten demanded a considerable collaboration! Even today, family legends convey each side of the marital conflicts. Divorce was very uncommon for the time, and it split up the family. John’s domestic reputation was not improved when he immediately married a much younger third wife.
Nonetheless, he was a devoted father. Very close to his eldest child, Ida, she documented how he always struggled with his health. There are many records of applications for his disability service pension. By the time Ida was married with three young sons, John died in 1891, t the age of 57. A few months later, finally, his pension was approved, after twenty five years. By then, Ida was married with three young sons. Receicing the notice in the mail, a benefit too late, did not console his daughter.
Immediately upon her father’s death, Ida, her husband Franklin Sebastian, and their young family, left Milwaukee for greener pastures in Chicago. This account is written by their great-granddaughter, Liane Sebastian, an illustrator and author who lives in Chicago.
“John Schmitt was a public-spirited man and did much for the growth and improvement of the city. As Lincoln’s cause was his cause, he was a Republican in his political belief. … Nowhere was that type of man, who has done so much for the steady advancement of the city, better exemplified than in the life and character of John Schmitt.”
—Memoirs of Milwaukee County, Volume II
Liet. Col. Jerome A. Watrous, Editor
Madison, Wis., Western Historical Association, 1909
Please see the overview of the series “Ore and Origins: A Biography.”
Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.