Home > History of Wine > William Heyser’s efforts at planting vines and making wine during the Civil War.

William Heyser’s efforts at planting vines and making wine during the Civil War.


William Heyser (October 6, 1796 – November 6, 1863) operated several successful business including coppersmithing and paper manufacturing.  His profits allowed him to purchased several farms outside of Chambersburg in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  He kept a diary which chronicles just over the last year of his life while he was at home during the Civil War. William Heyser wrote but three entries related to vineyards and wine. Taken out of context they are simply interesting for the sheer frankness at the difficulties he faced.  To provide context, I have included additional diary entries because they highlight the weather, the destruction from the army, and the destruction from the insects.  You should certainly read the entire diary for an unbiased view.

William Heyser was clearly aware that his body was old and that he would die sooner rather than later yet he continued to work on his farm and in his garden.  He did so amongst the repeated damage from large camps of soldiers and cavalry maneuvers.  William Heyser noted the importance of birds in controlling the insect population but with the arrival of the Rebels a stench fell, the birds left, and the insects prospered.  His final entries are frank about his losing battle against weeds and caterpillars.

Chambersburg, PA during the Civil War. [2]

Chambersburg, PA during the Civil War. [2]

OCTOBER 4 [1862]
To my farm, find it too dry to plant anything. It will be a loss this year, for a good crop if there is no immediate rain.

OCTOBER 10 [1862]
Rain today. A great saving for the farmers who were facing a great drought.

OCTOBER 14 [1862]
Pleasant. Out to my farm to ascertain the damage done by the soldiers. Much fencing gone for fuel, and what corn they didn’t use, tried to burn. Many farmers without horses and at a loss to do any work. We find no buildings burned or occupants harmed.

NOVEMBER 5 [1862]
Cold and rough. At the farm to plant some grapes.

MARCH 9 [1863]
Damp and unpleasant. Spent time at bank and then to gas works. Attempted to make some wine, but fear it is all ruined, at this business I am not adept.

APRIL 27 [1863]
Beautiful day. Out to my farm with my colored man, Proctor, to set out some fruit trees. I am tired, doubt if I will see their fruit, but others will.

APRIL 28 [1863]
Clear and bright. Went again to the farm, this morning, put in some corn and potatoes. Also put up some bird boxes. I am fond of their presence and music, and useful to keeping off insects. They add charm to a country place.

JUNE 2 [1863]
Clear but windy. To my farm to work in my garden, the weeds are making rapid progress. Weeds are like sin, always giving trouble, and hard to exterminate.

JUNE 24 [1863]
Clear. The Rebels are active. They have closely kept plans, something is afoot. I was notified that a meeting with the principal citizens was requested to hear their demands.

I hear my tenant farmer, Thos. Miller, was shot at while plowing his corn. I have felt much concern for him, but cannot get thru the line.

JULY 2, 1863
The Rebels leaving their sick behind for us to nurse and care for. A few stragglers are to be seen, but the worst is over. We congratulate ourselves that we still have a roof over our heads. About 12, in the company of two other men, I walked out to my farm to assess the damage. Everywhere were holes cut in fences and grain trampled down by the exercises of the cavalry. I sustained a great amount of damage, nearly 4,000 men have encamped here. All of my fence gone, about 40 acres of oats and much damage to all other crops. My houses were all robbed of clothing and any kind of gear with which to work.

In passing over the fields and woods where they encamped, there is already a great stench.

JULY 5 [1863]
I notice that most of our birds have gone since the appearance of the Rebels, and that flies and insects are more numerous.

THURSDAY, JULY 23rd [1863]
To my farm, fences nearly all gone, will take perhaps $2,000 to repair damage to farm.

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 9th [1863]
My wife and I to the farm. The weeds are unmanageable, the insects have taken all over.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th [1863]
Plague of caterpillars destroying my grapevines.

[November 5th, 1863]
[William Heyser died.]


[1] Franklin County: Diary of William Heyser (1862-1863). URL: http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/FD1004
[2] Chambersburg. Civil War Image Database, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/govdoc/search_images.html).

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