Book Review: “Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General”

In Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General, author David Dixon rescues another “B” list historical figure from obscurity and puts him front and center in the American and German narrative. Dixon, a public historian and Civil War author, earned his M.A. from the University of Massachusetts in 2003. His first book, The Lost Gettysburg Address, tells the unusual life story of Texas slaveholder Charles Anderson, brother of Fort Sumter’s Major Robert Anderson. Union General August Willich is a very different sort of character. Radical Warrior is the first biography of “The Reddest of the Red,” who almost stole Karl Marx’s wife, narrowly won a duel with another Marxist, and ended up giving his right arm to the anti-slavery cause of Union. 

Mr. Dixon gives readers plenty of background on Willich, making it easier to understand his choice of America as a place to live. August Willich was born von Willich in Prussia, attended military school there, and became s self-radicalized Army officer. He was a German leader in the Revolution of 1848. After communism failed across western Europe, Willich joined several thousand German emigrants and came to America in 1853. Hailed as a hero upon his arrival, he quickly assumed a leadership role within the mostly German community of Saint Marys in Ohio. Willich also served as editor of the Cincinnati labor newspaper Cincinnati Republikaner

Dixon’s inclusion of Willich’s background leads readers to the American Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln called for troops after the South fired on Fort Sumter, Willich immediately raised a Union regiment. Initially, he enrolled as a private, although he was fifty-five years old and had been a lieutenant in Europe. He quickly rose to the rank of colonel and commanded the all-German regiment, the 32nd Indiana Infantry Regiment. Any group of soldiers under Willich’s command soon became a crack troop. He drilled his “babies” daily. At his own expense, he hired bakers and bought ovens so his men would have fresh bread, and beer was usually on the menu. His soldiers called him “Papa” and gave him respect and obedience.

Willich’s 32nd gained national recognition at the Battle of Rowlett’s Station, Kentucky. A detachment of 500 men under the command of Willich’s personally-appointed Lieutenant Colonel Henry von Trebra fought off 1,300 Confederates, including Terry’s Texas Rangers. The 32nd formed a “hollow square” and drove the attackers back, losing ten Indiana troopers with twenty-two wounded. The Rangers lost thirty-three dead, including Colonel Terry. Fifty others were wounded. 

The 32nd saw action at Shiloh on the second day. The confusion unnerved the soldiers, and their efforts on the field became erratic. Colonel Willich observed this unsteadiness under fire and showed outstanding leadership. He stood before them, his back to the enemy. The regimental band was instructed to play “La Marseillaise,” and Willich personally conducted his regiment in the manual of arms. As soon as the men recovered their stability, they launched a successful bayonet attack. No matter what group of men Willich commanded, they always took honors for their comportment–parade ground or battlefield.

In 1864, due to anti-German sentiment in the army and the nation, veterans of the 32nd did not re-enlist. Nor did most other all-German regiments. It rankled the German-American soldiers that Union General Joseph Hooker blamed German troops of the 11th Corps for his defeat at Chancellorsville. Newspapers labeled the 11th Corps, the “Flying Dutchmen.” Although these were not Willich’s troops, the criticism stung.

Willich led his newly reinforced brigade through Tennessee and Georgia during the Atlanta Campaign. He suffered a severe wound in the Battle of Resaca that forced him to leave the field. He served in various administrative roles for the rest of the war, always missing his troops and inquiring after their well-being. Augustus Willich received a brevet promotion to major general of U.S. Volunteers on October 21, 1865, then resigned from the army to return to civilian life.

Author Dixon clearly outlines Willich’s career from a young, romantic revolutionary to a highly-skilled, much respected Union general. “He and his men were habitually at the tip of the spear, whether leading the assaults at Liberty Gap and Missionary Ridge or covering the retreat of the Union forces at Chicamauga.” (252). As Dixon opens Willich’s life for perusal, it soon becomes evident to readers that modern historians have seriously undervalued this general. Willich came to America from Europe and gave his best to a new country.

Two more reasons to read this book are the excellent maps by Hal Jesperson and the inclusion of drawings and watercolors by Adolph Metzner, a pharmacist. He kept a visual record of his experiences with the 32nd. Metzner’s illustrations included the daily life of the Union soldiers during training, in camp, and in battle. When artists’ supplies were unavailable in the field, Metzner used materials such as cardboard scraps instead of canvas. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of Metzner’s work.

Library of Congress

David Dixon has created a book that ought to appeal to more than just the average Civil War fan. His knowledge of German history, as well as the history of the Civil War, is extensive. He does not hesitate to show the general’s worst and best. Augustus Willich should be added to the list of Union generals who deserve a second look. In a time period filled with characters of all stripes, General Willich–under the skillful writing of David Dixon– stands tall.


David Dixon, Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General

The University of Tennessee Press, 2020

311 Pages

Endnotes, Bibliography, Index





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