A former Gettysburg veteran organized a solemn Memorial Day parade 100 years ago this week in Perkasie, getting ready to add the names of four more war dead to the annual observance.
In May 1919, John Schwartz was many things in Perkasie: the co-founder of the Lessig schoolhouse Sunday school and the Perkasie Park camp-meeting; state House representative; and the man responsible for many Perkasie residents owning their first homes from the Perkasie Building and Loan Association.
First and foremost, he was Corporal John Schwartz of 57th New York Volunteer Infantry and commander of Grand Army of the Republic post in Perkasie, which organized Memorial (or Decoration) Day ceremonies in town. That year, Calvin Hartzell, Earl Crouthamel, George Gross, and Harold Moyer would be honored for making the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War that had ended seven months earlier.
Schwartz was a first-hand witness to such sacrifices, but not of Americans fighting a foreign enemy. He was an aide to General Samuel Zook and on the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, at the Wheatfield. On that day, 15,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or missing during the battle. In all, 36 percent of Schwartz’s unit was lost at Gettysburg.
Such losses weren’t unusual to Schwartz. He was wounded early at Fredericksburg and not part of a charge that saw one-half of his regiment killed. In all, about 200 men lost their lives in his regiment during its four active years. When the group disbanded in June 1864, Schwartz immediately re-enlisted in the army as a private at Petersburg.
In later years, Earl D. Schwartz spent summers with his grandfather in Perkasie, and they visited the Wheatfield together at Gettysburg. John Schwartz told his grandson that he caught Zook as the general fell from his horse, mortally wounded. Schwartz also spent a good deal of time ensuring that Civil War veterans received their pensions. But in May 1919, only a handful of those veterans were still alive.
For Memorial Day 1919, the event would be quieter than in recent years, but all of Perkasie would participate, and Schwartz was organizing the event. All of Perkasie’s school children played an essential role in the ceremony. The town was closed for business that day. The group walked from 7th and Arch to St. Stephen’s and Trinity Lutheran churches, where the G.A.R. veterans honored the war dead. The town then went back to Perkasie Park, where Schwartz led a collection to benefit the Salvation Army. Children led the group in patriotic songs, and the crowd listened to a patriotic speech from the Rev. E.S. Noll. The group, led by the children, recited the Gettysburg Address.
At one point, 31 Civil War veterans lived in the Perkasie area. The G.A.R. post was named for Washington G. Dengler, a 21-year-old from the Oley Valley who died at the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia in 1864. Local members included Henry Drumbore, William Renner, and Henry Groff.
In 1994, Perkasie News-Herald reporter Ron Kohl interviewed Tom Landis from Tylersport, a local historian who had saved the Dengler G.A.R. post’s records. Landis said the post included men from Almont, Sellersville, Rock Hill and also the village of Benjamin (which was named after Civil War veteran Benjamin Althouse). By 1923, only five G.A.R. members were alive when the group held its last meeting in Perkasie. Schwartz and Althouse were at the meeting.
The newspaper article also pointed out that if you look closely at a picture of the 1898 parade in the village of Benjamin, celebrating its union with Perkasie, the G.A.R. members are walking behind the small marching band.
On this Memorial Day, it is important to look back at what Schwartz wrote in the Perkasie Central News when the G.A.R. announced its 1919 ceremony.
“The service [is] to commemorate the memory of those who gave their lives and had died since the war in defense of our beloved country and righteousness against might and autocracy,” he said. “These services are intended to keep alive and active the spirit of patriotism upon which rests the foundation of our system of government.”
In earlier days, the Decoration Day parade featured a speech from the Rev. Dr. James D. Dengler, pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Perkasie. It was his brother, Washington, who starved to death at the Andersonville prison camp.
Scott Bomboy is a local historian and author who also serves on Perkasie’s borough council and planning commission.