German Americans in the Civil War

One way to quickly mobilize masses of German-American men was to grant officer commissions to influential members of the German-American community. Many of the most influential men in the German-American community were Forty-Eighters, that is, men who had participated in the failed revolutions of 1848-1849. These men often had military experience, and a number had at one point been professional soldiers in German armies.

Franz Sigel was such a man. He led revolutionary forces in Baden in 1848-1849, and was a graduate of the military academy at Karlsruhe. He was not especially successful as a Civil War general (Union forces under his command were defeated by a rebel force composed mainly of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute at the Battle of New Market in 1864). Sigel was a highly successful recruiter of German-American men into the Union Army, however, and was on friendly terms with President Lincoln for that very reason. Sigel was one of four German-Americans who became major generals in the Union Army: the others were Peter Osterhaus, Carl Schurz, and Adolph Steinwehr.

A Forty-Eighter who was more successful militarily was August Willich. Willich was an early adherent of Karl Marx who had been a commander of artillery in the Prussian Army. He started the war as commander of a regiment from Indiana, and later became a brigade commander under Generals Rosecrans, Grant, and Sherman. His brigade was known as "the horn brigade," because Willich relied on the bugle to surmount difficulties posed by the fact that English was not the only language spoken by members of his brigade. During the Atlanta Campaign he was shot through the right arm and shoulder (and never regained full use of that arm). He lived quietly in Wisconsin after the war. Willich was one of nine German-Americans who became brigadier generals in the Union Army.

Union Army records show that 177,000 men born in Germany served in the Union Army. When we add to that figure men born in the United States of two German parents, it can be seen that German-Americans played a significant role indeed in the eventual Union Army victory.

You can search our Online Catalog for book histories of Civil War regiments by using these keywords:

civil war regimental histories

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