He was a soldier’s general, and on the hot afternoon of May 14, 1864, he was leading from the front, urging his men forward toward the imposing Confederate positions above Camp Creek. As they neared the Confederate skirmish line, a peppering of shots are fired, and the old general slumped in his saddle, shot through the right shoulder and side. Thus ended the field duty of one of the most colorful personalities in the Army of the Cumberland, Brigadier General August Willich.
Willich was born in Eastern Prussia in 1810, the son of a Prussian Military Officer and an actress. Willich would, like many of the Junker Class, find his way into higher education, entering into the military academy at Potsdam, and later the military academy in Berlin where he graduated in 1828.
Willich served as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery before adopting the radical socialist/communist views that were spreading through Eastern Europe at the time. Willich tried to resign from the army and, failing that, was court martialed after writing an open letter to the King. Willich now joined many others in pushing for a Revolution—which began in 1848. WIllich led one of the revolutionary armies and became known as “the Reddest of the Red,” both for his red hair and for the adoption of a red flag for his army.
The Revolution failed, and Willich—along with his adjutant, Fredrich Engles, and others—fled to London along with their ideological leader, Karl Marx.
In London, Willich found work as a carpenter and began a falling out with Marx. That led Marx to call him, “a twice cockled Jack-ass.” Willich continued to grow disenchanted with Marx, whom he began to see as one who could talk the talk of communism, but did not walk the walk of it (Marx lived in comfort in an apartment in Soho, while Willich and others lived in slums.) Willich’s criticism rose to such a level that he joined with a group of other disgruntled Revolutionaries to usurp Marx as the leader of the movement. However, this failed, and Willich, disgusted, left London for the United States in 1853.
Willich arrived in New York where he was hailed as a hero by the German community, and he found work with the United States Coast Survey. He eventually ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1858 where he edited the Cincinnati Republikaner, a socialist working man’s newspaper. Willich became known for his outspoken and radical views on race and civil rights, going so far as to say of John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, “Old Brown’s deed…forces us to take sides–the way we judge Old Brown is the way we choose…. On one side, the rights of man, equal to all–the principle of good. On the other, the laws that uphold power and bondage–the principle of evil.”
Willich’s ideology went beyond that of most abolitionists, not pushing purely for the destruction of slavery—in his mind it must also be accompanied by complete equal rights. “Whet your sabers and nerve your arms for the day of retribution when Slavery and Democracy will be crushed in a common grave,” he argued.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Willich was active in recruiting the city’s German population for the Union cause. Willich wanted to show the country “what patriotic Germans could do.” His efforts resulted in the 9th Ohio Infantry regiment in which he enlisted as a private, but was immediately promoted to major. Willich in his new role set about training the regiment and acting as interpreter for them and their English speaking officers. This role was short lived when he was asked to go to Indiana to take command of the 32nd Indiana Infantry, Indiana’s all-German unit. Willich quickly endeared himself to his new command, whom he did not call by rank, but as “citizens.”
Willich led the 32nd to the front, seeing action for the first time at the battle of Rowlett’s Station in Kentucky, then later at Shiloh. Willich was always at the front with his men, sharing the dangers, and a strong bond developed, as he showed them the same egalitarian treatment and concern for their well being that he had the 32nd. When he was promoted to brigadier general in July of 1862, the 32nd remained in his command, and his new regiments grew to adore him, as well—an affection he returned, calling them all his, “Poys.”
At Stones River, Willich was captured, but he soon returned to his command to lead them in the Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns that summer. The hallmark of his career came at Missionary Ridge, though, where his men stormed the heights and captured a Confederate Battery. Willich rode among his men, exclaiming, “My poys, you kills me mit joy, you kills me mit joy.”
Willich was not flashy, tending to dress plainly, and he had a number of eccentric habits, like keeping a pet raccoon that could often be seen on his shoulder.
As the spring Campaign of 1864 opened, Willich once again led from the front at Rocky Face and again came upon the hills north of Resaca when he got the orders to attack. With his keen military eye, he knew the task before them would be difficult. As remembered the young adjutant of the 15th Ohio, Willich, “mpressed by the serious work involved…went out to the front line to see for himself the obstacles to be overcome. While so engaged he was shot by a rebel sharpshooter, the ball penetrating his right shoulder and side. As he was carried back on a stretcher through our lines, the men crowded about him in sincere grief. A thoughtless young officer ordered them back, thinking they would annoy him, and received a severe rebuke from the wounded general. He was evidently suffering severe pain, but he loved ‘his poys,’…and as they crowded about him, he exhorted them in broken English to do their duty as well without him as if he was present.”
Though Willich recovered from the wound, he never took to the field again, finding his next assignment at a military post in Cincinnati and then, during Reconstruction, duty in Texas before leaving the army Willich spent the rest of his life as a social crusader and a leader in the beginning labor movement.