A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh

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List of all The Immigrants’ Civil War articles at bottom.

On April 9, 1862, young German-born officer William Mank surveyed the killing grounds of Shiloh and shuddered. “Prrr,” he wrote. “What a sight is offered to me when I look around, friends and enemy dead and wounded lay among one another.” The situation of the wounded, lacking any semblance of decent medical care, was appalling. Mank wrote that the “wounded [were] asking for water, but God have mercy, we have none ourselves.”1

shilohShiloh was a confused battle in wooded countryside. Without adequate medical preparations, the wounded from both sides suffered immeasurably.

William Mank, in his late twenties, had joined the 32nd Indiana the year before. His commander was Colonel August Willich, a veteran of the German Revolution of 1848 who had become a committed communist and social revolutionary. Willich would prove to be one of the most effective officers in the Union Army.2

The 32nd Indiana was called the 1st German Regiment by its men. The unit included many soldiers who were considered radicals even by other immigrants. Col. Willich’s political views would mark the regiment as unique.

By most accounts, Col. Willich and his men enjoyed a remarkable rapport. He was regarded as a brave man who always shared his men’s danger and as a scholar with an outstanding intellect. His employment of his learning was not always appreciated by his men, however. For example, when members of the regiment were killed in an early skirmish, Willich marched his men out to the cemetery in the dead of winter. According to one of his soldiers:

Willich, in spite of intense cold, regaled us with a 1 ½ hour long address. He began by saying that now a decisive moment of the war had come, history showed proof…of such in the Peasants’ War, in the Reformation War, in the French Revolution, and in the Revolution of ’48… Then he…spoke on the cause of the war; involuntarily his all too vivid sense of fantasy strayed from this small earth up to the higher regions. He gave us a lecture about astronomy as well as other branches of human inquiry, and finally fell back out of the sky into reality because he began to notice how we began to stomp our benumbed feet.3

The soldier wrote that the 32nd Indiana’s men “went back to our quarters actually wiser, but also stiffer and partly angry.” He added that Willich’s speech covered “interesting subjects to enjoy with a glass of beer, not…in 10 degree cold.”4

Apart from his learned digressions, August Willich cultivated a sense of progressive purpose in his regiment. He was hailed in the German liberal press as “a hero of the revolution and a man of freedom,” and he tried to inculcate that radical spirit in his regiment. When it received its regimental flag, a poem was recited that declared, “Let all see that the German can fight for freedom and justice.”5

On informal terms with his men, Willich called them his “blockheads” and they named their camp newspaper that. One soldier wrote that “we have established a camp newspaper whose name ‘Blockhead’ comes from the only swearword that Colonel Willich uses…you can probably believe that it causes laughter.” The men regarded him as a paternal figure and called him “Papa Willich” because of his care of their welfare.6

Colonel Willich’s freethinking ways carried over into all aspects of the unit’s life. He always made sure to secure beer for his men, for example. His regiment was also one of the few in the army whose chaplain was not a member of the clergy, but rather a Freethinker who one soldier said would deliver his sermons “free of all religious humbug and [resting] only on the appeal of reasoned morals.” The chaplain always allowed time for the soldiers “to prove wrong what [they] disliked in the lecture of the chaplain.”7

On April 7, 1862, the 32nd Indiana arrived at the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. During the course of the day, it was almost cut off and annihilated, and more than one in ten of its soldiers was killed or wounded. In all, nearly 25,000 Americans on both sides became casualties of the bloodiest battle in American history up to that date. William Mank would write two days later that “although victorious, we paid dearly.” Over the next three years, the 32nd Indiana would pay dearly time and again in its “fight for freedom.”8

 The terrible carnage at Shiloh gave rise to this jaunty Southern song.

Resources
August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006), is the principal source for this article. Joe Reinhart has translated several volumes of immigrant soldiers’ letters and diaries. I would say he has given a voice to the voiceless, but these men could speak for themselves. Joe has really given the rest of us ears so we can hear what they had to say.

PBS has created a simulation in which you can explore Union General U.S.Grant’s decision-making during the battle.

Sources
1. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) p. 75; Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham, Savas Beatie (2007) pp. 360-361; Memoirs of General William T. Sherman published by De Capo (1984) pp. 222-247; “The Battle of Shiloh” by U.S. Grant in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 1 pp. 465-486; “Shiloh Reviewed” by Don Carlos Buell in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 1 pp. 487-536; “The Campaign of Shiloh” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 1 pp.569-593.
2. Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham, Savas Beatie (2007) pp. 360-361. Cunningham characterized Willich as “an ardent communist and revolutionary and one of the most experienced soldiers in the United States Army.”
3. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) p. 59.
4. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) p. 60.
5. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) p. 31.
6. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) p. 13, 30.
7. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) p. 19.
8. August Willich’s Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry, translated by Joseph Reinhart, Kent State University Press (2006) p. 71, 75.

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.

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

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