Friday, August 8, 2014

John Seilheimer - a sailor/solder who died on Lake Erie

(Family Lineage: Son of 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)

 About 1793 – 1813

John was the fourth son of the Revolutionary War soldier, Johann Nicholas Seilhamer, a German immigrant, who was featured in an earlier post.  As noted in the title above, the spelling of that last name has changed fairly often - perhaps because no one knew for sure how to spell it.
He was a "saddler" by trade, living in his family home in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania until May of 1813, when he and his brother, Jacob (also unmarried), enlisted in the Pennsylvania Militia and were assigned to Captain George Record's artillery company on the Niagara frontier.

Meanwhile, in  Erie, Pennsylvania, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was overseeing the building of war ships and fitting them out to overcome the British threat on Lake Erie.  Although facing many adverse conditions, including lack of men and materials, Perry and his crews successfully completed the building of six vessels in July, 1813.  Their numbers increased when several ships from Buffalo, New York arrived.   
But as the finishing touches were being put on the “USS Niagara” brig, Commodore Perry realized that while there were enough men to sail the ship, there were not enough marines to man the guns and cannons.  So he put out the word that unmarried, experienced artillery volunteers were needed.  In response to this call for help,  John Seilhamer, who was single and trained in artillery warfare, left Captain Record's company and volunteered to serve on the ship which had just been completed. His brother, Jacob, remained in Captain Record's company until the war was over.

Two months later, on September 10, 1813, the “Battle of Lake Erie” began with young Commodore Perry aboard his flagship, the USS Lawrence.  However, early in the battle, the Lawrence and her crew became the main target of the British ships and took most of the enemy's fire. As a result, the ship was severely damaged; its captain, James Lawrence, was mortally wounded, and over 80% of the crew were killed or wounded. 

In an attempt to turn defeat into victory, Perry, carrying his battle flag emblazoned with Captain Lawence's dying words, “Don't Give Up the Ship”, dropped into one of the last surviving row boats which had been towed behind the Lawrence with a hole just above the water line.  Despite the damage to the little boat, he and the crew  managed to make it to the lightly damaged brig, the Niagara, where  he met with Captain Elliot (who had inexplicably stayed out of battle range while Lawrence was getting blown to pieces) and took over command of the ship. 

Before long, the breeze “freshened” and Perry was able to sail his new flagship - with its battle flag raised - right into the line of battle.  Fortunately for the Americans, the British had taken heavy casualties from the Lawrence' fire, so the broadsides from the  Niagara compelled their surrender within 15 minutes of Perry's transfer onto the ship.  

During those 15 minutes, Perry achieved the ultimate goal of any naval battle – to “cross the T” (i.e. to pass the broadsides of your ship between two facing enemy ships' sterns or bows, so as to minimize their ability to fire at you - while you rake broadsides at the two ships from either side of your own ship).

Tragically,  many men on the Niagara were killed during that battle, including John Seilheimer.  The story of his death, as related by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin, who had been born next door to the Seilheimer home in Bellefonte, Pennsylania, stated:  "John was struck by a spent shell that completely disemboweled him and fell at his feet.  He bravely stooped, picked it up and threw it into the Lake before it had time to explode. He then fell to the deck dead."
Young Commodore Perry
Immediately following his victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry penned the famous words, “We have met the enemy and they are ours. . .” in his report to General William Henry Harrison.  Perry was the first person in history to defeat an entire British squadron and successfully bring back every enemy ship (two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop) to his base as a prize of war. At age 28, Perry was hailed as a national hero because of his victory on Lake Erie.

John Seilheimer was also honored by the State of Pennsylvania for his gallant actions aboard Niagara.  A medal was presented to his grieving family with the inscription: “To John Sylhamer in testimony of his patriotism and bravery in the naval action on Lake Erie, September 10, 1813.” 
( Database: Biographical Annals of Franklin County, Pennsylvania: containing genealogical records of representative families).