Answer Man

Local family ancestors met their Waterloo — and won

A copy of a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte
A copy of a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte GL Archive/Alamy

Q. With Thursday (today) being the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I was curious whether any local residents could point to family members who had a hand in Napoleon’s ultimate defeat.

— R.K., of Belleville

A. Indeed, they can, and what you may find even more surprising is that they involve two prominent names in Belleville history — the Gundlachs, renowned for their development of innovative farm and mining machinery, and the Weidmanns, who would start the Belleville Shoe Co. in 1904.

Those are the proud findings of Frank Gundlach, a retired lawyer in St. Louis who has been researching your question for more than 50 years. After a half-dozen trips to his family’s roots in Kronberg, Germany, he finds that at least three Kronberg men whose families immigrated to Belleville took part in that decisive battle on June 18, 1815: Philipp Gundlach Sr., his cousin Jacob Weidmann and Johann Weingärtner.

These were not your Rambo types looking for excitement, Gundlach said. Philipp was a farmer and Weidmann was a brewer, who, at 23, simply wanted to lead quiet lives. But those peaceful times were upended when the three suddenly were conscripted into the Prussian Army and sent off to stop Napoleon.

“The family just didn’t have the money to pay the authorities,” said Gundlach, explaining how his great-great-grandfather Philipp wound up toting a gun. “You could buy your way out of the army in those days like they could here in the Civil War in the United States. But he and his family could not afford it.”

Even more ironic, it hadn’t been long before when the French emperor controlled the Frankfurt area in the then-Duchy of Nassau, where Kronberg is a suburb north of Frankfurt.

“So here (area residents) were fighting with Napoleon before it turned around when France was defeated in an earlier war,” Gundlach said. “Now they were fighting against him.”

It had been a horribly bloody quarter-century, according to Tilman Ochs, a retired English teacher and historian whom Gundlach met during his trips to Germany.

“Between 1792 and 1815, the French and allies lost 500,000 troops” Ochs said. “The opponents like the British, Prussians, Austrians and Italians lost 600,000. And that’s not speaking of the misery these foraging armies caused to the poor people all over Europe.

“Napoleon betrayed the principles of the revolution by making himself emperor and installing members of his family in artificially created kingdoms, duchies, etc., all over Europe.”

Napoleon’s collapse started on June 15, 1815, after he crossed the Sambre River at Charleroi, Belgium, and continued his army’s fateful march to Waterloo. At first, the battle did not go well for Gundlach, Weidmann and company. Commanded by Gen. Gebhard von Blücher, the Prussian Army lost thousands of men on June 16 as it was repulsed at nearby Ligny by one wing of Napoleon’s army. (There is some dispute whether the Kronberg men were led by Blücher or Wellington, but family histories say Blücher, Gundlach said.)

Two days later, Napoleon’s time ran out. By 4:30 p.m. June 18, Blücher’s 50,000 Prussian troops returned just in time to bolster the army led by England’s Duke of Wellington on the allied’s left flank. Three hours later, the Prussians and other allies had formed a united front, pushing the French army far in front of them. At about 9 p.m. Wellington and Blücher met to celebrate their victory. The French empire was over; Napoleon abdicated four days later.

Ending Napoleon’s reign was a cause for celebration, but it also left lasting scars on the young men from Kronberg.

“According to oral history, my great-great-grandfather saw his best friend shot and killed in that battle,” Frank Gundlach said. “Another friend had his foot shot off while standing next to Philipp.”

After the war, Philipp would return to farming, found a novel way to burn bricks with coal and began raising a family. But in 1842, Gundlach, then 50, sold his brick business for $280, and, on July 25, boarded the Duchess d’Orleans at Le Havre, France, and sailed his family to the United States.

“He said he was not going to raise a family where sons were conscripted into the armed services,” Gundlach said. “It didn’t seem right to him that innocent men should die to pay the debts of kings and other royalty. The average man was a pawn to be used at the whim of rulers.”

The Gundlachs arrived in New York on Aug. 25 and eventually made their way to St. Louis on Oct. 12. He reportedly put down $100 to buy a farm 12 blocks west of the Mississippi River, but after a trip to Belleville a week later, he forfeited the $100 to buy a 480-acre farm on the Carlyle Road. The family would be responsible for inventing or improving grain drills, seeders, hay rakes, etc. Later, it would produce mining equipment used around the world.

Johann Weingärtner and his family would immigrate in 1852. Jacob Weidmann would stay in Germany, but his son Christopher would come to Belleville in 1854. In 1904, William Weidmann would start the Belleville Shoe Manufacturing Co. and pass it on to Homer Weidmann in 1952 and Eric Weidmann in 1982 as it became the nation’s dominant military boot manufacturer. And Frank’s second cousin Dede (Weidmann) Farquhar was one of the forces behind Art on the Square as it began in 2002.

Now, Frank proudly shows off pictures of the medal and certificate his family received for its service two centuries ago. To see festivities of the battle’s bicentennial commemoration, go to www.waterloo2015.com.

Today’s trivia

What’s the difference between the Vanderbilt Cup and the Vanderbilt Trophy?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: You’ve probably experienced smog, that atmospheric haze produced by the emissions of vehicular traffic, industrial production and other smoky pollutants. But if you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you may have run into “vog” as well. Vog is a form of air pollution that forms when sulfur dioxide and other gases and particles from an erupting volcano react with oxygen and moisture in the presence of sunshine. The word is a short form of “volcanic fog” and is common on Hawaii, where Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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