General Sebastien Steinmetz of Schirrhein and
Written by : Vince Falter
The history of General Sebastien Steinmetz is a family tradition in
the Falter, Steinmetz, and Dannemiller families of Ohio. It was passed through
the descendants of his daughter and son-in-law Johann Baptiste and Marguerette
Steinmetz Falter in Seneca County, Ohio, as
well as through the Nicholas Steinmetz line in Wayne and Stark Counties,
The family tradition and history of the Steinmetz family is that the Steinmetzes were munitions makers. The tradition goes on to state that Sebastien was not his parent's oldest son and would not inherit his father's munitions business. As a result, Sebastien was trained as a soldier and became a mercenary who hired out his military knowledge, ability, and leadership.
Sebastien eventually contracted to become an officer in the Royal French Army, commanding troops from the German-speaking region of Alsace, near the Rhein River and the border with Germany. By 1789 he had risen to the rank of General and was a commander in the army of King, Louis the XVI. He had settled his family in Schirrhein, a small town about 8 miles east of Hagenau, in Canton (County) de Bischwiller, Alsace, France, where he was the commander of the D' Oberhoffen Army Garrison at Schirrhein. More than 200 years later, the D' Oberrhoffen military garrison is still used as a French army base.
The French Army and the Revolution
Early in the Revolution many units of the French Army were suspected to be opposed to the Revolution. Many Royal French Army units were commanded by noblemen and aristocrats who were obviously loyal to the King, and they were removed from command. The remainder were commanded by mercenaries such as General Sebastien Steinmetz who worked for the King. Even though he was German and a mercenary, General Sebastien apparently remained in command of the D' Oberhoffen garrison at Schirrhein until the fall of 1791. He was relieved of his command about that time and became, temporarily, "Citizen Steinmetz."
Mayor Sebastien Steinmetz
In 1789 the National Assembly took several actions to begin organizing the towns and villages and make them responsive to the new central government in Paris. The National Assembly also specified that the mayors were to be elected by the village citizens. The Decree of the 4th of August (actually promulgated during the period of 4-11 August 1789) stated the democratic ideal: "All citizens, without distinction of birth, are eligible to any office or dignity, whether ecclesiastical, civil or military, and no profession shall imply any derogation." The citizens took that declaration literally, and voted ex-General Sebastien Steinmetz to be the first elected mayor of Schirrhoffen on 2 March 1791.
As the Revolution became more and more radical, thousands of refugees, mostly Catholic, fled the Revolutionary forces and headed towards the eastern provinces of France. Many hundreds of these refugees settled, temporarily, in the villages of Alsace. At the same time, other European powers worried that the French Revolution would inspire similar uprisings in their own countries. In August 1791 Austria and Prussia declared that the aristocracy and the rights of the King should be restored in France. On 20 April 1792 Austria and Prussia declared war on France and warned the French that they planned to do just that--restore the French monarchy and aristocracy. The history of their moves and failures can be read in the excerpt from "Paradise on the Steppe".
General Steinmetz - Back in Command
By September 1793 an alliance of England, France, and Holland joined with the Austrians and Prussians against the French revolutionaries. Counterrevolutionaries in France took up arms against the revolutionaries and ex-Army leaders took all, or part, of their old Army units and marched with the Prussians and Austrians towards Paris.
In 1792 Sebastien Steinmetz resigned his position as mayor. There are no records to detail what happened next but it appears that General Sebastien did what many of the relieved Generals of the monarchy did; rallied elements of his old command who were still loyal to the monarchy. They then joined the Austrians and the Prussians in their attempt to restore the French crown. This probably occurred as the Austrian General Wurmser passed through Schirrhein and marched on Hagenau where he established his new headquarters.
Both the invasion and the counter-revolution were doomed when the French Army and masses of armed revolutionary peasants turned back the Prussian Army at Valmy and then began to march on Catholic and monarchist villages. Schirrhein and Schirrhoffen were both Catholic and monarchist, and were in danger. It was late in 1793 and early 1794 when the revitalized French Army and revolutionary mobs marched toward Schirrhein and Schirrhoffen. What happened next is perhaps best told in the (translated) words of the history of Schirrhein, À La Lisière De La Foret, Schirrhein Schirrhoffen.
"A large part of the population had opposed the Revolution and many villages had welcomed General Wurmser as a true liberator. Now the population was afraid. They feared reprisals. A strong panic spread among the people. Thousands of people - farmers, workers, small businessmen and leading citizens abandoned their homes and sought refuge with the Austrian Army in the Palatinate [of Germany] or in the countryside in Baden [Germany]. This is when they appealed to the Great Maker. A witness of the time wrote that the Imperial [German] Army seemed able only to serve as escorts for all of the people who were fleeing. Even the cannon caissons were occupied by women and one could see infants and women in the baggage train of officers. They pressed in mass to cross the Rhine, until it was impossible for all to cross at once and mothers, with their children in their arms were thrown into the river by the crush, where they often drowned or fell into the hands of monsters in the water."
According to À La Lisière De La Foret, Schirrhein Schirrhoffen 125 persons from Schirrhein and 51 from Schirrhoffen fled the French revolutionaries and their homes and became refugees in Germany. Among those refugees were General Sebastien Steinmetz's family and some of their relatives and friends; the Dannenmuller (Dannemiller), Lang, and Issemann families. General Sebastien did not flee. He remained behind, in France.
Two Family Traditions Regarding the Death of General Sebastien
The French Revolution resulted in the overthrow the French royal family and led to their execution. Additionally, thousands of other political and military leaders who were loyal to the King were executed. That was, according to one family tradition, the fate that befell General Steinmetz. Family oral history actually tells two stories of his death but the beheading is the more colorful of the two. Tradition also has it that he was the last person in executed during the French Revolution. This was the first tradition researched and analyzed.
The guillotine story is provably wrong. King Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. The so-called "Reign of Terror" lasted from September of 1792 to July 1793, but some beheadings continued until the end of July of 1794.
In an effort to determine additional information regarding the death of Sebastien Steinmetz, the author wrote to the Chef du Service Historique de la Armee de Terre in Paris and requested information on Sebastien Steinmetz who was allegedly beheaded in 1793. The response revealed that no person of that name is known to have been guillotined in any year of the Revolution, although it was stated that the records are known to be incomplete.
The convincing direct evidence that General Sebastien was not guillotined
was found in À La Lisière De La Foret, Schirrhein
Schirrhoffen. It states (translated from
"The Terror in Alsace was personified in a dramatic fashion by the sinister personage of Euloge Schneider, also a former church official. Having become a public accuser for the revolutionary Tribunal of Strasbourg, he took the guillotine across the country. He made it fall on many heads. He stayed briefly at Schirrhein. His guillotine was installed for two days in the courtyard situated next to the restaurant 'Of the Star', but it seemed that no condemnation had been pronounced."
It is clear that there is no record of anyone from Schirrhein having been guillotined, even General Sebastien Steinmetz.
The second family tradition regarding General Sebastien is that he was shot. Descendant Grace Agnes recalled that her mother, Helen Mary (Simler) Agnes told her the story that she had heard from her grandmother, Helena (Steinmetz) Simler. Helen Mary lived with her grandmother and undoubtedly had heard the story more than once. Her story was that in the latter stages of the French Revolution Sebastien's family fled to safety. Sebastien got separated from them but learned where they were located. According to the story, the family was in Germany, across the Rhine River from Schirrhein. Sebastien was crossing the river to rejoin them when he was shot and killed by the radical Revolutionary forces.
The St. Nicolas parish records relating to Schirrhoffen including the record of the death of General Sebastien on 20 January 1794. The death record states that he was shot while crossing the Rhine River and died in the town of Steinbach, Baden, Germany. The death record also states that Sebastien "fusilier," (a light infantry soldier). A similar death record for Sebastien Steinmetz is also contained in the parish death records of St. Jacob Catholic Church in Steinbach. He was probably buried in the church cemetery at Steinbach.
Steinbach is about 15 miles east of Schirrhein and Schirrhoffen. The Catholic parish records of Steinbach contain many references to the refugees who fled persecution in France in the latter part of the French Revolution. Many Steinmetz, Lang, and other Schirrhein and Schirrhoffen families related to the Steinmetzes were among them.