Family embraces its history, thick with Civil War connections

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Although they’ve visited Gettysburg in the past, Ryan Berley and his uncle George Grounds Sprowls have a newfound appreciation for the site. As droves of visitors gather today for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address, Berley, Sprowls and their family are there honoring ancestors who fought in the Civil War.


Growing up, Berley heard tales of his two great-grandfathers and a great-uncle who fought during the Civil War and at Gettysburg. After graduating from Washington & Jefferson College in 1998, Berley’s interest in his family’s past peaked. Using some information his late grandfather, Wilbert Sprowls of Houston, had found, Berley picked his way through the items to learn more about the three men he heard tales of years ago.


“I’ve always had an interest … but my grandfather, Wilbert, he was the original family genealogist. We were fortunate to have his leg work,” said Berley, of Philadelphia.


With the help of the Internet, his grandfather’s research and old letters unearthed from storage, Berley learned more about his great-grandfathers, James Himmeger and William Henry Grounds, and James’ half brother, Davis Himmeger.


“My grandparents actually knew them,” he said.


In anticipation of the address, Berley, who has taken over the role of family historian, has been busy deciphering their relatives’ pasts so the rest of his family could have access to the details.


“Within the last year, I’ve dug out old family records,” he said. “And within the last two weeks, I’ve been feverishly digging, trying to find the war history.”


James Himmeger of North Strabane Township and Grounds, of Mount Gretna, were farmers in Washington County when they enlisted. Himmeger joined the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and was wounded at Gettysburg July 2, 1863, in the Wheatfield Battle. Himmeger continued to serve until he was discharged May 22, 1865. Grounds served with Company B, 155th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, as a drummer in the Regimental Fife & Drum Corps before he was discharged June 2, 1865. Davis Himmeger, of West Finley, also was a farmer who enlisted in Company E, 85th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Davis died in a Baltimore hospital in 1862 of typhoid fever.


“We have a whole series of letters from him,” Berley said. “Letters to and from his wife. We didn’t know these letters existed. They were packed away. It is tremendously emotional to read.”


After Davis Himmeger died, Berley said his widow was sent his military jacket and a certificate of honor.


“We still have them,” he said. “They are precious family heirlooms.”


Armed with this knowledge, Sprowls, of Washington, said this trip to Gettysburg is “personal.” The grandson of Grounds, Sprowls said he was unaware that his grandfather fought in the Civil War, until his nephew informed him.


“It gives you an interest,” Sprowls said.


Berley said the family chose to attend the commemorative speech instead of going in July, the anniversary of the battle, so that it would be a quieter time. The trip, which also will be a mini-reunion with family coming from Washington, North Carolina and Philadelphia, will include tours and a re-enactment.


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