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Carl Schurz’s first public office during the Lincoln administration was United States Minister to Spain, but this was not his first choice. Just days after war broke out he sought to command one of the new German regiments being formed on New York’s Lower East Side. Later he would ask Lincoln for command of a German brigade. Schurz was turned down by the new president, however,because the Spanish reoccupation of what is now the Dominican Republic had raised the threat of war with the US, and diplomacy with the Spanish was a priority.1
While in Spain, Schurz repeatedly wrote to Washington to ask that he be relieved of his diplomatic duties so that he could come home to fight. At the end of 1861, he was finally allowed to return to the United States and he immediately began lobbying for a general’s commission. In March of 1862, Lincoln finally agreed, but told Schurz he would have to wait until a suitable command opened up for him. Schurz was an important leader in the German community and German immigrants would be insulted if he were given a position inferior to that of the leaders of other ethnic communities such as the Irish.2
In June 1862, Schurz received word that he would not command a regiment of 500-1,000 men or even a brigade made up of three regiments. Instead he was given command of a full division consisting of two brigades containing a total of six regiments, along with cavalry and artillery. Schurz had gone in almost no time from being an untrained civilian to commanding one of the larger units in the Union Army.3
Carl Schurz was only 33 when he was made a brigadier general.
Years later, Schurz himself acknowledged how odd this must have seemed for a post-war reader, writing; “To take a young man like myself from civil life and make him a brigadier general for immediate service would have been regarded as a very strange, if not foolish, thing under ordinary circumstances.” But, he wrote, the circumstances at the time were anything but ordinary because the “government had to create an army of several hundred thousand men to be put into the field without delay,” and it lacked professional officers to command so many troops. As Schurz wrote: “…the vast majority of the officers’ positions, from lieutenants up to generalships, had to be filled with persons taken from civil life who had no schooling in military service at all, but were selected on account of…their position among their fellow-citizens… They would be obliged to learn the military business as they went on….” And Schurz considered himself at an advantage. As a student involved in the 1848 German revolution, he at least had been under fire.4
Still, the modern reader can be forgiven for asking if a similar mass military mobilization today would result in the head of the NAACP or the Knights of Columbus being placed in command of 5,000 men without any prior experience or training.
The 58th New York Regiment of Schurz’s Division was called the Polish Legion, and included Danes, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and Russians, as well as immigrants from Poland. (Source: New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center)
As Schurz correctly pointed out, he was not alone in being elevated to command without any prior military service. The number of men serving in the Union Army during the Civil War was nearly 100 times more than the number in the peacetime army in 1860. Approximately one-third of peacetime officers went south to join the Confederacy, and high casualty rates among Union officers meant that many professional soldiers did not live through the first year of combat. The need for officers and generals was immense and it increased every day.
In addition, many Americans did not see military command as requiring any specialized training or experience at all. The United States had relied on citizen soldiers since the time of the Revolution and men from booksellers to bankers had commanded on the field of battle in the past. Republicans were particularly mistrustful of West Point graduates, who were viewed as aristocratic and possibly sympathetic to Southern slave owners. Radical anti-slavery politicians valued strong political credentials over a career in the army as a criteria for officers.5
The Civil War, taking place in a democratic society and requiring massive armies,by necessity transformed the army itself into a democratic institution. When regiments were first formed, all but the highest officers were elected by the men in the regiment. Even colonels and generals were essentially political appointees since they owed their rank to their governors or to Lincoln himself.
Lincoln understood the Civil War as, at its heart, a political war and he chose his generals accordingly. According to David Work, the leading authority on these political appointees, before they became generals, these men “had either served in political office or represented an important constituency or ethnic group…military ability was a secondary consideration.”6
Schurz’s Germans were not the only ethnicity Lincoln sought to mobilize through his power of appointments. The Irish and other immigrant groups were also favored, as were rival political parties. According to David Work, in “appointing them, Lincoln sought to secure…their constituents’ support for the war effort and ensure that the war became a national struggle, waged by all political factions and ethnic groups for the common goal of reuniting the Union.”7
While the need for non-professional officers and even generals is clear, the lack of organized preparation of new officers was inexcusable. Schurz was commanding thousands of men in enemy territory within weeks of joining the army. Considering that he had first sought a command more than a year earlier, the failure by the Lincoln administration to offer him, and other civilians under consideration for officers’ commissions, any organized training or instruction cannot be explained away by the press of circumstances. Schurz would have to learn not only how to command in battle, but also how to feed, clothe, and provide medical care for thousands of young men without any prior experience or formal preparation.
Schurz would prove his bravery and leadership abilities in combat, but his lack of any military education would haunt him and hundreds of other officers throughout the war.
1. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse,University of Tennessee Press (1982) pp. 103-105.
2. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse,University of Tennessee Press (1982) pp. 112-114; The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz : Volume II 1852-1863 by Carl Schurz, published by John Murray (1909) p. 330.
3. Carl Schurz: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse,University of Tennessee Press (1982) p. 119; The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz : Volume II 1852-1863 by Carl Schurz, publishedby John Murray (1909) p. 330; Battles and Leaders Vol. II p. 497.
4. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz : Volume II 1852-1863 by Carl Schurz, published byJohn Murray (1909) pp. 330-331.
5. Over Lincoln’s Shoulder: The Committee on the Conduct of the War by Bruce Tap,University of Kansas Press (1998) pp. 1-37.
6. Lincoln’s Political Generals by David Work,University of Illinois Press (2009) p.2.
7. Lincoln’s Political Generals by David Work,University of Illinois Press (2009) p.2.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites