Saving Franz Sigel?

Union General Franz Sigel (Courtesy LOC)

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.
Franz Sigel – according to the newspaper image and beloved by the German-American community. (LOC)

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.

Sigel’s statue in St. Louis (ECW archives)

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.

17 Responses to Saving Franz Sigel?

  1. Ms Biere, your usual excellent post! I am somewhat less forgiving about a general entrusted with men’s lives over a 3 year period who seems never to have learned how to effectively command. With the exception of Pea Ridge, where he essentially acted like an artillery chief, he screwed up every battle he was in. To me, he and Fremont are the best (or worst) examples of the political generals. His progressive views and antipathy to slavery must be counterbalanced against his manifest incompetence, which nearly allowed the system he loathed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

  2. I believe with native-German leaders such as Willich and Sigel it is also necessary to consider their “different take” on warfare. Not trained at West Point, these imported Americans had experience with a different style of war-fighting that did not mesh seamlessly with the American version. But the German- American men in ranks persisted with their faith in Europe-trained officers, partly because they did not know any better; and partly because they spoke the same language.
    A similar “poor record” can be accorded the Hungarians (Asboth and Zagonyi) …at least the newspapers of the day and official communications between West Point-trained officers appear to record unfavorable impressions.

    1. Interesting point, Mike. I’d love to find out what these officers were learning in the European military schools, and I’m really curious about what cavalry tactics Julius Stahel studied. (More about him in a week or two!) At New Market, he organizes and launches a cavalry charge that the marks of Napoleonic warfare, but fails dismally due to mud and Confederate artillery. Was he making an uninformed decision? (Ultimately, I think so). But was he also relying on something they had taught him at school? I’d like to know…but I don’t speak or read German even if I could track down their school books. Help?!

      1. Major general Fran Sigel is my great great great grandfather. I want to thank you for your honest appraisal of such a wonderful hero. The truth is major general Franz, SIGEL, fought, fought, and fought, and would have died for all of us, American citizens if need be. To me, he is a true hero. They don’t build great statues in New York City for losers. Thank you for your kind words about my grandfather. Sincerely, Don angelo SIGEL.

  3. Excellent post about a complicated man. I will add he did well at Pea Ridge, at least once the shooting started.

    As to German-Americans, the community in New Orleans was sharply divided by the war. Many joined the Confederates, usually poorer Germans who were out of work. Tellingly German-Americans almost never made it as officers in the Confederate army, unlike the Irish and French. Richer Germans in New Orleans were neutral (until the city fell) or outright hostile, like Michael Hahn.

  4. In my book, “Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah,” I spend a fair amount of time examining Sigel’s decisions and how his troops felt about him. I found plenty of evidence to suggest that while a number of American-born officers disdained him – the 34th Massachusetts’s officers were snobs of the highest order – others liked him, and many of the troops were sorry to see him go. The Col. of the 54th PA believed that Sigel had been sabotaged by incompetent subordinates, and there is a fair amount of truth to that statement. Sigel wasn’t the greatest general to lead men in the Civil War, of course. But he was also not simply the cartoonish caricature we see today. It’s also worth noting that American-born officers like Crook and Ord were outwardly insubordinate or had their own failures of nerve, but never suffered the consequences of their actions.

    1. I’m looking forward to your “Union Command Failure” book. As a VMI grad, it’s high on my list.

    2. Col Campbell was a good man. I think you are quite correct in what you have written. It’s refreshing to find a new and better perspective of the man and the Shenandoah campaign. Captain Patrick Graham of Co E of the 54th PVI was my 3rd Great Grandfather and was wounded at New Market and taken POW. New Market is very important to me. I must read your book! Thank you for your new look at General Sigel.

  5. I wonder if Sigel was painted with some of the same “us and them brush” that did the 11th Corp. Certainly nativism was alive and “well” then as now.

    1. As in Messers. Barlow, Devens, et al? It’s interesting how their inept tactical decisions ended up being the fault of the “Dutch”. So we have Devens sitting stoned all afternoon at Chancellorsville as reports came in that Jackson’s divisions were heading north along the XI Corps right flank. And then we have Barlow on July 1, 1863 putting his division in an incompetently exposed position north of town.

  6. Sarah, I remember a recent ‘Question if the Week’ that asked what our favorite CW battle that took place in May was. I responded the Battle of New Market because of the participation of the VMI cadets. I remember you saying how you were involved with writing about that. So imagine my profound surprise and pleasure when I was in the bookstore at the New Market battlefield today and saw your book there, and signed by you to boot. Looking forward to reading it.

    1. Awww…so glad you found the book (and at one of my favorite places, too)! I hope the books meets your expectations.

  7. General Sigel was used as a scapegoat I believe. Because he was foreign, he was the first to be blamed for all that went wrong. He was more than has been written about him in the past.

  8. The interesting thing about Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley is that there were so many Germans in the Shenandoah, the northern part was largely settled by Germans and Valley German was a lingua franca in the area in much of the 19th Century, with a German newspaper operating in Staunton. Even today, reminders of early German presence in the Valley are the Menonites, Bretheren congregations and the many Lutheran churches there,

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