How to Bring Your Ancestors to Life

by Memoir Mentor on September 9, 2009

Carol Enos 2My fall classes have begun again and I’m continuing my practice of posting an exemplary student story each week. Once again I’m honoring the work of Carol Enos, who has a special gift for breathing life into her ancestors  by combining known data with research about the era in which they lived. She then uses her imagination to fill in the blanks and weaves it all into an engaging story. I keep thinking how much her grandchildren will enjoy these stories, which effectively turn impersonal pedigree chart names into real people.  “I just love researching the history of the times in which they lived,” Carol says, “and it’s all so easy with the Internet. I can practically find everything I need using the Google search engine.”

Read on and see for yourself. Let me know how you like her approach. Does she go too far in fashioning a life from the past? What works and what doesn’t?

by Carol Enos

My great, great, great, great grandfather, Johann Jost Mutze, sailed to America with the British Army  to fight in the Revolutionary War.  Many stories of his adventures have survived over the centuries. This is one:


Johann’s chest heaved; his breath came in desperate gasps. He had been running all night only steps ahead of his pursuers. Eight hours earlier, he had slipped out of his bedroll, crept silently at first, and moved from tree to tree, taking advantage of the early March nightfall. There was no moon and the trees were a dark curtain that could hide a fleeing soldier. He feared his pounding heart would alert the sentries, but they seemed unaware that a threat was behind their lines, not in front. An easy escape seemed assured.  And then the feral dogs that had attached themselves to the army began to howl. Johann bolted. He was young, fast, motivated and angry. He had been caught trying to get away once before. He would not face the gauntlet of cat o’nine tails whips ever again. He would die first.

The Rebel lines stationed on the other side of the Ashley River had rebuffed the Hessian forces thus far, but Johann knew that with the addition of General Cornwallis’s troops, soon to arrive, the Americans would be overrun and any chance to break free, to join the rebel forces, would slip away. He had searched for escape possibilities from the moment he heard his mother’s cries months ago when his abductors bundled him in his own blanket and tore him from his family, his community, and his church.

There were no opportunities in the first months. All the conscripts were guarded closely during the training; they were still too close to home. They were fenced in and beaten for the smallest infractions. The officers were experienced, and they knew how to take a band of rag-tag young Germans and drill them into a fighting unit. Continually exhausted, the youngsters only had enough energy to eat the meager rations and crawl into a bed roll. After the training period, they were marched to the docks and loaded like cattle into the boats. Aboard the boats, jammed into the hulls, mostly standing during the stormy voyage to this far-away land, escape was unheard of.

HessiansWhen the troops landed in New York, they were kept aboard. Everyone knew they were going south to retake Charleston when the weather cleared. The ships were provisioned. Horses were brought aboard crowding the tight quarters even further. The weather cleared enough to set sail, but soon the late winter storms attacked the ships as no enemy could. One ship with the cannon sank out of sight. Another with an entire brigade of Hessians simply disappeared. The screams of the horses mixed with the cries of the men as they were plummeted about. The men with broken bones were splinted. The horses with broken bones were pushed overboard. Johann’s sleep was still disturbed by the memory of the horses thrashing desperately in the stormy waters before they sank helplessly beneath the waves.

It wasn’t until they embarked in South Carolina, his hopes were rekindled. There were Germans living here. He had heard his native language in shouts as they marched through the countryside. Campfire talk was full of the accounts of German settlements and Lutheran churches beginning just north of Charleston. Johann listened but kept his dreams to himself to himself. His anger had burned since the night he had been kidnapped.

The kidnappers had come for him after midnight.  The house was asleep. Johann slept especially hard, the sleep of a sixteen-year-old who had worked on the farm all day. He and his family lived in Ederbringhausen, a quiet German village with less than two hundred people, not prosperous, but devout, the Lutheran Church in close-by Lousindorff. That night, the village rested easily. The rumors of marauding bands of press gangs seemed to have been just that—rumors, and so the villagers went to bed without apprehension.

However, the gang had been lurking quietly on the other side of the Eider River. One of the band had strolled through the village earlier in the day pretending to be an itinerate tailor. There was no work for him, but by the end of the day he had learned of the three boys who worked on their parent’s farms in the vicinity. Johann was the first to be taken.

The press gangs were mercenaries working for Landgrave Fredrick II of Hesse-Kassel who had sold conscripted soldiers to King George III. Johann was only one of nearly 30,000 German men sold into service, nearly one-quarter of the British forces in the Revolution. Every day that men like Johann served, money flowed into the Prince’s coffers.

Johann was taken the same night he was kidnapped to the Hessian encampment and he had imagined his escape ever since.

Now, freedom was almost in sight. Dawn lit the way, and Johann could see the Ashley River below him. He thought he could see Bacon Bridge to the north. The Americans still held the bridge that was soon to be targeted by the Hessian and British troops.  He could hear his pursuers. There were no gunshots. They couldn’t load, shoot and chase at the same time. But he knew they had time to fix their bayonets. It was going to be so close.

Suddenly there were gunshots. But they were coming from the bridge. They were shooting at him!

Without pausing Johann stripped off his jacket and ripped off his white undergarment. He continued to run waving the white shirt like a flag shouting in German, “Hels mir! Hels mir! Ich bin ein Freund!” He prayed that at least one of the Americans spoke German and would know that he was calling for help and that he was a friend.

He was running along the river bank now preparing to leap in and swim across if he had to.  They were still shooting. But not at him. The bullets zipped well over his head. The Rebels were shooting at his pursuers!

The young Hessian had made it! He stumbled onto the bridge and fell exhausted at the feet of his new countrymen. A new country: a new life. Johann was home.


The new American offered his services to the Rebels but they were not inclined to arm any of the newly escaped enemy. Mutze was directed north to Orangeburg where he worked in the fields of the German settlers until he married and became a Lutheran minister and a maker of buggy whips. He anglicized his name to John Yost Meetze. He and his new wife found a plot of land on the Saluda River about six miles from Columbia and prospered. They had nine children many of whom became successful merchants and leaders of South Carolina and in turn had large families. The rosters of many South Carolina’s Civil War regiments included Meetzes.

Near the end of the Civil War, Sherman’s army destroyed much of the family’s property, and the returning soldiers either rebuilt or moved to other parts of the country and became merchants and ministers and other stories were told.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nancy Peralta September 10, 2009 at 2:39 am

What a wonderful story! You brought your ancestor to life and painted a picture. I could picturethe actions in my mind and feel the emotions. Your descendents will appreciate the research you did and how you depicted it. I had heard about the Hessians coming over to fight for the British. My understanding was the Prussians were bought and paid for by England to fight in the United States. So it was interesting and enlightening to read the historical perspective telling the real story of how they kidnapped the young boys to fight for them. I have Hessian ancestors also(Plücker) who fought in the Revolutionary War. Maybe my Hessian soldiers were not mercenaries. I can see I need to do some more research on my Plücker ancestors.
Thank you again for a great story.

2 Samantha Thompson December 30, 2009 at 10:46 am

Johann Jost Meetze is also my 5th great-grandfather and I was wondering where you got this information from. I have read about him being a mercenary, but I am interested in knowing more about him and the details of his life. If you could let me know where you got all of this information from, it would be greatly appreciated.

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