Balthasar Best and the American Dream

By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved

I was first introduced to Balthasar (also Balthazar) Best by his great grandson, Bill Lasswell, almost two years ago (2003) on the battlefield at Gettysburg. My grandson, Eric, and I had just parked near the Pennsylvania Monument on our auto tour and had walked across the road to the tableau describing the actions of the 1st Minnesota when an older couple approached us. The man said he had noticed that my license plates were from Cuyahoga County. He told us how his great grandfather, Balthasar Best, who had fought with the 1st Minnesota, had survived a shipwreck in 1850 somewhere off the shores of Cuyahoga County when he was just a boy. Mr. Lasswell then asked if I might know anyone named Kleinschmidt – the name of the family that took the young Balthasar in when he managed to reach shore. I told him that I didn’t but that I would do some research when I got home on the shipwreck and the Kleinschmidts.

Several weeks later I visited the library at the Western Reserve Historical Society to see what I could learn about shipwrecks in 1850, the Best family and maybe even the Kleinschmidts. Using some of the same sources I once used in finding my German ancestors’ arrivals in this country, I found a record of the Best family – mother, father and eight children leaving Darmstadt in Germany and arriving in New York in early June 1850. I then found a record of the wreck of the steamer, G.P. Griffith – actually a fire that burned it to the water line – some 220 yards off the coast of what is now Willowick on June 17, 1850. It would prove to be the ship the ill-fated Best family had taken from Buffalo to reach Toledo. I was unable to find anything on any Kleinschmidts.

Ohio Historical Marker commemorating the Griffith Disaster

The burning of the Griffith was one of the worst maritime disasters on the Great Lakes killing almost everyone on board (286 dead of about 300 passengers – mostly immigrants.) The victims were buried in a mass grave on the beach which is now part of the lake. There’s an Ohio Historical Marker in a Willowick park at E. 305 and Lakeshore Blvd. commemorating the Griffith and its passengers. (Although no one knows for sure why the Griffith ignited, a new oil used on this trip was considered to be a possible cause.) I sent the Lasswells copies of what I had learned of the Griffith and the Best family. I received a note back thanking me for my help and telling me my information was almost 100% new to them. I continued my research on the internet and at the Cleveland Public Library.

Balthasar’s father, Jacob, was a doctor who on the advice of another doctor brought his family here in pursuit of the American dream, one that would die for all of them but Balthasar in Erie’s waters. Twelve-year-old Balthasar survived, somehow making it to shore where he was taken in by a German family. This family, however, treated him poorly, and a new friend of his – Jacob Kleinschmidt – had his family offer him a home.

Balthasar moved to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in 1856 where he learned the trade of cabinet making before moving to Winona, Minnesota in 1859. There he learned the trade of sash and door making. At age 23 he enlisted into Company K of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment on April 29, 1861. (A clerk at that time dropped the “h” in his name and recorded it as “Baltasar.” I’ve also seen it spelled as “Baltassar.”) He was 5’6”tall with gray eyes and brown hair. His childhood friend, Jacob, also enlisted – believed to be Company A of the 37th Ohio Infantry in September 1861. (Jacob would die in battle the following year.)

Balthasar Best

Balthasar kept a diary of his war years. He would fight in twenty battles during his three years of service, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Bristol Station. He had his gun shot out of his hands at Gettysburg during the regiment’s famous charge on July 2nd against Wilcox’s Alabama’s Brigade when the rebels wounded or killed 170 of 300 Minnesotans. Some records say he was wounded at Bristol Station. (He never mentions a wound so it may have been slight.) He mustered out on May 5, 1864. (His diary is in German and is now being translated into English by Ewald J. Hausdorf, a former military attaché for Austria. My contribution to his work is a picture of the Griffith Historical Marker which he asked to send.)

Having barely survived a shipwreck, the cruelty of his first foster family and three years of action in the Civil War, he returned to Winona still looking for that great American dream. He would soon find it. He married Francisca (Fanny) Salentine, another German immigrant, in Winona soon after his return. They left Minnesota for Iowa in 1872, first to Tama City where they ran a restaurant and then in 1873 to Traer where they had their only child, Minnie, in 1876. He first put up a building where he ran a restaurant and then another building where he and his wife ran a restaurant and hotel – “Best House.” He would later add a grocery store and a dry goods store to his enterprises.

Balthasar – or simply “B” as he was affectionately known – was a member of the Safely G. A. R. Post in Traer, and he attended several reunions of veterans of the First Minnesota Infantry. He said he had developed rheumatism after the Battle of Gettysburg and the rigors of the war – especially troublesome, he said, when standing picket duty in wet weather. He eventually lost the use of both legs due to rheumatism. Fanny and B died in 1909 and are buried in Traer. His obituary said he was “one of Traer’s most notable residents, one of her most widely known citizens, one of her most successful businessmen and one of the bravest yet most tender hearted men.”

Author’s note: After sending the Lasswells more of my research along with copies of several papers that reported the Griffith disaster in Cleveland, I received this note:

My mother and all of our family were amazed and thrilled to read a contemporaneous account of the Griffith demise. My mother is 97. She was five when Balthasar died. Especially during his last year, my mother spent much time watching and visiting with him. All of his life he wanted to know the cause of the fire. My mother told me that Balthasar related to her that his father had gathered the whole family on the deck, said a brief prayer and told them to jump.

Thank you,
Bill Lasswell