Hurkamp’s Tannery and Sumac Mill

This is my 50th blog post. Thanks to each of you who follow my blog.

John Herman Gerhardt Hurkamp was born in Quakenbrueck, Hanover (Germany) on December 10, 1818. He learned his trade as an apprentice currier (someone who dyes and preserves leather from hides) prior to emigrating to America in 1840. He began in Baltimore, Maryland, but movedto Fredericksburg in 1843. He became a US citizen in 1847.


John G. Hurkamp. Entrepeneur, businessman and citizen of Fredericksburg. Likely a post-war portrait, photographer is unknown.

By 1856, John Hurkamp was successful enough in his leather business to purchase one half acre of land from George Rowe. Two subsequent land purchases from Rowe increased his holding to one acre. Located on the Plank Road (sometimes known as the New Turnpike, or Commerce Street, and now called William Street), this was where he built his tannery and sumac mill. This property was tucked into a plot of land just below where the Plank Road began its rise to go over Marye’s Heights. It was fed by Poplar Spring on the western outskirts of Fredericksburg. The spring provided the needed water for his business. The Sanborne Insurance maps show the Hurkamp Tannery and Sumac Mill located on the south side of the road. This fold in the land and the tannery building would play a part in the battle of Fredericksburg.


Sanborne Insurance Map. The area highlighted in red approximates the Tannery and Sumac Mill of 1862. The location of the Union sharpshooter, who so infuriated E.P. Alexander, was at the top left corner of the Sumac Mill. This map dated 1891, shows the layout of the property renovated following the Civil War on at least two occasions.

The facility included 50 large tanning vats, using up to 10,000 gallons of tanning liquor daily, processing 12,000 hides a year. While Hurkamp could now tan his own hides, he, along with all other American tanners, was dependent on imported sumac from Sicily for the tanning medium. His genius was to recognize that a different variety of sumac grew in abundance in America, so he focused his considerable energies and talent on grinding his own sumac. He set up a mill on the property to find a correct mix of bark and leaves for a tanning medium. By 1860 he had perfected the grinding and use of American sumac for the tanning process and his effort bore fruit. His leather always took top premium at the fair and in 1876; he was awarded a bronze medal at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In 1878 he was awarded the top prize at the Paris Exhibition for his high quality sumac tanning product. By 1880 this product had become a major export of the United States. He made a small fortune selling and exporting his sumac tanning product.


Detail of Fredericksburg as it appeared in 1856 on a Sachse lithograph print of the town. We are interested in the meadow land and John Hurkamp’s Tannery and Sumac Mill found with the yellow circle. The Plank road (William Street) is to the right of Hurkamp’s property. Hanover is to the left of the yellow circle. Just inside the yellow circle at its top is the trace of the Sunken Road.

The 1860 census lists John Hurkamp, age 42, as a master currier. He, with his wife Elizabeth and five daughters, along with an apprentice currier were living in town on Hanover Street. He was listed as having $13,000 value in real estate and personal wealth of $15,000. He owned one female slave and hired one additional female slave, both possibly to work at the house. The same census provides a glimpse of his manufacturing operation.  Here he is listed as a tanner and currier, with capital invested of $15,000. Raw materials on hand included; 3,000 hides, 250 cords of bark, 200 tons of ‘shumac’, 600 barrels of oil. His tannery and mill was powered by hand labor and steam. He had ten male employees, earning $200 a month. His annual production of leather is listed at 20 tons.  The value of this was: sole leather $12,000, upper leather$6,000 and other leather goods $2,000.


Detail view of the 1867 Michler map of Fredericksburg. Highlighted are Hurkamp’s Tannery and Sumac Mill, the George Rowe house and out buildings, Sisson’s Store, the Stanton house and Mercer Square. Note the significant slope that curls around Hurkamp’s property which then broadens out as it approaches the Rowe house on Hanover Street. Hurkamp drew water which came from natural springs in that hillside for his tannery.

Fredericksburg was an important Confederate logistics center between April 1861 and March 1862. Between July 15, 1861 and December 9, 1862, confederate quartermasters obtained supplies valued at more than $700 from Hurkamps tannery. These requisitions included: four “wagon whips”, six drum heads, 73 airs of traces, and two rolls of “upper” shoe leather. In October 1862, John Hurkamp entered into a contract:

to deliver to the Confederate States, through Major R.P. Waller[,] Q[arte]r M[aste]r Thirty sides black upper Leather per week for the next four months ending 15th Feby 1863 at one dollar & fifty cents per pound at such price per side as may by determined by Maj. Waller. The leather to be delivered in Richmond Va [,] the Government paying all freight from Fredericksburg.

“The above… is made with the proviso that the Government detail Julius A. Weston on Braxton’s [Fredericksburg] Artillery…whose services will be required to assist in the preparation of the leather…”

So how does the Hurkamp Tannery and Sumac Mill fit into what happened on this patch of ground below Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg that cold December day in 1862?

The land we are interested in is a 25 acre (10 hectares) rectangular meadow owned by George Rowe. It is bounded by Hanover Street on the south, the Plank Road (William Street) on the north, the Sunken Road on the west and the canal-ditch on the east.  The southwest corner at the junction of Hanover Street and the Sunken Road is the highest elevation at 90 feet. The northwest corner at the Plank Road and Sunken Road is 68 feet. Along the eastern edge, the canal-ditch today stands at 42 feet along its length between the Plank Road and Hanover Street. The Rowe house property along Hanover Street ranges between 58 and 68 feet of elevation. The Hurkamp tannery was at 50 feet. On the Michler map, you can see a decided slope just to the west of the Hurkamp establishment. This swale becomes less pronounced as you go south, approaching the Rowe house.


AA #2 map – Michler 1867 map annotated with Union Avenues of Approach. Avenue of Approach #2 (Blue) came out of the city on Hanover Street. Hurkamp’s Tannery and Sumac Mill stood on the northern edge of this approach (yellow arrow). Confederate positions (red) and artillery batteries (names in black) are noted. Captain Moody’s artillery position is found in the top center. The original Michler map was overlaid by Phil Brown to show current roads (white) and railroads (green).

Most of the Union attacks against Marye’s Heights occurred south of this rectangle of land. Union units of Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard’s Second Division, under Brigadier General Alfred Sully and Colonel Norman J. Hall, saw most of the action on this rectangle of land. There was a brief incursion by 5th Corps troops under Brigadier Erasmus B. Tyler as Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys began the last attack of the battle against the stone wall. These green troops did no more than occupy the low ground adjacent to the canal-ditch before they were hustled south of the Rowe house complex to begin their attack. I covered some of this action in a piece concerning the Donaldsonville Artillery under Captain Landry (read here).

The last Union troops to occupy this ground seldom get mentioned, if at all, because they entered the field after dark on the 13th of December. These were the two brigades of US Regulars in Brigadier General George Sykes’ Second Division. Those units under Major George Andrews 2nd Brigade relieved prior Union regiments and held the area of the Swale in Mercer Square to the south of Hanover Street. The units that concern us most were those of the 1st Brigade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Buchanan. His report says in part: “About 11 p.m. [on the 13th] I was ordered to occupy the line on the crest of the first hill , then occupied by the brigade of Colonel Hall, which was the extreme point that our troops had reached on that side of Hanover street road.”

“My command was in position by 12.30 a.m., and remained there until relieved the next night by a portion of Sully’s brigade. The position occupied by my brigade was the crest of a hill, terminating on the Hanover street road on the left, and a brick tannery on the Plank road, on the right, and about 250 yards from a stone wall and series of rifle-pits, covering the entire front occupied by the enemy…. The enemy occupied some small frame houses on the right of the Plank road, from which they could annoy our line very much. At daylight firing commenced between the pickets, and it was soon found that my position was completely commanded, so that if an individual showed his head above the crest of the hill he was picked off by the enemy’s sharpshooters immediately, especially those on the right.”

“About 11 a.m. the Third and Fourth Infantry effected an entrance into the tannery with their bayonets, through the brick wall next to Hanover street, and soon after loop-holed the wall on the Plank road, and occupied the windows fronting the enemy, and from these positions drove him from the houses and rifle-pits on the right, so that he could not occupy them during the day.”

Captain John D. Wilkins of the 3rd US Infantry provides the following information: “About 12 o’clock at night we were ordered to advance…Our position was behind a building called the tannery, and our pickets extended some 300 yards beyond and to the right.”

“At daybreak I found the pickets entirely unprotected, and exposed to a murderous fire from the enemy’s rifle-pits and concealed sharpshooters in our immediate vicinity…”

“It may well to remark that, on account of the mud and water covering the ground we occupied, it was impossible to either sit or lie down without becoming thoroughly wet, and the accuracy of fire was such that an attempt to attend to even the ordinary wants of nature subjected one to certain destruction. An entrance having been made at the latter part of the day into the tannery, enabled us to loop-hole it, and out fire and that of the Fourth Infantry, we were relieved in a measure from the fire of the enemy…”


Battle positions of Brigadier General George Sykes’ Second Division. Those units under Major George Andrews 2nd Brigade relieved prior Union regiments and held the area of the Swale in Mercer Square to the south of Hanover Street. The units that concern us most were those of the 1st Brigade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Buchanan. Both of these brigades remained in position for 24 hours from roughly 11 p.m. on the evening of the battle until 11 p.m. on the 14 of December. During daylight on the 14th, these Union troops could not move for fear falling prey to Confederate sharpshooters. As with the previous map, modern roads are an overlay on the 1867 Michler map original.

National Park Service historian Noel Harrison provided an interesting incident in which Confederate Colonel E.P. Alexander, who commanded a number of reserve batteries on Marye’s Heights, effectively countered the Union use of the tannery:

[One of Buchanan’s sharpshooters at] the loop hole in the corner on the Plank Road could see up the road…[and] had a fair shot at every…[Confederate] who crossed….he had several shots at me during the day, & though he missed me every time, I acquired a special animosity to him. That night [December 14-15] a train from Richmond arrived with a large supply of ammunition….Gen. [James] Longstreet gave me permission to use a few score shell the next day to get even…

“When the sun was about an hour high the nest of sharpshooters [who had replaced Buchanan’s men] in the tanyard announced their ability to see by opening a very lively fusillade. I happened to be nearby, & I at once determined to rout them. But the building was so…hidden by intervening low hills and trees, that only one gun, one of [Captain George] Moody’s 24pr. Howitzers, could even the peak of its roof be seen. But I knew that if I only skimmed the top of the low intervening hill the shell would curve downward & probably get low enough for the loop holes. The howitzer was on the south of the Plank Road & some 400 yards off. I got the line…on the roof & sighted in that line…aiming myself, & taking several minutes to get all exact. Then I ordered fire. Standing behind we could see the shell almost brush the grass, as it curved over the hill, & then we heard her strike & explode. At once there came a cheer from out picket line in front of the hill, & presently there came running up an excited fellow….He called out as he came—‘That got ‘em! That got ‘em! You can hear them just a hollering & a groaning in there’.

“I examined the place the next day, after the enemy had left. I had made a perfect shot. The shell struck within a foot of the corner loop hole…It knocked off most of the head of the sharp shooter, & the walls of the room on all sides were scarred by fragments of shell and brick. They left his body in the room, & doubtless others were wounded by the fragments…but carried off…not another shot was fired from the tanyard…”

EP Alexander is considered a very reliable source when reading war and post-war reports and books. While I want to believe his explanation, I find I have a few questions. 1) Where was the location of Moody’s 24 pound howitzer? If we take Alexander’s 400 yards at face value, this puts the location on top of Marye’s Heights in full view of Federal artillery. 2) Moody was part of the second line of positions established by General Lee designed to plaster Marye’s Heights if the Union should break through. His plotted location to the north of the Plank Road was 1,540 yards (1,410 meters) from the Sunken Road and 1,710 yards (1,560 meters) from Hurkamp’s building. That positon is circled in red on the Union Avenue of Approach map (see above). The range of the 24 pound howitzer is given as 1,322 yards (1,208 meters) at five degrees elevation. Moody’s position to the top of the Heights was at the farthest range of the howitzer. In order to get close enough to target Hurkamp’s tannery building, the howitzer would need to move forward. OR, given Moody’s elevation (approximately 200 feet), did EP Alexander gain additional range because of his elevation advantage (200 feet at the gun and 50 feet at the Sumac Mill)? Whatever Alexander did, it apparently worked. Our problem is that we do not know the exact location of the howitzer. Could this firing at the tannery, which prevented the Union from using it as a fortress, have taken place? Yes. It’s just the details that are not quite in alignment. It likely did happen as Alexander recounted after the war. I found an account of the Philadelphia Brigade that says in part: “Towards noon the Confederates opened with artillery, that made the tannery no longer tenable, and the regiment fell back to the shelter of the canal, losing several men in the effort.”

Hurkamp did not come out of the war unscathed. In a statement of losses recorded in Fredericksburg Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, Hurkamp lists losses for the December 1862 battle as: leather destroyed – $7,000, stoves [or staves], tools, lasts etc. destroyed – 2,500, oils destroyed $1,200, damage to bark, hides, etc. – $1,500, damage to Sumac Mill & sumac – $1,000.

John Hurkamp’s house on Hanover Street was briefly used as a headquarters for Major General John Sedgewick in the second battle of Fredericksburg during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Sedgewick provided Hurkamp with a letter of thanks for his kindness to himself and his staff, despite Hurkamp being a confederate sympathizer.  A few months later, in retaliation for the arrest of some Federal stragglers in Fredericksburg, 56 Fredericksburg citizens, including John Hurkamp, were arrested and taken to a military prison at Fort Delaware. When Hurkamp showed General Sedgwick’s letter, he received an immediate release from President Lincoln. The others were held for two months.


2016 Aerial photo with topographic lines. John Hurkamp’s Tannery and Sumac Mill are superimposed in yellow. Note how it was tucked into the landscape on level ground. He used water from the springs that seeped out of the hill for his tannery. Ultimately he had 50 vats for processing leather.

At the conclusion of the war, Hurkamp went to New York and Baltimore. He borrowed $5,000, and returned to Fredericksburg and restarted his business. The property showed evidence of 42 holes made by cannon balls and Union soldier loop-holing. On June 24, 1865, just a few weeks after the surrender at Appomattox, the local Fredericksburg Ledger newspaper carried an article that highlighted Hurkamps’ efforts to get his mill and tannery back in operation.

In post-war years, John Hurkamp was a leader in the community. He sat on the city council and used his wealth to better the community. John G. Hurkamp died on April 28, 1886.

A little postscript provided by Eric Nelson of Fredericksburg as a little bit of oral history.  The tannery building on William Street blocked what is now Littlepage Street. Before the tannery was demolished, the two blocks of Brompton Street were a popular sledding place for kids because there was no cross-traffic. This was the same slope which Union soldiers hunkered down on during and after the battle, attempting to stay out of the line of Confederate fire.


Alexander, Edward P. The Battle of Fredericksburg, Southern Historical collection, University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill. p 180-1.

Banes, Charles H., History of the Philadelphia Brigade, Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1876, p 144.,+charles+H.+History+of+the+Philadelphia+Brigade,+Lippincott+and+Co,+1876&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiejKvp8qDWAhUI2IMKHWJvA2MQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=Banes%2C%20charles%20H.%20History%20of%20the%20Philadelphia%20Brigade%2C%20Lippincott%20and%20Co%2C%201876&f=false

Bowen, Charles T., Dear Friends at Hom, The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen, Cassedy, Edward K., ed, Baltimore, Butternut and Blue, p 202.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington D.C., 1890-1901. Series 1.

No. 184. Report of Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Buchanan, Fourth U.S. Infantry, Commanding First Brigade. OR 21, 418-9.

No. 185. Report of Capt. John D. Wilkins, Third U.S. Infantry. p 420.

Harrison, Noel G., Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volume One, Lynchburg, H.E. Howard, p 58-59.

Harrison, Noel G., Setting the Stage for war: A Pictorial Proto-Website from 1856, January 18, 2012,

Hodge, Robert A., Fredericksburgers Famous, Infamous and Otherwise, A Bicentennial lecture Germania Community College, 1975.

Reese, Timothy J., Sykes’ Regulars Infantry Division, 1861-1864,Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Co., 1990., p 176.

Rokus, Josef W. Fredericksburg German Heritage, The Germans in Fredericksburg, Virginia, at the Time of the Civil War, December 1, 2006, unpublished manuscript on file at Central Rappahannock Regional Library, p 39-48.


Michler 1867 map of Fredericksburg

Michler 1867 map of Fredericksburg with Current Street overlay by Philip Brown, City of Fredericksburg.

Sanborne Insurance Maps Fredericksburg, Mar 1891, Sheet 7.

2016 Aerial map of Fredericksburg


John G. Hurkamp by unknown, on file at Central Rappahannock Regional Library.


About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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