Recently, Dave Powell shared historical perspective on Union General Franz Sigel and the Battle of New Market. As we had previously agreed, here is my follow-up piece on the commander and why I had to be extra careful in my interpretation of this Yankee Dutchman.
I am German-American by ancestry. Sure, there’s a little Irish and Native American in my blood also, but when it comes to Civil War history or ancestors that I feel most curious about, I’m draw to my German roots. When I first learned about Franz Sigel at New Market, his ancestry and story intrigued me. Here was a immigrant who came to the States prior to the war, loved the ideals of freedom and Union, and threw himself into Civil War conflicts to preserve a liberty he had never found in Europe and a liberty that he wanted to purify. It’s a story similar to Gustav Koerner…
Koerner – my fourth great grandfather – immigrated to the United States in the 1830s, fleeing one of the early revolutions after a misunderstanding about his role in the uprising. He thought he wanted to settle in the South and study American Law, but the horrors of slavery forced him to relocate to Illinois. Like Sigel, Koerner wanted to push the limits on the beliefs of liberty, quickly becoming involved in the emerging Republican party in the 1850s. Then he helped Abraham Lincoln secure a Republican nomination for the presidential election. When the war came, he wholeheartedly supported the Union cause, though he served the nation diplomatically and in an advisor role instead of on battlefields. And…then I discovered that Koerner advocated for Franz Sigel and tried to “save” him before 1864 and the New Market problems.
My ancestry and the similarities between Sigel and Koerner’s lives created a potential problem. I had an interest, making it harder to be objective. And it’s compounded because I always try to find something positive in a historical figure’s character. History is not just “good guys vs. bad guys” in many cases; it’s never simple.
But history facts don’t lie, even if they are complex. I can’t “save” Franz Sigel from the facts of history or judgment. The facts are plain: he lost of the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864 and he failed to provide the campaign victory that General U.S. Grant wanted in the Shenandoah Valley. And that becomes part of his biographical story.
However, as I researched this intriguing historical figure, I did find good qualities in Sigel:
- He was a fantastic organizer.
- He was loyalty to his friends (to a fault in his military career).
- He valued education (serving as the superintendent of St. Louis schools prior to the war).
- He understood the value of image and influence (also to a fault when it blurred with reality).
- He loved the ideals of freedom and liberty.
Yet Sigel struggled with leadership. In some ways, the societal pressures – both from his adoring German-American community and the hostile native-born citizens – hampered his military career during the Civil War. The German-American press created him as an almost larger-than-life hero just waiting for the opportunity to serve his new country; an image that quickly came into question after campaign troubles in Missouri and Virginia. General Henry Halleck and others were not going to let an immigrant general continue in power after the debacle in the Valley; with them, Sigel’s chance was over after New Market and he wasn’t getting a second opportunity, and his nationality factored into the decision.
In a twist of the story, Sigel’s soldiers during the New Market campaign initially offered their support of their new commander of the Department of West Virginia. The general had a solid reputation and even some of his native-born soldiers felt excited to “fight mit Sigel.” However, about ten days into the campaign, that enthusiasm had evaporated and a feeling of uncertainty and mistrust came – particularly among the regimental officers. Sigel had formed a clique of immigrant officers in his command structure and staff, often excluding his more experienced officers and native-borns from the discussions and headquarters gatherings. Still, even after the lost battle, many of his soldiers in the ranks did not rejoicing in Sigel’s departure and merely saw the retreat as another part of the Union saga to win in the Shenandoah Valley.
In my opinion, Sigel’s two great blunders in the New Market Campaign were the loss of confidence from his regimental commanders and piecemealing his army into the battle. Sure, he had other issues, but these stand out in my readings and observations. When Sigel’s officers did not fully trust him or understand his orders (he did occasionally speak German when excited on the battlefield), they became less willing to take the initiative or made battlefield decisions based on guesses rather than complete information. Even by May 15, Sigel had his army strung out over approximately twenty miles of Valley Pike; his troops arrived on the battleground tired and hungry and not as solid brigades or divisions. This affected the Union strength and ability to fight at New Market – especially since the Confederates under General J.C. Breckinridge arrived together and most had a good breakfast and short time to rest before the fight.
I am well aware of Sigel’s shortcomings at New Market. I can’t rewrite history and make him the hero here. Still, I’ve enjoyed relooking at his life and military experiences. Franz Sigel was a remarkable man; similar to George McClellan, he was the type of guy who did an outstanding job organizing and drilling an army, but maybe not the right man to actually take that army into battle.
David Hunter Strother makes Franz Sigel a ridiculous character in his journal which covers the New Market Campaign. I’m sure there is truth to his observations, but I also remember that Strother had a prejudice against German-Americans. Many folks did in that era. Beneath those accounts, rests the truth about a man who was trying. The story of a man who fled to the United States, seeking refuge because he believed in equality and freedom. The history of a community leader who never gave up on his dreams for that complete and unprejudiced liberty.
Maybe the Civil War military history perspective has written Franz Sigel off too quickly and that has colored our entire perspective on this man. His journey to America and his passion for education, immigrate equality, and political freedom brought him into a significant place of influence that both bolstered and condemned his American military experience. After the war, he went on to a successful career in newspaper editing and served in numerous political offices with both the Democrate and Republican Parties.
I can’t “save Franz Sigel” from his own actions at New Market, but I tried to be fair as I researched and wrote about his life and the happenings in that campaign. The following quote endeared Sigel to me and helped me understand this passionate man who galloped the New Market battlefield forgetting to speak English, but placing artillery and shouting orders as he made a sincere effort to win the fight. A fight that was both literal and figurative since it determined how his American military legacy would be remembered and would also reflect on his beloved community of German Americans.
What shall be the future of our country? ….Let us hold fast to this thought let us not forget that we have sworn loyalty to the Republic, that thousands of our compatriots have given their blood in defense of its unity and freedom and that we are American citizens. Americanism judges a man by what he is, not by what his blood origin may be.
And if we judge Franz Sigel, Gustav Koerner, and the thousands of other German American politicians, officers, and soldiers of the Civil War by what they were, we find that they truly tried to advance the cause of freedom. Not always successfully. But they tried. And that’s how I remember Sigel when I stand at New Market. A general who tried.
Allendorf, Donald. Your Friend, As Ever, A. Lincoln: How the Unlikely Friendship of Gustav Koerner and Abraham Lincoln Changed America, 2014.
Engle, Stephen D. Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel, 1993.