German Immigrants Rushed by Rail from Virginia to Tennessee to Help Save a Union Army

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In 1863 German immigrant soldiers were part of the first mass redeployment of soldiers by rail in U.S. history.

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Carl Uterhard was a German doctor who came to the United States in 1863 in the hope of becoming a Union army surgeon. He had studied medicine in Germany and Denmark and had been in practice for a year when the 28 year old crossed the ocean hoping to gain the experience of battlefield surgery.1

On the eve of the Civil War, the United States Army had only 114 surgeons for 15,000 soldiers. As the Union armies soon grew to over one million men, doctors and surgeons came in from sources reputable and shady. Foreign medical school graduates were welcomed because they often had more training than their American counterparts.

Uterhard arrived in New York in February 1863 and took the medical boards required to perform surgery in the army. On March 6, he wrote home that he had received a letter from the Surgeon General which he opened with “a little trepidation, but it said I had passed my exams.” The German doctor was assigned to the 119th NY Volunteers of the XI Corps.2

The 119th was an immigrant regiment made up almost entirely of Germans from New York City. Nine of its ten companies were German-speaking. One company, however, was not German. This was Company H from Hempstead on Long Island.3

O.O. Howard was a native-born Union major general who replaced Franz Sigel as commander of the XI Corps. He was unpopular with many of the German soldiers because of his puritanical approach to command.

When Uterhard arrived at the camp of the 119th, it was part of the mostly-German XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The XI Corps was in turmoil because its popular German refugee commander Major General Franz Sigel had resigned over a professional slight and had been replaced by an unpopular American-born general named O.O. Howard. Over the next four months, the Army of the Potomac would fight bloody battles at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and the XI Corps would see a further decline in morale when it would be blamed for the defeat at Chancellorsville in May 1863. The 119th would also suffer the loss of their regimental commander Colonel Elias Peissner who was killed in that battle.4

The doctor tried to make sense of his new surroundings. Uterhard wrote to his mother about the customs of the Army of the Potomac.  “Here they have a special way of celebrating days of significance, they drink liquor. From the generals down to the common soldiers they all drink liquor to celebrate happy events or to suppress miserable memories. They don’t drink it out of glasses, but from the bottle, and get alarmingly intoxicated as a result.” He related the dire impact on one German immigrant of this alcohol abuse; “A few days ago…a Bavarian named Brunner, who was otherwise a good and decent officer…got drunk, and after he had insulted our brigadier general [Kryzanowski] he went to our division general Carl Schurz and said the classic words “Kiss my _____.” Although Brunner pled “temporary insanity,” he was dishonorably discharged from the army in August 1863.5

The men of the Eleventh Corps were loaded into boxcars like these to be transported from Virginia to Southern Tennessee.

After the Union Army of the Cumberland was defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia in September 1863, the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton tried to save that hard-pressed army by moving the XI Corps by rail from Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Cumberland army was isolated in that small city. Dr. Uterhard rode the rails with the men of his regiment en route to Chattanooga. He wrote to his family in Germany of the many dangers of the trip, charging that “you can tell how little the American government cares about soldiers breaking their necks by the fact that on our trip, out of our two divisions of five to six thousand men, 25 men died before we arrived. The poor fellows had all crept on the top of the railroad cars, because they were packed like sardines inside them, but if they were then overcome by sleep, they fell off and either broke their necks or were run over. Every night we lost a few.”6

When the train reached Nashville, Tennessee, Uterhard and a number of officers went into town to have a big breakfast. The food was “good” but the train unexpectedly left the station, stranding forty officers. They managed to get onboard another train, but the car they rode in “had been used to transport horses earlier, and the droppings were ankle deep.”7

The trainyard at Nashville in 1864.

When the XI Corps finally reached their destination, the officers and men found that their baggage had simply been thrown by the side of the railroad, with many bags opening and spilling out their contents. “Hundreds of soldiers and officers were busy trying to get whatever they could get their hands on,” he wrote home, “almost all of General Schurz’s things were stolen; I saw him wandering around cursing and yelling at people, while he was looking for his garment bag.”8

From inside the Union lines in Chattanooga, the arrival of the XI Corps and the other Army of the Potomac units under Major General Joseph Hooker, as well as soldiers under William T. Sherman, was greeted as a deliverance from the Confederates who nearly surrounded the city. John Otto, a German immigrant who served as an officer in the 21st Wisconsin, had been stranded with little food for nearly two months, He wrote after the war that “Finally our captivity and resulting hunger…was to be ended. The twelfth of November which is the day which is marked in our Almanck, not with a red mark, but with a gold star and Laurel wreath.” The men of the Army of the Cumberland heard “cannon and the faint rattle of small arms some miles down the river west of Lookout Mountain.” This sound of fighting meant the end of their captivity.9

Video: Four Minute Overview of Civil War Medicine

Sources:

  1. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, published by The University of North Carolina Press (2009) pp. 151-155; Rescue by Rail: Troop Transfer and the Civil War in the West 1863 by Roger Pickenpaugh published by University of Nebraska Press (1998); Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat by John E. Clark published by LSU Press (2004); 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); The Shipwreck of their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga by Peter Cozzens published by University of Illinois Press (1994); The Battle Above the Clouds: Lifting the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain by David Powell published by Savas Beattie (2017).
  2. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, published by The University of North Carolina Press (2009) pp. 151-155.
  3. New York State Military Museum (Accessed 10/27/2017) https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/119thInf/119thInfMain.htm
  4. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, published by The University of North Carolina Press (2009) pp. 151-164.
  5. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, published by The University of North Carolina Press (2009) pp. 164-165.
  6. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, published by The University of North Carolina Press (2009) p. 166.
  7. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, published by The University of North Carolina Press (2009) p. 166.
  8. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home by Walter D. Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, published by The University of North Carolina Press (2009) p. 167.
  9. Memoirs of a Dutch Mudsill: The War Memoirs of John Henry Otto edited by David Gould and James B. Kennedy published by Kent State University Press (2004) p. 205.

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