A German Revolutionary Marches to the Aid of the Union Army in Chattanooga

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Tens of thousands of Union troops converged on Chattanooga after the defeat at Chickamauga.

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German-born General Peter Osterhaus had commanded Ulysses Grant’s Ninth Division during the successful campaign against the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg. The capture of that citadel on July 4, 1863 opened the Mississippi River to commerce again. The products of the Midwest were soon flowing south down the Mississippi to New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.1

Peter Osterhaus

Osterhaus had risen to prominence commanding Missouri German Unionists in the first year of the war, but his division at Vicksburg was made up of mostly of native-born Americans and immigrants from Ireland and other parts of Europe. When he returned to Missouri he spoke at a meeting where he assured his audience that while most of his men were not German, “that is no matter. I assure you they have fought for the good cause as bravely as ever Germans could have done.”2

Osterhaus had been relatively unknown before the Civil War. He had fled Germany as a refugee in 1849 after his participation in the failed democratic revolution there placed his life in danger. He moved to the German enclave in Belleville, Illinois and became a  committed opponent of slavery. He joined the Union army at the start of the Civil War, and a year later he had risen to the rank of brigadier general. He had quickly become one of the most reliable military leaders in the West.3

The Union campaign to capture Vicksburg combined naval and land operations. The capture of 29,000 Confederates when the city was surrendered made Ulysses Grant the Union’s preeminent general.

In August, 1863,  after a brief rest to recover from the Vicksburg Campaign, Osterhaus was placed in command of a different division under Major General William Tecumseh Sherman. His new command included the 3rd Missouri Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which he had once commanded. Other Missouri German units were also part of his new command. These were the men who had helped to keep their state in the Union when its native-born governor sided with the Confederacy.4

On September 22, 1863, Osterhaus got news from Grant that his men were to move out. One of his soldiers, also a German, wrote that “Wherever [Osterhaus] can go, we can go too.” The division would soon leave Vicksburg bound for Chattanooga, Tennessee to relieve the Union Army of the Cumberland after its defeat at Chickamauga. Osterhaus got his men on the road on the same day that he received Grant’s order.5

During the month it took to march to the besieged city, Osterhaus’s division skirmished daily with Confederate cavalry trying to slow his progress. In spite of the danger, his troops marched on confident in Osterhaus’s leadership. One of his men, Calvin Ainsworth, wrote in his diary that “Everyone in the division loved the General and would cheer when he rode by, and he was a fighter to the finish.”6

As he neared Chattanooga on November 2, Osterhaus received word that his wife was dying. His men were making a difficult crossing of the Tennessee River and he stayed with them for two days to make sure that they crossed safely. Then he left his division and raced hundreds of miles to St. Louis to say goodbye to his 38 year old wife. He arrived too late.7

Now the German general faced a problem common to immigrants. Neither he nor his wife Matilda had any family in the United States to place his four children with. Osterhaus had to make quick arrangements for their care, and raced back to his division. When he caught up with it, his men, who knew of the death of his wife, exploded with cheers for their returned leader.8

On November 24th, Osterhaus and his men joined the growing Union forces, drawn from three armies, at Chattanooga. The Union Army of the Cumberland had been hungry and weak at the start of November, now they were well-supplied and with reinforcements, a match for the Confederates holding the hills south and east of the city. Osterhaus would soon play an important role in pushing the Confederate army out of Tennessee and back into Georgia.9

Sources:

1. 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); Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010)
2. Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010) p. 118.
3. Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010)
4. Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010) pp. 118-121. The regiment had been called the 12th Missouri at that time.
5. German in the Yankee Fatherland edited by Earl Hess p. 125.
6. Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010) p. 122
7. Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010) p. 121-123
8. Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010) p. 123
9. Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend published by University of Missouri Press (2010) p. 123-125

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