The Merchant of Caroline

The wittiest are often able to rise above others and overcome the times. And during times of war, it becomes even more apparent. Henry Gunst was one of those individuals.


Henry Gunst
(Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives)

Born in Bavaria in 1833, the young Gunst immigrated to New York accompanied by his older brother. He met his wife and was married in Richmond by Rabbi M. J. Michelbacker in 1857. They settled a couple of years later in Caroline Co., Va. to raise a family and begin a new career. He took-up selling dry goods in the town and was making a modest living by 1860.


Presentation flag of Co. E, 30th Virginia Infantry, recently restored to original appearance. Interestingly, the maker personalized each individual face to an original member of the unit.
Click to learn more
(Museum of the Confederacy)

Tensions were brewing across the country that year, following the fiasco at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. led by radical abolitionist John Brown. Local militias were formed and prepared for action at a moment’s notice. Perhaps it was business transacted with locals or the fact that his own children were born to Virginia, but Gunst initially mustered-in with the “Bowling Green Guards” in the early spring of 1861. The group was later designated Co. F and placed in the 30th regiment of Virginia Volunteers but Gunst stayed behind.[1]


Receipt written to Capt. C. Stiles Mills of the 1st Texas Infantry, for leather intended to harness wagons.[2] The deal was made before the regiment boarded trains at the Millford depot en route Ashland, Va. on April 8th. (Fold3)

Instead, he turned to what he knew best. As early as May 9th, Gunst began to sell his wares to the newborn Confederate army. War was fueled by its dependency on the population for material and Gunst was able to continue his occupation by transacting to the Confederate States Quartermaster’s Department in Richmond, though the 28-year old was of age for military service. He first began selling headwear and boxes of percussion caps to the Ordnance Bureau, but afterwards exclusively dealt leather from his tannery shop.[3]


Conscript office at Camp Lee, June 1862.
(Harper’s Weekly)

Between May 9, 1861 and Feb. 27, 1865, Gunst sold some 15,000 lbs. of leather cut from hides. And from receipts written by the Quartermaster’s Department, his business made approx. $24,500.00 in Confederate funds. Operations did not go uninterrupted nearing the Confederacy’s demise, however. At the end of March 1864, he was conscripted into the Confederate States Service for a three-month period. When the term expired, he left his post at Camp Lee in Richmond and was able to return home under the condition that he report to an officer in the Quartermaster’s Dept. and continue to supply the army. He and his business partner, N. S. Schloss, along with another dealer named, Moses Millhiser of Spring Hill, Va. did so, sending 200 “Dry Hides” to Maj. W. G. Ferguson via the Richmond, Fredericksburg, & Petersburg Railroad on Aug. 30, 1864.


Wartime map of Caroline County, Virginia, showing the town of Gunst’s business and the depot at Millford where he shipped goods from.
(Library of Congress)

The army’s demand for leather remained high, but the ability to supply it regularly was becoming less possible. This is best exemplified on an application made by Gunst on Oct. 19, 1864 for a detail of soldiers to help him at his establishment. No doubt disruption of supply lines, rising inflation, and the ability of the army to supply its troops all but ended its dealings with Gunst & Schloss. As with all dealers and manufacturers to the terminated Confederacy, any profit they had made became worthless.


1907 advertisement in the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) for “Old Henry Whiskey”.
(Library of Congress)

Henry Gunst was not disheartened. Sometime during the war he moved his family to Richmond, the place of business he knew so well. There, he and a friend ran a distillery which carried their names on bottles sold in stores from Washington D.C. to Pensacola, Fl. And like many who lived through the vivid recollection of the Civil War, he continued to participate in post-war commemorations, visiting his friends at R.E. Lee Camp No. 1 and even showcasing a revolver at an exposition held in 1888.[4] He died a wealthy man and “an aged citizen, who has been prominent in the business circles of Richmond for half century,” the newspapers wrote. He was buried east of Richmond in the Hebrew Cemetery in 1907. Henry Gunst was not only a product of his time, but someone who rose above it.


[1] No service record exists of Gunst’s service with the regiment, but his obituary does mention that he was present at its formation. Elias Ball, a 23-year old German who was living with the Gunst family in 1860, did enlist in Co. F on May 8, 1861. He became sick a few months later and was discharged in November of the same year.

[2] Joseph B. Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie, ed. Richard B. McCaslin (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 277. Charles Stiles Mill (1826-1870), a Georgia native who managed his father’s plantation in Harrison Co., Tx., according to the census in 1860, enlisted the following year as a private in Co. E, 1st Texas Infantry. He was appointed as quartermaster for his regiment in April 1862 and was in charge of the division’s wagons during the fall of that year. He resigned in August 1864 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Harrison Co.

[3] From a few vouchers to the Quartermaster’s Dept., it seems that Gunst was able to sell his goods directly to members of his own community. Col. Richard M. Cary, a lawyer and pre-war officer of Richmond’s prestigious 1st Virginia Regiment, was commanding the 30th Virginia Infantry when Gunst sold “Army caps for the Ordnance Service,” his first transaction. Maj. W.G. Ferguson, the Asst. Quartermaster to the C.S. Army, commanded Co. F of the 30th Virginia Infantry in Sept. 1861 and was whom Gunst was detailed to after leaving the government-raise militia in Richmond.

[4] According to the inventory of relics, Gunst exhibited a “Ten-chambered Revolver, used by a Federal Officer in 1861”.


.36 Pocket Revolver made by the New Haven Arms Co. in Connecticut, perhaps similar to the one Gunst exhibited.
(Dave Taylor Civil War Antiques)


  • Catalogue of the Exhibit of Relics and Antiquities at the Virginia Exposition, Oct. 3 – Nov. 21, 1888 (Richmond: Wm. Ellis Jones, Book and Printer, 1888), 4.
  • “Henry Gunst.” The Times Dispatch, April 9, 1907, accessed June 14, 2013.
  • Rev. J. William Jones, Ed. “R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1.” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. 17 (Richmond 1889): 276.
  • Robert K. Krick, 30th Virginia Infantry (Lynchburg: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1985).
  • Jack Sullivan, “‘Old Henry’ Gunst: Johnny Reb Gets Rich,” Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men! Blog, August 3, 2011. Accessed June 14, 2013.

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