The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville


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The December 1862 Union defeat at Fredericksburg left morale in the Army of the Potomac at a new low. Many Northern soldiers saw their military leaders as feckless and incompetent, and the failure by the government to feed and care for the men in their miserable winter camps shook their faith in the Lincoln administration. Some soldiers had not been paid for six months, leaving their wives and children in poverty while the men risked death for a country that seemed not to care. Desertions reached unprecedented proportions and generals schemed to replace Ambrose Burnside as commander of the army.1

White Southerners believed that they were at a turning point in the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis told a Richmond, Virginia audience “our cause has had the brightest sunshine to fall upon it.” He warned his listeners that the South still faced many trials as the North enlisted “the offscourings of the earth”, an obvious reference to the immigrants in the Union’s ranks. But, he said, the recent Emancipation Proclamation which threatened to “incite servile insurrection” by blacks against slave owners only drew Southerners closer together.2

On January 16, 1863, Abraham Lincoln removed Burnside from command and replaced him with Joseph Hooker. Nicknamed “Fighting Joe”, Hooker was aggressive, scheming, and, to many of his contemporaries, immoral in his predilections. He made himself a darling of the Radical wing of the Republican Party and he used his time as commander to block Democrats, some of whom were immigrants, from promotion within the army.3

The “German” XI Corps would deteriorate under Hooker.

The XI Corps had been created for German revolutionary hero Franz Sigel to command. It combined many of the German immigrant regiments in the East into one Corps of more than 12,000 men. Not all the regiments were “German”, and even many of the German regiments were not “all German.” A German regiment might have men from Poland, Hungary, or Switzerland in its ranks. An unusual number of Irish immigrants served in German regiments and all German units included some native-born soldiers.4


Joe Hooker created a system of badges worn on top of a soldier’s cap to identify his Corps. The XI Corps badge was a crescent moon.

A limited study of men in German companies from Pennsylvania found that their average age was 30 years. The top occupation at the time of enlistment was day laborer, although more than half of the men were skilled artisans. The men in the companies often came from “Little Germanys” in different cities where nearly everyone spoke German in both social and business situations. According to Christian Keller, a leading historian of German immigrant soldiers:

It made good sense for young men…to enlist in ethnically German regiments. They would not only serve with friends, neighbors, and relatives-a desire shared with most Civil War soldiers-but also continue to be surrounded by people who shared their cultural background and spoke their language. In nearly every case, their officers would be German and command them in their native tongue.5

There was also community pressure for immigrants to join German regiments. German-language newspapers warned young men that they would face the “prejudices of the nativists”, in the words of one Illinois German newspaper, if they were in “English” units. While four out of five Irish immigrants who served in the war were in non-ethnic regiments, most German immigrants from large cities like New York enlisted in German regiments.6

While German immigrants walled themselves off from nativist prejudices in German regiments, English speakers in those same regiments often complained of discrimination in promotion. Irish privates in German regiments found that because they could not give orders in the language of the soldiers, they could not advance. 7

The XI Corps was a source of great pride to American Germans, even though more than 90% of German Union soldiers were not in it. It provided an emblem of German loyalty and a demonstration of German strength. Sigel exploited this perception and took to calling it “The German Command.” His three division commanders were the German revolutionaries Adolf Steinwehr and Carl Schurz and the Hungarian Julius Stahel.8

Carl Schurz said later that Sigel’s role as an ethnic chieftain made him a large target for nativists in the army, particularly for members of the small brotherhood of professional officers:

But when a…“foreigner” [Sigel]… was transferred from the West to the East as a man of superior qualities and military competency, who might perhaps teach [native-born West Pointers] something, it went much against their grain, and that man was often looked upon as a pretentious intruder and obliged to encounter very watchful and sometimes even rancorous criticism.9

Sigel’s personality handicapped him in the alliance building and in-fighting that preoccupied generals in the Army of the Potomac. According to Schurz:

General Sigel was not well fitted to meet the difficulties of such a situation. He possessed in a small degree that amiability of humor which will disarm ill-will and make for friendly comradeship. His conversation lacked the sympathetic element. There was something reserved, even morose, in his mien, which, if it did not discourage cheerful approach, certainly did not invite it. That sort of temperament is rather a misfortune than a fault, but in Sigel’s case it served to render the difficulties of his situation more difficult at critical periods.10

Franz Sigel had commanded a “Grand Division” of two corps numbering over 20,000 men in Burnside’s army. Under Hooker, his command was diminished to only the soldiers of the XI Corps. His was the smallest Corps in the army even though he was the most senior general among the Corps commanders. He saw the hand of discrimination in this and resigned.11


Guidon of the First NY Light Artillery Battery I. This artillery unit was raised among the German community in Buffalo and was assigned to the XI Corps.

Hooker did not want command of the XI Corps to go to the most popular of the German generals, Carl Schurz, because Schurz was not a professional military man and had spent less than a year in the army. Hooker wrote to Secretary of War Stanton; “I would consider the services of an entire corps as entirely lost to this army were it to fall into the hands of Maj. Gen. Schurz.” Schurz wrote to Lincoln to complain that the XI Corps was “the only compact representative of the 90 or 100,000 Germans who have entered the army.” Schurz understood that in civil wars, politics is as important as military tactics. The Germans expected, said Schurz, that after Sigel left the Corps it would “remain in the hands of one of their own.” With naked self-interest, he wrote that “They look to me as their natural head and representative.” Schurz’s gambit failed. O.O. Howard, a native-born Anglo Saxon was appointed to command the XI Corps.12

Howard was called the “Christian General” by his German soldiers, and they did not mean that as a compliment. He came from Maine, the heartland of the Know Nothing movement, and his evangelical Protestant background led them to suspect that he was a nativist bigot. Howard was a strictly religious man of puritanical habits. His personal ethos was at odds with the Germans’ proclivity to celebration, song, and drinking-an ethos shared by Catholic, Lutheran, and Freethinker Germans alike.13

The problems of the new commander were compounded by the Germans refusal to recognize that Sigel had been one of the authors of his own demise. They expressed shock that they would no longer be led by him, and blamed nativist conspiracies for his resignation. The German community put pressure on Sigel to resume command of the XI. When Sigel asked to be reinstated, a disgusted Lincoln administration refused to restore him.14

The months after Hooker took command saw improvements for the army as a whole, especially in the army supply system. The new commander rooted out corruption in the quartermaster’s corps, responsible for feeding and clothing the army. He also cracked down on the press. Newspapers often published confidential information on troop movements that were used as intelligence by the Confederates. The reports were published without the name of the articles’ authors. Hooker required that all correspondents filing reports from his army include their names on the article, thus helping to establish the “byline” as a standard journalistic practice.15

This was also a time when the men of the army became aware that they were not an army of all men. Several soldiers were discovered to be women. One had been cited for bravery at Antietam. Others had been promoted, one as high a sergeant, while in disguise. Apparently, not all of the men were ignorant of the gender of their colleagues-four of the women were found out when they either gave birth or were found to be unmistakably pregnant. A Colonel joked in a letter to his wife that civilian women’s roles were in danger for “what use have we for women, if soldiers in this army can give birth?”16

When the Army of the Potomac began its campaign to outflank Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Chancellorsville near Fredericksburg, the XI Corps was its smallest. It had a new and unpopular leadership. It’s German character was slowly fading, and 11 of its 27 regiments had never been in battle. In the last days of April, 1863, on the eve of the Battle of Chancellorsville, the XI Corps was set to play a part that would leave the German immigrant soldier branded as a coward.17


1. Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel by Stephen D. Engle published by Louisiana State Univ Pr (1999); The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 2 by Carl Schurz (1907); Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich, University of North Carolina Press (2006); Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007); Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996) pp. 16-18.
2. Jefferson Davis’ Speech at Richmond, Va. Executive Mansion, January 5, 1863
3. Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996) pp.55-59
4. Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) pp.20-25
5. Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) pp. 24-29
6. Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) pp. 29-30.
7. Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) pp. 39-40
8. Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel by Stephen D. Engle published by Louisiana State Univ Pr (1999)Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel by Stephen D. Engle published by Louisiana State Univ Pr (1999) p.147
9. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 2 by Carl Schurz (1907) p. 348
10. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 2 by Carl Schurz (1907) p. 348
11. Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996) pp. 64
12. Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996) pp. 64-69
13. Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) pp. 47-48
14. Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996) pp. 159 Chancellorsville and the Germans by Christian Keller published by Fordham University Press (2007) pp. 47-48
15.Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996) pp. 72-75
16.Chancellorsville by Stephen Sears published by Mariner Books (1996) p.79
17. Id generally.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. 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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman

Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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