What should we make of Franz Sigel?

Sigel image

I usually think of Franz Sigel as one of those “punchline” commanders, figures of general (ahem) ridicule in the Civil War.

Benjamin F. Butler? Who doesn’t think of “spoons” and chamber pots?

Braxton Bragg? The officer who quarrelled with himself, and whose own soldiers once tried to blow him up. Comedy gold.

Their names are the tried-and-true laugh lines of CWRT talks. (Last week I spoke about Dan Sickles. The jokes wrote themselves.) Amid all the hilarity, sometimes it is easy to forget that not everyone felt that way. In fact, each of the men I just named had fervent supporters. Many of the men under their command respected and admired them.

Sigel in Bronx
Franz Sigel in Riverside Park, New York…

Most of Sigel’s admirers were fellow immigrant Germans, men who looked up to his role in the noble-but-failed 1848 revolution, and subsequently left for America or other foreign shores in that revolt’s aftermath.


But not all of them. Many of the native-born troops who fought under Sigel’s command respected him, as well. Sigel can lay claim to no less than two equestrian statues, in St. Louis, and in New York City.

Sigel served in the Union army from 1861 to 1865, though he held no important command after the summer of 1864. He is probably most famous for being defeated at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864; his opponents, led by Confederate General John C. Breckinridge, included the Cadet battalion of the Virginia Military Institute.

Sigel St. Louis
…and in Forest Park, St. Louis

Sigel served in the Union army from 1861 to 1865, though he held no important command after the summer of 1864. He is probably most famous for being defeated at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864; his opponents, led by Confederate General John C. Breckinridge, included the Cadet battalion of the Virginia Military Institute.


In the wake of that defeat, Sigel was replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter; first relegated to a reserve command and, subsequently, sent home to “await orders” that never came.

I recently completed a manuscript on the battle of New Market. Since there are already a couple of fine books on the battle – including, most recently, Charlie Knight’s estimable Valley Thunder (Savas-Beatie, 2010) – you might ask why I wanted to write another one. Aside from being a graduate of VMI, I wanted to explore the Union side of the campaign, which I feel has had less attention than the Confederate side.

As I examined the issue of Sigel’s replacement, I found plenty of sentiment of the “good riddance” variety – especially in postwar memoirs, colored by time.

But I was also struck by a number of men who still valued and respected Sigel. As a counter-point, I thought I would offer up some of those opinions here:

Writing on May 22, 1864, Fabricus A. Cather of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry felt that there was “much dissatisfaction among the troops, who have the greatest confidence in Maj. Gen. Sigel.”

In 1894, Maryland gunner John Gray of Snow’s battery blamed the Union infantry for the defeat: “Had [they] stood their ground and charged the rebels after their lines had been broken, the battle of New Market would have been a victory for Sigel instead of Breckinridge.” Additionally, Gray insisted that “it was by Sigel’s cool generalship that he was able to save all his artillery.”[1]

In his diary, Connecticut soldier Charles Lynch also thought the trade of Sigel for Hunter a bad one. On May 20th, said Lynch: “General Sigel relieved of command. A good officer. Kind to his men. From the soldier’s view we need more men in this, the Shenandoah valley. Major General David Hunter now in command. Dark complexion, black moustache, stern looking.” Gloomily, Lynch concluded, “we don’t like his looks.”

Corporal Andrew Powell of the 123rd Ohio agreed. On May 23, Powell reported that “Gen. Sigel was relieved of his command yesterday by Maj. Gen. Hunter, so we no longer ‘fights mit Sigel.’ This change of commanders throws a deep gloom on the troops here as we were all strongly attached to and had the utmost confidence in our little Dutchman, and the past career of Gen. Hunter is famous for defeats and blunders. . . .” Hunter’s very first orders, continued Powell, “displays the genius of a lunatic more than that of a man . . . able to . . . keep the same discipline of a Sigel.”[2]

Even a soldier-correspondent in the 1st West Virginia echoed the support for their previous commander. In a Wheeling Intelligencer letter (published on May 23, but written before knowledge of Sigel’s replacement became public) the correspondent concluded that “The soldiers in this command are highly pleased with the Gen’l commanding, and all see[m] glad of an opportunity to ‘fight with Sigel.’” As for the battle, noted the writer, “the soldiers in this army are not demoralized over their late defeat, as they were not whipped, but overpowered by numbers; the enemy’s force being ten . . . [or] twelve thousand while the entire force on our side did not exceed four thousand men.”[3]

Not everyone thought Sigel was a laughingstock.

[1] “Entry for May 22, 1864,” Fabricus A. Cather diary, West Virginia University, Morgantown WV; John J. Gray, “New Market,” National Tribune, March 14, 1895.

[2] Lynch, The Civil War Diary, 62; “Brother Israel and dear friends,” May 23rd, 1864, Powell Letters.

[3] “Letter from the 1st West Virginia Regt,” Wheeling Intelligencer, May 23, 1864.

21 Responses to What should we make of Franz Sigel?

  1. Thanks for this reassessment. Two of my ancestors, both immigrants, served under Sigel at different times, in the 45th and 52nd New York Infantry regiments. How I would love to hear from them what they thought of him!

  2. Re Sigel, I was bemused about Grant’s colorful commentary re Sigel in his famous April 4, 1864 message to Sherman outlining his grand strategy to end the war. Grant told Sherman that while he did not hope for much from Sigel in western Virginia (“I do not calculate on very great results”), he hoped Sigel could at least be active enough to draw off some Confederate forces. Thereby, Grant concluded, “in other words, if Sigel can’t skin himself, he can hold a leg whilst someone else skins.”

    1. Gene,

      That remark reputedly originates with Lincoln, stemming from a discussion between Lincoln and Grant; which Grant apparently appropriated.:)

      1. I didn’t know that about Lincoln being the source, but am not surprised — it’s just the kind of saying he was so well known for.

  3. Great article. I wrote a small piece a while back related to James A. Garfield’s view of Sigel. It appears that Garfield held him in high regard in 1862, but was unsure what to make of him by the end of the war.

  4. Thank you, Frank. Sigel and Garfield were both in Washington in the fall of 1862, where Garfield was sitting on FitzJohn Porter’s court-martial. Garfield described visiting Sigel several times, sometimes in company with the daughter of his mentor Salmon Chase; Kate Chase. Sigel even gave Garfield a tour of the 2nd Bull Run battlefield, describing the 11th Corps (then 1st Corps Army of Virginia) fight.

  5. It has been a long time since I looked closely at New Market (late 1970s, I think), and I am not sure I recall what I thought back then—the old gray cells, they ain’t what they used to be! My dim memory is that Sigel was a bit slow, which allowed Breckinridge to get to the New Market choke point in time to make a stand. The battle itself was uninspiring on both sides—they just shot at each other all day, until the Cadet charge drove the Yankees away. Is that about right, or have I been betrayed by time?

    1. Correct in essence. However, Sigel wasn’t “slow,” he was trying to draw Breckinridge north, so as to give Crook a shot at Staunton – per Grant’s pre-arranged plan. Sigel played that part well. Crook, alas, did not.

  6. I think he did very well at Pea Ridge. Could find fault with his move north on Telegraph Road after the victory but Curtis called him back.

  7. Thank you for this interesting take, or re-take, of Franz. I would say that those who thought favorably of him must have been rather drunk at the time of writing, but you cite several examples which either proves mass drunkenness, or an actual respect from some for Sigel. He definitely did show signs of good performance, but even at Pea Ridge he countered his solid performance with his overreactions. It is as I tell folks, no general was as great as remembered, and no general as bad. Heck, you have even made me think about Bragg in a different light, and upon research I have become one of the few to find many faults with Thomas, particularly camp Wildcat, Mill Springs, Perryville, and his incessant demands for more troops at Chickamauga.

  8. Fascinating! Will look forward to your book on New Market – that’s a battle in The Valley I need to spend some time studying.

    I’ve always wondered about the Union soldiers’ honest reaction to the VMI cadets on the battlefield – sympathy? surprise? Maybe you have found some good quotes or reminiscence?

    1. Sarah,

      The cadets were pretty much universally praised. It didn’t hurt that it was the late victorian era, when such things were often romanticized. There are some good quotes describing the cadets, but I actually won’t be using all that many in my book. Both William C. Davis’s book on New Market and Charles Knight’s more recent “Valley Thunder” do an admirable job of describing the Confederate side of the fight. I really wanted to focus on analyzing Sigel’s role, both good and bad.

      1. Thanks! Will look forward to the book’s new view of Sigel. I’ll have check out the books you mentioned – I’m hoping to go to New Market Battlefield and need to make sure I’ve got a solid military understanding of the battle.

    1. Seconded. Resaca awaits Dave’s mighty keyboard. And, if he isn’t too busy, Jonesboro sits out there by its lonesome.

      1. Been doing a lot of studying on the Dalton to Resaca phase of the campaign. Spadework for eventual writing.

  9. Sigel had his ups & downs. His retreat at Carthage was masterful, especially when out numbered and Jo Shelby on his trail! Same with his retreat from Bentonville. Of course being good at retreats, leaves room for more jokes, but these could easily have been real disasters.

  10. An opportune time for a plug . . . Stephen D. Engle, Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (University of Arkansas Press, 1993). As Engle writes, “Few Civil War generals, Union or Confederate, generated more interest and controversy than Franz Sigel.” The bulk of the book is devoted to Sigel’s Civil War career.

  11. Interesting article. I would point out that after Wilson’s Creek a very different assessment of Sigel was given by his subordinates. There were questions of leadership ability and cowardice. It is claimed he “fled alone” well before the battle had ended.

  12. Indeed. Wilson’s Creek represents both the high and low of his abilities. Ironically, he furthered his reputation for “masterful retreat” despite having very little to do with that retreat.

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