Union cavalry under Irish Colonel Robert Minty and the special mule-mounted brigade of John Wilder had slowed the surprise Confederate move around the Union northern flank along Chickamauga Creek near the border between Tennessee and Georgia on September 18, 1863. The next day, the fight would fall primarily to the infantry as the Union Army of the Cumberland fought desperately to stave off destruction at the hands of a reinforced Confederate Army of Tennessee. One of the Union commanders who would figure prominently in the fighting of September 19 was a highly trained officer educated at the elite Prussian Royal Military Academy in Berlin.1
Recruiting notice for August Willich’s second regiment, the 32nd Indiana
Brigadier General August Willich was a German communist who threw himself into the Union war effort after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. As the editor of a socialist newspaper in Cincinnati, Willich headed a campaign that led to 1,500 of the city’s German immigrants enlisting. Willich joined the new 9th Ohio which he had done so much to recruit. The recent immigrant had served as a Prussian officer for nineteen years in his native land before being forced to resign for his anti-monarchist views in 1847. Immigrating to the United States, he worked as a carpenter in Brooklyn, and he later moved to Cincinnati where he rose to prominence among German leftists. Willich was one of the most knowledgeable military men in Immigrant America in 1863 and he had risen to the rank of brigadier general. 2
August Willich was captured during the Battle of Stone’s River at the end of 1862. He was held at Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, until May 1863 when he was exchanged for captured Confederates.3
Libby Prison was a harsh prison located in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. This description of the prison comes from a Confederate newspaper, the Richmond Examiner: “Libby takes in the captured Federals by scores, but lets none out; they are huddled up and jammed into every nook and corner; at the bathing troughs, around the cooking stoves, everywhere there is a wrangling, jostling crowd; at night the floor of every room they occupy in the building is covered, every square inch of it, by uneasy slumberers, lying side by side, and heel to head, as tightly packed as if the prison were a huge, improbable box of nocturnal sardines.”4
Willich’s release from Libby was a cause for celebration in German communities throughout the Midwest. When he traveled west to rejoin his troops, he stopped at Cincinnati along the way. He was greeted by 3,000 or more German immigrants at the city’s German center, Turner Hall. The war had changed over the six months since Willich was captured. The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation altered the character of the war, in Willich’s view. When he spoke to his well-wishers he addressed this change. Willich told the assembly of immigrants that the war had gone from being “a battle about nationality” to being a battle “in the interest of all humanity.”5
Willich described the practical effect that Emancipation was having in the South. He recounted his own march through the Southern states as a prisoner. Union captives were, he said, insulted and reviled. Willich told them that the “only ones who accepted us, cooked for us, or did us favors at every opportunity were the slaves,” who, he said, viewed the Union soldiers as “their liberators.” 6
Willich said that the war was also changing how immigrants were viewed. He said that he had enlisted to “show everyone who believes that you can only be a worthy citizen of the republic if you are born here, that we Germans are also…members of the republic…I wanted to help the immigrant gain a right that they kept from him.” Willich saw the performance of his men as a rebuke to the Know Nothings. He believed that now that so many immigrants had fought for the Union, it could never again view them as anything other than full citizens.7
The Union push through Confederate Tennessee that had taken Willich’s Brigade to the Georgia border had begun three months earlier with the Tullahoma campaign and Willich had helped launch that lightning strike at the heart of the Confederacy. On June 24, when Union forces moving towards Chattanooga were blocked at the mountain pass at Liberty Gap by a fortified Confederate force, Willich immediately recognized that his men had to grab control of the strategic point before Confederate reinforcements could arrive. Using an innovative tactic called “Advance Firing” Willich arranged his men in four lines with each successive line stepping forward to deliver a volley while the other three reloaded. Willich’s mostly German soldiers quickly cleared the way down a path that would soon yield Chattanooga. Now, on September 19, this battle hardened fighting unit would be tested in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.8
For first-hand accounts of life under Willich read August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006). Joe Reinhart has published half a dozen books collecting and translating letters and reports from German sources about the Civil War. He is leaving a legacy of accessible immigrant writing for future researchers.
The Civil War Trust has created a driving tour of the Tullahoma Campaign.
1. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) pp. 102-103; Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale: The Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863 (Emerging Civil War Series) by White, William Lee (Oct 6, 2013); The Chickamauga Campaign (Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland) by Steven Woodworth (2010); Guide to the Battle of Chickamauga (The U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles) by Matt Spruill Army War College (1993); The Maps of Chickamauga: An Atlas of the Chickamauga Campaign, Including the Tullahoma Operations, June 22 – September 23, 1863 Paperback by David Powell published by Savas Beattie (2009); Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West by Glenn Tucker and Dorothy Thomas Tucker (1995); General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography by Jeff Wert, published by Simon & Schuster (1993); The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era) by Earl J. Hess published by University of North Carolina Press (2012); The Maps of Chickamauga by David Powell published by Savas Beatie (2009); Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (Great Campaigns of the Civil War) by Steven E. Woodworth published by University of Nebraska Press (2009) August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 10.
2. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 10; Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (Great Campaigns of the Civil War)
by Steven E. Woodworth published by University of Nebraska Press (2009) Kindle Location 397-406.
3. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 125
4. “City Intelligence. The Libby Prison and its Contents”, Richmond Enquirer, February 2, 1864
5. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 141
6. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 148
7. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 142
8. The Maps of Chickamauga by David Powell published by Savas Beatie (2009) Kindle Location 321; Six Armies in Tennessee: The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns (Great Campaigns of the Civil War)
by Steven E. Woodworth published by University of Nebraska Press (2009) Kindle Location 397-406.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites