East Vincent Honors Revolutionary Soldiers
East Vincent Township maintains a cemetery containing the graves of 22 Revolutionary War soldiers who died in the winter of 1777-78, following the Battle of Brandywine. The soldiers had been cared for in the First German Reformed Church, (site of the East Vincent UCC today), which was being used as a hospital. Annual military ceremonies were conducted starting in 1831 when a monument was placed in the cemetery. At some point, the cemetery fell into disrepair and the annual observances ceased. The East Vincent Historical Commission arranged for the township to take ownership and responsibility for the cemetery in the early 1990’s and an annual ceremony was instituted again starting in 1994 under the leadership of local historian Clyde Scheib. I was asked to provide the address for this year’s ceremony, which follows.
The Cost of Freedom
When I retired as principal of Royersford Elementary School, after having served that community for 35 years, my successor, the principal who was to take my place, kept repeating the phrase that she had “big shoes to fill.” And so, before I retired, I took a pair of my shoes and mounted them on a board with deck screws. I filled them with essential items she would need as a principal…like a bottle of aspirin…and they continue to hang on the wall in her office.
Today, we find ourselves in the position of “big shoes to fill,” following many years of Clyde Scheib serving as the “glue” for this annual observance. We are happy that Clyde is able to join us today and thank him for his dedication and years of faithfulness in honoring these 22 individuals who we are privileged to have rest for eternity within East Vincent Township.
I have always had a strong interest in history. Growing up in Parker Ford, I was surrounded by older relatives and neighbors. While none of them were old enough to remember back to colonial times, they had heard the stories that had been passed down from one generation to the next. In some cases, I was talking to people who were only two or three generations removed from those who were eye witnesses.
Some of you may remember George “Bucky” Walters. Bucky was an artist and historian, and in costume he would re-enact a member of Washington’s guard. I remember Bucky telling me that his interest in the American Revolution was kindled as a result of conversations he had with his great-grandmother. Those conversations impressed him because she had talked to someone who talked to someone who actually watched the Patriot troops come up Nutt Road after the battle of Brandywine. The account he was receiving was only once removed from someone who had talked to an eyewitness. He looked at me and said, “That’s getting pretty close!”
I remember hearing stories of how the troops came down from the Ridge to get to Edward Parker’s ford on the Schuylkill, at the mouth of Pigeon Creek. I pictured them coming down past my house on Bethel Church Road, but subsequent study revealed that they used the old road that led into the little, as yet unnamed village where Parker had his tavern. And sure enough, as a boy exploring the woods on the other side of Pigeon Creek, I could see the cut of the old road. Even as a kid, I had the feeling that I was walking on hallowed ground.
So, it is an honor for me to be asked to share a few thoughts on this day of celebrating American independence. Some of you know that I was invited to speak at least year’s observance, but to quote a phrase from Clyde’s book describing the events of 243 years ago, “a great fever broke out,” and prevented us from doing so. The significance of the 22 men who were being cared for in the German Reformed Church, and who lost their lives, falling victim to a “great fever” in 1778, is not lost on us today. Chances are, with more than 600,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, you most likely know someone…or a family…who has been affected by loss of life.
The same was true for those who lived during the time of the American Revolution. We read about the tremendous loss of life during each of the conflicts in which the United States has engaged during its history. But it was the Revolutionary War in which the greatest percentage of the population experienced loss of life. As a result, almost everyone knew someone who gave their life, or knew a family who had experienced the loss of a loved one.
And so many go unnamed, like the 22 soldiers who we meet to remember and honor today. Many were buried in mass graves, and I would imagine many were unmarked. Thankfully, Henry Hipple took the initiative to mark off these graves and protect this site so that the memory and the sacrifice of these men could be perpetuated.
We think of the time of the Revolution as a unifying time in our country’s history. But nothing could be further from the truth. At no time did more than 40-45% of American colonists support the war. A full third fought with the British. We think of the United States Civil War as a divisive time in our history, but that war basically pitted one region of the country against another. During the Revolution, neighbor was pitted against neighbor…even families were split down the middle. It can be seen in my own ancestors, two of Christian Willauer’s sons*, the first Willauer to arrive from Germany in this country, fought in the Revolutionary War; whereas the Latshaws, the other half of my paternal ancestors, were Mennonites during colonial times. Even though the Mennonites were pacifists and most tried to remain neutral during the war, they were often viewed with suspicion, and sometimes as Loyalists, and were persecuted as a result. Americans were not only waging war against Great Britain. They were also fighting against one another.
We look at the divisiveness that exists in our country today, in our “Divided” States of America, and we can’t imagine a time in our history when there was more of a divided country. There was…and it was during the Revolution. People living then were dealing with tremendous upheaval and uncertainty. Views held by many were called into question. Many of those views would be accepted today, or at least tolerated. But during the Revolution there was a lot of doubt and suspicion. Yes, there were the loyalists who supported King George and England, but as I mentioned, there were also the pacifists and the separatists who wished to remain neutral. When some refused to take a loyalty oath because it was against their religious beliefs, they were ridiculed at best, and many times persecuted and even arrested. Often their homes, businesses, and possessions were impounded and auctioned off. Even the Quakers, who, under the leadership of William Penn, had established the “Holy Experiment” of Pennsylvania and made possible the protection of religious beliefs, had to be removed from power if the Declaration of Independence was to have a chance of passing. As pacifists, most Quakers would have nothing to do with war.
And while the end never necessarily justifies the means, the War of Independence did help to create and ensure so many rights and freedoms…which made allowances for some of those very same beliefs and actions which before the war had been called into question.
The cost of freedom is very obvious to us on this day as we stand on this hallowed ground. Our area is peppered with the graves of many who dedicated their lives to winning an independence the benefits of which they never realized. We also remember those who opened their homes, their churches, and their businesses to support the soldiers and the cause of freedom. We’re grateful for those who fought, but also for those who nursed and cooked and sewed and served in a myriad of ways.
Today, we are the benefactors of the victory that, with the help of Almighty God, they sacrificed to secure, and we are reminded of those who fought in subsequent challenges to preserve the ideals on which this country is founded.
Unfortunately, there are many in American today whose understanding of the freedoms we enjoy is limited to the idea that they are free to do whatever they want. That freedom is viewed as an entitlement, and nothing could be further from the truth. While the freedoms we enjoy are a tremendous privilege unequaled anywhere else on the globe, with them comes a tremendous responsibility, the abuse of which does damage to the very heart of those same freedoms we enjoy.
And so, today, 245 years after the Declaration of Independence, we, too, have a cost to pay. In recent years, in our divided state, that duty has been seen as condemning the side opposite from ours. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have fostered fear…and fear divides.
Instead, if we are to continue to be the United States of America, we must work to discover and emphasize those things that unite us and bring us together, rather than those differences that separate us. That can be costly. It costs us time and understanding and dare I say tolerance, a word that has taken on a negative dimension in recent years.
Allow me to quote John F. Kennedy. “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”
The true meaning of tolerance does not mean that we compromise our own beliefs, or our way of life…but rather it seeks to promote understanding… not agreement, necessary, but understanding…and then allows others to live life as they wish because our desire to protect and defend those differences is more important to us than our objection to them. Easier said than done.
But that is how, as the framers of our Constitution envisioned it, in order to “create a more perfect union.” Was the union perfect when the Constitution was written? No. In fact, there are 27 amendments that confirm that it wasn’t perfect. It still isn’t. Yes, there are limits. There are some who would go too far with actions that would infringe upon the liberties and rights of others. But our goal…the cost that we invest…hopefully on a daily basis, is to, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
Note that all of these benefits, as listed in the Preamble to our Constitution, are not intended for some, but for all. They don’t apply to one side and not the other; or one group and not another. The language is inclusive…it is intended to unite. And it is always harder, much harder, to unite than it is to divide. It’s a tall order. We have had a pandemic, economic and employment issues, political polarization, racial unrest and climate challenges. But, imagine a country where instead of differences dividing us, those same differences were a catalyst to bring us together to discover what unites us, to establish those ways in which we can work together. That would be an appropriate and fitting way in which to honor the memory of the 22 soldiers who lie in this hallowed place.
That is my hope. That is my prayer. For you, your posterity, and for our country.
*Christian Willauer (1706-1771) had nine children. There are records of two of his four sons having served during the Revolutionary War. John Adam Willauer (1733-1788) served with the Lower Milford Militia; and Johannes Willauer (1737-1797) served as a private in the 4th battalion, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania Regiment of foot under Capt. Phillip Hahn.
Dave Willauer is a retired elementary principal having served Royersford Elementary School as a teacher and principal for 35 years. Dave is also an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, and currently serves as the Minister of Care Giving at Parker Ford Church in East Coventry Township. Dave and his wife, Connie, have two adult children and six grandchildren. They live in Skippack Township where they enjoy raising sheep and chickens, and keep honeybees.