The Sadness of War and One Man’s Letter home in 1814   Leave a comment

Anguish by Terri J. Kallio

Terri J. Kallio

Where does your inspiration come from?

I’ve often wondered what in the world would possess someone to want to dangle off the side of a rock cliff,, relying solely on the strength of a skinny rope attached to hooks that have been pounded into solid rock. Just looking at photographs taken from these climbs makes my stomach do flip flops. What’s their inspiration? Some say it’s the adrenaline rush they get during the climb. For some it’s conquering the mountain, as if they were slaying a dragon. Me – I get woozy climbing a step stool….

I’m not “into” all that danger, maybe it’s because I can remember how bad it hurt just falling off my bike as a kid, but I can relate to the adrenaline rush. I think inspiration comes to us from different sources during the course of our lifetime. I know exactly the thing that inspired me to become interested in my own family history. Do you? Decades ago my Uncle discovered a letter written in 1814 by my ancestor. The letter was written to his family in Ostfriesland,, Germany and tells of the fighting during the battles with Napoleon’s Army. At that point in my life I never really thought about the generations of my family that had come before, to me they were just names and dates on some old genealogy report. All of a sudden those history classes took on new meaning because my family was there and part of that history.

“During the night we
slept among the dead”

Like a window suddenly blown open during a storm, these words written by my great great great grandfather 195 years ago,, drew me in to the world of genealogy. My Uncle had discovered the letter in some papers that my Grandparents had. Of course, not being able to read German made the letter with a date of 1814 intriguing to say the least. A cousin was able to transcribe the letter. Behrend Oltman Onnen’s letter revealed the horrors and sadness of the war with Napoleon’s French Army. Behrend was 21 years old when he wrote this letter to his family in Ostfriesland, Germany.

“Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters,
Now I want to tell you about our march from Wangrenie to Paris. On the morning of June 15th at seven o’clock we marched against the Frenchmen and there was artillery fire all around us and we could notice the Frenchmen coming closer to us and toward evening we were very close together, we had our quarters under the stars that night. This was the first day.”

“On the 16th of June in the morning at 5 o’clock we marched beyond the village where the battle took place, in the afternoon at 2 o’clock we marched to the village and got into fighting immediately and came so close to each other that we fought them by hand and took them prisoners.

“Bullets flew like hail from heaven and a person should think it impossible that anybody would survive, but the hands of the Almighty can protect and save you. Toward evening we were really in a mess, we were of the opinion reinforcements would move up, but instead they were Frenchmen. It was impossible to retreat, but fortunately we got out of the squeeze. We dispersed in groups of six and seven men. On the 17th we got together again and there were not to many missing.

“On the 18th the shooting began again and in the afternoon at three o’clock we got orders to march on, There was heavy artillery fire and it was toward evening when we reached the real battlefield.

“Here General Blow behind Bonaparte’s army and soon all shooting stopped. We marched over battlefields which were a terrible sight, left and right there were wounded screaming and shouting, and dead ones not by the tens or twenties but by the hundreds and thousands.

“During the night we slept among the dead ones and I wondered whose heart was not touched, hearing and seeing such lamenting and sorrow. I have witnessed it and seen it with my own eyes.” (Letter to be continued in my next post.)

I wonder how many years it took him to forget the horrible things he witnessed or if he ever did.
…Inspiration Continued – 1814 Letter Continued

“We bombarded Napoleon’s Coach”

June 19, 1814
“On the 19th we again pursued the Frenchmen, at one point we bombarded Napoleon’s coast which he shortly before deserted. We found a number of treasures in it. We marched the entire day until 11 o’clock and slept again under the sky being pretty hungry. The Frenchmen had everything pretty well consumed. On we went the next day the 20th all day and on through the night. The name of the town where we finally camped was, I think, Bomont.

“On the 21st we surround the fortified city of Vienne, there was a strong resistance, but a lucky shot from our artillery hit the French powder magazine so that the fortification blew up and we had the fort in our hands.

“On the 22nd we marched on again until late at night. The 23rd was a day of rest, but there was not much rest since it rained all day, so that we were wet to the skin. At 10 in the morning of the 24th we went on and the next days to the 26th, we hardly encountered any enemies. The 27th we got to Compiegne here is where Bonaparte had his castle. When we got to this town the Frenchmen tried hard to throw us back, but they were unsuccessful. On the 28th we got to a town, where the enemy had hidden like snipers, but we pushed them on and our cavalry chased on and captured many of them, also two cannons which were drawn by mules.

“On the 29th we were only three hours away from Paris. On the 30th we rested until 10 o’clock that night, but then followed a 36 hour march to and around Paris. It was so hot we could hardly stand it.

“Early, July 2nd and again we were called to the weapons, and our general told us, “Boys, you had a bad day yesterday, but today we have to be especially brave. We have to take Paris or we are lost.”

Oltman Behrend Onnen remains an unsolved mystery in my quest for family history. I do know that he was born about 1738 near Uttel, Germany, that he married Hille Catherine Badberg and that they had a least one child, Gralf Onnen who was born in 1819. At this point only his letter remains. The letter must have been a very special memento of my great grandmothers. My Father tells me that she kept the letter hidden in a small hole
near the kitchen stove pipe. When she died my grandfather retrieved the letter and it was
later given to my Uncle for safe keeping and now his sons are left to safeguard the only remaining record of this young man who once fought against Napoleon.
And now the conclusion of the letter:

Early July 2, 1814
“The Frenchmen had blown up the bridges so we had to find some other way. The artillery fire lasted until late that night and on the 4rd the capitulated and all fighting stopped. The 4th, 5th and the 6th we stayed in our camp and on the 7th we had church services to thank the Lord that he so tenderly protected us. The theme of the sermon was: What would it prosper the people if they conquer the world and lost their soul. We sang the hymn: Praise and Thanks to God.

“We camped on the outskirts of Paris until the 10th then we marched through Paris and beyond it, we ran into a little fort. We surrounded it from the 11th to the 15th when they flew the white flag and surrendered.

“That evening we remained in a little village between Paris and the fort. All the people had left their homes and we took quarters in them. We got plenty to eat and we lived as well as at home in Ostfriesland. Some say we are going to march toward the border of Holland or even to Ostfriesland, may God grant this to be so.

“Well, this is all I know to report now and you dear parents, brothers and sisters and all friends and acquaintances, stay well.

“May the Lord protect you. I remain with high esteem, Your obedient son until death.
Oltman Behrend Onnen”

For most of us geneaholics it only takes that one look into the past to spark an interest in genealogy and the history of our families. This letter certainly provided that spark for me and continues to fuel the flame.


Posted August 3, 2015 by Terri Kallio/Site Coordinator in Uncategorized

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