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Bringing life to history

Retired history teacher translates Civil War letters.

The world is a rich web of people and places connected across hundreds of years and thousands of miles. That is at least one perspective on life, geography, and history held by retired Long Prairie-Grey Eagle high school German teacher Jim Downes.

Downes can produce the proof of this interconnectedness of time, space, and people in his dining room over tea and brownies. While one of the winter’s first blizzards kicks up its heals outside the big dining room window, he lays on the table a fat spiral notebook. On its pages is this:

“I am grabbing my pen (quill) again to write you a few lines. I greet you all, my mother and brother and sister and I hope that my writing will find you all in good health. I have been up until now rather healthy. Until we come back to Little Rock from our latest expedition, we stayed here a few days and then we went to Pint Bluff, where we are now. I think we won’t stay here long enough for this letter to reach home.”

Those are the words of Union soldier Konrad Reineke in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, written to his family in Deerfield, Minnesota. He was a Private in the 3rd Regiment of the Minnesota Infantry, Company F. The letter’s date is May 1, 1864.

Jim Downes has a Xeroxed copy of Konrad Reineke’s letter. Since he sees the world as a web, he is interested in web lines from Reineke to other contemporary events. Downes points out that early in the Civil War, at the invitation of the local citizens, Pine Bluff (Pint Bluff in Reineke’s letter) was occupied by Union forces. At times Confederate forces surrounded the town and, in October of 1863, rebel soldiers led by the Confederate General Marmaduke unsuccessfully besieged it. Soldiers like Reineke had a hard time of it during battle but their lot was also difficult when they weren’t fighting.

“The conditions for the Union soldiers were bad,” Jim Downes said. “This letter was written toward the end of the war. The drinking water was terrible and almost all of the troops got sick.”

Here’s what Konrad Reineke had to say to his family about those conditions.

“You can’t find water in the whole south like you can in Minnesota,” the soldier wrote. “Sometimes I would have given 10 Cents for a drink of water from our well (at home on the farm in Minnesota). One may not drink this water or it makes you sick on the spot. Many of our recruits got sick when they first came to Arkansas. Now they are all healthy again.”

The thread that connects Konrad Reineke, and his dreams of a clean drink of water, across time and space to Jim Downes could be the simple fact that Jim has in his possession a copy of an old letter. No facts are that simple, however. In this strange web we live in there are no direct lines of connection and there is always more than one way to get from one point to another. The connections that put that letter in Jim’s hands involve great events in American and European history which in turn effected the decisions of numerous individuals over the last fifteen decades or more.

That’s pretty dramatic. But true. The letter was originally written in German, Reineke’s native tongue. Jim got the letter from Jürgen Brunkhorst. Jürgen is married to the German teacher who took Jim’s position when he retired. Jürgen is from Germany and his first language is German. He was trained as a surveyor in Germany. He is practicing that profession in the U.S. He got the letter from a surveying colleague in southern Minnesota. The surveying colleague is Mark Reineke.

“Conrad is my great, great grandfather in this order; Conrad, Henry, Daniel, Thomas, Mark,” Mark said.

Since Jürgen is an educated German, Mark assumed Jürgen could translate the letter to English. He was wrong.

“The letter was written in the old German Cursive,” Jim said. “Jürgen could not read that. They don’t teach younger people that anymore. But Jürgen knew I could read it and translate it.”

Jim Downes likes to pluck the threads of the web to see what he can learn from other parts of it. So, he decided not to decipher the letter on his own. First he gave it to his friend Jay Rieffer. Jim Downes had taught Jay Rieffer how to convert the German Cursive into the Roman letters.

“He was able to write it in the modern alphabet and then I translated it into English,” Jim said. “He knows the Russian-German dialect but I have been giving him High German lessons.”

Jim and Jay enjoy working together because they are both endlessly curious. Jay’s family came from the Volga German Republic at the beginning of the 20th century. Jim and Jay have worked together to learn what happened to the Germans who got caught in the Volga German Republic during World War II.

“The Russians sent the Germans in the Volga German Republic to Siberia during the war,” Jim said. “They were forbidden to speak German and when they were repatriated to Germany they had lost their German-ness. We have been corresponding with a man that wrote a book about his experiences in Siberia.”

But Siberia, the Volga German Republic, and lost German-ness are another story for another time.

Jim and Jay did translate Konrad Reineke’s letter into English and now the young soldier’s thoughts and words to his family are available for his ancestors and others to read.

“I am thankful that on the 15th of this month we will be paid. I think that Gottlieb and I will send home our money together by express (mail). Now my loved ones, this is the first letter that I am also sending home therefore I hope that I haven’t forgotten to endorse the checks,”

Reineke wrote to his family long ago.

Konrad Reineke’s letter isn’t the first letter from the past Jim has translated. People have been bringing him letters to translate since he came to Long Prairie in the 1960s. He has rarely charged a fee.

“I enjoy doing it. It’s like a crossword puzzle and these translation are addictive,” he said. “Besides, I love history.”

Some years ago Jim translated a group of letters written by Bernhardine Maria Uphoff and her husband, August Heinrich, during the 1890s. The Uphoff’s lived in Stearns County, Minnesota and wrote to relatives in Bersenbruck-Priggenhen, Germany. The letters were found in a trunk in Germany.

The story of the connections that brought those letters to Jim is also a story for another time.

Authors note: In his letter Konrad Reineke spelled his name with a K. Sometime later in his life, or in the next generation, the K was changed to a C. In some documents his last name is spelled Reinke.

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