The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz/Volume One/01 Forebears and Early Childhood

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Translated from the original German by Eleonora Kinnicutt and Carl Schurz.


MANY years ago I began at the desire of my children to write down what follows. In the domestic circle, partly from myself and partly from relatives and old friends, they had heard much about the surroundings and conditions in which I had grown up, as well as about the strange and stirring adventures of my youth, and they asked me to put that which they had heard, and as much more of the same kind as I could give them, into the shape of a connected narrative which they might keep as a family memorial. This I did, without originally contemplating a general publication.

The circumstance that this narrative was first intended only for a small number of persons who might be assumed to take a special interest in everything concerning the subject, may explain the breadth and copiousness of detail in the descriptions of situations and events, which perhaps will occasionally try the reader's patience. To soften his judgment he should imagine an old man telling the story of his life to a circle of intimates who constantly interrupt him with questions about this and that of which they wish to know more, thus forcing him to expand his tale.

However, I have to confess also that while I was writing, the charm of story-telling, the joy of literary production, came over me, and no doubt seduced me into diffusenesses which I must ask the kind reader to pardon.

Until recently it was my intent not to publish these reminiscences during my lifetime, but to leave it to my children to decide after my death how much of them should be given to the general reading public. It appeared to me that such a publication during the lifetime of the author might easily acquire the character of self-advertisement, especially in the case of a man who had been active in public life, and might, perhaps, continue to be so. But after ample consultation with judicious friends I have concluded that in consideration of my advanced age and of my retirement, which manifestly exclude all political ambition, I could not be suspected of such designs.

It is hardly necessary to say that in telling the story of my youth I had to depend largely upon memory. I am well aware that memory not seldom plays treacherous pranks with us in making us believe that we have actually witnessed things which we have only heard spoken of, or which have only vividly occupied our imagination. Of this I have myself had some strange experiences. I have therefore been careful not to trust my own recollections too much, but, whenever possible, to compare them with the recollections of relatives or friends, and to consult old letters and contemporary publications concerning the occurrences to be described. It may be indeed that in spite of such precautions some errors have slipped into my narrative, but I venture to hope that they are few and not important.

When I began to write these reminiscences of my youth, I attempted to do so in English; but as I proceeded I became conscious of not being myself satisfied with the work; and it occurred to me that I might describe things that happened in Germany, among Germans, and under German conditions, with greater ease, freedom, and fullness of expression if I used the German language as a medium. I did so, and thus this story of my youth was originally written in German. It was translated by my friend, Mrs. Eleonora Kinnicutt, and I cannot too strongly express my obligation to her, who not only did for me the more or less dry work of turning German phrases into English, but was in a large sense my coworker, aiding me throughout with most valuable counsel as to the tone of the narrative, and as to passages to be shortened or struck out, and others to be more amply elaborated.

Schurz Die Gracht.png

Illustration by Reginald Birch


In part of this castle, separated by a moat from the Count's seat (the “House” shown in this picture), Carl Schurz was born.

I was born in a castle. This, however, does not mean that I am of aristocratic ancestry. My father was, at the time of my birth, a schoolmaster in Liblar, a village of about eight hundred inhabitants, on the left bank of the Rhine, three hours' walk from Cologne. His native place was Duisdorf, near Bonn. Losing his parents in early childhood, he was adopted into the home of his grandfather, a man belonging to the peasant class, who possessed a small holding of land upon which he raised some grain, potatoes and a little wine. Thus my father grew up a true peasant boy.

At the period of his birth, in 1797, the left bank of the Rhine was in the possession of the French Republic. The years of my father's youth thus fell in what the Rhine folk called “The French Time,” and later in life he had much to tell me of those stirring days; how he had seen the great Napoleon, before the Russian campaign, passing in review a body of troops in the neighborhood of Bonn; how, in the autumn of 1813, the French army, after the battle of Leipzig, defeated and shattered, had come back to the Rhine; how, while standing in the market-place at Bonn, he had seen General Sebastiani dash out of his headquarters in the “Hotel Zum Stern,” leap upon his horse and gallop around with his staff, the trumpeters sounding the alarm and the drums beating the long roll, because of the news that a band of Cossacks had crossed the Rhine between Bonn and Coblenz; how the French troops, stationed in Bonn, had hurriedly formed and marched off in the direction of France, many disabled soldiers dropping out of the columns; how, one morning, several bands of Cossacks, dirty, long-bearded fellows, on small, shaggy ponies, had swarmed over the country, and chased the French stragglers, killing many of them; how they had also forced themselves into the houses, stealing everything that took their fancy; and how, when the Cossacks had disappeared, the peasants hid their few remaining possessions in the woods, to save them from the oncoming Russians.

Soon after, the troops belonging to the allied powers marched through the country, on their way into France to fight the campaign of 1814, which ended in the occupation of Paris and Napoleon's exile to the Island of Elba. A short period of apparent peace followed; but when Napoleon, in 1815, suddenly returned from Elba and again seized the government of France, the Prussians levied fresh troops on the Rhine; all able-bodied young men were obliged to enlist; and so my father, who was then eighteen years of age, joined an infantry regiment and marched off to the seat of war in Belgium. The troops were drilled on the way thither in the manual of arms and in the most necessary evolutions to fit them for immediate service. My father's regiment passed over the field of Waterloo a few days after the battle, on its way to a small French fortress which they were to besiege, but which soon capitulated without bloodshed. Later he was transferred to the artillery and raised to the dignity of a corporal, an honor which gratified not a little his youthful ambition. He regretted never to have been in actual combat, and later in life, when his contemporaries told the stories of their deeds and dangers, he was always obliged to admit, with reluctance, the harmless character of his own war experiences.

Upon his discharge from military service my father entered, as a pupil, a teachers' seminary at Brühl, and was soon appointed schoolmaster at Liblar. He had received a little instruction in music at the seminary and had learned to play the flute. This enabled him to teach simple songs to the school children and to form a glee club, composed of the youths and maidens of the village. In this glee club he made the acquaintance of my mother, Marianna Jüssen, whom he married in 1827. My mother was the daughter of a tenant-farmer, Heribert Jüssen, who occupied part of a seignorial castle called “Die Gracht,” near Liblar. My father and mother lived, for several years after their marriage, with my grandparents; and so it happened that I, their firstborn, came into the world on March 2, 1829, in a castle.

Heribert Jüssen.png


This castle, the ancestral seat of Count Wolf Metternich, was not very old—if I remember rightly it was built between 1650 and 1700—a large compound of buildings under one roof; surrounding on three sides a spacious courtyard; tall towers with pointed roofs, and large iron weather vanes at the corners, that squeaked when moved by the wind; a broad moat, always filled with water, encircling the whole; spanned by a drawbridge, which led through a narrow arched gateway into the court. In the wall above the massive gate, which was studded with big-headed nails, there was a shield bearing the count's coat-of-arms, and an inscription, which I puzzled out as soon as I could read, and which has remained in my memory through all the vicissitudes of my life. It read:

In the old days in Hessenland,
I was called the Wolf of Gutenberg;
Now, by the Grace of God,
I am Count Wolf Metternich of the Gracht.”

This large group of buildings contained the dwelling of the tenant and his retainers, the steward's officers necessary for the management of the estate, the granaries and the stables. On the fourth side of the court a second bridge spanned a branch of the moat and led to a small but more pretentious building, also surrounded on all sides by water. This was the residence occupied by Count Metternich and his family during the summer and the shooting seasons. It also had its tall towers and spreading wings, containing a chapel and household service rooms. It was situated on somewhat higher ground, and seemed to dominate the other buildings. This residence, standing apart, was called “The House.” A third drawbridge united “The House” with a park of about forty acres, of which one-half resembled the Versailles gardens, with its straight pebble walks, labyrinths and trimmed hedges, and here and there statues of Greek gods and nymphs, fountains and ponds. Large orange trees, in green tubs, stood, like sentinels, in rows along the walks.

The grounds were enlivened by flocks of guinea hens and stately moving peacocks. Another part of the grounds was laid out like an English park, with lawns, ponds and groups of tall trees and shrubbery, and here and there a small summer house or a pavilion. The estate as a whole was called by the people “Die Burg,” and my grandfather was known in the village and surrounding country as “Der Burghalfen.” “Halfen” was the name given originally to the farmer-tenants who went halves with the lord of the estate in the proceeds of the crops. This has in some parts of the Rhineland given way to the payment of a fixed rent to the landlord, but the old name “Halfen” remains.

My grandfather, the Burghalfen, had, at the time of my first recollection, attained his sixtieth year. He was a man of huge proportions: over six feet in height, with powerful chest and shoulders, and massive features to correspond; square chin; a firm mouth and full lips; large straight nose; fiery dark eyes with bushy eyebrows; a broad forehead, shadowed with curly brown hair. His strength of muscle was astounding. Once, at a kirmess festival, when several other halfen were his guests, my grandfather accepted a challenge to lift in his arms the great anvil which stood in the blacksmith's forge on the other side of the moat, and to carry it over the drawbridge, through the gate, into the house, up the stairs to the loft, and back again to the forge. I can see him now, striding along, up and down the creaking stairs, with the heavy block of iron in his arms, as though he were carrying a little child.

Wonderful were the stories told about him: that once a mad bull which had broken loose from the barn into the courtyard and driven all the stablemen under cover, was confronted by him, single-handed, and felled to the ground with one blow of a hammer; and that when heavily laden wagons were stuck in the ruts of bad country roads he would lift them up and out with his shoulders; and various other similar feats. It is not unlikely that such tales, as they passed from mouth to mouth, may have gone a little beyond the boundary line of fact, and swelled into legendary grandeur; but they were recounted with every assurance of authenticity; and certain it is that the Burghalfen was the strongest man of his day in the neighborhood of Liblar.

His education had been elementary only. He could read and write, though with books he had little concern. But he was a man of great authority with the people. From the village and surrounding country men and women came to seek the Burghalfen's advice, and to lay their troubles before him; and whenever report reached him of a quarrel among neighbors, or between husband and wife, he would start forth with a stout stick in his hand for the seat of war. He would hear the case both for plaintiff and defendant, and after making up his mind which side was in the wrong he would pronounce judgment and deal out the punishment on the spot, which not seldom consisted in a sound thrashing. Against his verdict and its immediate execution—a somewhat patriarchal form of judgment—no one ever ventured to protest.

When the harvest-time came and the Burghalfen needed laborers for his fields, he had only to walk through the village street, and old and young flocked to his service and worked for him with zeal until the harvest was safely garnered. But the spirit of helpfulness was mutual; whoever was in distress would say, “I will go to the Burghalfen,” and he would do so, confident that no sacrifice would be too great, no service too burdensome to him, when the welfare of others was concerned. “Live and let live” was his principle and his habit. Every parish in the Rhineland had its yearly kirmess, with feasting, drinking, games and dances. These festivals lasted always three days, and were not infrequently carried over into a fourth. At such times relatives and friends visited one another, bringing along their families; so that for those who had many brothers, sisters, cousins and intimate friends, opportunities for enjoyment were not wanting throughout the summer. At every kirmess gathering that he visited the Burghalfen was the central figure. He was pleasure-loving—perhaps a little too much for his own good. There were few whom he could not “drink under the table”; and he was a terrible fighter, too, when it came to blows; but fortunately this did not happen often, for he was a man of peace by nature. I have been told that when under strong provocation he would, in his wrath, seize a chair, dash it to pieces with a mighty foot thrust, grasp one of the legs for a weapon, and, like Samson with the ass's jawbone, charge upon and drive the Philistines irresistibly before him.

It was the custom in each parish to hold an annual “Schützenfest,” or bird-shooting. An imitation bird, made of a block of wood, strengthened with iron bands and plates, was fastened to a tall pole, from sixty to eighty feet or more from the ground. The shooting was done with rifles, and he who brought down the last bit of the wooden bird won the prize and was crowned king. This custom still exists today in many parts of Germany. If, upon such occasions, in the neighborhood of Liblar, the Burghalfen failed to appear, the festival was incomplete; but he seldom did fail. With his big rifle he was almost always among the first on the spot. This rifle, called “der Ferkelstecher” (the pigsticker), was a most remarkable and formidable weapon. Why it was so called I do not remember. It discharged a good handful of powder and a ball weighing fully eight ounces, and was so heavy that the strongest man could not hold it horizontally from his shoulder without support. Even my grandfather always placed one of his tallest yeomen behind him to grasp the weapon upon its heavy recoil. Innumerable were the birds brought down with this formidable instrument. Every victory was followed by a feast at the tavern, which not only swept away all the prize-money, but a goodly sum besides; and not seldom did the victor return home with a hot and heavy head.

But the Burghalfen was also a thorough husbandman; intelligent, energetic and indefatigable. Bright and early in the morning he was up and joined his laborers in the field, not only giving directions, but when occasion required setting a good example by doing himself the most arduous task. I still see him before me as, according to custom, he drove the first harvest load into the barn, whip in hand, sitting on one of the four gayly decorated horses, which were harnessed tandem fashion to the wagon; and I have often heard that his counsel about questions of husbandry was frequently sought and highly esteemed by his fellow-farmers.

In his own home, of course, he was king, but a king who was loved as well as obeyed, and whose very faults were accepted by others as a kind of necessity of nature which had to be submitted to, and would suffer no change.

Frau Jüssen.png


At his side, in remarkable contrast, stood my grandmother, a small, slender woman, with a thin, once pretty face; delicate, devout and domestic; always active and full of cares. The household which she conducted was, indeed, sufficiently large and onerous to allow her but little rest. At dawn of day in summer, by lamplight in winter, she was busy superintending the preparation of breakfast for the working people and starting them at their various occupations. They numbered, men and girls, over twenty, without counting the day laborers.

The “Folk,” as they were called, assembled for meals in a hall on the ground floor, which had a vaulted ceiling resting on thick stone columns. On one side was a huge hearth, with an open-mouthed chimney; large pots hung over the fire on iron hooks and chains. This was the “commons” of the house. On the other side of the hall stood a long table, with wooden benches, at which the folk took their meals. Before sitting down—standing with their backs to the table—they all said a prayer; then the “meisterknecht,” or foreman, struck a loud rap with the handle of his knife on the table, which was the signal for all to sit down. They ate their soup or porridge with wooden spoons out of big wooden bowls, which were arranged along the center of the table within easy reach. There were no individual plates or platters; meat and vegetables were served upon long, narrow strips of board, scoured white. The house provided three-pronged iron forks; for cutting, the folk used their own pocketknives. The foreman dealt out the black bread in large chunks; white bread was given only on festive occasions. During the meal not a word was spoken, and when the foreman laid down his knife it was the signal that the repast was over. It goes without saying that he always allowed the people a sufficiency of food. They arose, again turned their backs to the table, repeated a prayer and separated, each to his or her task.

During the time that the servants were taking their meal my grandmother busied herself with the help of a scullery maid at the big fireplace, preparing breakfast for the family. On one side of the hall a few steps led up into a smaller, though spacious, room, also with a vaulted ceiling. A long table stood in the middle, surrounded by chairs, of which several were upholstered in leather and adorned with bright copper nails. A wide window, with a strong outward-curved iron grating, opened into the courtyard and allowed a full view of whatever took place there. This apartment was the living-room of the family, and served also as a dining-room, except upon great occasions, when the feast was spread in “The Saal,” on the opposite side of the servants' hall. This living-room was my grandmother's headquarters. It had a small window, cut through the wall into the folk-hall, for the purpose of enabling her to oversee whatever happened there; and through it her voice was at times to be heard instructing or reproving. When the autumn and winter evenings came she gathered around her the maid servants, of whom there were a dozen or more, with their spinning wheels. Then the flax was spun which supplied the house with linen; and while the wheels whirred the girls sang, my grandmother encouraging them by setting the tunes. The men, meanwhile, came in from the stables and workshops and seated themselves on benches around the great hearth in the hall, to tell stories and to indulge in what passed with them for wit. In the summer evenings they sat around in the courtyard, or leaned upon the bridge-railing, chatting or singing. Two or three times during the year, in accordance with ancient custom, all assembled in the folk-hall for a romp; blindman's bluff and other games were played, and there was no end to the tumbling and pulling, shrieking and laughing, until, at a fixed hour, the foreman stalked in, like stern fate, and sent them all off to bed.

Such were the surroundings in which I first became aware of existence, and in which the earliest years of my childhood were passed. It is remarkable how memory can hark back to the time of the first development of consciousness. So I have still before me a picture of myself, when I could not have been much more than two years of age. On the road, bordered with horse-chestnut trees, leading from the castle to the village, there was a pit enclosed in masonry, in which the count kept some wild boars. I can see myself distinctly, a small child in petticoats and a little white bonnet on my head, sitting upon the wall, looking down with a mixed feeling of delight and terror upon the great black monsters, with their terrible white tusks. As I sat there, an old man with shining buttons on his coat approached, talked with the woman who had charge of me, and gave me some cake. My mother, to whom in later life I recalled this, told me that the man wearing the castle livery must have been old Bernhard, the count's body-servant, who died when I was in my third year.

Another picture I see before me: A large flock of sheep, with the lambs, returning home from the pasture in the dusk of the evening, bleating and crowding with impatient haste through the gateway into the court. Sitting on my mother's arm, I watched them; the old shepherd approaches to allow me to touch the shining little shovel on the end of his long staff, toward which I had stretched out my hand; but the old man's grim and wrinkled face frightens me; I shrink back and cling closely to my mother's shoulder.

With special pleasure do I recall the great cow stable, built like a church, with a central arched nave and two lower side naves, in which the cows stood—about forty in number. My mother, who interested herself in the work of the dairy, took me with her sometimes when she went to see that the animals were properly cared for. How warm it was there of a winter's evening! Sitting on a bundle of hay or straw, in the dim light of the lantern, suspended from the high arch of the central nave, I used to listen to the softly murmuring sounds of the kine chewing their cud, which filled the great space with a peculiar sense of comfort, and to the chatter and the songs of the dairy maids as they busily moved to and fro, calling the cows by their names.

My mother told me later that when I was between three and four years old I had a very exciting love affair. The count had a daughter, who was then about eighteen or nineteen, and very beautiful. The young Countess Marie, when she met me on her walks, sometimes stroked my red cheeks with her hands, as young ladies do now and then with very little boys. The consequence was that I fell ardently in love with her, and declared frankly that I would marry her. My intentions were quite determined, but the young Countess Marie did not seem to look at the matter as seriously as I did, and that led to a catastrophe. One day I saw her standing with a young man at one of the windows of the house, busy catching carp with a hook in the moat of the castle. A furious fit of jealousy seized me; I demanded, screaming, that the young man should leave the adored Countess Marie at once, in default of which I insisted that someone should throw him into the water. I grew still more furious when the young gentleman not only did not leave, but even seemed to be laughing at me. I made such a noise that the castle folk came running from all parts, to see what was the matter. I told them, with hot tears; and then they also laughed, making me still more furious. At last the count's good old cook hit upon a successful idea; she took me into the kitchen, where she gave me a small jar of quince jelly to eat. Quince jelly was then to me an entirely new form of human happiness, and it had a remarkably quieting effect upon my distressed feelings. So far the tale my mother told me; and I will confess that quince jelly has ever since remained my favorite sweet.

“The Burg” had also its terror for me; it was the head of a roe buck, with black antlers and very large eyes, which adorned the wall at the end of a long corridor. I do not know, and probably never knew, why this head of a roe buck was so terrible to me; but certainly it was so; and when I had to pass it I ran as fast as my little legs would carry me.

I can still hear the horn of Hermann, the count's huntsman, who, on fine evenings, sat on the bridge-railing and played merry tunes that reverberated from the walls and the towers of the castle. This huntsman was a great personage in my eyes, for on festive occasions he, arrayed in brilliant uniform with gold lace, a hunting-knife at his side, and a waving bunch of feathers on his hat, accompanied the count. He came to a sad end, poor Hermann! One day he was found in the forest, dead; probably shot by poachers. This was the first tragic sensation of my life. We children, for a long time afterwards, would point to this man or that, with a shuddering suspicion that, perhaps, he might have been the murderer of Hermann.

I must have been a little over four years old when my parents left the castle to establish a home of their own in the village of Liblar. The village consisted of one street. Midway on an elevation stood the parish church with its pointed steeple and cross. The houses, mostly one-storied and very small, were of whitewashed plaster, with frames and beams exposed, and tiled roofs. There were perhaps half a dozen brick buildings in the village, belonging to the count. The inhabitants of Liblar, small farmers, laborers, mechanics and a few inn- or shop-keepers, took an especial pride in their village because its street was paved with cobblestones. Notwithstanding our house had two stories, it was very small, with ceilings so low in the upper story that my grandfather when standing upright almost touched them with his head.

Although we no longer lived at the castle, I continued to be my grandfather's favorite, and he wished me to come to him as often as possible. My mother had to take me almost every day to the Burg, and I accompanied my grandfather sometimes even at his work. At harvest time, when he took the loaded wagons into the barn, I had to sit with him in the saddle. In the late autumn, when the slaughtering of the fat swine,—a work which he insisted upon performing himself,—took place, the honor fell to me of carrying the big, leathern knife-case, the bright buckled straps of which were wound around my neck so that they should not drag along the ground. And the more important I believed myself to be on such occasions the greater was my grandfather's delight. On rainy days he lent me an old gun with a flint lock, and taught me how to cock and snap it so that it gave out sparks. Then I was allowed to go hunting in the sitting-room and the adjoining chambers, and to shoot as many deer and wild birds as my imagination could scare up. This would amuse me for hours; and my grandfather then took me on his knees and listened to the wonderful tales about the game I had bagged and the adventures in the forest and field I had encountered.

Suddenly a terrible misfortune befell the family. My grandfather had a stroke of paralysis. The upper part of his body remained sound, but he could no longer walk or stand. And thus, alas! the Burghalfen's bustling activity came to a sudden end; no more feats of strength; no more merry rides to the bird-shooting and to the kirmess. The robust man, yesterday still proud of his vigor, was now obliged to sit still from morning until night, his legs swathed in flannel. During the daytime his great armchair stood at the sitting-room window with the outward-curved grating, so that he might overlook the courtyard. He attempted to conduct farm affairs in this way, but he soon had to delegate his authority to a younger brother. And now the suddenly aged man did not know what to do with himself nor with his time. The Cologne Gazette was daily brought to him, but reading had never been much to his liking. It being summer and fly-time, a movable table attached to his armchair was sprinkled with sugar to attract the flies that swarmed into the room. He would sit for hours with a short leathern-flapped stick in his hand killing flies, now and then giving the table a terrible whack.

“This is all that I am still fit for,” sighed the once useful man. Often I was taken to him to entertain him with my boyish prattle and to make him laugh. Then he began to tell me about bygone days, especially about the “French times,” and the experiences of landed proprietors and peasants during those terrible years of war and pillage. As he talked I could see the merry “sans-culottes” swarming over the land, indulging in their wild pranks. I saw, as they approached, Count Wolf Metternich one night flying from the castle in a hurry, after having buried and walled his treasures, including the family archives, deep down under one of the towers, and confided all the belongings he left behind him to my grandfather's safekeeping. I could see one of the great Napoleon's generals ride through the gate, filling the court with brilliantly uniformed horsemen, and take up his quarters in the great house. When my grandfather's narrative reached the period of the departure of the French and the arrival of the Cossacks he became specially animated. Then it was that the castle people had to hide in the depths of the forest all their horses and wagons, cows, sheep and pigs, lest they should fall a prey to either the retreating French or to the advancing Russians. Time and again I made him describe the Cossacks. They ate tallow candles and ransacked the house and stables for spirits. Finding none, they threatened to use force with my grandmother; whereupon my grandfather knocked a few of them down, and was much surprised that none of their comrades came to their help. When the search for “schnapps,” however, continued, my grandmother hit upon the happy idea of filling a barrel with vinegar, to which she added a large quantity of mustard and pepper-seeds and a little alcohol. This brew, which would have burned like fire in the throats of ordinary mortals, the Cossacks praised highly; moreover, it seemed to agree with them. With all their devilishness they possessed a God-fearing sense, for whenever they were planning an especial mischief they would carefully cover the eyes of the crucifix on the wall so that the good Lord might not see the sin that they were about to commit.

Stories like these were told me over and over, and elaborated to suit my endless questions and my insatiable craving to know more; so that before I could read or write my grandfather's stirring recollections had etched into my mind a very fair impression of the Napoleonic wars, so closely complicated with the future history of Germany, and laid a foundation for my future political opinions and sympathies.

In the winter evenings the Burghalfen's great armchair was rolled up to the center-table for a game of cards; but in spite of all efforts made for his entertainment, the sad contrast between the past and the present soon undermined his cheerfulness. He tried to appear content, and not to be a burden to his loved ones, but the old life of bustle and gayety at the Burg, of which he had been the soul and center, was forever gone; and soon other clouds loomed upon the horizon.