The early fighting at Chickamauga Creek in Georgia focused on the northern end of the miles long battlefield. By Noon on September 19, 1863, combat was shifting to the center of the Union line. A large Confederate force was bearing down on Brock Farm Field in the middle of the Union position. Three immigrant officers, Norwegian Hans Heg, Russian Ivan Turchin, and German August Willich, would lead brigades within a few hundred yards of each other in this crucial sector.1
Peter Cozzens, the leading historian of the Battle of Chickamauga, wrote of Brigadier General August Willich that on that September day “there was perhaps no officer in either army more thoroughly trained.” The German communist refugee placed his Prussian military education, his years of army experience, and the leadership he had displayed as a revolutionary commander in Germany’s own civil strife at the service of American democracy and the anti-slavery cause when Fort Sumter was attacked. On this day of carnage, Willich led his brigade forward to support the rapidly collapsing center of the Union line. 2
Dense woods and rough terrain made Chickamauga a battleground of deadly surprises.
As Willich’s mixed brigade of immigrants and the native-born met the attacking Confederates they were hit with what one soldier called “a murderous fire of musketry and artillery…and suffered severely.” A German soldier wrote later that “the fire became stronger and a severe battle began. A well-hidden battery [of artillery] thinned our ranks with canister.” The Union men were pinned down. 3
Willich steadied his men and ordered them forward using the new tactic of “advance firing” that he had developed. The formation of four lines of soldiers allowed the men of the brigade to stay in motion towards the Confederates while continuing to fire their cumbersome muskets. Sergeant Alexis Cope of Willich’s 15th Ohio said that the innovation made the men “feel invincible.”4
An immigrant soldier wrote home that when the soldiers were most vulnerable to Confederate fire “the old one [Willich] gave the order for a bayonet attack as the only means to silence the battery. It was made, as only it could be by Willich’s brigade led by the old Willich [himself]…The hurrahs of the boys as they stormed up there one had to hear to understand.” 5
Willich’s men charged forward and in hand-to-hand combat they recaptured a battery of Union artillery that was being fired against them. One of Willich’s regiments, the 89th Illinois, continued its charge in an attempt to capture more Confederate artillery in Huggin’s Battery. Willich saw that the regiment had become dangerously disorganized in the attack. He placed himself in the most dangerous place on the field to reorganize his men. According to an officer who witnessed it:
Willich came forward, and standing in front of the regiment and amid the shower of bullets poured into us, complimented the regiment for its impetuous advance, calmed their excitement, instructed them how to advance firing and maintain their alignment…and by his own inimitable calmness of manner, restored order and confidence in the regiment.6
Willich’s men would need all the confidence he could instill. They would soon face the onslaught of Irish Confederate Pat Cleburne.
This animated map of the Battle of Chickamauga provides one of the best overviews of the campaigns that led to the battle as well as the three days of fighting along Chickamauga Creek.
1. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992); 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: Opening Moves and the First Day 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); The Fifteenth Ohio Volunteers and its Campaigns by Alexis Cope published by the Press of Edward T. Miller (1916); The Maps of Chickamauga: Opening Moves and the First Day by David Powell published by Savas Beatie (2009) Kindle Location 1161.
2. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 157.
3.The Fifteenth Ohio Volunteers and its Campaigns by Alexis Cope published by the Press of Edward T. Miller (1916) p. 310; Bushwhacking on a Grand Scale: The Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863 (Emerging Civil War Series) by White, William Lee (Oct 6, 2013) Kindle Location 763.
4.This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) pp. 189-192; The Fifteenth Ohio Volunteers and its Campaigns by Alexis Cope published by the Press of Edward T. Miller (1916) p. 310-312.
5. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen translated and edited by Joseph Reinhart published by Kent State University Press (2006) p. 154.
6. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1992) p. 190.
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