Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Home of Our Hessian Soldier: American cousin visits Sprabrucken, Germany

The following is a guest contribution from DC, a Wills/Bissonnette/Kaigle/ Göckel descendant who visited TB, a 5th+ cousin in Sprackbruken Germany in Spring 2012. These cousins  descended from the Göckel family in Sprabruken.   Anton Frederich Göckel, a Hessan soldier, fought for the British in the American Revolution and settled in Québec after the war where he fathered a large family.  Anton Göckel is the great great great great great grandfather of DC. Here is DC's story of his visit to Sprackbruken....

The cloud cover concealed the view until the final half minute of landing. I leaned over to see my first view of Germany, and I smiled immediately. I could see orderly, neat towns surrounded by green fields. By American standards, the villages and towns are packed in the country. After all, 80 million or so people are living in an area that an American might think suitable for 20 or 30 million!
I get off the plane, and two Polizei are waiting, checking passports. Man…I should not have trusted that website, is what I first thought! I was told it was an easy border. But, I walk up and before I say a word, he sees the American passport and waves me on. Just checking Turks, I guess.

The airport fulfills the stereotype of Germany. Neat, clean, automated and high tech. No low-wage Brooklynites to give me a cavity search like JFK. Nope…I walk through this automated scanner thing, with no personnel in sight (though I’m sure that if I came up positive for something, somebody would swarm me in short order.) The scan is basically done between the two automatic doors you walk through like in a grocery store, and you’re let in. Then, you wait in a line for a stamp in your passport, no one asks you why you’re there, how long you’ll be, etc. Then, finally, customs. I have nothing to declare, so I volunteer myself for the no-declare option, which is to walk past the inspecting police. What kind of hapless smuggler or drug dealer would volunteer himself for the declaration section, I do not know. Either way, I grab my luggage and make my way to the section where family awaits. I see a mustached German who seems to be looking for me, and he puts his arms out like a “long time, no see!” kind of way. It’s T.B., the long-lost cousin.
He quickly proves to have an affable sense of humor. His last email describing what he’d be wearing, he mentions a “peg-leg, hahaha.” Hm! There are no formalities related to the reunion, just some hellos, musings about Germany, the US, and the weather, of course. I notice how high tech even the parking garage is- automated arms that come down to block any route that leads to a full section of the garage. Gotta love it! Later on, I also see a feature of German cities as you enter them- an electronic sign, updated in real-time, telling you how many parking spaces are available, and in which parking lot. This country has some neat stuff, I tell you.

So, anyways, the cousin and I drive off on the autobahn for his home. We get off the autobahn and we start going down these perfectly paved, thin country roads. Not a crack or pothole in sight, and perfectly painted lines. It’s getting to feel like a movie at this point, wondering when the special effects are supposed to stop. We roll through towns much like what I saw in the descent- orderly, perfect little houses with red clay tile roofs, small gardens with no weeds. As I said, the towns are packed tight, so you can go through a Cambridge or Eagle Bridge-sized place, and after another mile or two, find another. Between the towns are fields larger than at home, believe it or not. 

It’s rolling hills here, and the crops seem to be mostly wheat, some rye, and sugar beets. Not to rant, rave, or otherwise seem obsessive, but the rows of all the crops are done perfectly, and you really wonder who’d go to such great lengths to have acres upon acres of perfectly parallel rows. Why, a German of course! It is really nice though, and in a way you get caught up in the atmosphere. A few times, I have wanted to spit, but couldn't, because my spit would be the first thing out of place in the whole region for miles! Okay, an exaggeration. But really, the towns are perfectly neat. Not cookie-cutter straight like an American suburb, but winding and crooked, yet always neat with well-paved and painted roads, well-signaged. It’s a place of order.

Thomas and I arrive to his house, which he described as a “fixer-upper.” Damn…hate to see what his reaction would be to an American fixer-upper! He tours me around, showing me the beer/wine cellar (hell yes), his carpenter’s shop (immaculate), where he makes his own window frames, door frames, et cetera for fixing up the place. Then the machine shop where he manufactures his own replacement parts for some vehicle projects. Again, a perfectly organized little shop, and he shows me a hundred year old tooling machine his grandfather gave him, still well-oiled and working to this day. Impressive. Seriously. And neither of those were his profession, he was in phone lines, telecom. He retired early with an injury and now lives on a pension and plays with the house project as he feels like it, restoring the building to more original architecture.

He gives me a tour of the interior of the house, and on the second floor I notice the family photographs. I see old, mustached men in Prussian military uniforms, and I ask him what period they were. 1870s, an ancestor of his, therefore another cousin to me, generations removed, had served in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. I ask further, and it turns out that my/our Anton Göckel was no black sheep in the family, it was in fact an old soldiering family in Hessian tradition. Whatever the cause, Göckels were to be found in the ranks, and the history shows this from the 1700s onward. In World War I, of four Göckels in the family, four served, and those, three are killed or injured. No males were alive or available for World War Two, and the Göckel name died when one of the World War One vets produced only two daughters.

In the coming days, I learn further of Anton Göckel in detail. Thomas had documents he had prepared, but they were in German and he had not passed them on yet. I feel like an explorer as I first lay eyes on them and translate, and more details come out. Anton Göckel was a citizen of Hessen-Darmstadt, yet served in the army of Hessen-Hanau, how was this? First, a quick note- the different “Hessen”s had once been one princedom, but were split to two heirs once. One part was split yet again, a generation later, leaving a total of three separate political entities named “Hessen.” Anyways, it turns out Anton Göckel fled from his Hessen-Darmstadt because the pay for Hessen-Hanau soldiers was three times as much. The Hanau Jäger’s monthly pay was equivalent to an average man’s six months of wages. Our guy was a true mercenary, down to the core. I read the documents further- his profession before the war, he was a professional hunter, and known in the region for being a particularly good shot. That is likely how he was allowed to serve with the Hessen-Hanau regiment even though he was not a native.

Church where Anton Göckel was baptized in 1760

The terms of service for the Hessen-Hanau Jägerkorps were generous, as they were the elite of the elite. Pay three times better than most, six times better than a civilian’s average, plus the right to settle in the New World if they wished, after the war. The only stipulations- the Jägerkorps was not allowed to dig trenches. It was actually in the contract! They were to keep moving, always on the offensive.

With that in mind, we know already that Anton Göckel fought at the Battle of Oriskany in mid-upstate New York, less than an hour west of Albany. A force of American rebel militia with Mohawk allies was ambushed by a small company of Redcoats, a single company of Hessian Jäger’s, a few hundred loyalist militia and, loyalist Mohawks. Not counting the British and Germans, it was a vicious civil war, neighbor versus neighbor, as both the rebel and loyalist militias were drawn from the same part of New York. And of course, the Mohawks were divided. You can imagine that Anton Göckel witnessed much savagery, as the battle was one of the bloodiest of the entire American Revolution (as measured by percentage of combatants injured or killed, where it stood at around 50%). Civil wars, wars of neighbors, are always the most brutal, as the fights were often personal. The Anglo-Hessian-Loyalist force prevailed in the course of the battle, but the long-term results fell in favor of the colonists when they were forced to cede the ground gained a few weeks later.

A detail emerged as I read, though. Something I hadn't read or heard anywhere. Four Hessians were captured by the retreating Americans. Anton Göckel was one of them. Of the four, two of them ended up courting and marrying American women during their imprisonment. Anton Göckel and a companion, however, had no desire to clock out at that point. The two of them escaped from their prison near the Syracuse area, and they fled through the hundreds of miles of the Adirondack forest to make their way to Montreal. They signed back up and were assigned to a new unit, and they served the rest of their time as garrison soldiers protecting Quebec from the threat of American invasion. In the course of that time, Anton took a liking to a French Canadian girl there (TB theorizes it may be the daughter of the family with whom he was quartered) and married her (Marie Anne Maquet dit LaJoie)  upon the end of the war. Their marriage was in Montréal on June 27, 1783. 

And for relatives in American who are reading this, just think.....if Anton had not survived the battle, the capture, the escape, would you or any of us be here? I guess not. We are the result of one guy with a serious will to live. Amazing.

Over the course of the stay, we drove around to various points of interest in the area. TB lives in Habitzheim, a village 4 kilometers from Spachbrücken, where Anton Göckel was from. So, we of course went there, and I took pictures of the church he had been baptized in. He was Protestant, in a volatile region in Germany where the Catholic South and Protestant North meet and partially intermingle. TB amusingly points out that the battle still goes on today, though less violent- the two village churches in Habitzheim have dueling bells on Sunday. Not a bad way to channel religious aggression I’d say.

We also went to an artificial lake built by one of our mutual ancestors in the 1600s as a fish farm, now a protected bird habitat. Along with us went Thomas’s beagle, Karl. What an excellent name for a beagle. Karl needed to be walked a lot, and plenty of bathroom breaks for him, and so I had a very unexpected pleasure of spending a lot of time walking in forests and parks. Every few hours between villages, we took Karl for his duties and I got yet another excuse to see forest. An added bonus was that many of them were the very forests where Anton Göckel would have hunted before he joined the Jägerkorps. The forests seemed to me to be steeped in potential history. It was the border region of the Roman Empire once, and I can imagine the Germanic and Celtic tribes living here, resisting the Romans. Or, massacres and reprisals during the Reformation as Protestant and Catholic towns butchered each other. And, my World War Two history is a bit hazy, but I imagine the Allies came through this area, as it’s so close to the French border (two hours). The forests contain a weight that I don’t feel at home. At home, you feel like you may be one of the few witnesses of the more obscure forests. You may imagine Native Americans having walked through, or you may picture a European trapper wandering through, but you feel the forest’s untouched aspect. In Germany, nothing is untouched, it seems. The human hand is always visible, even if it’s just the neat little path winding through, or the occasional hunter’s stand peering over a clearing.

A great big "thank you" to DC for this interesting contribution to our family history!