John Caleb Leatherman (1852-1952), who was a child during the Civil War and a neighbor of the man who would earn the sobriquet “Hero of Highland,” told a Hagerstown Daily Mail reporter in 1950, ”Boy, that ol’ George Blessing was a spunky one. Those Rebels were trying to get a hold of all the horses they could. When [my] Father heard about it, he took his horses up into Pennsylvania. Not George Blessing—he just stood pat on his own farm there.”
A barnyard shootout at Blessing’s Highland Farm took place on 9 July, 1864, the same day that the Battle of Monocacy was fought only a few miles away on the outskirts of Frederick City. At the end of that month, the Frederick Examiner ran a letter to the editor, suggesting “the raising of a sum, by the contributions of Union men … for the purpose of procuring a medal, with the appropriate device and inscription, to commemorate [Blessing’s] noble feats of that occasion.”
In the years that followed, the grandiosity of the tale and the pious nature of the hero was escalated by his niece, the writer Nellie Blessing Eyster, who published grandiose versions in both a noted ladies magazine and in her 1867 novel Chincapin Charlie. In the latter, she called him “one of Nature’s noblemen,” wrote that he was possessed of a “strange power” from “living so close to Jesus,” and that as he was “thoroughly imbued with the spirit of ’76, loving the government for which his fathers died, next to the God whom he so devoutly worshipped … he defended his home from what he sacredly believed an unrighteous invasion.”
This holy grey warrior in his twilight, George Blessing, the son of George Johann Blessing (1764-1821) and Juliana Easterday (1765-1824), was born on 15 May, 1794, and was christened the next day at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Middletown.
Blessing was the grandson of Jacob Blessing (1736-1813), who emigrated from the Electorate of Saxony in modern Germany and wed Anna Magdalena Traut (1743-1813) of New Holland, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1761. On his mother’s side, Juliana was one of 11 children of Christian Easterday (1730-1805), who came to the Colonies from Germany in 1749—first to Philadelphia and later to nascent Frederick County, after marrying in 1750 Juliana Johanna Francisca Spiess of York County, Pennsylvania.
The Easterdays and Blessings were interconnected through multiple marriages. Kate Easterday (1826-1884), great-granddaughter of Christian, wrote in a letter to L.F.M. Easterday toward the end of her life, “There is a beautiful stream of water flowing through the entire length of our valley called the Catoctin Creek. The Easterday family graveyard is on the east side of the creek and the Blessing graveyard on the west of the creek. Both are on a hill, and not a quarter of a mile apart. There is also a graveyard where they buried their colored people.”
According to John Leatherman, “That George Blessing was one of the hottest Abolitionists I ever did see. The funny thing, though, was that he had some slaves on his own farm. He had married an Easterday girl from down around Jefferson and she had inherited some slaves. They weren’t treated like any other slaves in that day—they were treated like humans. And ol’ George freed them after the war started, long before the Emancipation Proclamation, and told them they could go their ways. ‘Nary a one left the place. All of those [former slaves] stayed on until the day he died, and the Blessings buried them all eventually in a corner of the St. John’s Lutheran churchyard, on Church Hill, about two miles from Myersville.”
Nellie Eyster wrote in Chincapin Charlie that one former slave was called Joe and another was a woman named Pinky. In the 1910 book, Middletown Valley in Song and Story, Thomas Chalmers Harbaugh noted that when news came of the Confederates’ imminent arrival on the farm, Pinky was ordered by Blessing to “blow the horn for assembly of the family, the Bible was taken from its shelf, and [Blessing] read the 91st Psalm,” which begins, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Blessing had married his first cousin, Susanna Easterday, on 8 December, 1821. She either came to him with a dowery of slaves or, if Leatherman was right, she had inherited them by 1830. On the census of that year, it is enumerated that the Blessings owned three male slaves—one aged 10-23, and two under the age of 10. They also owned two female slaves—one aged 23-34 and one under the age of ten. This probably represents either a single adult mother and her children or possibly a couple—Pinky and Joe?—and their offspring.
Ten years later, in 1840, the Blessings were enumerated with three slaves—one male and one female aged 10-23, and one female aged 23-34. By the day of the 1850 Census, no slaves remained and the only black individual nearby was a laborer named Luther Rollins who was at the property of 63-year-old Catherine Delauder. In 1860, there were no African-Americans anywhere in the Blessings’ vicinity. This calls into question Leatherman’s claim that the slaves stayed with the Blessings for the rest of their lives. Either they all were dead by 1850, which seems unlikely as the slaves on the 1840 Census were all young, they had hired themselves out to other farms at a distance, or perhaps the Blessings’ tenderness did not inspire the loyalty indicated by Leatherman.
George and Susanna Blessing had ten children: Elizabeth Ellen (1824-1908); Benjamin Lawrence (1826-1886); Catherine J. (1828-1908); Parker George (1829-1866); Susan Rebecca (1831-1913); Lauretta Ann (1835-1914); Caroline P. (1836-1868); Lewis Clay (1839-1865); Tilghman Luther (1841-1845); and Sarah Ann Penelope (1844-1921).
At Find-a-Grave, Ancestry, and other sites, two pictures (below) can be found that purport to be George and Susanna Blessing. They originated with genealogist Howard Lanham and appear by his courtesy.
On the left is a black-and-white version of an albumen carte de visite (CDV). The woman portrayed is clearly in her late 20s to early 30s. She is dressed in the fashions of the early 1860s. The picture at right shows a man who cannot be more than 45 years of age, and I would speculate closer to 38 to 40. This is also clearly a CDV and he is also dressed in the fashions the early 1860s.
CDVs, while patented abroad in 1854, were not available in the United States until the summer of 1859, and then only in New York City. By 1861, the photographic medium was flourishing all over the country. Previous to this, studio portraiture was available solely in the form of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes—both photographic processes resulted in single-copy, fragile, cased images. Neither of these CDVs shows signs of having been copied from earlier daguerreotypes or ambrotypes, and the fashions and hairstyles of the sitters further rule this possibility out.
If the subjects are Blessings, then they may be Parker George Blessing and Susan Blessing Crone, whose names and ages comport with the appearance of the sitters, although they may also be other Blessing children.
In Chincapin Charlie, Eyster describes her uncle thusly: “Seventy-two winters had already passed over him, leaving no marks of their frosts upon his head save a few grey hairs sprinkled among the short and heavy locks which curled over it. His sunburned skin and hard hands bore record of the toil and exposure which had marked his life, but his face was one which for firmness, shrewdness, thoughtfulness, courage, and dignity of conscious rectitude, would have graced any of the grand old Roman fathers.” He had a “bold broad forehead” and “Laughing blue eyes sheltered under shaggy eyebrows” with “countless tiny crow’s-feet.”
This description tallies remarkably well with the photo above left, which Lanham believes to be George Blessing. Of the provenance of the three photos, he told me, “I have had these images for many years and they were printed from 35mm negatives. Someone brought the original photos … to one of the Easterday reunions during the 1970s and I asked to copy them.”
The odds are good, therefore, that this is the actual face of George Blessing.
On 9 July 1864, Confederates were in the vicinity of Wolfsville, Maryland. Shortly before this, Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early had moved his forces along the Shenandoah Valley, crossing into Maryland at Shepherdstown. The majority of those troops were at that moment engaged in battle by the Monocacy River, but Early had sent out bands of marauders to round up horses and other livestock.
It should be noted that Blessing farm was not the only place where a skirmish occurred that day, if the Hagerstown Morning Herald of 1 July, 1955, is to be believed. “On the march from Hagerstown to Frederick through Middletown Valley, Early sent small squads of cavalry to gather supplies … from the farms. Of course, they didn’t bother to buy them. When these soldiers entered the community around Grossnickle’s Church, near Ellerton, they met resistance and trouble.
“They asked a boy [John Mahlon Bussard (1848-1915)], who later became a minister of the Church of the Brethren, where the farmers had hidden the horses. He said he did not know. However, the soldiers found them in a wooded hollow. When Levi Kesselring saw what was happening, he raised his gun to protect the horses. When one of them shot at him, he returned fire and got two of them. The others fled to Middletown on horseback taking the wounded with them. The two men died that night.”
Kesselring ought to have been lauded as a hero, too, but he did not gain the attention of national newspapers, as Blessing did. The story of the “Battle of Highland” appeared in many newspapers—some to which George Blessing himself mailed an account.
For Blessing to pepper editors with his missives was not unusual, however. In the book And All Our Yesterdays: A Chronicle of Frederick County, author John M. Ashbury noted that Blessing “frequently demonstrated his sly sense of humor in letters to the editor to various newspapers throughout the county.”
For example, when the area around Middletown tried to break off into its own county in 1856, to be named Johnson after Maryland founding father Thomas Johnson, Blessing wrote to the Examiner that “I would name it Tadpole County, from the fact that comes nearest in shape to that insignificant animal. I would like to know how far $12,000 would reach to meet the current expenses of this new county, to say nothing of the inconvenience to which those citizens residing at the head and tail of Tadpole County would be subjected.”
As the embroidering of the Battle of Highland story commenced, Blessing wrote again to the Examiner, promulgating his version of the event. The newspaper published his letter on 27 July—seven days after originally running the sensationalized story.
What follows are the two most unadulterated versions of what happened that summer day at Highland Farm, the first told by Blessing himself in his letter to the Examiner, and the second by Union officer Corporal Christopher Armour Newcomer (1840-1924), who was at the farm late in the afternoon of 9 July.
“On the morning of that day, a company of cavalry commanded Major Harmon and Captain Walker came in sight of my farm, where they detailed five to come and steal my horses. As they rode up, I gave my son two guns and I took six and went in the name of the Lord God of Hosts to meet them, and as they rode up in haste we fired upon them in quick time and one was mortally wounded (he died at Middletown), the other not so bad, they rode under the overshoot of the barn where we had cross-fire on them. As they were retreating, I fired, killing one on the spot, and took the other prisoner.
“The balance got back to the Company, which was from 40 to 60 strong, and before I had reloaded my guns they returned, nineteen in number, and had pressed in their service four of my neighbors as guides, and marched them in advance. I gave my son two guns and another young man one, but they both retreated. I then took four guns and went to a group of cherry trees; as their guides came up I halted them under pain of death if they did not stand. One of them broke off and ran. I fired on him without effect. As soon as he reached the Rebels, they opened fire upon me to their hearts’ content; the splinters from the trees and fence flew in my face while some of the [minni]balls fell at my feet. I had three guns which I held back for sure work. After firing some fifty shots they rode off, leaving their dead and wounded in my hands.
“They sent me word that they would bring up a battery and shell me. I sent word back that I had their wounded man in the barn, and if they chose to burn him up they could do so.
“A little before night, Cole’s Cavalry, under command of Lieut. Colonel [George W. F.] Vernon, came into sight. I thought it was the Rebel battery, and I took the Dead Rebel’s carbine and concealed myself in the bramble bush close to the lane to make that the closing scene of that bloody day. When I saw my happy mistake, I crawled out; they gave me a hearty cheer, rode up to the house, helped bury my dead, and stayed overnight. Thus closed the most tragic scene in the history of my life.”
The Rebels who came to Highland Farm were from the 47th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, whose captain was Elias M. Walker. Major William N. Harman was the commander. The Confederate casualties have been identified as Corp. James Stowers, whose military file states that he died “in a skirmish, 9 July, 1864,” and Corp. William Holt, whose arm was shattered by Blessing’s bullet. Holt survived the war. After recuperating, he was sent to Point Lookout Prison and eventually exchanged.
Next is the account of Christopher Newcomer. After the war, he wrote a memoir titled Cole’s Cavalry: Or Three Years in the Saddle in the Shenandoah Valley, in which he recounts his experiences during that day.
In 2008, Robert W. Black wrote in Ghost, Thunderbolt, and Wizard: Mosby, Morgan, and Forrest in the Civil War, “Cole’s Maryland cavalry were experienced troopers, many having served since 1861. They were border-state men. All knew the division of war within their community—some knew it within their family. Christopher Armour Newcomer had the experience of having family in arms against him and wrote, ‘Although connected by ties of birth and blood in the South, I loved my country and my flag better than my state or section.'”
“The battle of Monocacy had been fought. Lieutenant Colonel Vernon and his small force of sixty-five men were familiar with the country. The enemy’s cavalry was overrunning Frederick County in small detachments, gathering up horses from the farmers. Our detachment had come upon several small squads of Rebel cavalrymen and either captured or dispersed them. On our arrival in the neighborhood of Middletown, we were informed by the citizens that an old gentleman, a farmer by the name of George Blessing, living several miles distant, had shot one or more Rebels, and Colonel Vernon started at once with his men for Blessing’s farm.
“As our advance was proceeding up the lane leading to the farmer’s house, they were halted by an old gray-haired man, fully sixty-five years of age, who demanded that they should go back, or he would shoot. The old gentleman was partially concealed behind a large tree, with a rifle in his hand. Colonel Vernon called him by name and informed him we were Cole’s men and had come to protect him. Mr. Blessing gave us a hearty welcome and said he had mistaken us for the Confederates whom he had exchanged shots with a number of times during the day, and had driven off the enemy, not an hour before, who threatened to return and hang him and burn his property.
“To prove his assertion, he led the way up to his barnyard, where lay a dead Rebel and one in the barn, wounded. The old farmer had some half dozen guns of different patterns; when the roving bands of Confederates approached his house he would warn them off, they would fire upon him, and this old patriot stood his ground. He would do the shooting whilst his small grandson would load the pieces. Our command remained at the farmhouse overnight and the ‘Johnnie Rebs’ failed to put in an appearance; they would have received a warm reception If they had returned. Our men buried the dead soldier and left the wounded prisoner in the hands of his captor, who promised to have him properly taken care of. On the following morning, we made an early start in the direction of Frederick, picking up an occasional straggler.”
The two stories differ in small details: Blessing said he was hiding in a bramble bush when Cole’s Cavalry arrived; Armour says he was behind a large tree. Blessing said his son and another unnamed young man were with him at first; Armour says it was his young grandson. Both agree that the Union troops spent the night and left the next morning. Blessing’s niece, however, turned that into a finale à la cinematic epic-maker Cecil B. DeMille:
“After a breakfast for which Mrs. Blessing’s larder furnished its choicest food, the sound of prayer and praise arose again from that farmhouse, but this time a hundred full throats joined in the old chorus, ‘Praise God from who all blessings flow,’ and the self-selected chaplain, Mr. Blessing, felt, as he combined their united thanks in one voice, that the God who had dealt him such a signal and wonderful deliverance, would yet answer the prayers of thousands of other loyal hearts throughout the vast Union, and in his own good time work out for this mighty country ‘an exceeding great salvation.'”
It has been reported that Blessing himself remarked of the Hero of Highland legend, “What nonsense if they mean me.” Ω