Friday, May 9, 2014

Nicholas Seilheimer - A slave and a soldier

(aka Selheimer or Sailhamer) 
(Family Lineage: 1 Johann Nicholas Seilheimer; 2 Johann Conrad Seilheimer; 3 Elizabeth Seilheimer;4 John William Custer;    5 Corda Belle Custer; 6 William Frederick Franklin; 7 Edna Bethel Franklin; 8 Judith Ann Hayward)
1749 - 1822
Nicholas Seilheimer was born in Framersheim, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. There is no record of when he left Germany for Holland, but his decision was fueled, at least partially, by the desire to avoid service in the German army.   While in Holland, he met Marcilla “Elisabeth” Powell (or Pohl), a dutch girl with English roots who had been born in Rotterdam. Both Nicholas and Elisabeth were 24 years old when they married shortly before boarding the “Charming Molly” and sailing for America in October, 1773.

It was common practice for those who couldn't pay their fares to be sold by the captain of the ship to anyone in the New World willing to pay their passage. These “indentured" servants were usually expected to serve the person covering their fares for seven years.  Upon their arrival in America, Nicholas and Elizabeth were sold to Michael Smith of Philadelphia. 

Four years after their arrival in America, the War for Independence broke out and soldiers were desperately needed.  As a recruiting inducement, a Col. John Proctor offered to pay off the indenture debts of anyone who agreed to serve in the military with his unit. Nicholas, who couldn't resist the offer, enlisted as an artillery gunner's mate (or matross) in July 1777.

For more than 3 years, Nicholas fought in Col. Proctor's Regiment under Captains Bartholomew Von Heer and Robert Coltman, who reported to General George Washington.  Shortly after he had  enlisted, General Washington appointed Captain Von Heer to take over the responsibility of keeping discipline in the rowdy troops. The new provost corps was staffed only by Germans and over the years operated under the names:  “The Marechausee”, “von Provost Corps” or “von Heer's Light Dragoons”.  (

On September 11, 1777, Nicholas, who assisted the gunners in loading, firing, and sponging the canons, participated in the Battle of Brandywine Creek, where the Americans were soundly beaten by the British forces led by General Sir William Howe.  Had the British chosen to pursue the retreating American army right away, it would have resulted in a complete defeat. As it was, thanks to some segments of Nathaniel Greene's division being called up by Washington, Howe's column was held off long enough for the patriots to escape.

After the battle, Nicholas received a commendation from General Washington for holding onto his cannon while most of the retreating soldiers had deserted their weapons. This was especially important  because the British had already captured the bulk of American cannons in earlier battles. (It's interesting to note that another family member, Charles Philpott, whose life was featured earlier in this blog, also fought at Brandywine and Germantown under George Washington).

In October 1777, Nicholas fought in Washington's reorganized army which unsuccessfully attacked Howe's troops in Germantown, Pennsylvania.  This loss was attributed to the dense fog that hung over the area, making visibility almost impossible.  Since his family was living nearby, Nicholas likely was under great stress and worry about their safety.

In December, with winter taking a strong hold on the area, Washington's 11,000 man army retreated to Valley Forge. It was an unusually harsh winter and the men suffered from the lack of warm clothes, shoes and food.  However, despite the awful conditions, the poorly trained and disorganized troops finally had the time and will to receive much needed training. 

After six months, Washington broke camp and attacked the British in Monmouth, New Jersey, this time successfully. After that defeat, the Brits retreated to New York and never posed a great threat in the North again.

In 1781, Nicholas was discharged from active duty.  On April 12, 1782, he was paid 66₤ 17s 2d., plus 4₤ in accrued interest, for his devoted  service. At age 32,  he rejoined Elisabeth and their sons where he peacefully raised his family.  That changed when, in 1794, the Federal Government placed a tax on liquor in order to raise funds to repay the National Debt.  The farmers of Western Pennsylvania, who distilled and consumed whiskey in prodigious amounts, rebelled and attacked the federal tax collectors.  After fruitless negotiations, President Washington  was forced to send federal troops to put down the uprising. It was a small event, notable only because it was the first time Federal troops had ever been  used within a state to enforce a federal statute. 

It has been documented that Nicholas took part in the "Whiskey Rebellion", though it is unclear whether he was part of the militia or the rebels. At any rate, while he was away, his son, Jacob, was born, his house was burned down and the family Bible, his military records and other papers were destroyed. 

After Nicholas' death at age 73 , Elisabeth was granted a pension for her husband's service and died at age 100.