Veterans of wars, both foreign and domestic

Thoughts on how to remain united despite conflict

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Between Halloween, the hubbub of the 2020 General Election, chaos wrought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the run-up to Thanksgiving, it would have been easy this year — of all years — to let Veteran’s Day slip by among all the other things demanding our attention. 

This year the day of remembrance and honor for service members past and present falls on Wednesday, Nov. 11. Of course, it’s always Nov. 11 — a date chosen to mark the cessation of hostilities in the First World World in 1918. Since its inception as Armistice Day, the observance has come to stand for all veterans, regardless of their branch of service or the conflict(s) in which they may or may not have served. If an individual wore a uniform on behalf of the United States, Nov. 11 is the day to honor them for doing so.

I didn’t join the military. In fact, not too many of my family members have ever donned a uniform; my maternal grandfather was a Navy officer in World War II and I had a great uncle in the Great War. A few relatives fought for the Union in the Civil War, with one suffering grievously in a rebel prison camp at Richmond.

On Veteran’s Day, I tend to think even further back, to two of my paternal ancestors, Jacob and his son William Hagedorn, who served in the 10th Regiment of the Albany County (New York) Militia beginning in 1777 — the former as a lieutenant and the latter an enlisted man. Also in the regiment were six Rockefellers (yes, those Rockefellers), including the great-grandfather of John D. Rockefeller, who served alongside Jacob as one of the regiment’s lieutenants.

These kinds of pedantic family histories are only — even then marginally — interesting to people whose families are involved in them. I won’t labor you with much more, only to point out something that I think transcends personal interest to say something about the blurred battlelines around our self-construction as “Americans,” and how the causes for which we fight don’t need to permanently divide us.

At the same time as Jacob, William and the Rockefeller boys were out fighting the “Tories and Indians” on the upstate frontier — as one 19th-century pension application by William put it — the Hagedorn patriarch, Christopher, was sheltering Hessian mercenaries at his farm, in an area where the family had settled alongside many other German-speaking immigrants more than 60 years earlier.

Like the Rockefellers and the Hagedorns, the Hessian soldiers in the pay of King George hailed from the Rhineland — in particular, the German principality of Hesse, which encompasses the communities of Wiesbaden and Erbenheim, whence came the Hagedorns and 2,000 other Rhenish migrants in 1709-1710. 

In other words, though separated by an ocean and decades living in the New World, old man Hagedorn still considered these his countrymen, despite the fact that they’d been ferried over by the British to help quash the patriot insurgency in which his own younger kin were actively engaged.

When the war ended with a patriot victory, among the first acts of the newly established United States government was to punish those who’d been “disloyal” during the conflict. Sure enough, the elder Hagedorn came in for a hefty financial punishment, which included losing a portion of his acreage, a sum of his money and, according to one record, even some livestock. It’s easy to imagine how embarrassing this must have been for Jacob and William, who served throughout the war in critical battles involving such personalities as Generals Benedict Arnold, John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates.

Yet, despite the high stakes of fighting, the sacrifices endured by their service, the risks taken by that humanitarian gesture toward a supposed enemy and the punishment meted out for the latter action, all these Hagedorns — and Rockefellers, for that matter — came out of the confusion as Americans, even as they so deeply identified with their roots in the German Rhineland.

That feels like an important thing to remember right now, as we honor our service members, think about the causes for which they serve and how we all might transcend even seemingly profound ideological differences to recognize a shared national identity. If one American family can fight for a cause while sheltering its opponents and retain a unity that has lasted for 237 years — from colonial New York to Bonner County, Idaho — then the nation as a whole can weather and improve from the competing forces within and without it.

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