Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General by David Dixon published by University of Tennessee Press (2020) $40.00 Hardcover.
Author David Dixon has written one of the best books of the last few years on an understudied figure of the Civil War Era. Deep research, crisp writing, and a fascinating subject combine to make this a valuable contribution to the literature.
I frequently find a claim from the Lost Cause wing of the Civil War history community that Lincoln’s army was filled with German Marxists. Pretty much every immigrant who supported the ending of slavery is described that way by these On-Line Confederates. Well, unlike most Germans in the Union Army, August Willich really was a communist, but he was definitely not a Marxist.
I have done a lot of reading and research on August Willich, beginning with the great work of Joseph Reinhart who has collected and translated volumes of materials related to the Prussian-nobleman-turned-American-radical, and I still learned something new about Willich in every chapter. Dixon covers the life of a man who had feet in many worlds of ideas, causes, and military struggles. Unlike many biographies of Civil War generals, Dixon does not slight the pre-war and Reconstruction Era careers of his subject.
This is the story of a boy raised in the household of one of the great German philosophical minds of the 19th Century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who merged Protestantism with the ideas of the Enlightenment. Willich, a son of the minor nobility, was introduced to a life of questioning received authority by a mentor who is often credited as an influence on 20th Century hermanuetics, phenomenology, and Existentialism. Willich would combine the military spirit of his natural father with the philosophical fluidity of his foster father for the rest of his life. It was not always easy.
In reading about immigrants who served as officers in the Union Army I often encounter the phrase “he was trained in the West Point of [Insert Country Here].” Usually upon further investigation I find out that the individual spent a few months at an academy for training reserve officers. August Willich, on the other hand, really did go to Prussia’s finest military school and he made a career in the army of the King of Prussia! In fact, he attended the military academy when it was under the direction of the eminent military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. By the time he was eighteen, he had graduated the academy and was commissioned an officer in the Prussian Army.
After years of faithful service, Willich began to question the Prussian hierarchical system. He saw the misery of the growing working class in the industrializing German states and he began to fall under the spell of the Young Hegelians. These were radical thinkers influenced by the philosopher G.F.W. Hegel. By the late 1830s, Willich was moving away from the Liberal ideas of the Enlightenment and towards an emerging radicalism. This would place his military career in jeopardy and in 1847 he left the army for the life of a working man.
Friederich Engles described August Willich as “brave, cool-headed and adroit, and able to appreciate a situation quickly and accurately…” [Source: Marx’s General by Tristram Hunt p. 174.]
The 1848 Paris Uprising against the French monarchy was echoed in the industrial German states. Men who would later become generals in the Union army like Willich, Carl Schurz, and Franz Sigel threw themselves into the revolutionary cause. Willich would command revolutionary troops in the Palatinate. One of his subordinates would be Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels. The Revolution of 1848 combined idealism with incompetence, brave hopes and disappointed desires. David Dixon does a remarkable job of telling the story of Willich’s key role in the revolt without losing American readers along the way. As with other aspects of this book, Dixon intuits the limits of his readers’ knowledge of European history and he is masterful in providing just enough information without digressing into mini-essays on the ’48ers or communist ideology in the mid-19th Century. He keeps the focus on Willich.
Spoiler Alert! The revolutionaries lost. Willich, like many German refugees, fled to France where he tried to hold together his comrades in body, through fundraising efforts to provide food and housing, and in soul, through cultural and political events to affirm their pride even in exile. Dixon discusses the plots Willich involved himself in to try to rekindle the revolution, all of which came to naught. Willich was then forced to leave for England where he became a rival for leadership of the communist movement with Karl Marx. Marx also seems to have viewed Willich as a romantic rival. He believed that Willich was trying to bed his wife. Marx’s supporters appear to have circulated rumors of Willich’s sexual immorality, including the charge that the bachelor Willich was a homosexual. Willich was a constant opponent of Marx. Where Marx lived the life of a middle class intellectual, Willich lived in workers quarters and was constantly in touch with the actual proletariat.
Eventually Willich immigrated to the United States, where he was received with a hero’s welcome in New York City fitting for a revolutionary leader. He headed west and became a major figure in the radical German community in Ohio. An abolitionist, he was an early supporter of the Republican Party and he supported Lincoln’s election in 1860.
The heart of Radical Warrior is Willich’s career during the Civil War. The German refugee began organizing his fellow immigrants into the 9th Ohio Volunteers right after the war started. He soon was offered command of the 32nd Indiana Volunteers and he accepted the offer. Dixon describes the ways in which Willich created a German culture within his regiment and defended its uniqueness against nativist currents within the army. Immigrant units would never have been successful without the willingness of their officers to stand up for diversity inside the American military.
Willich’s role in the Civil War includes most of the minor skirmishes and major battles of the conflict in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Georgia. Willich would rise to the rank of Brigadier General and he was recommended for promotion to Major General. He was popular with his German soldiers, but he was just as respected by the native-born soldiers he commanded as well. Willich was personally brave, he had an excellent military education, and more experience than almost all volunteer officers. He was also known for looking out for the care and well-being of his men and for his efforts to drill and educate those under him to insure maximum efficiency on the march and in battle.
Those who are military history fans will really enjoy this book which delves deep into both the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and into German-language sources to describe Willich’s experiences at iconic fights like Chickamauga. Because Willich’s service included being held prisoner by the Confederates and later service with the Invalid Corps during the last year of the war there are insights into these experiences that one rarely finds in biographies of Union generals.
The book also provides glimpses of Willich’s frustrating time commanding occupation forces during the first months of Reconstruction, as well as his post-war career as a spokesman for workers’ rights.
August Willich was a nobleman, young radical, a highly trained Prussian officer, a revolutionary commander, a refugee, a communist man of action, an immigrant, a workingman, a journalist, a military recruiter, a prisoner of war, and a Union general. David Dixon tells all of Willich’s stories well. Dixon compares him to Tom Paine, another radical immigrant. As Dixon writes:
Willich’s military accomplishments helped defeat the slaveholder oligarchy and ensure survival of republican government. It was the great achievement of his life. Just as Paine came on the American scene at the right time and place to inspire British colonists to rebel against their king, Willich and other recent immigrants were well positioned in 1861 to renew the call for freedom through revolution, as they had done in Europe just thirteen years earlier. Willich commanded thousands of ethnic Germans, and many of them, like himself, were committed to nudging the American republic closer to Paine’s ideals of human rights and social justice…The Union had to prevail, not just for its own sake, but for the benefit of the Western world. Willich was on the same page with America’s radical propagandist when Paine wrote, “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
If you are interested in the Civil War, immigrant history, or the history of 19th Century radicalism, I strongly recommend this volume.
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